Column: Gamers redefining what it means to be an athlete
Right across the street from the spaceship-looking studio where teams of video gamers are competing in a frenetic shoot-'em-up known as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is the arena where Georgia Tech plays basketball.
One can't help but wonder if it's all a bit symbolic — this little corner of the world, tucked in among Atlanta's skyscrapers, representing a changing of the guard in how we view sports.
Are video games where we're going?
Are basketball and other traditional sports where we've been?
Skyler Weaver can certainly foresee a day, not too far down the road, when eSports will have as much hold over an audience as the NBA or Major League Baseball.
"I think you're seeing a paradigm shift in entertainment," said Weaver, a 21-year-old who plays for the professional gaming team Selfless and goes by the screen alias of Relyks — his first name spelled backward. "As the generation shifts to where we're a majority of the population, I think this is going to be the norm. You'll go into a Buffalo Wild Wings and see an NBA game on TV right next to a Country-Strike match."
For the older generation (myself included), there's a default skepticism that video games are nothing more than a fad of youth, sure to fade away as our children grow up, leave the comfort of their parents' basement and head out into the real world.
But that sort of thinking seems increasingly out of touch.
In a studio right next to the one used by "Inside the NBA," Turner Sports has launched a new Counter-Strike league, known as ELEAGUE, that airs Friday nights on TBS. Big-time sports arenas are filled to capacity for the biggest video game tournaments. The world's top gamers make a good living. Major corporations are taking note of the sponsorship opportunities. The Pac-12 conference is launching an eSports championship for college kids. Some universities have even started offering scholarships to those who are adept at playing games with a mouse and a keyboard, rather than a ball or a bat.
There's even random drug testing at some competitions, perhaps the surest indication of a sport moving into the mainstream.
While gamers don't fit the dictionary definition of an athlete — "a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises THAT REQUIRE PHYSICAL SKILL AND STRENGTH" — we're rapidly reaching a point where that is going to need a bit of tweaking.
"I understand in real sports you have to be physical," said 26-year-old Christopher "GeT_RiGhT" Alesund, one of the best players in the history of Counter-Strike and leader of the Swedish-based Ninjas in Pyjamas team. "ESports is something different. But I believe, not too many years from now, that it's going to be defined as a sport."
Tobias Sherman has already made that leap. As the global head of eSports for WME/IMG, he pushed for the partnership with Turner Sports that led to the creation of ELEAGUE. Going a step further, the renowned IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida — best known as a training ground for future stars in sports such as baseball, football, golf and tennis — recently launched a program to train video game competitors.
"They're definitely athletes," Sherman said.
Before you dismiss such a notion, consider the skills it takes to play video games at the highest levels, especially in the five-on-five team setup of Counter-Strike. They're tackling that very issue at the IMG Academy, where one of the most telling measurements is something known as APMs — actions per minute.
"When you consider how many actions per minute you're making between the keyboard and the mouse, all while disseminating information about your opponent, there's definitely some physical limitations there," Sherman said. "You must have fast-twitch muscle response as well as the cognitive focus necessary to make these decisions translate to the keyboard and the mouse and manifest themselves on screen in unison with your teammates."
One of IMG's clients, former NBA player Rick Fox, has gone all-in on eSports by purchasing his very own franchise. Echo Fox is taking part in the inaugural season of ELEAGUE and has teams competing in other popular games such as League of Legends.
For Fox, video games were a way to connect with his son, and the guy who helped the Los Angeles Lakers win three straight championships is eager to break down the stereotype that gamers are just a bunch of nerds who need to get a life.
"Some people garden, some people read, some people play chess, some people bike," Fox said in an interview with VICE Sports. "I don't have a judgment on where someone's passion lies and those who belittle or judge or bully or criticize someone else's passion, that really sets me on edge."
Especially with the sacrifice that gamers must make to climb to the top of their professions.
Again, stop laughing.
The travel can be brutal, with many teams essentially living out of suitcases for months at a time. Practice sessions can last up to seven hours a day. There is no real off season, an issue that gamers agree must be addressed going forward.
No one is predicting video games will push more traditional sports to the curb.
But we're rapidly approaching a time when stars such as LeBron James and Cam Newton will have to share the spotlight with guys like GeT_RiGhT and Relyks.
"Athletes come in all shapes and sizes," Sherman said. "This is just a new expression of what an athlete can look like."