Back in May, more than 127 million viewers watched the finals of a tournament on an online stream. It wasn’t soccer, baseball or hockey. It was for the popular video game “League of Legends” in the 2018 Mid-Season Invitational. The Chinese team of Royal Never Give Up defeated King-Zone DragonX. It was the first major “LoL” tournament that a South Korea team didn’t win since 2012. 

This is the world of esports, and it is one that we as a society cannot ignore anymore. The popularity continues to increase each year, as does the money. According to Statista, the worldwide revenue for esports will surpass $1 billion by next year. China and North America alone will generate around half the revenue. But where did this trend come from?

Although esports like we know today is still new, it can be traced back to the arcade days where players competed for the best scores. As the 1990s came, genres like fighting games saw a bigger growth and when the internet began to grow, online video games like “Quake” and “Unreal Tournament” became popular. Organizations and tournaments were formed and esports slowly started to grow in the early 2000s. With the launch of the streaming platform of Twitch in 2011, viewership was able to skyrocket to new levels after years of only occasional coverage from television channels. 

Today, esports is big in various different video game genres. There are fighting games, first-person shooters, sports simulation games, and many more. One of the newest to burst on the esports scene is the battle royale genre where players try to be the last-man-standing or last-team standing. “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” and “Fortnite” have exploded in popularity in gaming.

The growth in popularity has seen networks like ESPN and TBS start to dedicate time and resources to cover these events and colleges around the country are starting to add esports as varsity programs in the athletics departments. Kansas Wesleyan, McPherson and Southwestern College, all members of the KCAC with the University of Saint Mary, offer esports. 

Professional sports leagues and teams have also jumped onto the esports bandwagon. The NBA and Take-Two Interactive, the game holding company that owns the “NBA 2K” basketball simulation game series, created the NBA 2K League in 2017. In the inaugural season this year, 17 of the 30 NBA teams own an esports affiliate. The best players in “NBA 2K” were selected in a draft lottery similar to the basketball counterparts. The players then compete in five-on-five matchups similar to a real NBA game with different positions that each player will play. A similar league exists for the “FIFA Soccer” video game series publisher, Electronic Arts, and the MLS. 

With esports continuing to grow, it has started the debate if it should be labeled as a sport or not. While the sport may not be as physically demanding as football, basketball and others, esports still take a lot out of a person mentally. Similar to a board and card games like chess and poker, video games take a lot of strategy and thinking. First-person shooter games like “Call of Duty” and “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” require a quick mind and reflexes to win gunfights. Each game takes time to adapt to as well, like physical sports. “Rocket League” has players control rocket-powered cars in a soccer-like game. The physics of the car and the ball take time and effort to master. A new player might be able to pick up the controls right away, but like hitting a fastball, it takes practice and effort to get better.

In 2016, ESPN had “League of Legends” player Eugene “Pobelter” Park take the Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test, the same one that NFL draft prospects take. Park scored a 41. That was higher than Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who led all draft prospect quarterbacks with a 40.

Esports also takes countless hours of practice and preparation to prepare for matches and to make it more difficult, games like “League of Legends” are updated every two weeks with tweaks and balances. “Fortnite” is every week. The changes have to be adapted to quickly to get the advantage over opponents. Sometimes, this completely alters what the most effective tactics available are, also known as meta. The constant updates in “Fortnite” would be like the NBA changing the size of the ball, court and hoop on a regular basis. 

So while they may not be as physically draining, the mental aspects are still there and injury can still occur from the rapid movement of fingers on keyboards and controllers.

Esports has quickly grown into one of the most popular forms of competition over the last decade, while it can still be debated on if it is a sport or not. If someone considers chess, poker and other board and card games a sport, then it is time for them to adopt esports as well. Even if it is not someone’s cup of tea, it is here, and looking at the projections, it is here to stay. 

Luke Peterson is the sports editor of the Leavenworth Times. Contact him at lpeterson@leavenworthtimes.com