Best way to share esports is through people, not numbers

“Esports is a bunch of random guys showing up to a tournament, right?”

It was last Nov. 22. I was in Hawaii, sitting across my best friend in a quaint Japanese restaurant. We were celebrating the end of my unexpected excursion to the island state to visit him and attend some concerts.

We decided to punctuate the trip by revisiting the first restaurant at which we ate. As we cooked the raw meat delivered to us in a fire pit at the center of the table, the conversation turned to my work as a freelancer in esports. That’s when he asked the first question.

I nearly spit out my soda. “No-ho-ho-ho,” I chuckled. “It is anything but.”

My friend’s unfamiliarity with the industry presented me with a difficult task: How do I explain the intricacies of esports to an outsider and make him interested?

My first thought was the viewership and money. Esports has grown in popularity and investment for the past decade, and this year more high-profile investors are coming in.Everything has been on a steady rise–it seems like every major tournament is bigger than the last. I could have said “Look at all this money and these people involved! It’s too big to be a joke.”

A voice in my head stopped me.

It belonged to Duncan “Thorin” Shields. As a longtime esports caster, analyst and writer, Thorin offered an opinion on people mishandling statistics to sell esports in a YouTube video. I had seen the video before I went to Hawaii, and the message stuck.

He described Industry people who oversell esports with such numbers as disingenuous.

“The reason I say disingenuous is because these people are actively working with certain facts and purposely presenting them in a manner where they know the way the other person will take what they’re telling them feeds into a fevered pipe dream about what esports could be one day. But this person themselves knows actually isn’t how it is right now.”

Picture1 copy 6He’s right. Sponsors spent $739 million on the NBA’s 2014-2015 season — that’s more than double what a NewZoo report estimates for all esports titles this year.

It sounds massive to hear 344 million people watched the 2015 League of Legends World Championship, but that counts the entirety of the month long event. The average concurrent viewership of the tournament was around 4.2 million. In contrast, the NBA’s average viewership for regular season games was 7 million across four national cable TV providers. The stats say it all: there is more interest in an NBA regular season match than League of Legends’ biggest tournament on a day-to-day basis.

Now, my friend wasn’t sports savvy, so he wouldn’t know such facts off the top of his head and couldn’t have exposed how small esports still is compared to the mainstream. I could have gotten away with it and enchanted my friend with misleading information, but it would have been — as Thorin said — disingenuous and completely missing the point of esports.

This brought me to where the current intellectual conversation about spreading esports resides. With the increased attention and interest we are receiving, how can that be capitalized to pull more people into this world? Unlike traditional sports, where if you learn the rules you can at least comprehend every match, the action in esports can be difficult to follow with the complexity of MOBAs or first-person perspective of shooters. The games constantly evolve through balance changes, complicating the history of each title and requiring weekly-to-monthly required reading to understand why professional play changes, or research into what worked and what didn’t at the time.

Some have come forward with approaches to introduce outsiders without overwhelming them. Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner argued that simplifying the introduction to esports through familiar mediums like FIFA 16 could operate like a “gateway drug.” Some publications, like the Guardian or the Odyssey, summarize the rules of a title or outline methodology to picking a game to follow, which are necessary steps to understanding esports but not what should come first.

The key is not to chat up the money or the popularity. That’s eye candy that offers no reason to get involved. We can worry about explaining the rules and nuances until our skeptical friends and family sit with us to give it a try. How do we get those skeptics to sit?

We must tell stories and explain the context of esports.

Humans care about stories: It’s why we make and follow them through any medium possible. Remember, ESPN’s first major esports coverage wasn’t some massive statistical piece, it was the story of Lee “Faker” Sang-Hyeok. Mina Kimes didn’t barrage the reader with the KDA of every champion Faker played, or track the growth of viewers across all of Faker’s games. She told us about a boy from the Gangseo District in South Korea who dropped out of high school and became the greatest League of Legends player of all time. She opened a window for readers to understand more of the person behind the alias:

“When I ask him to describe his life at the training center, he paints an ascetic picture. He has no real hobbies outside of gaming, and he’s never had a girlfriend. The walls of his room are blank. He likes water.”

Kimes understood the magnetic draw a story has on the human race. At the end of the day, we seek inspiration, affirmation, validation, pleasure, and entertainment through this emotional play called “life.”

The second part of the solution is just as imperative as the first. Too many misunderstand what esports is because they don’t understand the history and the legacy of it. Just tune in to Fox News’ coverage, and you’ll understand what I mean. We know that esports is more than the “random guys” showing up to a weekend tournament — we know that there are months, if not years, of practice spent honing what amounts to quick inputs on a keyboard and a flick of the wrist. There are coaches, sports psychologists, analysts, buyouts, star rookies, chokers, legends, circuits, leagues, merchandise sales and upsets that branch the entire globe.

It’s time that we become the orators, writers, reporters, journalists, and spokespeople we have craved for our scene. Our part in growing esports needs to come from the desire to let others understand why we love this modernized competition. We are the ones best equipped to grow esports: after all, we know the tales by heart. (Well, most of them, at least)

After clearing my throat, I explained esports to my friend. Using the LCS as an example, I described the infrastructure, the longevity of some players’ careers, and its global reach to correct him about esports consisting of “random guys.” To convey the excitement and drama, I told him about Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, summarizing his journey from getting kicked out of his parents’ house to one of the most popular players in North America. I did my best to explain the rivalries and the struggles he faced during those long years leading up to his first championship victory.

When I got to Doublelift departing Counter Logic Gaming to join Team SoloMid, the rival team which had long been a thorn in his side, my friend dropped his silverware and stared, jaw hanging in shock. “No way!” He exclaimed. “That’s crazy!”

“That,” I pointed at my friend, “is how we all felt.”

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games, remixed by Slingshot.