The Best of The Best

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
Ask anyone who knows me what my favorite sport is, and they'll tell you it's NFL football. Ask those same people what my second favorite sport is, and they'll tell you how there's no such thing. For the past decade of my life, I simply haven't cared about any sport other than American football. When I was younger I'd watch the four majors here in the US, baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, but as I grew up I found only one piqued my interest, and that's the NFL. The league expertly sells itself, making a must-see event out of simple things like even the Scouting Combine. On top of that, its built-in formula of one game per team per week makes every Sunday feel like a crucial appointment. The league is full of superstars, all of whom they market well. Then there's the win-or-go-home nature of every playoff game -- no long, drawn out, five or seven game series. The best team all season could have a bad day and ruin their shot at greatness (see: Carolina Panthers circa 2015, New England Patriots circa 2007). Simply stated, the NFL is, in my opinion, the world's finest sports league, and nothing could ever come close.

Or maybe that's not entirely true. Today I've spent the last few hours enjoying a rare day off from a hectic work schedule. I played some games, lounged around with my brother, and tonight we plan on binging Stranger Things like millenials are known to do. Something caught my eye on Twitter earlier though, and I decided to tune in. What was it? The Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS). Find one of those same people who know me, and they'll assure you I believe Rocket League is one of the greatest games, if not the single greatest game, ever made. The racing and soccer mash-up, which later added hockey and basketball modes, carries an insatiable craving for just one more game, with its deep customization, fluid gameplay and controls, and futuristic aesthetic.

I thought the NFL was the only sport I needed in life. Then I watched professional <i>Rocket League</i>.I thought the NFL was the only sport I needed in life. Then I watched professional Rocket League.

Since it debuted as a PS Plus title last summer, I've perpetually been in a mood to play it across two platforms. It should be no wonder that when I tuned into the Twitch stream of the RLCS this afternoon, I found myself hooked. Watching the greatest players and teams in the world trade shot after stunning shot was remarkable. However, I so rarely get involved with multiplayer games that I've never cared for e-sports. Twitch, YouTube Gaming, online personalities, they collectively make up a section of the gaming world that I've never cared to join. "Why watch someone play when I can do it myself?", I'd think. The RLCS changed my way of thinking.

I now agree with others who speak of e-sports as a rising and unstoppable trend in pop culture. It's on the cusp of transcending the gaming space. When ESPN and CBS, two of the biggest networks in the United States, are airing live events like League of Legends and NBA 2K16 tournaments (as seen in the tweet from my fellow news teamer below), you have to admit that the e-sports scene is reaching beyond just the people who would play them. They're becoming spectator sports. You don't have to have ever picked up a controller or created an Xbox Live profile to find an interest in watching these events. They possess all the ingredients needed for mainstream success.

Multiplayer gaming is obviously a massive trend and every game that introduces competitive play has the opportunity to become the next huge e-sport. Additionally, e-sports, like their "real life" counterparts, put on display the very best players in the world. We watch sports for the spectacle of witnessing greatness. Players like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady fill seats and sell advertising on TV simply because they are the best at what they do. People want to see that greatness. E-sports like Rocket League, Overwatch, Call of Duty, they all offer that same appeal. I even felt myself learning new techniques while watching the RLCS, though executing them is a whole other issue I'll have to work on.

I feel there are still some areas that e-sports, in their infancy, need to fix sooner rather than later, however. For one, I think the most success can be found if these leagues find a way to regulate the names of the teams within them. When I was watching the RLCS, the two teams facing off in their five game series were named Flipsid3 Tactics and Exodus. These sort of incongruous names speak in a language foreign to the outside spectators who aren't typically involved with video games. Maybe you can't assign city and nickname-type of team names, since your teammates very likely live in other parts of the world very often, but something can be done to make the team names something more familiar, something marketable.

Speaking of marketability, many of the e-sports I've seen lack the personalities that carry other major sports. We grow fond of certain players, we follow their social media profiles, we villainize their rivals. How are we supposed to attach ourselves to specific players and teams if the only screen time they receive is them playing in dark corners of venues? Granted these players, many of them just young boys and men, aren't always going to be the most charismatic on camera, but neither are all the athletes in the NFL or the NBA. Some players bury their heads and stay quiet, others are flashier and love the spotlight. I think e-sports leagues need to seriously consider getting their teams and star players on screen to create these personas, create followings for themselves. Some leagues, and some countries other than the US have done this well so far, but this should happen on an industry-wide level. Having said that, I fully admit I might be looking at the issue with an old-fashioned perspective myself. I'm a traditional sports fan, and maybe that line of thinking will prove itself obsolete as e-sports gain momentum. Maybe the in-game action will be enough to grow the various leagues and tournaments on their own, and in time fans will just grow accustomed to the strange names and lack of personalities among the pro players.

A winning formula in-game is the first step to creating a huge e-sport event, but there's more to it than that.A winning formula in-game is the first step to creating a huge e-sport event, but there's more to it than that.

E-sports can do everything traditional sports do, and even a bit more. We play Madden NFL because we have favorite teams and players, and because the vast majority of us won't ever make it to the NFL. When I watch the RLCS, it makes me want to play Rocket League, which -- huzzah! -- is something I can just go and do on my Xbox. I can't yet play it at the level I see on Twitch, perhaps, but the dream is there. It's not a simulation of a league I'll never find myself in. It's merely a league of gamers really good at that same game I happen to love, too. I have access to those same platforms. As video games grow more ubiquitous, more universal, thanks to things like virtual reality and mobile platforms making gamers out of people who would've otherwise avoided the medium, doors to e-sports are opening.

The stigma surrounding the industry's lack of "real athletes" is disappearing. Sure, it isn't physically exhausting in the way basketball is, but playing any game ultra-competitively still requires skills that few possess, and that should be celebrated, not shamed. E-sports have nowhere to go but up. Advertisers are getting involved, networks are getting involved, and most importantly fans are tuning in. As a sports fan, I've seen the best of the best compete on various surfaces across several leagues, each of them consistently producing memorable moments and birthing superstars. I see the same appeal in e-sports now, and if you haven't yet tuned in, I urge you to check them out. Your next favorite spectator sport might already be in season.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.