Competitive gaming has come a long way in the past few years. With the monumental success of Blizzards Overwatch League, to the seemingly unstoppable popularity of Fortnite and League of Legends, statistically, esports is looking to become one of the worlds most popular "sports" in the coming years. But once you look past the buzzwords, stats, and general hype in the scene, it seems a little too good to be true. To the average person who doesn't identify as a "core" gamer, esports just doesn't seem like it's a viable professional sport... and I can't blame them. While I understand that gaming takes a ton of skill and team coordination, I always had a hard time considering competitive gaming to be the same as hitting a home run or tapping out an opponent. It's something that had to be experienced in person for me to understand why esports is so important to so many gamers and has a seemingly limitless future.
Tencent Games recently hosted the Arena of Valor World Cup. For those who aren't aware, Arena of Valor is one of the most popular mobile MOBA titles available. Unlike League of Legends and DOTA2, AoV is built from the ground up to be played in small bursts (average game time is around 10 minutes) on a mobile platform and has become a massive hit with gamers worldwide. Tencent has been at the forefront of making esports into a major sport in the past few years, and this World Cup is no exception. When I originally reported on the AoV World Cup a few months back, I had mentioned that it was interesting to see a relatively new game at the time announce a live world tournament with a $500,000 prize pool. Once I saw other major outlets pick the story up, I knew I had to go and see this for myself.
Alex Parker decided to come along with me to check out the grand finals of the World Cup. It would be an interesting justapixion between myself, a fan of the game since our initial preview at last fall's Twitchcon, and Alex, who hasn't played the game since we previewed it last Halloween eve. I wanted to see if esports was something an outsider could enjoy without knowing the ins and outs of the game being played, or was it something that can really only enjoyed by a game's hardcore fanbase. On the way to the Chinese Theater in Hollywood CA (the one with the hand prints) I really didn't know what to expect.
The setup was extremely impressive, and at first glance it was obvious Tencent spared no expense with their first worldwide tournament for Arena of Valor. The lights, shout caster booth, seating, and general energy from the audience felt like any night I've spent at a Dodger stadium. While the venue was much smaller than your typical major league field, the raw energy you feel when people around you are invested in the success or defeat of a team was there in full force. The first match we watched was the end of the "Losers Bracket" in which Korea and China were battling to see who would get to face Taiwan in the championship match. The surprisingly diverse audience was buzzing about Korea's ability to pull through in clutch situations and how unpredictable the entire tournament was thus far. After an hour of fierce gameplay Korea won, the audience jumped for joy, banged their thunder sticks, posted snaps and selfies, and generally reacted to the game like anyone would a few miles down at the Staples Center.
In-between the losers match and the grand finals, we sat down with Ramon Hermann, the director of esports for Tencent and all around pioneer in professional competitive gaming. To start off the interview (which you can watch below) I asked Ramon how someone could become a pro in Arena of Valor and break into the professional esports circuit. Ramon told me they "made it very grass roots focused, so that we ran a couple of qualifiers that allowed pretty much anybody who could find four friends to form a team to compete." This mindset seems to be the key to success for esports growth and the fact that anybody can become a professional at a game makes the sport more appealing to many. Where traditional athletics have an obvious barrier to entry, esports is more welcoming and inclusive.
"...if you think of the accessibility of esports, its not just you participating yourself as an athlete to compete at the top level, but also there are ways for clubs and colleges to let one participate at a slightly less serious fashion..." replied Hermann when asked about college and grassroots leagues.
After the interview, Alex and I went back to our seats while the grand finale was underway. Korea had surprised everyone and was leading Taiwan 2-0. The pressure and tension could be felt throughout the entire crowd when both teams were selecting their lineup for the third match. The shoutcasters were standing at this point, making excited predictions and interacting with the audience as the team coaches were using every second they were allowed to help build the best possible team while calming down their players and generally looking like they were having a ton of fun. A fan next to us was jumping out of his seat with every choice Korea made, and others could be heard shouting in disapproval of the coaches calls. At this moment I realized that esports isn't about the prize money, millions of viewers at home, or even the game itself. Esports was about the experience and community formed around small teams of people who, like most of the audience, genuinely enjoyed gaming and want to have fun. Eventually, Korea won a hard match against Taiwan and took home the grand prize. Fans were exhausted and elated; the guy next to us looked like he was about to go home and pass out for the next week.
While walking out of the venue through the sea of tourists taking highly original photos of their hands in cement, Alex spoke up, "This whole thing is about as real of a sporting event as you can get, and just like football, we were sitting there paying attention to the exciting parts of the match, but also just relaxing, shooting the shit, and having a good time ... it's pretty fun." I couldn't agree more. Esports, in its purest form, is as much a sport as anything else, and I can't wait to see what the future of competitive gaming holds.
Nick and Alex were invited to the Arena of Valor World Cup by the games developer and publisher Tencent, you can hear more of our impressions here. Arena of Valor is available on all mobile platforms and coming to the switch. If you would like to know more about the game check out Nicks impressions in the video below.