Pro and competitive gaming is taking the world by storm, and esports are a blooming career option for young people — in part because of their inclusivity compared to traditional sports.
In many cases, traditional sports can exclude people who may be of different athletic abilities, for example, and even exclude people based on their identities, like race, culture and gender identity.
Having to set up physical games in arenas, fields and organizing a formal event to play the game can make these sports less accessible to players.
But in a time when in-person sports were sidelined, esports, and the accessibility that comes with sitting at home and logging into a game on the computer, started to thrive.
“Esports (are) so successful because it gives a point of relativity for all players,” said Justin Kao, a fourth-year media production student and caster in the Ryerson Esports club.
One of the most popular esports games, League of Legends, held a global tournament in 2016. The championship attracted over 43 million viewers online with a total prize amounting to $6 million for the tournament’s winner.
In 2017, another esports tournament for multiplayer game Defense of the Ancients that took place at KeyArena in Seattle gave over $9 million to the winning team, and additional millions to the runners-up.
This competition was streamed both online and on ESPN. This mainstream coverage proves that esports have the ability to bring players from all over the world together in a more accessible way, attracting athletes and fans from all different backgrounds.
“The culture behind (esports) is interconnected outside,” said Benson Lam, a third-year media production student and president of the Ryerson Esports Club.
The Ryerson Esports Club has field teams in 10 different games — Rainbow Six: Siege, Overwatch, Valorant, League of Legends, Rocket League, Call of Duty, Apex Legends, Super Smash Bros, Hearthstone and CS:GO.
Esports have opened up the opportunity for a wide array of different positions, one of which is a play-by-play caster such as Kao.
Similar to a traditional commentator, a caster does play-by-play or colour commentary for online streamed esports games and tournaments.
Kao, who grew up playing traditional sports, said that he turned to esports casting after being attracted to the friendships and strong sense of cohesive community esports has.
“(The esports) community is awesome. Everyone just wants to play and have a good time and (they are) very friendly,” said Kao.
Social cohesion among the community is important and key to the successful nature and environment esports advertises.
Esports has also created a space where more people feel like they belong, thanks in part to seeing their identities better represented.
Diversity and representation within the games is something that Rainbow Six: Siege team coach and Ryerson Esports vice-president Alexander Antonyuk knows well.
Rainbow Six: Siege is a game that has been applauded for its diverse array of operators and characters to play as.
The game addresses critical issues, letting players choose between different racial and gender identities.
Earlier this year, the game’s developer, Ubisoft, introduced Osa, the game’s first transgender operator, as well as Thunderbird, the first Indigenous operator who is from the Nakoda territories of Saskatchewan.
She also has a jacket patch on her left arm that says MMIW which stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
Antonyuk says that having games with more representation is helping make the game, and esports in general, create more global intrigue.
“Inclusion of different operators in Rainbow Six, which have different nationalities and backgrounds, gives the player a connection to the characters (while) they’re playing,” Antonyuk said.
This representation, as it applies to people personally, also has the ability to captivate communities from countries that haven’t had a big video game culture to begin with.
“With the world being more digitized, and different games becoming more accessible to everyone, we’re going to be most definitely seeing a lot more different communities rise up and compete on a global level,” Antonyuk said.
But for the global market to be captivated by the sport, there needs to be extensive representation within local communities. One way is providing an adequate platform for esports to gain ground at the university level.
Universities have begun to treat esports athletes like traditional athletes. In some schools, there are a number of scholarships given to these players to attend and play esports for their universities.
Many colleges take on esports athletes who become superstars at the collegiate level in North America, which can boost the prestige of a given school on a global level.
Ryerson’s esports team is officially under the umbrella of Ryerson Athletics. And it’s up there with other competitive clubs.
Right now, Ryerson’s Esports club plays teams from other universities as part of the Ontario Post-Secondary Esports (OPSE), which according to their website, is “a volunteer and student-operated organization focused on integrating collegiate esports into the traditional post-secondary institution athletics system.
OPSE provides schools with new ways to engage with their students, alumni, and local community.” According to OPSE, there is a total of $30,000 in scholarship prizing on the line.
The Ryerson Esports Club is finally getting some attention, and more importantly, getting a chance to play, but Lam said that there needs to be consistent attempts to make sure esports is supported for the future of students that want to join the club.
Antonyuk says that is possible only if there is an effort made to create a reliable structure of esports at the university.
“We’re trying to build ourselves a strong foundation and name. We’ve recently acquired a sponsorship with Red Bull. And we’re planning to continue our sponsorship success with other big and strong companies that will help us visualize and achieve our goals,” he said.
Lam is already starting to notice changes at the university level that are affecting the way esports will evolve in the future.
“Before Ryerson, (there were) maybe only one or two gaming related courses, but now we’ve seen more esports courses like eports production, game design, becoming one of the most popular courses,” Lam said. “(It’s) impactful for the Ryerson community because it shows how gaming and esports in general (are) rising.”
One person who is at the centre of Ryerson’s esports future is Kris Alexander, a professor at the RTA School of Media who teaches different aspects around video games.
Alexander has also dedicated his career to researching video games and esports. His research is focused on video game design, esports production and collegiate esport infrastructure.
“Video games and esports are one of the few places that have the most inclusivity because a lot of the people that join [do so] based on a common shared interest,” Alexander said.
Alexander says that narrowing the focus on esports specifically in both courses and research at Ryerson will make a large impact on the quality of esports education at the university.
This will thus prepare students for various professional careers in video games.
“Once we develop larger programs that specialize and focus only on and around esports, we’ll be able to have a holistic foundation as well as pathways to and through the path of study,” Alexander said.
It’s an investment that Alexander has both personal and academic stakes in.
In his previous experience, Alexander set up eight collegiate esports teams, and even helped create U of T’s first video game design course in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health.
He did so, after listening to the needs of the students.
“We did that by asking the students which games they play, and we built structures, pathways, rules, curriculum scholarships surrounding those games,” Alexander said.
It’s this foundation at the university level that will produce members of the future professional esports community.
That community is already showing signs of promise, captivating the attention of notable sports icons such as Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Alex Rodriguez, who have high hopes for the future of esports, all either owning or co-owning their own esports teams.
Today, some esports companies, teams, and players are worth millions. In 2020, Forbes ranked the most valuable esports companies.
The top two were Team SoloMid (TSM), which was worth $410 million, and Cloud9, which valued at $350 million.
People even speculate that the potential value of esports net worth could one day outvalue some of the most popular traditional sports like football, basketball and boxing.
Esports are becoming more mainstream as they adapt to the norms of other professional sports. The billion-dollar industry doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.