When it comes to sports on the global stage, the United States has a long history of domination. The United States boasts an impressive 2,827 Olympic medals, a number that is more than double that of the country in second place — which is the now-defunct USSR. The United States tends to attract high-quality talents such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Mariano Rivera, who abandon their home countries to play in our national leagues.
And when teams win NBA or NFL titles, they aren’t crowned national champions, but world champions. In essence, the United States is second to none.
Yet in esports, where players are regionalized into groups such as Europe, Asia and North America, the track record is quite the opposite. In almost every popular game, North America is considered the laughingstock of the competitive scene. Unlike in physical sports, North America only boasts one world title in Counter Strike-Global Offensive, and none in League of Legends, Dota 2, Overwatch or Heroes of the Storm. In fact, some of these leagues barely even have North American players competing at the highest level, let alone full North American teams.
In the world of esports, North America is second — to almost everyone.
It’s particularly difficult to endure the North American hardship when the continent exudes championships and success in mainstream sports. We know we’re going to win; the rest of the world knows we’re going to win. It’s just a matter of formality.
But in esports, it’s more like Einstein’s quote about insanity, as spectators feel like they’re repeatedly bashing their heads into Swedish, Korean and Danish walls until they’re thoroughly concussed. Put another way, North America is constantly the fourth Jonas brother.
As to why such a stark contrast exists, it’s not hard to see. In Europe, the top teams are met with adoration and acknowledgement from prime ministers, and games are even featured in McDonald’s ads. In South Korea, gaming is as big a part of the culture as football is in the United States.
But in North America, esports are still ostracized, outcasted by large parts of society as useless and meritless leisure activities. Support and infrastructure are lackluster, and as a result, the talent and teams are as well.
It’s hard not to be cynical. It’s difficult to look at another League of Legends World Championship with no North American teams, the lack of North American players in Overwatch playoffs or the collapse of Cloud9 after its major title as anything but excercises in futility. It can feel hopeless.
But when one takes the time to look deeper, to see the tireless work competitors put in and the attitude among new competitive players and the inches teams have gained over the years, there’s hope. Performances such as Cloud9’s worlds run and Team Liquid’s consistency at the highest level of CS:GO demonstrate that North America has a flicker of light at the end of a long tunnel. Universities such as UC Berkeley and UCLA are creating real collegiate esports programs to usher in the next generation of competitive gamers. And perhaps most impactfully, athletes such as Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Lin are providing evident support for esports in the mainstream.
North American esports simultaneously live in two shadows, one from superior regions, and another from their far more successful physical counterparts. But if North America can resist the urge to be cynical, garner institutional support and foster mainstream coalitions, there’s a chance we can not only escape the looming shadows, but eclipse them as well.
And maybe one day, North America will be the hegemon, and South Koreans, Europeans and the rest of the world will want to play for us, world champions.