As a good American I was filled with a jingoistic fervor after the triumph of the Evil Geniuses at The International, the world championship for Dota 2, this past weekend. I like video games. I like sports. But I’ve never watched esports, not a single match of Starcraft 2, Dota 2, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, or anything else. In the hopes of learning more about yet another thing that the United States is better at than anyone else in the world, I decided to talk to Rob Zacny of the new podcast Esports Today on the Idle Thumbs network, for Shall We Play a Game?
A lot of sports fans play video games, as evidenced by the popularity of things like Madden NFL, MLB The Show, and NBA 2K. Those fans are the same people that esports appeals to, Zacny believes.
“A lot of typical gamer culture, such as it is, if you want to use that blanket term, I don’t think is that accepting of esports,” he said. “The interesting thing is, if you really get into esports, and you hang out with people who really follow esports closely, they also tend to be the same people who follow sports really closely. I don’t think it’s necessarily that these are sports for gamers. I think they are sports for a generation of sports fans who have also grown up playing video games. I think that’s where the bridge happens.”
When you toss around a football in your backyard, you’re not really playing the same sport that the professionals that you watch on Sundays in the National Football League are playing, Zacny pointed out. They have referees and uniforms and equipment that you can’t recreate at home. Esports is different.
“In Dota, in Starcraft, in Counterstrike, you can go play the exact same game the pros are playing,” he said. “You can literally just play the exact same game that you just watched a grand master player compete in. And you can take what you just saw, and in your half-assed, incompetent way, you can try to mimic it.”
To me, esports feel like they’re having the same cultural moment in the United States that video games as a whole had about a decade ago. People are noticing how much money they make and wondering what that means, and whether they’re missing out on something meaningful. The people who run the world of sports and sports media, like the people who run the capital-c Culture in the United States, aren’t sure they respect video games. But they do respect the money.
“Esports is always about to have its breakthrough moment,” Zacny said. “And I think we’ll still be talking about esports having its breakthrough moment in another five years. Part of that is, what does mainstream cultural acceptance look like in the next five to 10 years? What’s the future of cable television? Esports arrives at this really odd time when the media landscape is fragmenting. I’m not sure the mainstreaming of esports will look anything like the mainstreaming of football or basketball.”
Sports fans in the United States may not have rallied to the Evil Geniuses the way we rallied to the women’s soccer team when they won the World Cup this summer, but the victory was important for America’s international reputation, Zacny said. “North America, in general, has a reputation for being a bit of a dumpster fire when it comes to esports,” he said. “This is a region that is known for being long on hype and personality.”
The Evil Geniuses aren’t on the Wheaties box yet—and I found it disappointing that the South Koreans didn’t add Starcraft 2 to the Winter Olympics they’re hosting in 2018—but ESPN’s E:60 documentary series announced Wednesday on Twitter that it will air an episode this fall about the American triumph: “5 guys from California won $6.6 million at #TI5 ,the Super Bowl of competitive gaming.”
Surely the feature film, the Hoosiers or Miracle of esports, is next.