Opinion | For The Love Of The Game

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Being a fan of something is truly incredible.

Being a fan of something is truly incredible. You can follow a group of people that have never heard of you, and feel what they feel -- the exhilaration of a last minute goal or the crushing sadness of defeat. The investment we put into something that we have no control over is tortuous, yet amazing at the same time. Since I was a child, I have watched rugby, and put my heart and soul into every match, somehow believing that if I wanted my team to win enough that would somehow make the difference.

Later, I became an obsessed football (soccer) fan. Arsenal was my life. When we won I cheered, when we lost (which seemed more common) I was distraught. For the longest time I was ashamed of my utter devotion. I was scared of judgement. This fear was obviously unfounded, and I eventually realized this when I finally met some other avid fans of football. I could talk for hours on end about the tiny details of the matches. If others could be so dedicated, then why did I need to hide my passion?

In late 2015 I discovered a new passion -- esports. It first came about when I was playing my favourite video game, Rainbow Six: Siege. I had been playing online, and someone in the lobby had mentioned they had a friend going to the Rainbow Six Pro League finals. I was skeptical at first, as most would be upon first mention of such a thing. How could you have fun watching someone else play a video game? But I gave it a watch anyway, and my God, I absolutely loved it.

Esports have been a ‘thing’ for a long time, but they are only now filtering into the mainstream consciousness. To those that have not done their research, this might seem like a shock. However, a quick Google search shows that esports are far from new, and they are BIG and getting bigger by the day.

To those that have never watched an esport, the name gives away what it is about. Take a multiplayer video game and put the very best players in the world against each other - exactly like a sport, and hence the name. And exactly like sports, there are many varieties that that exist. Some of the biggest that there are are League of Legends, Dota 2, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS: GO). Believe it or not, they are now sizeable enough to compete with major sporting events in terms of viewership. For the 2018 CS: GO Boston Major, there was a total of 66 Million viewers, and some League of Legends events hit an excess of 75 million viewers (source: EsportsCharts).

To compare, the Superbowl had 115 Million viewers (source: ESPN). That’s not all, major news channels like ESPN are beginning to report on esports and some even have esports sections. Furthemore, it is estimated that the esports industry revenue will grow to a whopping US$1.5 Billion as soon as 2020.

The question is -- why are esports so popular? The answer to that is perhaps simpler than some may expect. Why do people watch sports? To watch people with incredible talent play against others with incredible talent, and crown a victor. Esports are no different.

A common insult thrown at the esports community is that there is less skill required than in real sports. The truth could not be farther from that claim.  Esports do require a lot of skill -- they just require a very different skill set. A perfect example of this was brought up by the NBA player Gordon Hayward, when talking about the game Starcraft: “Well, there’s a metric in Starcraft called Actions Per Minute (APM). The best players in the world hover at an APM of about 300. That’s five actions per second, with each individual action at least having some impact on the final outcome of the match.”

Starcraft II at Life BlizzCon 2014
Starcraft II at BlizzCon 2014

That’s FIVE actions per SECOND,  a ludicrous level of decision making. It is no wonder that a Science Daily research paper discovered the numerous benefits of games like this. It cites that “the cognition of gamers was better by one-half of a standard deviation compared to non-gamers.” These games are not mere hobbies to these professional players. This is their life, their livelihood, and their passion. In 20 years it is not unfathomable to imagine that we will be talking about players like Faker (League of Legends), Olofmeister (CS: GO) and Coldzera (CS: GO) in the same breath as Messi and Lebron James.

Olofmeister is considered one of the best CS:GO players in the world.
Olofmeister is considered one of the best CS:GO players in the world.

Unfortunately, just as I was ashamed of my devotion to Arsenal, I am now ashamed of my love for esports. Yet, I believe this will change. The mainstream public is beginning to see esports for what they are. Will the outside world be able to laugh at and stereotype gamers when these gamers are competing in the Olympics?* I very much doubt it.

The idea of esports at major events such as the Olympics is a very real possibility in the not too distant future with an esports portion already at the Asian Games. To many, this seems silly. How can video games be on the same level as “real” sports?

The centre of this is the thrill of the competition, be it in the 100 metre sprint, to rowing, or to the archery. The same applies to esports, and could be the reasoning behind why so many ex-athletes are getting involved. I mentioned Gordon Hayward before, but he is not alone in his passion for gaming. Others such as, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Rodger Saffold, Rick Fox, and Jeremy Lin all have invested in esports in one way or another. This is on top of huge celebrities such as Mark Cuban, and Steve Aoki that have also entered the scene.

I knew none of this when I watched my first Rainbow Six event. Even now, Rainbow Six Esports cannot compare to CS: GO (its closest comparable game). Where CS: GO got over 60 million viewers for its most recent event, Rainbow Six got 6 Million. But as with almost every esport, Siege is growing. This whole industry is growing. Thankfully, I have had the absolute pleasure of being along for the ride so far.

Part of the reason I love esports so much is how accessible each and every player is. At major events they are superstars, but a week later you could pop into their Twitch streams and ask them a question. Esports can make superstars into relatable people.

In one of the first Rainbow Six events, one of the casters (the esports equivalent of a commentator) mentioned he had a stream on Twitch. The very next day, I went to  his stream and began a journey that I am still on today. Imagine a community of people that only exist together because of a mutual love of a game. This may seem strange, but this is a story echoed all across the gaming world.

Most gamers and esports fans such as myself have similar stories of how they fell in love with a particular esport. Rainbow Six is my passion, just as football and rugby are as well. However, unlike football or rugby, I can talk to the great players of this game. I can play with them, I can learn from them, and I can one day perhaps even compete with them. This alone would be enough to make me a lifelong fan, but there has been plenty more motivation to stick around in this space.

Some of that motivation comes from the community, some has come from the game itself. But the truly incredible matches and events are a large part of it. One of the first moments I realized this was something I had to be a part of was the Year 1 Season 3 finals.

In the last round of overtime, European side Playing Ducks and Continuum had everything to play for. 5-5, with defuser planted, and in a 2v2 scenario, Continuum had to retake and disable the defuser. It seemed a tough challenge, but Continuum would not be beaten this easily. Splitting their remaining defenders, they took a huge gamble by leaving Retro on site and sending Necrox on a long, first-floor flank. The time kept ticking away as the 2-speed Smoke laboured to make it to a position to influence the round. Hearts were in mouths, mine no different.  It was then that everything happened.

The flank was successful, with Necrox managing to take down meepeY, who had been watching the defuser from the hatch. However, he immediately dropped back down, only to be killed by the final attacker. However, Retro now knew where this final attacker was. He pushed forward and secured the final kill to bring victory to Continuum, and North America.

It was then that I realised that this was not just a videogame. This was an Esport with a capital E. From then on I didn't think I would see a match that would ever top the drama of that match. The Montreal 2018 Six Invitational would prove me wrong, however, and the whole event is something I will never forget. It was the culmination of everything good about this game, and the grand finals would leave me in absolute shock. If I was hooked before, I was an addict now.

Penta were crowned the Rainbow Six Invitational 2018 Champions after a thrilling comeback victory against Evil Genius's
Penta were crowned the Rainbow Six Invitational 2018 Champions after a thrilling comeback victory against Evil Geniuses

The most recent event, the Paris Major has reminded me that Siege has grown to heights that I could not have imagined when I first picked up the controller to play. I now play on a mouse and keyboard, but my love for this game, my love for this esport, and my love for this community has never wavered.