“Outside the Pocket” is a column by Sam Arslanian about sports.
If sports were a team, the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB would be the veteran captains and esports would be the walk-on freshman, a three-star recruit from the middle of nowhere looking for a chance to prove itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic took out the knees of every major professional traditional sport and the head coach of this metaphorical team looked down the sidelines and gave the nod to esports. It’s a hail mary comparable to putting in a random undrafted CFL player named Kurt Warner after Rams’ starting quarterback Trent Green leaves the game with a torn ACL.
If you are starving for competition to watch right now, your options are throwback games that you have seen 10,000 times, marble racing or esports. This is the prime opportunity for esports to legitimize itself.
The biggest issue with professional competitive video gaming is the barrier to entry. Games like League of Legends, Overwatch and Dota 2 don’t have an apparent objective to first-time viewers. Destroying a base or pushing a payload is a far cry from moving a ball past a line or through a hoop.
So what makes now the perfect opportunity for esports? Do people just have so little to do that they are willing to learn how an esport is played so they don’t die from boredom? Not exactly.
The esports industry can be segmented into several categories: shooters, multiplayer online battle arena, fighter, sports, etc. — with the two most popular categories being shooters and MOBAs. Sports games like Madden and NBA2K have a much smaller but just as passionate following.
Why would you watch the virtual version of a sport when you can just watch the real thing? It’s a solid argument against sports-centric esports and the reason the gameplay of the most popular esports are so far from traditional sports.
Yesterday, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that the NBA is planning to launch a players-only NBA 2K tournament. The rough plans include a 16-player tournament with big names like Kevin Durant, Trae Young and Demarcus Cousins.
The NBA isn’t alone in placing its athletes in a virtual version of their sport during the break. NASCAR has hosted an iRacing series with its drivers. iRacing is a virtual racing simulator that very closely replicates the feel of actually being in a car on the track.
The primary purpose of the efforts by the NBA and NASCAR is to continue some form of revenue stream and hold people over until the actual competition comes back.
There’s another way to look at this situation: how this helps the esports industry. First, it introduces a lot more people to the idea of competitive video gaming. Giving viewers a product that presents familiar gameplay, objectives and participants makes it much easier to have an open mind about watching professional video games.
It also demonstrates that esports can give the viewer the same feelings that they feel while watching an NBA game. Excitement, defeat, anxiety, joy; viewers feel these emotions that are so closely associated with the sport they tune into every week to cheer or jeer for, they will become more open-minded to watching esports.
I got into playing esports after I was unable to play baseball for an extended period of time due to an injury. What it gave me was the same feeling I felt on the diamond: competitiveness, adversity and accomplishment. Because I was able to relate those feelings I felt during baseball games to video games, I was instantly hooked.
That’s more or less the same thing that can happen here. By opening the minds of viewers to the esports world and showing them that professional video games are not only for the nerdy-basement-dwelling man, they will become more likely to try and get into esports that less resemble traditional sports.
This transition will not happen without push from the esports leagues, however. Every esport league needs to take action to make their competitions accessible and reliable while simultaneously helping to explain the game to new users.
I will commend the Overwatch League’s ability to do this. Due to the coronavirus, OWL quickly pivoted to an online-remote format with five games on Saturday and another five on Sunday. It does a great job of breaking down what is happening, so first time viewers can understand the game, the objective and the significance of a play.
The esports industry has a really great opportunity to show sports fans why it is a legitimate competition. The only question is do they become Kurt Warner or Connor Cook.
“Outside the Pocket” runs every other Tuesday.