I’m watching the opening stages of a World Championship sporting event. It’s streaming live through the Internet and onto my television screen with a surprising quality.
From my couch, I can see two teams of professionals as they file out of dressing rooms and take their seats in front of a rowdy audience. The crowd is young and diverse; many are decked out in familiar gear and carry recognizable props. Humorous banners are held up to catch the camera’s view. Referees congregate and discuss details concerning the upcoming match. Hands shake while commentators discuss the future of the tournament’s final match. It’s a fairly familiar scene for those who follow the world of sport.
Unlike more traditional sporting events, however, there will be no physical playing field tonight. I’m watching the Season Three World Championship for an online video game called League of Legends. The athletes present are seated in front of computers. Tonight, two teams of five will attempt to capture objectives on a three lane map that exists only in the digital world. (Because an explanation of how the game is played is an article unto itself, it will not be discussed in depth here. See this link if you would like to know more) While the pro players distinguish themselves from the audience with sleek, logo-spotted uniforms, save a wrist brace none of the players don protective gear. Tall cups of coffee replace Gatorade bottles. The audience surges with excitement and chants ring out for each team.
This is arguably the largest event in electronic sports (eSports) all year. The participants who have battled their way to the final are professionals in every sense of the word. They have dedicated countless hours of their life to practice and tactics. They are here because they have earned it. This is not to say that eSport and Sport are one and the same. Pundits have pointed out the differences between the two ad nauseum. However, watching this it is impossible to ignore the similarities. At the end of tonight, the eSports team that loses will feel the same pain felt by athletes who have reached for the gold and fallen short.
League of Legends is a sizable deal in the eSports world. Tickets to attend this world championship sold out the Staples Center within five minutes, and Riot Games – the game’s developer – recently announced that League of Legends hosts about 27 million players daily. That’s almost nine percent of the population of the United States. Every day. Users are drawn by the game’s competitive nature and it’s free-to-play business model. To download the game costs nothing – the only forced cost involved is if a player wishes to customize the champion he or she plays with.
The audience inside the Staples Center gaze collectively at a large screen that hovers over and between both teams. This is where the action will occur. In a few minutes, my television will show what this screen that hangs high in the Staples Center shows. I will be as much a part of the action as those who are in attendance, and those who are playing the game.
It’s a dark, temperate January night on Wake Forest University’s Reynolda Campus. In a fluorescent-lit basement classroom of Greene Hall, students slowly file in clutching their laptops and wireless mice. Power cords are run in various directions – over tables and under chairs – to ensure electricity for the thirty or so students who have shown up tonight. More than one student trips over this jungle of cable and narrowly avoids a trip to Student Health. All available seats in the classroom are filled in minutes, and yet some students hang around the door nervously looking for someone to vacate a spot.
These are visuals that describe most regular practices for the eSports society on campus. They’re officially known as the Wake Forest University eSports Association, though in the early days the group went by the name Team Slackerz. It was a somewhat ironic name for a group of students who have always worked hard to balance their rigorous academic schedules with team practices. This semester, more than 50 students have registered to play League of Legends in the student organization. They come from different backgrounds, and play at different skill levels, but at their core that are a group firmly united by a love of gaming and competition.
The most important piece of hardware here tonight is each student’s portable computer. These computers connect each student in practice by giving them a digital field to play on. Though a select few have brought supercharged laptops from home, many of the students are playing on school issued ThinkPads, technology provided to all undergraduate students by Lenovo. Nick Toebben (’14) – going into his second semester as president of the association – says that the distributed laptops hold up under the demands of both educational work and gaming:
“The majority of our players bring their ThinkPads to practice every week, says Toebben. “For a school issued computer, it’s able to run the game well and portable enough to allow us to meet and practice in the same room.”
Because the average game of League can run beyond 40 minutes, practices are lengthy. It’s not unusual for students to arrive at 7:30 at night and leave at 11. The group often experiments with different formats of gameplay to liven up practices and improve player’s skill. They’ve held 1v1 matches; team battles where players can only select a certain champion to play with; and just regular tournament style play. Throughout every practice, scores are displayed on an overhead projector and edited within Google Drive. The victor is either the player with the most points or the last one standing.
Not everything concerning League takes place at practices. The association also has a Facebook group where they schedule upcoming meetings and discuss proposed changes or “patches” to the game. YouTube videos of unthinkable in-game plays are posted as well, and the comments swirl around wide-eyed wonder for the skill required to pull off such feats. Looking over all the posts in this group, it’s hard to miss the knowledge and excitement on display here. The conversation in this group resembles a collection of traditional sports fans, coming together to obsess over all facets of the game they love.
“The group is growing pretty nicely,” Toebben says. “We’ve just added to the club a free-to-play digital collectible card game called Hearthstone. We hope that by branching out we can attract new members to the group and enjoy new experiences with current members.”