eSports must be taken seriously among growing demographics

Roya Chagnon/File

Oakland’s Oracle Arena is packed to the brim. Fans are yelling and the players are feeling the pressure. Nick Cannella wipes sweat from his brow and yells to his team, “You run around the right, I’ll hit them head on. Ready? One … two … three!” The audience goes wild as Cannella furiously clicks his mouse and mashes his keyboard.

Nick Cannella, also known as “Liquid nitr0,” is not a basketball star. He’s a competitive video game player who trained for years before vying for his share of a $300,000 prize pool at Intel Extreme Masters last November. And yet, his skill, training and dedication are often ignored in favor of basketball players and other traditional athletes.

The idea that people can make money playing video games might seem ludicrous. But did you know that gamers can make up to $5 million by winning League of Legends tournaments? Universities are starting to offer scholarships for competitive gamers. A recent L.E.K. Consulting survey revealed that while 42 percent of millennials prefer watching traditional sports, eSports is virtually just as popular, with 40 percent of millennials on board. Corporate sponsorships have turned eSports into a lucrative career path for many, paralleling how traditional athletes can turn a hobby into a career.

Despite its growing popularity, mainstream society still looks down upon eSports. People need to accept competitive gaming as a legitimate and lucrative industry.

Educational and corporate institutions are beginning to realize the importance of cultivating eSports programs. Last September, UC Irvine announced it was building a state-of-the-art eSports facility and offering scholarships for competitive gamers. Collegiate tournaments such as the Tespa Collegiate Series and Heroes of the Dorm allow players to win more than $100,000 for tuition and living expenses. Just as sports scholarships provide students with a way to turn their hobby into funding for college (and potentially a career), eSports scholarships allow gamers to start competing and earning at the collegiate level. And just as professional athletes can make money via sponsorships, coaching jobs and brand deals, the billion-dollar eSports industry affords its stars the same opportunities. Top competitive gamers are celebrities within their niche and often have several sponsorships and network partnerships at a time. Hobbyist gamers who follow the competitive scene see these stars as role models for breaking out of the stigma surrounding gaming and turning their hobby into a career.

The stigma surrounding video game players has existed since games became popular. When most people visualize a “gamer,” the image that comes to mind is an overweight, usually male, figure playing games in a dimly lit basement. Most people don’t imagine gamers — especially competitive gamers — as highly intuitive and collaborative individuals whose competitive training regimen is comparable to that of a traditional professional athlete. Granted, if you look at a picture of an eSports team lineup, you’re not going to feel like you’re browsing an issue of Sports Illustrated. Gamers do experience various health issues, ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to obesity. The mental acuity and other benefits gleaned from playing video games, however, are rarely highlighted in the media.

Studies have demonstrated that gaming positively impacts decision-making, memory, perception and attention. Games, like athletics, must be enjoyed in moderation and with healthy habits to avoid health issues. Athletes are also prone to injury; broken bones, ripped ligaments and other health issues are ever-present in traditional sports. And yet, there is no stigma surrounding athletics as a hobby — nobody warns hobbyist runners or football players that their lives may become ones of unhealthy body obsession, broken bones or joint pain. Parents relentlessly encourage kids to pursue sports. High school athletes dream of becoming the next Usain Bolt, Roger Federer or Cristiano Ronaldo. Why can’t we encourage high school gamers to dream of becoming the next FaZe nitr0, Seagull or Faker?

Top eSports professionals are lauded and rewarded for their quick thinking, teamwork and dedication. If you only pay attention to the positive side of sports and the negative side of gaming, you are being unfair and disrespectful to professional gamers who earn a living (sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars or more) and inspire their followers by honing their skills the same way athletes do. eSports is a burgeoning industry that could change the lives of so many people by putting gamers through college, teaching them valuable skills and leading them to massive career success.

To any parent whose child shows an aptitude for competitive gaming: let them pursue it. Set them up with a practice schedule, let them watch established professionals or sign them up for private lessons. Who knows — one day your child might be playing at Oracle Arena or taking home the lion’s share of a $20 million prize pool.

Raghav Mathur is a senior at UC Berkeley who helps run GameCraft, UC Berkeley’s game development club. Raghav is also the marketing director for BareStage Productions, UC Berkeley’s student-run theater troupe.

A previous edition mentions Nick Cannella as being “Faze nitr0”, but he is actually known as “Liquid nitr0”