Commentary: More Than Just Armchair Gamers

Oct 13, 2017

There was a time when the phrase "armchair quarterback" was a put-down, but the armchair may be exactly where a new breed of competitor will be making a living or earning a scholarship. Victor Wishna explains in this month's 'A Fan's Notes.'

It’s amazing, and silly, how some ’80s movies managed to predict the 21st century.

Back to the Future II, of course, knew the Cubs would win the World Series. Blade Runner envisioned voice-recognition and digital billboards. WarGames saw a world where hacking and cyber-warfare were common. And then there was The Wizard, that little-seen Fred Savage/Christian Slater flick about a kid who wins a video game tournament in an arena full of screaming fans.

That reality is now rapidly unfolding. Video gaming is one of the fastest growing sports — yes, sports — worldwide. Technically, it’s known as e-sports, and tournaments have filled indoor stadiums and been broadcast on ESPN. A recent world championship sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles and was livestreamed by more than 32 million spectators.

We’re not talking about Pac-Man or Donkey Kong here. These are highly complex, multiplayer contests that require a very specific set of skills. Games like Call of Duty and League of Legends are more like 3-D movies — virtual realities that demand uncommon instinct, dedication and teamwork to master.

Okay, but isn’t it still just sitting down and manipulating a powerful machine? Is that a sport? I mean, sure, there’s NASCAR — but that at least includes the risk of a fiery death. Shouldn’t there be some feat of strength required or risk of bodily harm beyond carpal tunnel?

Any philosophical debate is no match for the facts on the ground. The most notable growth of e-sports is at the college level, where, aside from the lack of athleticism, gaming programs resemble just about any other athletic team, complete with coaches, managers, uniforms — even cheerleaders and, yes, recruiting and scholarships.

The National Association of Collegiate Esports, the largest such body, formed last year right here in Kansas City with a handful of regional schools. In the months since, the NACE has grown to more than 50 member-institutions nationwide. Teams from Missouri’s Columbia College and Kansas Wesleyan now compete against programs from power conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12. And developments like the NACE have caught the attention of the NCAA, which, according to The New York Times this week, has begun quietly sending out feelers.

More college players means more will turn pro. Fans of so-called legitimate sports may scoff, but is getting paid to play a game really all that different from … getting paid to play a game? Since 2010, the top five e-sports leagues have doled out nearly a quarter-billion dollars of prize money in some 10,000 tournaments.

And it still just feels like a beginning. For a competition that already takes place on a screen, the media possibilities are boundless. And it’s not just made for TV. The trend is toward the live fan experience.

A new company has opened the first dedicated Esports Arena in Orange County, California, with plans for a dozen more. Meanwhile, e-sports will be added as a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games, the world’s second-largest multi-sport showcase after the Olympics. And it might not be long before we see e-sports at the Summer Games … or the Winter Games … or, I guess, both? Federations from South Korea and the UK have already filed requests with the IOC, which is reportedly considering ways to integrate e-sports into the Paris Olympiad in 2024.

The future is hard to predict. Some may never consider video gaming the next big spectator sport. But with all the excitement and all the money it's generating, video gaming has gone from spectacle to respectable.

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.