Reframe: Episode 73

How Esports Now Parallel Traditional Sports

Reframe Episode: 73 How Esports Now Parallel Traditional Sports

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The line between traditional sports and esports is blurring. As competitive video gaming becomes a lucrative global phenomena and a popular form of mainstream entrainment, the esports industry is beginning to mirror the ways in which traditional sports organizations operate.

On this episode, we explore the emerging career paths now available in esports, and why video games are evolving beyond what they were just a few years ago.

Read the transcript

James Loy:

This is Reframe, the podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Not long ago, sports were sports and video games were video games.

But the line between the two is blurring. The world of esports - or competitive video gaming - is quickly becoming a lucrative global phenomena.

Today, popular PC and console games like Overwatch, League of Legends, Fortnite, NBA 2K, and many more are featuring super star professional players, who train in high tech faculties, to compete in regional and national events, that are attracting legions of fans, mainstream media coverage, and even corporate sponsorships from companies like Nike, Mercedes-Benz, and State Farm, just to name a few.

So, it’s clear that this space is not at all what video games were to many people a short time ago.

(Music fade)

Sam Ford:

I definitely think that this is the time where people are going to see that these are legitimate sources of entertainment. It's not just a bunch of people, for lack of a better term, the kinda classic “locked in their mom's basement playing video games all day.”

These are people who are making money, sustaining themselves, like, it's a legitimate career as a professional to compete. They’re on ESPN. Like, League of Legends, their spring finals are this weekend and it's gonna be on ESPN 2. It's gonna be on the ESPN app.

Last year's Overwatch League grand finals were on ABC. These are things that are interesting enough to a large enough group of people that you're gonna start seeing it be part of mainstream entertainment.

James Loy:

That’s Sam Ford, he’s an Account Coordinator at a firm called GMR Marketing, where he oversees esports partnerships and promotions for Comcast.

Sam has had his finger on the pulse of the esport landscape for years. Ever since it became clear that video gaming as recreation, and as a means of social connection, are not the only ways to benefit from this activity.

It’s actually one of the realizations that helped him launch his career in this field after graduating college with a degree in Sport Leadership and Management.

Sam Ford:

I went to Miami. I was a SLAM major. I was looking at marketing, specifically, and I was a marketing intern of Miami's Athletic Department. I was doing game day activations and student promotions, things like that.

And I always thought I wanted to work in sports. I love sports. I love getting people excited about sports. That's what I want to do. And I realized, I was coming home from work, or my internship, or whatever, and then my focus was on video games, esports. That's where I was then spending my time, and I realized that these parallels exist between both industries.

(Transition Music)

James Loy:

From the outside looking in, it might be easy to think that you need to become a professional player to make a career in esports.

But just like in the world of traditional sports, many people may dream of becoming the next LeBron James or the next Tom Brady. Of course, very few ever make it to anywhere near that level.

And that’s certainly true in esports as well.

But the parallels between the two industries run much deeper than that --- especially for people interested in a variety of other careers.

From Sam Ford’s perspective, it’s not hard to see how esport is starting to mirror the way the traditional sports industry operates as a whole.

And during our conversation, he got the green light to move forward with his next major project with Comcast, literally, as we were speaking …

Sam Ford:

We’ve sponsored professional teams in the past. We’ve partnered with leagues in the past.

We have a pretty big partnership with a major esports league that should be announced … Oh, here. It's right here! So I can talk about it. We're gonna be the presenting sponsor and preferred internet provider of the Overwatch League. That just got announced just now.

So that's something that we've been working on for the past five months, getting that solidified, getting our deliverables and assets finalized with them on what that's gonna look like from an in-broadcast standpoint, to the step and repeat that's behind the casters when they're shown on camera, like, mentions in the broadcast, social content, things like that. All things that would happen if you were working with the NFL on a similar deal. Same thing for us. It’s just a different broadcast, a different game.

James Loy:

Right. So instead of like the Allstar Game or even just like an afternoon college football game. Just instead think of all the things that go into putting on the Fortnite World Cup on Twitch, or the League of Legends World Championship on ESPN 2 …

Sam Ford:

Yeah, I mean, you think of a football organization. They have a GM. They have marketing. They have legal. They have PR. They have social media. Then you have team operations where you have coaches and scouts and things like that. That is all true in gaming as well.

You look at the NFL, the New England Patriots, they play football. That's their sport. That's what they do. In esports, one of the biggest organizations in North America is a team called Cloud 9. They have a team in League of Legends, they have Overwatch, they have DotA. They have all this under this one banner of Cloud 9. Teams are participating in different titles, which is then different leagues, which is then different structures, and they have to keep all of that on track even though they're all under … they're all very different in what they do. But they're all under the same banner. So, you have to have people who are managing that.

So it's really, really interesting. Once you think about it, you think that they have to be so different - this professional gaming and then professional sports.

But if you really start to think what it takes to keep that organization running, anything that you can think of from a standpoint of a professional organization in jobs would parallel in esports. Almost identically, I would say.

(Transition Music)

James Loy:

So esports are undeniably on the rise. As of last year, this multibillion dollar industry was already growing 18% annually. Esports are also the most popular sport among a college-age audience, which is, in turn, inspiring many universities to create esports clubs, including here at Miami.

Miami was one of the first universities in the country to establish esports varsity teams, and it was recently awarded funding as part of the university’s Boldly Creative initiative to establish the first major research-based esports curriculum in the country.

But all this hype and intense interest around esports may still seem odd to many people.

So, what do you say to people … one of the biggest criticisms around esports, video games in general … or, maybe the number one curious sentiment, I guess, might be a better way to put it … What do you say to people who say, “I don’t understand why anybody would want to watch somebody else play a video game?”

Sam Ford:

Right. The response to, “Why do you wanna watch somebody play a video game when you could play it yourself” is “Why are you watching somebody throw a football when you could go outside and throw it around yourself?”

It's the desire to see the best of the best compete at the highest level of competition at something that you can't do yourself. And maybe people who are really interested in watching football, it's because they're an NFL athlete, and they wanna watch other people compete. Or, they're a college athlete, and they want to see what's happening at the professional level, and want to participate at that high level, and are learning.

That also happens in esports for people who are trying to climb the ranks into these top tier leagues. They are watching and learning from players, not only through watching sanction competition, but also watching individual players who are live streaming their own gameplay just for fun, to watch them practice, or to watch them give tips and tricks.

And that's something that's a little bit unique compared to traditional sports, where I can't decide I’m going to watch an NFL Game strictly from Tom Brady's point of view, and learn and watch what he watches, and see what he does. Where that's something that you can do in esports, and get that extra in-depth look of: This is why so and so made this decision because they are telling me that they made this decision because I'm watching them do it.

There are things, like with League of Legends, where you can tune into the individual player’s screens, and you're watching exactly what they're watching, and you're seeing exactly what they're doing. Where that's just something that is not possible in traditional sports. Maybe someday that will happen. But that's one of the added advantages of esports right now.

James Loy:

And alongside the ability to offer this extra level of immersion, esports, in some cases, are also becoming a replacement for traditional sports.

During the COVID 19 outbreak, while many of our usual activities were either cancelled or put on hold, many esports started to fill the void.

NASACR, for example, replaced canceled races with the inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series featuring competitive simulations with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and other top professional drivers.

The NBA also planned something similar with an NBA 2K video game tournament featuring professional basketball players like Kevin Durant.

However, for all this rising popularity and demand.

The overall landscape is still not yet as structed or as streamlined as traditional sports. There’s no Little League, for example, or a clear path to go from high school to college to pro.

Instead, it’s all still kinda like the Wild West – with a jumbled mix of assorted leagues and organizations that can vary greatly between games and between game publishers, and between different third-party tournament organizers across different regions, and even countries.

So how do you see the industry evolving from here? What do you think will happen, or needs to happen, before esports become truly mainstream? Before people finally stop asking that question of: Why would anyone want to watch someone else play a video game?

Sam Ford:

Yeah, so I think there are a couple of major milestones that I think we are do for. One is the NCAA officially getting involved in having a presence in esports. Right now, they're kinda just letting everybody do it, and … back from the shadows, and observe.

But once you start to see that involvement, and the true buy-in from collegiate athletics. And you’re starting to see that in individual schools and in places like Miami, obviously.

But if you can say, “I'm gonna get a scholarship to play Overwatch, but I'm going to study esports operations or marketing.”

Like, that's the same as, “I'm going to go to college and play football, and get a sports administration degree -- or SLAM, or whatever, depending on the school it is -- get that degree, and then be able to continue to work in the industry after I'm done as a player.”


Once that becomes a thing, and we are moving closer, closer as you see more schools start to have dedicated esports operations, or broadcasts, or whatever programs, like, that's something that's gonna come and add to the legitimacy.

I also think we're getting extremely close to video games in the Olympics. There's room for debate on what those games are going to be.

But there are games that work great as esport titles that are perfect for the Olympics. If I were a betting person, I would say the first title that you would see in something like that would be Rocket League, which if you are unfamiliar, it's essentially soccer with cars.

It's easy to watch. It's easy to understand. It's, like I said, it's soccer. And it's really competitive and is a big game.

James Loy:

And this isn't just you just dreaming big. I've read that the International Olympic Committee is actually having these discussions about potentially including esports in the Olympics in the future, correct?

Sam Ford:

Yeah, absolutely, yeah. It's definitely something that is coming. You see … there's been an esports competition in the Asia Games, and that was kind of seen as the first, like, okay, this is really picking up steam. Or you'll see it at the X Games. That's definitely a smaller level, but there's been esports competitions at the X-Games for a few years now, and it's all making its way towards that higher recognition event.

And the thing is, that's not uncommon across the world.


The United States and North America are just behind. People have been watching professional gaming in Asian countries for years. And you think of professional athletes in North America, you see them on the commercials for Nike or Under Armor, or whatever. It's the professional gamers in Korea. They're the ones who are on TV, and on those commercials, showing off Nike products. Nike sponsors the Chinese League of Legends League. Like, all of the teams in that league have Nike jerseys and apparel, and things like that.

Not saying that it's a bad thing, but we're just behind.

So, I think a lot of it is education. And through mainstream media coverage and representation, that's how you educate right now.

And I think that because of what's going on with COVID and everything, and you're seeing NBA 2K on TV, you're seeing NHL video games on TV, you're seeing the NASCAR game on TV.

As that continues, people are going to be more and more interested, and I think even when we get to the point where … you know, the NBA is back. Real basketball is back. There are still going to be people who saw 2K League, or saw NBA esports, and are going to still be interested in that, even though “real basketball” has returned. Those are the people who are then gonna help spearhead the movement to keep it around, and keep it as a legitimate source of entertainment.

(Music up)

James Loy:

Sam Ford, oversees esports promotion and support for Comcast as an Account Coordinator for GMR Marketing, which is a global experiential marketing agency. He is also a graduate of Miami University’s Sport Leadership and Management program.

This is the Reframe podcast. You can subscribe and listen to many more episodes for free, right now, wherever podcasts are found.