Humans are born with a competitive nature; a desire to be the best at something is what guides our lives regardless of what field we are in. Without competition much of our society wouldn’t work, and that holds especially true in sports. The competitiveness of athletes drives them to work on their game and improve throughout their career. But what happens if we take this competitive nature off the field and change the setting to a couch, four controllers, and a TV screen? The rising tide of e-sports might appeal to those who have that same competitive side but prefer gaming over athleticism.
At U of T there exist communities dedicated to e-sports culture, such as the Erindale Gaming Organization and—my focus here—the U of T League of Legends Association. League of Legends is an immensely popular online multiplayer game in the tradition of Defense of the Ancients (DotA), based on two teams trying to destroy each other’s bases in battles across three lanes.
The club was founded by Vincent Ho in 2012 and is currently managed by president Jackson Furrow, who wanted to get involved after tracking the growth of e-sports culture. “There has been nothing but good reception from the student body,” says Furrow. “Everyone who isn’t in the know is generally just amazed at how organized and large our events are.”
The club holds a number of different events that have drawn large crowds. Most recently, the club held a tournament in conjunction with UTSU during Frost Week in January, where teams played in a tournament with the chance to win over $1,000 in prizes. The club has also had meet-and-greets with professional gamers—a career some might be surprised exists—and, according to Furrow, around 800 people were in attendance.
Furrow was proud of how the Frost Week tournament went, adding that it became something of a spectator sport, with fans watching while the games were played at Hart House and the games being streamed online leading up to the finals. “There were some people who [were cheering] for their favourite players,” says Furrow. “The community continues to grow with every event you throw and you can begin to craft your own local gaming identity.”
Riot Games, the publisher of League, has even reached out to the club to express its support for the work they’re doing in broadening the e-sports community.
But as the community grows, many from the outside may still wonder: what makes a game an e-sport?
Furrow thinks this is a difficult question, but that there are some criteria he suggests. First, the game must have ease of understanding and ease of entrance for the average gamer, so that the less experienced can learn to play like the experts. Second, the game must instill passion; it should be something players want to share with friends. Finally, despite the easy entrance level, there needs to be a high ceiling of attainable skill that allows someone to refine their game and master it.
Furrow believes the rise in popularity of this form of competition is partly due to the publicity that pro gamers get through online video streaming services like Twitch, which has become a leading broadcaster for e-sports competitions.
The site streams some of the biggest e-sports competitions in the world, like The Tournament, which has taken place in Germany and Seattle, Washington and in which winners can take home over $1 million, or Riot Games’ own League of Legends World Championship, where there is also a million-dollar prize. (A similar game, Dota 2, holds an annual tournament whose prize pool was the largest of any game this year at almost $11 million.)
Furrow says that having the online viewing and discussion helps connect the public to the pro gamers by letting them familiarize themselves with the techniques and understand the personalities. As Furrow puts it, “It begins to feel like it’s your friend who is playing up on that big stage.”
According to Furrow, Riot Games has set up salaried leagues that provide players the opportunity to commit themselves full-time to becoming a professional gamer—although there is some controversy with this venture into organized leagues, since the league owners who provide the streaming service are making more money off this venture than those who have committed themselves to being pro gamers in League of Legends.
Furrow is no longer a student at U of T; he dropped out while enrolled in an English major after his second year, but stayed on to manage UTLA and pursue a career in e-sports. The community he has formed here, he says, has made him proud to continue his work in this field.
Although the group is not overly concerned with how they are perceived by mainstream culture, Furrow does point out that the dedication of a gamer should be praised like that of an athlete. “I think the term ‘athlete’ is definitely applicable here,” he says. “Though these pro gamers are not held to the same level of physical prowess, the amount of time put into their craft is at least equal to that of athletes.”
For Furrow, it doesn’t really matter whether e-sports is considered a sport like the kind played on courts, fields, and rinks. “It depends on your definition of sport,” he says. “At the end of the day, I don’t think we are really calling it a sport—it’s a new era of sports reality.”
What matters to him and to the many who proudly participate in these tournaments is their love for the game, because that’s what fuels their competitive side and keeps them coming back for more.