Sze Yuen Leung of Macao is slouched in his gaming chair before his team’s match. The camera is trained on him. It is 9 a.m. and Leung yawns in his chair while cracking his fingers at full stretch. In the following 20 minutes, he and his four teammates convincingly hammer their opponents at League of Legends (LoL). They then get up, shake their hands, and are off the stage, soaking in the applause of several hundred onlookers.
The scene was perhaps an encapsulation of what the future of sports could look like. “After a while, nobody will be playing the other sports,” United Arab Emirates’ Harib Sami boldly suggests.
The overarching message of the Asian Games in Hangzhou is how China and the world are looking into the future where technology will be deeply intertwined in the way of life and sport, too. The setting for the Esports’ bow in the Games as a medal event showed how the present is paving the way for the future.
The newly-built Hangzhou Esports Center is nestled inside the scenic Beijingyuan Ecological Park like an alien spaceship, resting behind trees to hide from the eyesight of mankind. But that doesn’t stop the venue from being the most sought-after ticketing event at the Asiad. The frenzy surrounding Esports in China has led to a steep increase in the entry prices with people paying as much as 1000 yuan (Rs. 11,500). The starting price for a game of EA Sports FC is 400 yuan, eight times more than that of a football game.
South Korea’s Lee Sang-hyeok, better known by his gamer tag ‘Faker’, touched down in China to a rockstar’s welcome last week with media and fans flocking to catch a glimpse of him. Indian tennis player Sumit Nagal, who is a gamer himself, had the opportunity to meet Faker, saying ‘it was a dream come true’ to have a picture taken with the Korean.
While Faker, dubbed the GOAT of the game League of Legends (LoL), was not in action on Tuesday, that didn’t stop several fellow gamers and supporters from turning up in numbers and taking their seats in the early hours of the morning. The fans are gamers themselves and are busy getting a game or two on their phones during intervals. During the matches, they form an interactive part of the environment reacting to the skill of an athlete. Each seat is provided with a bag, containing a purple lightsaber-esq rod which are turned on in the background to add to the atmosphere.
The multiplayer strategy game LoL was the main attraction in what was a futuristic backdrop inside the bowels of the arena, where the action takes place. The gaming tables are set up in the underground on a colourful elevated circular stage. The arrangement provides a fight-pit-like feel with the fans overlooking them from up top. Giant TV screens are hoisted over the floor, which relay the game screens from the computers and phones.
The grand setting here is anything beyond what any of these athletes have witnessed before. “I have played in many venues but none were bigger than this. In China, Esports is very big. There (UAE) you will have final games, you will have 50 people. Here we are just starting, there is close to 1000 people,” says the 30-year-old Sami.
The lights are turned off and the athletes walk out to separate entrance music with the fans cheering them on. The players then take their seats and are provided 30 seconds each to choose their ‘champions’. The LoL is like chess, explains Sami but feels ‘it’s harder than chess.’
“It’s a strategy game and it’s also a fighting game. Let’s say it’s like chess. We have specific champions or characters and we have to fight. If you want to destroy something, you have to kill this guy [opponent] to go so we have to plan. So it’s a bit of strategy,” says Sami.
The LoL game requires a computer screen, a headset, a keyboard and a mouse to get yourself going. During a game of LoL, an athlete typically goes through over 2000 clicks of the mouse in 20 minutes of play.
In LoL, both teams have to protect their respective houses (Nexus) with their champions, who level up in ammunition with each kill using their hammers and swords. The five players from each team march from one end of the map toward each other with one simple objective: destroy the enemy’s Nexus. Selecting each champion before the start of the game requires plenty of planning, since several games, at the Asian Games, including LoL, have older patches (updates) or China’s versions, with athletes having to adapt their games.
“First, we have a toss, then you have to select five champions for each team. All the champions are banned [in the Asian Games update]. We call it the meta champions [which we have to select], the champions who are strong in this update. If you win the toss, you get the first or the option of the second pick. If you pick first, they pick last. We pick first and they pick two. We pick two, they pick one and finally, the last one [10th] has an advantage. The last pick sees the whole enemy team and he would know what’s the perfect champion to pick here. I might pick a perfect champion but he might counter it,” explains Sami.
At the Asian Games this year, Esports has seven medal events in the form of LoL, DOTA, Dream Three Kingdoms 2, EA Sports FC, Arena of Valor, Peacekeeper Elite and Streetfighter V.
China won the first esports Asian Games gold, beating Malaysia for the title in the “Arena of Valor”.
The Indian team comprising Akshaj Shenoy, Samarth Trivedi, Mihir Ranjan, Sanindhya Malik, Aakash Shandilya and Aditya Selvaraj seek glory themselves when they take on Vietnam in the LoL quarterfinal on Wednesday.
Eyebrows were raised when Esports were integrated into the Asian Games but its success in China to a wider audience shows the potential it has. In 2022, the market value of Esports was estimated at over $1.39 billion with both the active players and viewers combined in over a billion in numbers.
“There is a big community here. My parents think video games are for kids. But 30-40 years later, we started having tournaments with a huge prize pool often crossing 10 million dollars. They did this to target the younger generation. They know the younger lot will keep playing, playing, playing. Previously, they were targeting football but with the newer generation, no one moves! My younger brother is always playing on the computer. So you have to make your business around the kids and target them. That’s why they added Esports. After a while, nobody will be playing the other sports. It will mostly involve electronic stuff,” says Sami.
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