Friday, December 12, 2014

Are video games the new spectator sport?

For those who are looking for it, the news is everywhere: video games are becoming the new spectator sport. The signs have been there for years, although they were subtle in many cases. I saw them in my own family room, with my kids sitting together and watching each other play. I always thought "how boring," and dismissed it, thinking my kids were probably the only weirdos who would sit and watch other people play a video game that they themselves weren't playing.

But when I think about it, how many times did I stand in an arcade, watching an expert player dominate Mortal Combat? (a lot.) If you ever saw the documentary King of Kong, you'll remember groups of people crowding around a Donkey Kong game, holding their breath as competitors beat level after level after level.

Just a couple years ago, I noticed another phenomenon. My kids were watching other people play video games on YouTube. Sometimes they watched to learn how to beat a level in a game they were struggling with. Sometimes, they just watched for fun. With the arcade gone and more players playing at home, YouTube became the place to observe and learn and go back to your Xbox and try again yourself.

But then, my kids weren't satisfied with just observing...they wanted to record themselves playing and share those videos too. New kinds of videos of game play emerged: color commentary! Some videos featured gamers recording their parents or grandparents playing, the ultimate noobs to laugh at. Other videos featured gamers whose funny quips and engaging personalities helped make them into celebrities in the gaming world. My kids started imagining themselves becoming YouTube stars, simply by recording the games they were playing.

I didn't have a name for this new genre of entertainment, but yesterday saw this article about arenas where you can observe video gamers competing. The term, I found out, is esports, and it's becoming huge. Want more evidence? Game developers and even colleges are now awarding scholarships to top gamers, recruited to play on the school's esports team.

"WHAT?!?! Shut the front door!" (This is an exact quote from me, as I forwarded the story link to my teenagers...)

But if you think about it, it makes sense...while kids used to spend hours and hours on the basketball court practicing to make it into the NBA (some still do, for sure), more and more kids are spending time in League of Legends or Minecraft. It logically follows that stars would emerge and systems to reward the best gamers would be created. And, as we do with professional basketball players, we want to watch the best gamers compete and flex their finely tuned hand/eye coordination against each other.

I'm not sure that we'll see our cities' football stadiums converted to gaming stadiums any time soon, but don't count out esports as our future national pastime.


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