It’s the eve of Point Loma Nazarene University esports’ annual “March Grand Game Fest,” where the lobby of the recreational center is littered with tangles of wires extending from countless monitors to gaming systems, from those consoles to the controllers young competitive gamers are gripping tightly in their hands. The frenzied, furious sound of the click-clacking of button presses is almost deafening. Periodically, a yelp of victory or a groan of defeat cuts through the air filled with the scents of sweat and pizza.
“John Ah Sing, Ryan Swanson, you’re up,” shouts Josh Morse, president of PLNU’s esports club and organizer of the Game Fest. The two gamers find and sit in front of a vacant monitor, already loaded into the lobby of Super Smash Brothers for Wii U. They remove their personal GameCube controllers from the hanging places around their necks and plug them in, ready to play – ready to compete. The winner of the tournament will take home “The Grand Adventure” gaming gear provided by companies Twitch and Tespa, but the real reason these PLNU and BIOLA students compete is for camaraderie, a legitimate challenge and bragging rights.
“You wouldn’t think of [competitive gaming] as a regular competition, but it is,” says John Ah Sing, a sophomore physics engineering major at PLNU. He compares it to when he ran track and cross country in high school. “You get the same sort of rush at the starting line as you do at the beginning of the game – I have to outperform the other player, who is a human being.”
Also present at the Game Fest was Daniel Harper, a junior chemistry and physics double-major at PLNU. “I don’t like using the word ‘sport.’ I think sports should be more physically exerting,” he said. “At the same time, I think playing
professionally has just as much merit as playing a sport professionally.”
“I don’t think it’s a sport, but I don’t want to put it in a lower tier [either],” Harper said. “Competitive chess is seen as valuable – we have grandmasters in chess and no one questions that.”
There is scrutiny as to whether competitive computer gaming qualifies as a legitimate sport. Although ESPN has been known to broadcast competitive gaming tournaments starting in 2008 with Halo 3, in BBC’s article “Is computer gaming really sport?” ESPN president John Skipper is quoted as stating, “[esports] is not a sport, it’s a competition. Mostly I’m interested in doing real sports.”
According to CNN journalist Henry Young in his article “Seven-figure salaries, sold-out stadiums: Is pro video gaming a sport?” the X-Games, the Olympics of extreme sports, faced its share of skepticism in the 1990s when they started in 1995. The X-Games has since risen above their underground status, with snowboarding now a part of the official Winter Games.
The X-Games picked up Esports in 2014, now featuring “Major League Gaming” notables Call of Duty and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive alongside their usual lineup.
Professional snowboarder Todd Richards, a self-identified video gamer who, in Yobeat’s article “Todd Richards is still very opposed to video games in X-Games, and here’s why” stated, “regardless of esports going through the same ups and downs as snowboarding or skateboarding did in its infancy, it’s just not the same thing. Skating and snowboarding are extremely physically taxing activities.”
“I think that the medals handed out for participating in gaming league play have devalued what others have done physically,” Richards said. “Why don’t you ask the parents of the snowmobile athlete who lost his life a few years back what they think about X-Games medals being given to esports participants?”
According to Ah Sing, the lack of physical risk associated with traditional sports is one of the charms of competitive video gaming. “[In a fighting game], you have to outsmart somebody else. It’s in such a safe way, [since] you’re not actually fist-fighting them,” he said. “It’s convenient and challenging.”
“[Esports has] the mental challenge of a sport, there’s physical ability involved,” Ah Sing said. “The amount of technical skill it takes to execute moves in the game requires hand-eye coordinate and muscle memory.”
Like traditional sport players, esports players often dedicate significant time and emotional energy to their work. According to BBC journalist Ben Dirs, “they deal with enormous pressure, experience euphoric highs and shattering lows.”
Another competitor in the March Grand Game Fest, junior communication studies major Ryan Swanson from BIOLA, attested to the dedication of competitive gamers. Where Swanson attends weekly Super Smash Brothers tournaments, he once faced off with another player and made a significant comeback near the end of the game.
“He got so mad he punched a wall and cussed me out even though we’d never met or talked before,” Swanson said. “People get really emotionally invested in the game.”
The player was banned from competing at the venue for a month.
“I attribute the raging to a lack of purpose,” Swanson said. “Some people play full-time, and they get their money from winning tournaments. They might have a sponsorship, and they might live in a house with other players.
Each year it becomes increasingly practical for competitive gamers to quit their day jobs and dedicate their lives to esports tournaments. According to Newzoo’s 2016 Global Esports Market Report, the 112 major esports events hosted in 2015 generated an estimated $20.6 million in ticket sales. The total prize money of these events reached $61 million – a 70% year-on-year increase. Global revenues that year reached $325 million, a growth rate of approximately 67.4%.
Tony Hawk made his rise to fame and fortune following his display at the then-fledgling X-Games in 1999. In an interview with the Guardian, Hawk stated, “When I started you could never imagine doing it as a career because no one had. Once you reached the age of responsibility you had to get a job. Nowadays [skateboarding] is a very legitimate career.”
Newzoo’s report states that esports audience sizes grew from 90 million in 2014 to 115 million in 2015, then 131 million in 2016. With viewership consistently on the rise, the business is becoming increasingly lucrative, and according to Swanson, many gamers train hard in hopes of placing in tournaments.
“Some people work each week, then they go out and play [Super Smash Brothers],” Swanson said. “They aren’t pursuing an education. They use a good amount of their weekly paychecks to pay into the Smash tournament. It’s a big part of their lives, and it’s kind of their idol – [it’s] all they live for.”
While Swanson recently beat the tenth best Super Smash Brothers player in southern California, he knows his limits. “When I lose, instead of getting angry, I try to think ‘what can I do better next time to improve?’” he said. “Playing to improve and [to] have fun is the best way to enjoy the game and to experience the most success.”
Swanson looks out toward the sprawl of competing students at the March Grand Game Fest, a glint of eagerness in his eyes. “I’m just going to try and keep climbing up [in skill], have fun today and try to win if I can.”
Ah Sing and Swanson take their places and do what they do best. The click-clacking of control sticks and buttons as intense as ever, few words pass between them, their concentration and dedication to the competition on clear display. Swanson eventually bests Ah Sing, their match a climactic end to the seventh and final round in the losers bracket, the secondary circuit for those who were defeated in the main event. Swanson also placed second in the primary tournament, losing only to Victor Cruz, a senior business major at PLNU.