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Joystick jocks: Competitive gaming enters new era - The Pitt News

Joystick jocks: Competitive gaming enters new era

Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

The clicking is incessant.

Only the clinking of sword fights and cheers from winning players interrupt the sound, and with each tap on the mouse, the tiny, goblin-like figure on the computer screen dodges colorful explosions from circling opponents.

Thousands of mouse clicks — rapid and uninterrupted — from players around the globe control the elaborate weaponry used in League of Legends’ magical dueling universe, streamed on YouTube.

Mix these clicks with a combination of buttons quickly hammered on the keyboard, and you can become the LeBron James of video gaming.

eSports — skill-driven, online gaming with competitions and tournaments for cash prizes and international sponsorship — comes with high stakes worldwide. The enterprise draws in more than 57 million people over 12 years old in North America alone, according to Forbes.

The monstrous eSports industry was worth $750 million in 2015, according to VentureBeat.

College students compete in tournaments for cash prizes in the tens of thousands — some universities, including Robert Morris University in Chicago, Columbia College and Southwestern University are now offering scholarships for student gamers.

As the eSports industry continues to proliferate, our definition of a traditional sport gets muddled. Is money, passion and intense competition all it takes to make a sport? If so, are gamers athletes?

For dedicated eSports enthusiasts, Ryan Pollich, media manager of Pitt’s League of Legends Club, said following rankings and competitors is like being in the Oakland Zoo.

“You get the same feeling as you would at the championship basketball game,” Pollich said, and as a player? “You get the same feelings as scoring the game winning goal.”

Michael Sherman is the North American collegiate play lead at Riot Games, a video game developer and eSports tournament organizer. His job is to build opportunities, like scholarships and competitions, for college gamers. 

He said competitive gaming is an alternative for students who don’t get excited about traditional sports.

“I think [sports and eSports] are very comparable. I was a student who played League of Legends in college and … I had no fandom for any sport in my university except for when I watched my team play in these sort of college eSports events,” Sherman said. “That was when I cared.”

Since he’s gone to college, Sherman said people have changed their perception on video games.

“Gaming is … moving into a place where it’s way more accessible,” Sherman said. “People who play together can sort of build their social life around these things.”

The vice president of Pitt’s League of Legends club, John Villandre, said the line between eSports and sports is blurring as more money gets involved.

“I think it’s a monetization of it,” Villandre said. “It legitimizes it for sponsors.”

And that cash pile is massive. VentureBeat estimates that the eSports industry worldwide will grow to almost $2 billion by 2018 — more than the average worth of an NBA team.

Professional gamers, even in college, rake in thousands of dollars from sponsors and tournament winnings.

Big brand names, like Coca-Cola, sponsor professional tournaments. According to Fortune, League of Legends generated approximately half a billion dollars in ad revenue in 2015.

“Heroes of the Dorm,” Blizzard Entertainment’s online gaming tournament for college students from all over the world, offers a prize pool of more than $450,000. It’s aired on ESPN3 from the end of March to the end of April.

“We see an evolution to corporate moneyball,” Rob Ruck, a Pitt history professor and sports historian, said. “We have seen the corporatization of sport.”

Ruck said historically, the definition of traditional sports — basketball and football, for instance — shifted toward a focus on sponsorship and revenue, as opposed to on the game itself.

eSports has followed that same wave, becoming bigger and more popular with an influx of sponsorship, as companies jostle to get in on the commercial success.

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Pitt’s unofficial Dota 2 team, a game where players compete online for free in a five-on-five battle to destroy an enemy base first, ranked in the top four for the American collegiate Dota 2 league.

The team flew out to compete in San Francisco and placed third overall behind the University of British Columbia, and the eventual winner, UC Berkeley. The tournament and its sponsors, Razer, Asus and Braingear, covered all of the costs, including airfare, which Duy To, president of the Dota 2 club, estimated cost more than $1,000 for his team.

“It’s basically like you’re playing professionally,” To said.

Lars Langenstück, CEO of eSports Business Solutions UG in Berlin, said from what he’s seen, other countries have already legitimized eSports.

“It’s kind of already a traditional sport in Asia,” Langenstück said. “In my opinion, eSports is the next thing in sports entertainment.”

They may be harnessing a new era of gaming and even changing the definition of sports, but whether these masters of the mouse are athletes of any kind is debatable.

Pollich put gaming in the same “nonsport” category as poker and NASCAR, which require significant hand-eye coordination or brainpower, but not much brute power.

“It’s missing the athletic element that is found in traditional sport,” Pollich said.

The Pitt League of Legends club organizes playoffs for Pitt gamers, which begin in March and run until the last week of classes. The club’s executive board laying out the bracket based on the each team’s regular season performance.

Each week, the teams, selected by volunteer team captains in a draft, face off against an opposing team at Pitt for a best of three series.

Rankings go up from bronze to silver to gold to platinum to diamond.

Despite the drafts, awards, cash prizes and sponsorship opportunities, Villandre is still not persuaded that eSports fit into the language of athletics.

“[eSports companies are] always trying to legitimize it as a sport,” Villandre said, but compared to the adrenaline high of playing a game of baseball or basketball, he said, “You don’t get the rush in your stomach when you’re playing League.”

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