As a sports obsessive I couldn’t fathom a life without it. How wrong I was
When I heard the news that the Premier League was shutting down indefinitely, the season potentially voided, my first thought wasn’t for my West Ham season ticket, rendered as obsolete as a British Eurovision entry. Instead it was: thank God I spent 2019 getting really into esports.
With the European Championships pushed back to 2021 and domestic football red-carded, the ATP Tour drop-shotted into the summer, the Six Nations caught short of the 22, the Grand National pitched headfirst into a water trap, and, barring a miracle, the Olympic torch snuffed out, it’s easy to feel that 2020 will just be a sporting vacuum.
As a sports obsessive, I had anticipated spending the summer segueing between watching Raheem Sterling weaving his way across Europe, Dan Evans tearing up the turf at SW19, and Joe Clarke slaloming his canoe to victory in Tokyo (I become an expert in canoe slalom every four years).
Not long ago I would have struggled to conceive of anything more symptomatic of the decline of society than watching strangers playing video games. The very word ‘esports’ conjured images of spotty teenagers.
I was, and remain, unconvinced by the esports potential of video games that simply try to replicate the experience of watching a real sport, like Fifa or Madden. All the same, these are enormous global properties: more than 20 million people participated in the 2019 Fifa eWorld Cup, competing for the $500,000 (£421,000) prize pool. Madden’s 2020 prize pool was some $700,000.
The Fortnite World Cup was bigger business still (by some distance) with a $30 million prize pool stretched across qualifying and its myriad competitions. The solos champion, Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, took home a cool $3m; tasty pocket money for a 16-year-old. It was around this time that I began to see ability at video games not as a technical accomplishment but a sporting one.
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Esports is at its best when it provides an experience not catered to by reality. This has been the success of the battle royale genre (games like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds or PUBG, Fortnite and Apex Legends) because the idea of being parachuted into an abandoned landscape and having to fight to the death for survival is as seductive as it is impractical.
Equally, to enjoy esports you have to recognise the mechanical skill of the players, and that’s easier when you’re not constantly comparing them to the real-life counterpart of their digital avatar (“He’s not Messi, he’s just smashing a triangle!”). And the best thing about esports is the personality of the broadcast: top players have to be a combination of Cristiano Ronaldo and Clive Tyldesley. They are charismatic commentators as well as consummate competitors.
One of the great downsides of sport becoming a key part of global mass media is the way it has focused our consumption on our established preferences. If you love football, you can now watch nothing but football from dawn to dusk. The same is true of rugby, tennis, cricket and golf. Our appetites have become less omnivorous. It is hard to imagine the entire world stopping in awed enthralment for a game of chess, as it did in 1972 when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky, or an ice hockey game like the Miracle on Ice of 1980. We know what we like and our appetites can be easily sated.
But such examples are proof that we can train our brains to have more plural sporting interests. If you’ve ever found a hint of romance or thrill in a Phil Taylor checkout or a Ronnie O’Sullivan maximum, you can condition yourself to become invested in esports.
The choice in the coming months will be between watching re-runs of the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the 1981 Ashes, the 1980 Wimbledon men’s final, or firing up Twitch and throwing yourself into esports. Sport is at its most exciting when the outcome is still unresolved, when the play slides through the present moment. 2020 is going to require a lot of Plan Bs, but as contingencies go, you could do a lot worse than esports.