Lights. Sound. Action. Lots of action. It’s tense. The audience can’t believe what they’re seeing. The commentators are going wild. The skill is unprecedented. The match is on edge. It could go either way. One player makes a daring move. If it works, it could win him the game. If his opponent spots it, that’s game over. The audience holds its breath. The suspense is palpable. At the last second the plan is discovered. There’s a scrambled defense but the reaction is too late. An edge turns into a lead and the winning player is unrelenting. His opponent taps out. “GG!” (‘Good game’) is screamed. The crowd erupts. The climax of the tournament is reached: a new champion crowned. Winner of fame, glory and prize money. Adored by fans. But he’s just sitting behind a computer, playing a computer game, isn’t he? Exactly. Welcome to eSports.
Electronic sports are relatively new but already massively popular. ‘The International 3’, last year’s largest tournament, saw teams compete for $10,000,000 of prize money in a packed stadium watched by over 20 million people across the world. That’s bigger than Wimbledon. And it’s not hard to see why. Computer games are exciting because they can offer interesting and fresh game design, creating new situations for decision-making which are impossible to emulate for sports in real life. Introducing concepts like incomplete information and player asymmetry make for engaging games that are both fascinating to watch and to play, and this is just part of the story.
My game is StarCraft 2 (SC2). I’ve never before encountered a game so impossible to master fully, but for me it’s not daunting; rather, exciting. It’s a type of game named real-time strategy (RTS): think chess with no turns and both players playing as fast as they can. What makes this type of game so interesting, both a sport and a mental challenge, is that your time and focus now become a resource. It’s in acute demand, and there’s never enough. You’re playing against another human in real-time. The faster you make decisions and act the more advantage you have. There is no limit to the speed at which you can play by yourself. But you can’t be everywhere at once. What will you prioritise? What will you ignore? What will be your strengths and what will be weaknesses? You can win by taking the time to think and make the best decisions; or by playing fast, doing everything with flawless control. Both are essential at the highest professional level of play.
These games push and pull you in every way, both mentally and physically. It is not enough to understand the game completely – you also have to pull it off. Your mechanics (how you use the keyboard and mouse) are vital too. This is what elevates SC2 above being a game and makes it a sport, an eSport. The physical and mental are combined and indeed required. Some games, like SC2, are single player; others are team based. But all involve not only high level tactical and strategic decision making but also a level of execution that is quite impossible to comprehend. The best players have APM (Actions Per Minute) counts exceeding 300. Three hundred. That’s over five different actions per second! Sustained over games up to an hour long. Their reaction times are lightning quick, their focus unwavering and their multitasking unbelievable. So yes, eSports are a sport.