The Appeal of Esports: What’s the Deal With Competitive Progaming?

The esports industry has continued to grow over the last decade. But isn’t it a bit pathetic to watch people play games?

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In 2018, The International had a prize pool of over $25 million, making it the most profitable esports tournament for players in the history of progaming. In fact, The International has been the tournament to beat since 2014, when its prize pool was just shy of $11 million. By comparison, the 2018 LoL World Championship offered a prize pool of $6.5 million.

Furthermore, ESPN began doubling down on their esports coverage back in 2016 by hiring more writers and covering more games. As of this writing, the front page of ESPN’s Esports section has stories about League of Legends, Call of Duty, CS:GO, Overwatch, Rocket League, and more.

ESPN’s Esports section

For many esports fans, it was ESPN’s embracing of esports that truly validated the concept. A mainstream media conglomerate reporting on games like Dota 2 and Super Smash Bros. with utmost sincerity to millions of readers? We’ve finally made it! This is the feast we’ve been waiting for since Quake and Street Fighter set the table way back in the 90s.

But for many others, esports remains an enigma—a joke, even. Maybe you feel that way. Why the heck is competitive progaming a thing?

“You Watch People Play Video Games?”

If the topic of esports ever comes up among “outsiders,” this is usually the first thing they ask. I’ve had this conversation a handful of times with friends and acquaintances, and the sentiment is near ubiquitous:

“Why would you watch someone play a game? Why don’t you just play the game yourself?” And the underlying tone carries an accusation with it: “Don’t you have anything better to do?” It’s an unfair question that—from my experience and observation—stems from the outsider’s prejudice against video games as a whole, which are seen as juvenile antics that distract from the responsibilities and realities of life.

The International 2015
Image credit: Tiếng Việt/Wikimedia Commons

I watch people play video games for the same reason people watch The World Series of Poker: there’s a vicarious joy that comes from watching top-tier players play the same game that I play, but on a completely different level. I’m not watching them play the game; I’m watching them play the game. I’m focusing on their decisions, how they react to situations, what they do that I don’t do, and most importantly, who comes out on top when top-caliber players collide head-to-head and give it their all.

And in some cases, I may not even play the games I watch. I’ve never actually played a proper game of StarCraft 2, but there was a time when I tuned in to watch GSL matches. The commentary was entertaining, the player storylines were interesting, and there was a lot of buzz around the game itself at the time—and none of this is atypical, mind you. Just look to South Korea’s obsession with StarCraft: progaming stadiums draw crowds as large as 100,000 spectators, and a significant portion don’t play the game. It’s so big that some StarCraft progamers even enjoy mainstream celebrity status among non-gamers.

How many fans of soccer actually play soccer? How many non-golfers watch golf? What percentage of the American Idol audience are singers? Is it so unusual to watch a competitive event for something you yourself don’t participate in? On the contrary, I’d argue that’s normal.

The Appeal of Esports, Explained

Anyone who argues esports versus sports is missing the point. All competitive spectator events have the same appeal: an emotional investment in the outcome. This is true whether we’re talking about esports, sports, American Idol, MasterChef, or chess.

Rivalries are a big one, like the stories of Yo-hwan “BoxeR” Lim, who pioneered Terran strategies in StarCraft during the early 2000s when he was arguably the best player in the world, and Jin-ho “YellOw” Hong, who consistently came in second place for every StarCraft tournament against BoxeR despite his exceptional Zerg-versus-Terran strategies. Knowing little more than this, already there are stakes on the line, and you probably feel something inside you rooting for one, the other, or both. A decade ago, if you saw a match that involved either of these two players, you knew how much BoxeR had to lose, how much YellOw had to gain, and that’s what gave the matches life.

BoxeR versus YellOw during ProLeague 2009

Forget the prize money. This is about player narratives and what these matches and events mean for these players on a deep, personal level. Say what you will about emotional manipulation, but American Idol would have faded into obscurity long ago if they didn’t play up the personal plights of each contestant before they went on stage. Once you know why someone is up there, you can’t help but root for them, or in some cases root against them. And when you find yourself rooting for someone, their victories become your victories, their glory becomes your glory, their losses are your losses, and their disappointments become yours as well—and you love them all the more for it. For esports, the game is simply the stage on which the competitors go at it. It doesn’t change the heart of why we watch.

The Impact of Online Streaming

You might be wondering, “We already have sports. Why don’t you just watch those instead? Isn’t there more on the line with sports? Aren’t they more exciting to watch? Why would anyone prefer esports?”

Again, pitting esports against sports is missing the point. Plenty of folks, myself included, enjoy both. It’s not about which one is more exciting, or more this, or more that. Consider Bob Smith, who loves the Philadelphia Eagles and religiously watches every NFL playoffs game but couldn’t give a squat about basketball, baseball, or soccer. Just as we develop emotional connections with different players and different teams, we also connect with different games and different sports. I find MMA interesting but doze off watching fighting games—and I couldn’t tell you why. That’s just how it is. Emotions are perplexing and don’t always make sense.

But there are practical reasons to prefer esports.

Most notably, viewers have unprecedented access to top-tier gamers through streaming platforms like Twitch, offering a level of interaction that just isn’t found in the world of sports or elsewhere, even when social media is taken into account. The opportunity to pick the minds of world-class players, or just shoot the breeze with them on a slow Saturday afternoon, helps deepen those emotional bonds.

Availability is another big one. With only a few exceptions, all major esports events in the world are streamed online for free, meaning you can tune in no matter where you are in the world, sometimes with the help of a VPN. While some sporting leagues, like the MLB, are catching up with streaming options, they come with a heavy cost—as of this writing, MLB.TV is a whopping $25/mo. As if that weren’t enough, these streaming services often come with “blackout rules” where you can’t stream games if you’re geographically located in the television territory of the home team for that game. Why pay inordinate amounts for access to sports when esports can give you the same competitive emotional fix for free?

In this light, is it any wonder that esports have exploded over the last decade? It’s the same old essence packaged in a new wrapper, appealing to our deep-seated need as humans to identify with and live vicariously through those with whom we’ve bonded. Esports ain’t going anywhere, and if your interest has been piqued, now’s as good a time as any to dive in.

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