Does the appeal of watching people professionally kick a ball around baffle you? Same. You should try esports.
Really. I've written stories about esports, specifically how they're worth loads of money and will be worth loads more in a few years. But none of that research prepared me for the Overwatch World Cup, which took place in Sydney this past weekend.
It. Was. Wild.
Around 2,500 people, me included, converged on Sydney's Star Casino to watch 48 professional gamers from six countries play Overwatch, Blizzard's extremely popular squad-based shooter. Before the first match, it all felt like a strange parallel universe. No matter how familiar you are with esports as a concept, seeing video games turned into actual sport events with a live audience and overpriced hot dogs is jarring.
The first match of the day was Australia versus Sweden. A series of monitors sat below the stage, giving the thousands on the ground floor a view of the action, while two giant screens hanging from the ceiling did the same for those of us in the mezzanine.
Before the match started, a short introductory montage included a group shot of the players walking in slow motion. It felt wrong at first, since slow motion is typically reserved for bullet dodging or sexy beach frolicking, but that quickly changed when the Australian team walked onstage to a superstar reaction.
It was a real "wow, I'm living in the future" moment. As soon as the games started, my inner monologue went from "this is a bit ridiculous" to "I am ridiculously into this."
This was the first time I watched a live sport I actually understood. I'm a longtime pro wrestling fan. Friends have tried to convert me to watching real sports by taking me to a rugby or football game, but the experience always falls flat because I never truly understand what I'm seeing, or why I should care. "He kicked the ball through the thing," I'll think as the crowd goes ballistic. "Good for him."
I'm obviously not alone. Lots of people regard team sports like football (American or English) as base entertainment for ruffians. I hear the term "sweaty men with no neck" thrown around a lot.
Pop culture teaches us jocks and nerds are diametric opposites, that you're either a geek or an athlete. Life is obviously more complicated, but esports do give people who grew up perplexed by the appeal of sports a chance to see what the fuss is about without having to accept sweaty men as a spectacle. Well, esports still have sweaty men (and women), but at least they have necks.
At the Overwatch World Cup I found myself doing things I always questioned others doing.
I've always cringed when friends say "we won" when referring to their team winning. "We" didn't do squat -- athletes paid millions of dollars won. Yet there I was, pumping my fist that "we" made the finals. I've wondered how a crowd could get so excited when a goalie made a save. Yet there I was, sharing in the crowd's relief when Australian player Gunba popped Zenyatta's ultimate, saving the team from capture-the-zone defeat.
Esports exists in a bubble, but within that bubble, it's been popular for over a decade. In 2005, 120,000 people packed South Korea's Busan Stadium to watch professional Starcraft. The US since 1996 has hosted EVO, a festival of fighting game tournaments that in 2004 led to a Street Fighter III showdown that's become lore in gaming culture. Today, League of Legends is the monster, with 14 million tuning into the 2016 World Championship finals. Even still, outside the bubble, people have barely heard of it, or don't recognize it as being legitimate.
But the bubble is slowly engulfing more of mainstream pop culture. A lot of that is thanks to sites like Twitch that have helped dozens of games get their own esports community. The Overwatch World Cup was fun for me because I play the game, but if you play a game that's at least moderately well-known and has a competitive element, there'll be some kind of esports community for it.
I chuckle when I imagine my sports-loving friends reacting to a live event like the Overwatch World Cup. I'm sure they'd be completely mortified, and would watch the crowd's joy with astonishment.
That's the exact same way I feel watching sweaty men kick balls.
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