This post is part of a series that addresses the needs of the parent who “just doesn’t get video games.” I’m here to catch you up, Clueless Parent!
Okay, so your kid is playing video games and having a great time—I guess??—and you’re cool with it. They might even watch Let’s Plays on YouTube when they’re not playing—fine.
But what in the name of Mario are esports? Is that a motion-gaming thing? Is that a Madden NFL thing? You know all about Madden.
No, my friends, esports are a form of organized gaming where people can get paid to play, usually in highly strategic games. And in the end, you do sweat as much as in an athletic sport. Go figure.
What Are Esports?
Alright, let’s ask Wikipedia:
THAT’S A LOT OF COMPLICATED BLUE WORDS. To sum it up: Esports, like athletic sports, are generally multiplayer events where people play games. They involve speed and strategy. And they might take place at huge events that people watch live, with huge cash prizes for the winners.
The picture above is a winning League of Legends team. Other popular games for esports are StarCraft II, Counterstrike, Dota 2, and Call of Duty. Some events feature a lot of games of a specific type—for example, the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) only has fighting games like Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter.
These big events get a lot of visibility, but there are also esports happening locally wherever you are. Events like Northwest Majors are competitive, but on a smaller scale than something like the Capcom Cup. To get a glimpse of what it’s like competing in these tournaments as a teen, check out Michael Martin’s story on Michael Melendez’s fight for the Capcom Cup. A lot of smaller-scale competitions happen at video game conventions like PAX. The convention will announce the tournament schedule beforehand, and con attendees can decide if they want to participate.
Right now colleges are also delving into esports. Some are offering scholarships to players who can fill out their League of Legends teams. At the University of Washington, the Purple Caster Minions won $52,500 in scholarships at the North American Collegiate Championships. These players might not go on to be full-time esports athletes, but they’re certainly not twiddling their thumbs when it comes to gaming.
So where do kids fit into these communities? Mostly, on the “viewing” side. “Most of the games are for adults,” says our own freelance esports expert, Michael Martin. “I’ve seen younger kids playing the various Smash Bros. games but I wouldn’t say eSports are accessible to kids for the most part.”
With the fast reflexes and hours of practice it takes to win, competing in esports is definitely more of a reality for college-aged people or older teens. But the games that are used in competitive esports are games that anyone can technically play. So kids might be playing these same games recreationally while enjoying viewing competitive matches online.
What Do Esports Games Have In Common?
Like I said, they take a lot of skill, strategy, and practice to play! In Starcraft II, for example, professional players have to be able to do tons of tasks quickly. Just as Major League Baseball players keep track of their hitting averages, Starcraft players have their own stats—like actions per minute, or APM.
In esports it pays off to specialize in a certain character or class. In League of Legends, for example, each character has different powers and abilities. Mastering one of these makes players great assets to their teams. In Starcraft II, there are three different alien species that require different strategies to be successful. In fighting games, players will learn a character’s special moves like the back of their own hand.
Another thing these games have in common is that they’re most fun (and intense!) when you play with and against other people. And anyone can play them!
League of Legends is one of the most popular multiplayer games in the world, and it matches players up against others with the same skill level. Theoretically, anyone could get good enough to be a pro, but the grueling hours it takes mean that only a small number of players will make it very far. In multiplayer games like League of Legends, Starcraft II, and DOTA 2, working with a team is a big part of the challenge. Professional teams train together (and sometimes even live together). If League of Legends and other team sports are more similar to baseball and soccer, then fighting games are more like track and field. You might train with others, but in the event you would be competing against them.
“In regards to competition, everyone wants to be the best,” says Michael Martin. “Whether it’s winning events or even just proving they’re top tier with a character in a fighting game. I also believe there’s something to belonging to a community like the fighting-game community.”
He also points to the growing financial rewards for being good at esports. What was once a niche activity is getting more and more lucrative. “The International 5, Dota 2’s major tournament each year now has a prize pool over $15 million. That’s insane but MOBAs like Dota 2 and League of Legends have shown an incredible ability to make money and generate massive prize pools.”
Where Do People Watch Esports?
Usually? Esports are streamed on services like Twitch.tv. In fact, the League of Legends World Championships drew 32 million online viewers during the 2013 competition. Teams from all over the world compete, making it a truly global sport.
ESPN 2 recently experimented with broadcasting a collegiate Heroes of the Storm tournament, through a partnership with Major League Gaming (The UC Berkeley team beat Arizona State, in case you were curious.) The game shot ESPN to the top of the twitter trends for the night—probably a good sign, though regular ESPN viewers seemed a little baffled.
On the other hand, as one of these viewers pointed out, ESPN also broadcasts poker games. If poker is a sport, then a video game probably qualifies too.
No one can really argue with Twitch.tv’s dominance of game-streaming. Other than that, esports viewership is confusing and splintered. There’s Major League Gaming, or MLG, a network that broadcasts matches and news programs about esports (think SportsCenter). There’s also their competitor, the Electronic Sports League.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say one does something better than the other. I think they just operate somewhat differently,” said Martin. Both ESL and MLG organize tournaments and leagues. The U.S.-centric Major League Gaming, “has helped esports get some mainstream media exposure,” thanks to their partnership with ESPN and being featured at the X Games.
Companies that own games that are popular with esports often organize their own tournaments. For example, Riot Games is responsible for putting together the League of Legends World Championships.
Here in Seattle, local company Valve puts on an annual tournament for its popular tower-defense game DOTA 2. It’s called The International, and if you look at their page you’ll see that teams from all over the world participate.
So why watch people play these games when you can just play them yourself? You could ask yourself the same thing about basketball. There’s a degree of expertise and artistry with people who play these games professionally. I think it’s comparable to why kids find Let’s Plays so fascinating. It can be exciting to see what plays the pros come up with, and it can also give players ideas of how they can improve. In the same way that football is kind of confusing to someone who doesn’t know what all those lines on the field mean, a League of Legends game might not be the most interesting for a non-player to watch. But knowing more about the game means you have an insight into why players do what they do. That adds a whole other level of excitement to watching esports.
“I think a lot of players watch the games they participate in because almost all high-level players are studying other players and teams,” Martin told us. It’s like a pro quarterback going over game film. Esports players do the same to study their opponents, their tactics, and their tendencies.
I’m Still Worried. Should I Be Worried?
Honestly, that depends on your situation. Just like any extracurricular activity, playing games can distract from what needs to get done. But gaming time is also really important for kids to be happy and well-balanced.
And consider: if kids are interested in watching esports or playing popular esports games, that means they’re thinking strategically and learning how to communicate with others.
Like any large, competitive community, esports has its downsides. There is a huge gender gap in esports. There’s a gender gap in gaming, period (though not when it comes to teenagers), so it makes sense that as a nascent industry esports would skew more male. People are making efforts to change that, and in the meantime women like Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn and Katherine Gunn are out there, doing their thing. The gender gap is especially evident when you look at players’ earnings. According to esportsearnings.com, the top two women in esports each made over $100,000. After that point, earnings drop down to the $50,000 range, and then down as low as $1,000. And that’s a list of the top 100 women in esports.
On the men’s list, the top earner brings in over $1,000,000, and the last player on the list is still pulling in over $225,000.
This hierarchy can be reflected in the community. Lilian Chen wrote about her experience in esports, and being the one woman at Super Smash Bros. tournaments. She told Polygon.com that at tournaments, she sees players attending tournaments with their families. Sort of like a Little League game, but with lots of shiny lights. Awareness of sexism in gaming is at an all-time high. An occurrence like the Finnish tournament that excluded female players is almost unthinkable now, just a year later.
If the world of pro tournaments sounds daunting to you, there are other options on the horizon. Super League Gaming, a recreational gaming league, will be launching a fall session that actually resembles the Little League model a lot. Kids meet in a movie theatre to play together, and there will be global leaderboards for teams and individuals. Super League Gaming is a new concept, but one that has promise.
The greatest thing about Super League, in my opinion, is that it creates a space for kids of all ages to get involved in playing competitively—away from the messiness that can come with adult gaming communities. These are the kids that could go on to be pro players in the future. Bringing them up in a safe, inclusive environment will change the way that esports looks.
In the meantime, the best thing that parents can do is be involved. Sit down and watch a match with your kids, if that’s what they enjoy. And if they want to play, go with them to a local tournament! Get them to explain the game to you, too. They’ll probably enjoy showing off their expertise.
If you’re feeling really advanced, you can ask to play against them and get your butt kicked.
And who knows! Maybe come fall, you’ll be sitting your family down to watch the League of Legends World Championships, airing from Berlin.
For your kid, you can make the time.