eSports competition strives to go mainstream, culture still an issue

Pro-gaming, the sport of the future?: The 2015 "Call of Duty" European Championships were held at the London Royal Opera House (Henry Young/CNN)

ATLANTA (AP) — They stare at their computer screens, eyes transfixed on the bloody spectacle in front of them, trying to figure out if there’s an enemy player just around the corner.

They go by names such as FalleN, TACO and Spunj – stars of the online world, if not to those who prefer their sports be played on actual fields.

Yet when it’s over, after the powerhouse Brazilian team known as Luminosity scores the final two points to survive an overtime thriller against the underdog outfit from Down Under that goes by Renegade, it sort of feels like LeBron just hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer.

For those who play video games, this is another attempt at going mainstream.

The ELEAGUE kicked off Tuesday at a high-tech studio right next door to the set of “Inside the NBA,” a joint venture between Turner Sports and IMG that features 24 teams from around the world, playing the war-like game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive for some $1.4 million in prize money.

The stakes are even higher for those who believe a bunch of headset-wearing guys sitting at computer consoles clicking a mouse can carve out their place alongside those viewed as legitimate athletes.

“I absolutely do enjoy watching Counter Strike from a competitive standpoint,:” said Craig Barry, the executive vice president of Turner Sports. “And I didn’t even know about it eight months ago, nine months ago.”

In a broad sense, video games are the point in their development that extreme sports were some two decades ago, a hodgepodge of disciplines played in a largely underground world until they were brought together and legitimized for the general public by the X Games. Now some of those sports are part of the Olympic Games.

Much like their extreme-sport counterparts, there are plenty of gamers who don’t want to cave in to the lure of fame and fortune, who feel it will ruin the purity of what they have built.

Richard Lewis, a former eSports journalist now working as a commentator on Turner’s broadcasts, insists that those concerns have been addressed with the ELEAGUE.

“This is true to the sort of endemic culture you have within eSports,” he said. “We’re not going to sanitize it or change terminology or change games. We’re not going to censor things out.”

A screen, center, shows a video game competition between teams Luminosity, left, and Renegades, right, in the ELEAGUE arena at Turner Studios, Tuesday, May 24, 2016, in Atlanta. Video gaming makes another attempt to go mainstream, this time with the ELEAGUE, a joint venture between Turner Sports and IMG that kicks off in a high-tech studio near downtown Atlanta. Twenty-four teams are playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive for $1.4 million in prize money, but the stakes are much higher for those who think a bunch of headset-wearing guys sitting at computer consoles can someday be viewed as a legitimate sport. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
A screen, center, shows a video game competition between teams Luminosity, left, and Renegades, right, in the ELEAGUE arena at Turner Studios, Tuesday, May 24, 2016, in Atlanta. Video gaming makes another attempt to go mainstream, this time with the ELEAGUE, a joint venture between Turner Sports and IMG that kicks off in a high-tech studio near downtown Atlanta. Twenty-four teams are playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive for $1.4 million in prize money, but the stakes are much higher for those who think a bunch of headset-wearing guys sitting at computer consoles can someday be viewed as a legitimate sport. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Turner has clearly gone all in at its headquarters near downtown Atlanta. On a gleaming, futuristic stage, the opposing teams are stationed on opposite sides, unable to see each other or the large video screen that provides the announcers and the studio audience – along with those at home or online – with a view of the game that the players themselves don’t have.

For Barry, it’s similar to the pocket cam in poker.

“The viewer can see where they are on the map,” Barry said. “Therefore, you’re in the mind, in the psyche of the players. So you can tell when he’s going to come around the corner. You can go, ‘Wait, if he comes around that corner, he’s going to get blown away.'”

That description raises one of the potential stumbling blocks to ELEAGUE becoming a widely viewed hit. The game is quite violent, portraying players armed with a wide array of bombs and high-powered weaponry trying to kill each other off over and over again in a series of lightning-quick rounds, all while switching back and forth between terrorist and counter-terrorist roles.

“There’s a head shot!” the announcer screamed after an especially bloody kill, quickly providing the essential core of the game.

Photo courtesy Henry Young/CNN
Photo courtesy Henry Young/CNN

Then there’s a larger issue plaguing the gamer community, the misogynistic attitudes and downright nastiness expressed toward female players in the male-dominated world. Tellingly, there are no women on any of the teams.

Christina Alejandre, vice president of eSports at Turner, hopes to change that.

“ESports is one of the only sports out there where it’s a level playing field from the get-go for males and females,” she said. “However, females haven’t had a chance to really compete against the males. … Then it becomes a vicious cycle.”

Nevertheless, momentum is building across the eSports landscape. Also Tuesday, the Pac-12 conference announced it will start holding video game competitions during the next school year.

Turner is augmenting its coverage with profiles of the players. Chad Burchill, the brash leader of the Renegade team, is a 26-year-old from Perth, Australia who had been working alongside his father as a plumber until he decided to make video games a full-time career.

He and his teammates essentially live out of their suitcases, traveling the world to compete in tournaments.

“We’re not just people who live in a basement and play computer games,” he quipped. “We’re genuine human beings.”

Turner has made an initial 10-week commitment to ELEAGUE, which will air Fridays on TBS at 10 p.m. EDT, with a second season already planned for the fall. The format sounds much like a traditional league: six four-team groups will compete in round-robin matches, with the group winner earning an automatic spot in the playoffs and the runner-ups getting a chance to qualify through a repechage.

While Turner has committed to a weekly broadcast and set up distribution rights in more than 80 countries, the bulk of the ELEAGUE action will be shown Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through a platform that gamers can relate to – the streaming site Twitch, which focuses primarily on video games and tournaments.

“It’s so important that we do this right,” Barry said. “We’re just trying to be authentic and create a product that starts to push eSports up to the next level.”

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