Is it time to get into eSports?

They’re watched by millions, worth billions… and top players train their bodies and brains like professional athletes. Esports look poised to take over the world – so should you be watching them already?
Is it time to get into eSports?
© Getty Images
16 Sep 2018 AT 01:17 PM
16 Sep 2018 AT 01:17 PM

Life on Team Liquid is not easy. Most athletes are expected to practice with their team-mates for eight hours a day, five or six days a week. In the hours before and after ‘official’ practice, many sneak a few more games in solo, working to build the muscle memory and movement efficiency they need for success. At the team’s new training facility in Santa Monica, they live in a dorm, with private chefs and personalised meals available, alongside sports psychologists to help keep their concentration on point. It’s all expensive, but it’s worth the money – Team Liquid is one of the most successful esports teams in the world. Esports, in case you’re unaware, is a behemoth-sized business.

The industry had a reported worth of $1.5 Billion in 2017, with earnings anticipated to hit $1B by 2019 and a five-year growth chart that looks like Mount Everest. There are estimated to be 400 million fans of esports in general, more viewers – 80 million of them, in fact – watched the world finals for League of Legends than any game of the NBA Finals for the last two years. They appeared as a spectator sport in this year’s Asian Games, and could be a full-medal event in four years in Hangzhou, China – there were briefly rumblings about them appearing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but IOC president Thomas Bach, an ex-fencer, dismissed them as ‘too violent.’ Korea is building dedicated arenas and referee training facilities for them, while Taiwan recently classified them as an official sport, allowing pro players to exempt themselves from military service.

Ah, but should you be jumping aboard this runaway train? There’s the question. Most fans – and even casual viewers – agree that core appeal of esports is seeing players play games at the highest possible level. “For fans, there’s the same drama around clutch plays, underdog stories, hate figures and so on that you get from any competitive activity that’s scored,’”says Tim Clark, editorial director of PC Gamer and amateur Hearthstone player. “But there’s also the excitement of seeing something you love and do yourself being done at a skill level that’s an order of magnitude above what you could hope to pull off yourself.” For the casual observer, though, this can make games mystifying – popular games like League of Legends and DOTA 2 are basically impenetrable to an unschooled observer, relying on levelling-up and shop mechanics that are much tougher to appreciate at first glance than a picture-perfect uppercut or a forty-yard screamer.

Even much simpler games can be tough to appreciate – Olkesandr “S1mple” Kostyliev’s performance against Team Liquid in the semi-finals of a key Counter-Strike: GO tournament, where he shoots two opposition players in the head with no scope while falling off a crate, is considered one of the greatest esports moments of all time, but watch it online and it’s tough to see what’s going on beyond a couple of bangs and a load of shouting. And of course, tweaks to the rules and the ebb and flow of individual games’ popularity can make the scene even tougher to follow: imagine watching an NFL game where each side is suddenly allowed another player, or where touchdowns score an extra point.

But, at the same time, the complexity is part of what makes a really good game such a joy to watch. Human players have already fallen to AI players in all the ‘classic’ strategy games – draughts, chess, go – but in esports, the humans are still just about holding their own, which even the most sophisticated bots barely able to scrape 5v5 wins under simplified rule-sets. The best moments are like speed chess mixed with complex NFL plays mixed with magic, as audacious players use previously unthought-of combinations of abilities to outfox the opposition: Google Dendi’s ‘Fountain Hook’ manoeuvre to see a sequence of play so outrageous that DOTA’s developers were forced to redesign the game around it.

Other plays represent the peak of human ability, mixed with impossible-to-imagine clarity of thinking: Street Fighter player Daigo Umehara’s famous ‘Alpha Parry’, where he flawlessly rebuffs fifteen strikes in succession while down to a sliver of health, is impressive enough for its sheer dexterity, but even more insane if you’ve got the SF chops to realise how he forced his opponent into a position where he could use it. The more you’ve played, the more you realise how impressive these feats are: in Starcraft 2, for instance, mid-tier players might manage 60 actions-per-minute, or clicks and key-presses, while professionals hover between 300 and 600, their hands becoming a blur as they do ten calculated things a second.

A recent German study found that pro players are exposed to physical stresses similar to those put on ‘normal’ athletes, with pulse rates hitting marathon-runner levels and levels of the stress hormone cortisol mirroring those of F1 drivers mid-event. This is why the best athletes are placing increasing emphasis on physical training and nutrition: training the wrists, shoulders and even core can reduce the risk of cramp, carpal tunnel flare-ups and fatigue, any one of which could be the difference between a million-dollar prize pot and going home in ignominy.

Meanwhile, supplement companies are dashing to create eSport specific, with next-level products including lutein (for better vision) and MCT-oil (for sustained energy over six-hour matches) instead of just loading up on caffeine.  Of course, all of this – the grind, the drama, the expertise – doesn’t mean much if it isn’t fun to watch… but the fact is, it is.

As the sport grows, individual developers are keying in on ways to make individual sports more accessible, and deliberately engineering play mechanics that are fun to watch as well as play. Large-scale tournaments draw crowds in the thousands, with an atmosphere to match. And the more into it you are – the more you understand each player’s strengths, weaknesses, nuances and rivalries – the better the experience is. Will any individual sport ever eclipse the beautiful game, or indeed the allure of watching grown men punch each other in the face? It seems unlikely – but then, 20 years ago, you’d have said that about the prospect of 80 million people watching a minotaur fight a steam-powered golem.

Time to tune in.


What should you watch, and who should you watch doing it? Here’s your primer, from impossible-to follow to entry level


Rocket League

Because it’s the simplest game in esports to understand – a brace of rocket-propelled cars on each side compete to wallop an oversized ball into a football-style goal – Rocket League’s most high-octane moments are easy to appreciate. Play for ten minutes and you’ll appreciate the difficulties of even the simplest tap-in, making the top-corner screamers the pros regularly slot away even more impressive. Player to watch: Twitch streamer PhantomAce also posts his best shots on YouTube, and manages to narrate without being infuriating. Rare!


Dragon Ball Z Fighters

The three-a-side take on the world’s maddest fighting anime nudged out Street Fighter 5 to be the most popular game at megatournament Evo 2018, with 2,575 registered entrants trading blows and genuinely outlandish combos. Though high-tier play involves complex frame counting and tactics, the basics are easy to appreciate. Player to watch: SonicFox, who claimed the 2018 crown, didn’t do it without controversy – he asked to switch sides between matches, with some onlookers claiming he did it to put an on-form Goichi Kishida off his game. Oh, the drama.



Other games have a more venerable history – Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has been a favourite for years – but Blizzard’s team-based shooter hit the mark straight away, with differing abilities across its squads forcing genuine teamwork and different characters offering unique play-vibes. High-level play is incredibly stressful to watch – but it’s never less than impressive. Team to watch: New York Excelsior are a force already, but they’re also a joy to watch: their sniper, Pine, makes scarcely-believable shots from mid-air, and their Tracer, Jongryeol Park, is probably the best in the world.


League Of Legends

The Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, or MOBA, is the most popular genre in esports, and LoL is its king: its 13 leagues saw 109 teams compete in 2017, with 364 million unique viewers tuning in over the season. The format is (fairly) rigid across League, DOTA 2, Heroes Of The Storm and more: two five-player teams tussle across a triumvirate of paths, levelling up en route to smash enemy structures. Team to watch: Europe’s top team, the Misfits, rarely disappoint – their straight-up the-middle strategy means they either snowball opponents in under twenty minutes or get themselves smashed.


Starcraft II

The original, and still one of the best: Starcraft first became an unexpected smash in Korean LAN cafes, and the sequel was the start of the modern esports era, shepherding in waves of household-name players. Its star might have faded somewhat recently – ‘dead game!’ being the Trump-alike insult slung by vocal opposition – but it’s still producing some nail-biters.  Player to watch: Sasha Hostyn, also known as Scarlett, is one of a tiny fraction of female esporters – and Canadian – but on her game, she’s capable of beating any player in  the world.