The New York times had a piece on eSports yesterday (All We Want to Do Is Watch Each Other Play Video Games: Gamers are the new stars. Esports arenas are the new movie theaters.) that wasn't that completely inane, for a change, as so much mainstream games press often is. It dove a bit into the growing popularity of competative gaming, but especially gaming as a spectator sport. Part of the reason people have noticed is a recent twitch video where Drake and some other celebrities played Fortnite with a popular streamer.
Competative games, where each self-contained match takes a small amount of time (say, 5-30 minutes) are different than other online games (say, MMO's like World of Warcraft). There's no endless grinding for resources and experience: you you get better over time because you are actually getting better at the controls, the game mechanics, strategy and other aspects of "game sense" (a catch-all for things you need to understand in order to win). As I've written in other articles, these games share a lot with what draws people to playing competative sports.
The rise in popularity of watching other people play games also shares a lot with the popularity of watching sports: I like watching sports because I played them, and so I can appreciate the skill and difficulty of what the players are doing. I personally don't watch many youtube or twich videos of people playing, but I've watched some Overwatch League games (Go Gladiators!) and it feels exactly the same as watching hockey or basketball.
Reading about the increase in the number and variety of venues for watching and playing these games is exciting, and stands in sharp contrast to the dystopian fantasy of fiction like Ready Player One, where everyone is physically alone, only coming together online.
When I listen to my son play online with his friends, I'm struck about the similarities to my youth, and how my friends and I interacted while playing sports, hangining out, or even playing Dungeons and Dragons. The same kind of teasing, joking, encouragement and occasional trash talking. Laughter and frustration. Jubilation and disappointment. For his recent birthday, we set up five gaming PCs, an XBox One, and an Switch on screens in our playroom, and he and his friends had a great time playing together late into the night.
So, yes, I totally get this rise in the popularity of watching games.
The one thing the New York Times article gets wrong is the section headline, down near the end, "We're All Athletes Now." No, we aren't. When we call someone "an athlete" we tend to imply they are athletic, not just that they are "part of a group of people that could, if they wanted, do athletic things." Just because anyone can play games doesn't make everyone "eAthletes", any more than the ubiquitous soccer fields and basketball courts, or the nets many of us have in our backyards, made us all athelets in the past.
Don't believe me, but haven't played these games much? Put in some time on Fortnite, get someone to teach you the controls, and some strategy. You can do it, but it'll be a while before you're something comparable to what we'd call an athlete in the non-digital world.
But so what? While we all can't be eAthletes, just like we can't all be athletes, we can definitely all be players now, just as many of us could be with traditional sports if we wanted to, even as those ubiquitous basketball nets see less and less play time. Certainly, the hoop in our backyard doesn't get used much anymore.
I love games, especially online multiplayer competative gaming (although, perhaps love-hate is a more apt description to my ever-changing relationship with them). I avoided the MMO craze, never putting much time into games like World of Warcraft, because couldn't stand the idea of 'the grind', spending endless hours killing monsters to get more powerful so I could spend endless hours killing stronger monsters. The social aspects had some appeal, but the idea of grinding outweighed them. ↩︎
Watching eSports is also just as opaque and confusing for people who don't play these games as watching hockey or basketball can be for people who have never played. ↩︎
I also took the opportunity to replace all the lights in the room with Phillips Hue lights and run a sound-sensing control program on an iPhone to make the room totally crazy; a dad's gotta have his fun too!" ↩︎