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2020 'League of Legends' World Championship highlights a new normal for esports

Whether playing rugby, soccer or “League of Legends,” the best athletes all share similar psychological characteristics. And they're all "real" athletes.
Image: Team DWG celebrates onstage after winning LoL World Championship Finals in Shanghai
Team DWG celebrates onstage after winning the League of Legends World Championship Finals in Shanghai, China, on Oct. 31, 2020.Aly Song / Reuters

What defines a real sport? Is it the physicality of straining muscles and pouring sweat, or the adrenaline-pumping high of competition? Perhaps it’s the discipline of following rules or a system of rankings and leagues and competitions. By any of these measures, competitive gaming — also known as esports — should easily qualify as a sport. Yet opinions remain divided. Even the International Olympic Committee has weighed in, deciding to err on the side of caution for now. But perhaps the question we should be asking is: Why is this even a question anymore?

What defines a real sport? Is it the physicality of straining muscles and pouring sweat, or the adrenaline-pumping high of competition?

The 2020 “League of Legends” World Championship came to a close on Saturday, providing a triumphant if slightly muted exclamation point for the 10th season of one of the world’s most popular professional esports events. After starting with 22 professional teams from around the world, South Korea's DAMWON Gaming defeated China's Suning to take home the Summoner’s Cup and a share in the prize pool worth millions of dollars.

In the last few years, more people have watched this tournament than the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals. For 2019’s event in Paris, Madrid and Berlin, players performed before packed stadiums and millions watching online from around the world. This year, because of Covid-19 protocols, the venue is a single city (Shanghai), and the viewership is mostly online (but expected to be even larger).

So the audience is certainly there, as are the other hallmarks of professional sports: companies that sponsor teams, clubs and leagues that organize matches and championships, associations that maintain records and rankings. Whether a top-level professional tournament or a high school or college-level match, the best players and teams vie for prizes, glory and sometimes an immense amount of money.

“If you’d asked me five years ago, back when I was working in the industry, building student clubs, I would have said that…for esports to be legitimate, we needed the title of being a recognized sport,” says Dylan Poulus, a researcher studying esports performance at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. “Now my opinion is a little bit different.” The esports industry has got to a point, he says, where it really doesn’t need anyone's stamp of approval any more.

Poulus has been studying the psychology of esports players, and in the absence of any literature on gamers, he and his colleagues took surveys developed to study more traditional sports and used them to evaluate esports athletes. The results were compelling: “Just like in traditional sport, if you have more mental toughness, you’re probably a more high-performing esport athlete,” Poulus says. His paper, which was published earlier this year, suggests that whether playing rugby, soccer or “League of Legends,” the best players all share similar mental characteristics. This, he adds, also helps young people outside the sports fields and gaming arenas, by teaching them to deal with difficult mental challenges and to figure out strategies for overcoming adversity

Indeed, there is increasing evidence that playing video games does not doom young people to lonely lives in their parents' basements. Esports is a highly social activity. “Specific esports games require significant amounts of teamwork,” says Ashley Miller-Hodge, an educator and esports coach for high school students in Georgia. She also sits on the board of advisors for Riot Games, the maker of “League of Legends.”

In her program, Miller-Hodge often comes across parents who would rather have their child play a “proper” sport. “But then, I tell them, hey, your kid can get a letterman jacket, they could get a scholarship, they could go on and become a pro player. There’s a ton of career options through esports,” she said. We have many misconceptions about video games, she notes, because people associate violent games with violent behavior, even though there is no proven correlation between the two things.

But there is hope yet. Julien Gelinas, a student on a full-ride esports scholarship at Maryville University in Missouri, feels that esports just need to go through the “same life-cycle of being ridiculed and considered a waste of time” as other more traditional sports. Many major professional sports leagues also went through experimental growth processes and had to win over athletes and fans.

Six years ago, ESPN President John Skipper answered with a categorical no when asked if esports were real sports. Today, ESPN devotes a lot of time and resources to coverage to esports. Indeed, while the coronavirus has hurt in-person athletics, esports have been largely unaffected. But even before the novel coronavirus brought the world to a standstill, esports was seeing massive growth. Schools and universities are adding gaming to their curriculum. New research even suggests the popularity of esports in North America among members of Gen Z may be hurting more established sports leagues: According to a recent poll from Morning Consult, 35 percent of Gen Z identify as esports fans, more than the percentage of young people who consider themselves fans of MLB, NASCAR, or the NHL.

“Competitions can still be safely officiated and run during COVID,” says Queensland researcher Poulus. “But you’ve also got a sport where if you’re male, female, able-bodied, if you have a disability, it doesn’t matter. You can still play.” Esports has come into its own, he adds, whether or not traditional gatekeepers agree.