Cleaning up around the house this weekend, an episode of HBO’s Real Sports hummed in the background (see clip below). One of the correspondents was discussing a story of which I had zero awareness: the League of Legends (LOL) championship. Apparently I was in the minority. The rise of eSports, and the preeminence of LOL, has skyrocketed in recent years. Sure, I knew gaming was way popular. I’ve played Call of Duty and Motor Storm and the annual iterations of EA Sports’s NHL; and I’m aware that competitions and tournaments cater to serious gamers. But my ignorance of LOL’s popularity was astonishing. So I decided to base this discussion on the game, and how its developers looked to conventional sports to design a sure-shot competition model—players and teams accruing regular season records, vying for limited playoff spots, and positioning themselves for a big pay day if they can walk away with the championship.

The numbers are staggering. In 2011, two years after the Santa Monica-based firm Riot Games launched its product, LOL already had 15 million registered users. The “free-to-play fantasy combat strategy game,” as Snider describes it, is easy to access online. All Riot Games had to do was attract players; and they had no trouble. Two years later, LOL now has over 70 million registered users, with some 30 million active users in any given month tallying one billion hours of game play. One. Billion. More people play LOL than play baseball in America—at every level combined. Try wrapping your head around those figures. Riot Games, which started out with a staff of 100, has since opened up offices around the world, employing 1,000 people, raking in $200 million in annual revenue and escalating investment from venture capital firms. The success of Riot Games stands in total inversion to that of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios project, which collapsed monumentally in bankruptcy in 2012.

But the genius exists in how Riot Games cultivated the competitive culture of LOL and applied an effective sporting model to a virtual world. There is a pro tier; teams formed by general managers live together in houses and train upwards of 15-20 hours per day. One of the subjects in the HBO segment was a semester away from graduating college with an economics degree, but with the blessing of his parents, quit school to move to South Korea—fast becoming the world’s hub of gaming development and talent—to train to become a professional LOL player. He’s making cheese too on the competitive circuit, through eSports sponsorships, and from appearance fees paid by online retailers and gaming sites for playing practice rounds aired over live feeds from which viewers can pick up the tricks and techniques of a pro. And last month, the annual LOL championship, held at the University of Southern California in years passed, went Hollywood, selling out the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Playing on giant screens in front of 10,000 screaming fans, the top 14 teams battled for a $2 million prize pot. Play-by-play announcers and color commentators called the action on a webcast whose production value rivaled an ESPN broadcast.

With so many participants, and increasing dollars involved, there’s no doubt eSports at large will grow, with many thanks to LOL for adopting its model. Gaming, TV, and movies are all migrating to more mobile platforms. Netflix, Gamefly, Amazon, devices like the Apple TV and Roku, and free-to-play online games prove that trend. And while I have zero interest in the games and culture, personally, the eSports phenomenon is fascinating to watch. Although, after reading Mike Snider’s USA Today article and watching the HBO clip, I was forced to confront what’s for me an uncomfortable question: is gaming a sport? Conventional thinking says no; these nerds park their asses in front computer screens all day like the South Park kids in the World of Warcraft episode. But HBO reporter Soledad O’Brien says yes. Gaming requires swift, nimble hands and a mind as sharp as any athlete. Under that premise, eSporting does, however peripherally, meet Webster’s definition of sport: “physical activity engaged in for pleasure.” As much as I wish I didn’t, I’m starting to agree.

(Note: This is a re-post of a recent grad school course discussion forum on IT in sports.)

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