It had all the elements of a great Cinderella story. A ragtag group of underdogs beats their crosstown rivals, then dominates a powerhouse team of star college athletes on their way to a national championship. It’s the kind of story perfectly suited for the sports page.
Last month, the UBC Esports Association won the North American Collegiate Championship (NACC) tournament, the most prestigious college video game competition in North America.
The UBC team took home the title and a $180,000 scholarship to be divided among six players.
Multi-player video game tournaments, also known as Esports, have become a global sensation that attracts thousands of spectators to live events held at arenas and other venues around the world. The UBC team is part of a growing legion of Esports “athletes” who may one day be as famous as today’s top sports stars.
The March Madness of Esports
The NACC featured 1,600 collegiate teams playing League of Legends, arguably the most popular game in the Esports world.
“I guess the easiest way to see it is to imagine it like a a game of basketball,” said UBC Esports team member Wesley Lee. “It’s a five-on-five game, but instead of trying to score points, you just want to destroy the other person’s building or ‘nexus.’ It’s kind of similar in how there are five positions in basketball and five positions in League of Legends. Each role has a distinct style of play to it similar to basketball.”
After breezing through the qualifying rounds, UBC defeated Simon Fraser University 2-0 in the west regional finals.
“It’s more of a friendly rivalry since we knew each other before we even got onto these teams and started competing against each other,” said Lee of SFU.
In the finals, UBC faced top-seeded Robert Morris University, a small private university in Illinois that offers Esports athletes scholarships valued up to US $19,000 annually.
The UBC team doesn’t receive anywhere near that level of support. According to team manager Carman Lam, the UBC Esports Association is part of the Alma Mater Society (AMS), but the competitive video gaming teams are not recognized as UBC or AMS teams, which receive extra funding.
Heading into the final, Robert Morris had lost only one game all year, but UBC won three straight games to win the best-of-five series and take home the title in what Lee calls the “March Madness of Esports.”
Lee says they weren’t intimidated by the prospect of facing scholarship Esports athletes, as many of their team had experience in more competitive amateur tournaments.
“A lot of the players on the UBC team have actually played in amateur competitions, which is a level above collegiate,” said Lee. “It was actually a bit of a downgrade in skill for a couple of the players playing in this league, but they were still eligible just because they went to UBC.”
The final was played in front of a live audience, and up to concurrent 100,000 viewers watched a broadcast of the final online.
WATCH: UBC Esports team wins NACC title
The team recently made the finals of Collegiate Starleague tournament. Playing Dota 2, they fell 2-0 to Cal Berkeley to earn second place.
For the UBC team, the NACC win was the culmination of hours of hard work. The team practises an average of eight to 12 hours per week, in addition to their studies.
Once they’re out of school, they could continue gaming and possibly make a living at it.
“Since Esports is still relatively new, there isn’t a set-in-stone path to the professional level,” said Lee. “There are three tiers of competitive play: the professional level at the top, then amateur, then collegiate.”
Teammate Bob Qin aspires to turn pro. As for Lee, who is a computer science major, he is happy with how his collegiate career has turned out.
“Winning enough to pay off students loans is more than anything I could have imagined.”
Are Esports athletes really athletes?
No doubt, many balk at the idea of referring to people who play video games as “athletes.” For what it’s worth, the U.S. government recently recognized Esports competitors as athletes.
Still, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s a good idea to glamourize people who spend so much time staring at a screen, especially given a recent report that found children are not getting the physical activity they need.
Athletes or not, top Esports competitors enjoy many of the perks of sports stars–money, prestige and fame.
Lee Sang-Hyeok of South Korea, better known by his username Faker, is a bona fide Esports star, helping the SK Telecom team T1 win the 2013 League of Legends World Championship.
When Faker–whom Lee describes as the “Michael Jordan of Esports”–competed at the World Championship last year, more than 27 million people watched as teams from around the world competed for a $2.1 million purse. That’s more double the average number of viewers for the last three World Series.
From 2014: Global BC’s Squire Barnes introduces us to the intense and extremely lucrative world of Esports gaming
Signs of the sport’s explosion are everywhere. Last year, an Esports tournament was broadcast on ESPN.
This summer, Cineplex will hold a series of gaming-themed screenings it hopes will eventually lead to hosting local video game competitions at its own theatres.
A Seattle-based company is setting up a site where you can wager on Esports events.
Sports broadcaster TheScore Inc. also joined the gaming world earlier this year with an app that tracks scores and statistics for top gamers. TheScore also delivers breaking news related to select games and says it plans to expand coverage as its app gains traction.
Esports stars may not end up on the sports page or ever be considered real athletes, but given the level of fame and money available at their fingertips, it’s hard to imagine why they would care.
-with files from Canadian Press