I know nothing — I mean absolutely nothing — about video games.
I owned an Xbox as a kid and spent most of my limited video game time playing either college football or baseball. I still play those games almost exclusively, even now in college.
All-American gymnast Alex McMurtry celebrated after her team lost a competitive match to LSU on the evening of Jan. 12. Or, at the very least,…
It took one of my gaming-savvy friends to introduce me to Overwatch, one of the most popular games released in recent years. I remember watching him play it after it debuted in May 2016 while having no idea — as usual — what was going on. As he talked to a friend through a microphone and the two of them played together online, I couldn’t even understand something as obvious as how their characters were dying. It was all just a blur.
What was apparent in the blitz of color and gunfire and magical healing lights was that he and I were opposites. I enjoyed playing catch with a baseball or football, shooting around a basketball with friends and then, maybe, an occasional video game. He enjoyed playing Overwatch and occasionally playing softball or basketball or whatever else outside with me.
When I’m at his apartment now, rather than watch him play Overwatch, I watch other people play Overwatch on teams. Teams that look and sound and function like teams in the NFL, MLB or NBA. There’s the Boston Uprising, the Dallas Fuel, the Houston Outlaws and even the Florida Mayhem. All of them are members of the Overwatch League.
When he started watching these games, I didn’t understand the intrigue. Again, I still didn’t understand the rules of the game.
I still don’t for the most part, just like someone who’s never watched football might take a while to figure out the subtleties of the game. I have, however, become convinced that the Overwatch League is on equal footing with any other sports league, at least regarding its value as a sport.
That starts with competition. The Overwatch League, like the NHL or NBA, features players who are the best in the world at what they do. And while they might not be in top physical condition, their sport requires physical skills that normal people just don’t have.
As my friend pointed out, most people just can’t muster the finger strength, timing or reflexes required to play as effectively as these players do. Aside from the competition, the games are also interesting to watch. Maybe not for someone, like me, who understands so little about what’s unfolding in front of me. But for someone who plays the game, like him, there’s regular hollering and yelping and other sounds you’d also hear during the tense final moments of a football game. It’s clear that if you take the time and learn the game, it has the potential to be as interesting as any other sport.
It can also be as cathartic. One of the greatest features of sports is how they allow us to escape from our lives and root for something with totally arbitrary value, like how many times men in helmets can move ovular leather up and down a 100-yard rectangle. They give us something to root for when our regular lives don’t.
As evidenced by this friend watching the games nightly when he gets home, so does the Overwatch League.
For those readers who think this friend is an outlier and that interest in the Overwatch League could never rival traditional sports, you’re right for now. Overwatch League numbers trail the NFL, MLB and NBA by millions of viewers.
But the inaugural match of the league, which featured the San Francisco Shock and the Los Angeles Valiant, hit a peak viewership of 441,000. The average NHL game during the 2016-17 regular season pulled 459,000 viewers, which isn’t too far ahead.
Plus, the Overwatch League has one feature that’s yet to be achieved by any of the major sports leagues: It’s wholly globalized. There’s a Shanghai team, a Seoul team, a London team and various American teams, many of them owned by powerful, wealthy benefactors. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft owns the Uprising, for example.
So does all this mean parents should be as willing to push their children to play video games as to play T-Ball? Well, no, for a bunch of reasons. Traditional sports offer more fitness than esports, as well as the opportunity to interact with other kids in person. Esports doesn’t have the infrastructure for that yet.
Still, while esports have some differences from traditional sports, they shouldn’t be dismissed as lesser. With viewership rising and technology improving, it may not be long before esports achieves the popularity of traditional sports, and why not?
For the most part, after all, they serve the same purpose as their traditional counterparts.
Ethan Bauer is a sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com