On Esports

I spent a good chunk of my weekend – close to seven hours – watching two of the regional playoffs in the ALGS (Apex Legends Global Series), our yearlong pro league. It was my first real experience watching Apex as an esport, and it struck me that the two most compelling sporting experiences over the past year plus have both been “virtual.” The first was the brilliant Super League Arena Games powered by Zwift. And the ALGS was the second.

I put the word “virtual” in quotation marks, but as I was fond of saying when I was at Zwift – “the roads are virtual, but the racing is real.” I always objected to the term “IRL” because the pain, suffering, elation, and emotion of Zwift racing is as real as any I have ever seen or participated in. There was a time when I would also have put the word “sporting” in quotes, but not anymore. While the physical demands of professional gaming are certainly unique, that’s true of a great many sports. And the focus, discipline, and precision that’s required to compete at the highest level is universal.

With some background in motorsports, I think I’ve always held a pretty wide definition of the term “athlete,” and I’d say that unquestionably that the physical dexterity of the best players in a reflex-and-coordination intensive game qualify them as such. I’m less sure in the case of more purely cerebral games (from classics like Chess and Poker to the more modern equivalents), but I increasingly think a broad umbrella is best. There is no real dividing line between mental and physical.

At the peak, over 300,000 people were tuned into the North American regional championships, which I found especially impressive given that it was going head-to-head with the NFL playoffs. Though, of course, there’s no reason in the post-TV era that people couldn’t have been watching both (and I know many were). That would have astonished me even a year ago. I discovered Twitch due to the pandemic, and while I never would have imagined watching someone else play videogames, I now find it to be the most compelling viewing experience imaginable.

In both cases, I’d been an avid participant – a player of both games – but never really found the format particularly captivating as a spectator. And that’s where I see the incredible value of production. I am not on the mindset that we need “stories” and “narratives.” Competition provides that in the best possible way. Rather, great production – the mix of commentators, data (the ALGS featured a new tournament-specific HUD and also the brand new multi-view feature delivered in partnership with Twitch), and presentation (showing both the macro and micro levels of the game in action) – allows the inherently compelling and captivating story of competition to shine through.

I’m no great prognosticator and won’t pretend to know what the future of sports, or videogames, or the intersection of the two will be. But I can say definitively that the present is pretty amazing. I’m proud to be a part of the team that helps delivers a game that makes for both great playing and great watching. And, as weird as it still sometimes seems, I’m proud to be a fan now as well.

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