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I’ve played video games since I was around 8 years old, though if I’m being honest I probably spent more time watching my older brother play them until I was 12 and he was out of the house.
I have never identified as a “gamer,” but I am also not a stranger to handling a controller or clearing dungeons en-route to toppling the latest threat to Hyrule. While I have always enjoyed playing games (sometimes at the expense of personal relationships and my grade point average), there was never a moment in my formative years where I considered them to be a viable career path.
It turns out, I was wrong. Instead of spending years painstakingly developing calluses on guitar strings or writing (very bad) short stories, I should have been crafting them on my Playstation controller. Yes, despite my mother’s constant refrains in the wee hours of childhood nights, video games are, in fact, not a waste of time.
The Overwatch League, a new competitive e-sports venture backed by such well-known, deep-pocketed sports icons as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Sacramento Kings co-owner Andy Miller, launched on Wednesday at a recently refurbished, high-tech arena in Burbank. Fans flocked the floor with flags as professional gamers, sporting fresh new jerseys and enormous headphones, commanded the various colorful characters of Overwatch around a sprawling map as they shot each other with a myriad of firearms that transformed the screen into a swath of greens, reds, blues and purples.
To watch Overwatch being played, even by the best players in the world, is an exercise in organized chaos. To put it simply: A buncha crap flies across the screen constantly while commentators scream words you probably don’t understand. I felt lost watching it, and I’ve played the game.
However, that quickly became the fun of the experience. See, in addition to being a fan of games, I’m also a big fan of sports. I will openly admit that I bristled at that word being used for this new gaming league. I don’t consider pushing buttons on a keyboard a “sport” any more than I consider the world’s best dominoes player to be an “athlete.” That said, I can certainly appreciate the skill, dexterity and commitment it takes to get to this level, to play in the hallowed halls of the Blizzard Arena.
As the match wore on, played between the hometown Los Angeles Valiant and their hated rivals (in my mind, at least) San Francisco Shock, I found myself actually rooting for my home team. Why? Perhaps because I like screaming at screens, but I like to believe it’s because a competitive spirit was clearly on display. These players cared about the game they were playing. They cared about this league. They believed that they were athletes, and by many rubrics, I guess they are.
A competitive spirit, the will to win, whether it be in baseball, basketball or even dominoes, exists in the heart of all true athletes, and if you were to examine what makes a professional gamer tick, I imagine you’d find just the same core in the e-sports athlete as you would the starting point guard for the Golden State Warriors.
It’s a new world, even for us born with screens in our faces and pixelated heroes at our control from our earliest days. At any given point during Wednesday’s inaugural Overwatch League match, more than 350,000 viewers were tuned in to catch the action. I can deride e-sports as “not real sports” and scream “NERD!” a la Homer Simpson all I want, but for a child watching at home, who am I to say that this league is any less legitimate than the NBA, NFL or even my beloved MLB.
I revel in the fact that I don’t quite understand the appeal of e-sports, as that mystery is what appeals to me the most. I am a visitor in a land that many have called home for years, but the tide is turning. If the Overwatch League does succeed in becoming the next legitimate global sports league, as its many financial backers hope it will, then it will need to appeal to those, like me, who watch it with an upturned eyebrow and constantly mouth the word “huh?” as we watch.
The first match I’ve seen succeeded in that. It piqued my interest and offered an experience that I welcome seeing more of. If I knew the game better, this would be a perfect place for a button quote from one of its characters, but as I don’t know one, I’ll simply say, “Game on,” though the words “Play ball” may be even more appropriate.
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