It’s a question that e-sports constantly asks itself. But, conceivably, could it happen?
Sunday is about football. Saturday night, in Canada, is hockey territory. Traditions that have gone beyond just a sporting event to celebrate something bigger: On one end, Canada is a paramount country in the game of hockey, while gridiron football is something the US can truly call its own. Sport has always been deeply rooted in a country’s psyche, from small European countries taking pride in their soccer leagues, to Japan’s dominance in the World Baseball Classic. Sport is as much in culture as culture is in sport.
This is especially reflective in the way sport and culture collide in South Korea. In a country that is manic about producing the brightest minds, where some kids commit suicide out of familial shame from not reaching a top university, the same level of pressure befalls its athletes too. Not the typical form of athlete we often depict; the rise of the mental athlete is a trait unique to Korea. In exactly the same way North Americans go gaga over football or hockey, Koreans act the same watching their favourite pros battle ferociously in StarCraft. And, as we’ve seen lately, League of Legends.
It’s a matter of accessibility. South Korea has one of the highest broadband penetration rates in the world, possessing 100.6 Internet subscribers per 100 inhabitants according to the OECD. (How they have more than 100% just proves South Korea’s awesomeness more.) Thus, as North Americans have easy access to sports equipment, Korea has easier access to the Internet.
From that, plus South Korea’s 25,000 Internet cafes, being tech savvy is part of Korean culture. Inasmuch as Canadians drink Tim Hortons coffee and Americans adore baseball and apple pie, Koreans love being online. And that has created an atmosphere in the same way that Europe engineers the greatest soccer players: They’re just built better. Consequently, an industry formed around that unique progression of skills. One wherein the Korean government has taken drastic measures: To combat excessive game playing, games require a “cool down” period to keep students focused.
Could North America construct that sort of atmosphere? At the turn of noon, could the networks suddenly decide to broadcast an MLG event or League of Legends instead of football? Realistically, yes. Anywhere could become a Koreanesque hotspot for e-sports talent. But a strange thing has happened: E-sports has encountered a surge in popularity that surpasses that of the Big Four sports leagues. Ratings aren’t so important and a little ambiguous on Internet streams, but 32 million people at one point watched League of Legends‘ season 3 world final. For perspective, that doubles Boston’s clinching performance in Game Six of the World Series.
Baseball is still America’s game, but fewer people have watched the Series in recent years. And that stands true with most of TV. A growing number of people watch television after it airs, which has proven to be problematic for networks. As ratings drop, so does the talk of live programming. Keep in mind this progression is slow-moving; it will take twenty years for television viewing to fully dissolve as a business model. But e-sports marched ahead: It built a culture entirely online, establishing what appears like a secret society. Ask random people on the street to name one pro e-sports team, then tell them about viewership numbers into the millions. Watch their jaws drop.
Some of the latest stats show broadband penetration in the States lies at 70%. Canada is nearly the same. While those stats undermine e-sports’ efforts to grow in North America, at least for League of Legends, the player base avidly watches. Riot reported last year 32 million played monthly–that figure ring a bell? The game has since grown in population, meaning a strong majority of League‘s community paid attention to this year’s LCS.
Thus, it seems inevitable that one day e-sports could become mainstream. But the definition of “mainstream” is changing.
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