Are esports sports? Overwatch players sure act the part

0 Ratings

NEW YORK (AP) - Seung-Tae Choi doesn't look the part of a traditional athlete, not with his shaggy hair, smallish build and an expression that says ready to nap rather than game on.

During all the hours he spends playing video games, though, the 21-year-old from South Korea certainly acts it.

"We're not here to have fun," he said through a translator.

Choi - better known to his fans as Bdosin - and his teammates with the London Spitfire like to think they're making a statement on a major stage this weekend: esports might not be the same as football or basketball, but the competition is as real and the lifestyle as intense as it is for any traditional sports star.

The Spitfire are vying for the Overwatch League's inaugural championship at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Choi has already spent years chasing a career in the 6-on-6, first-person shooter, and now he's on the verge of splitting a $1 million top prize with his Korean teammates.

London is facing the Philadelphia Fusion, a club featuring players from nine countries, at the end of a seventh-month season.

"It's like a job," Fusion player Gael "Poko" Gouzerch said. "We're not doing this for fun. It's not like how you go on your sofa and play your PS4 and just do it for fun. It's more than that." 

The twelve-team league has many traditional sports markers: regional divisions, a preseason and postseason, and even broadcast rights deals with Twitch and ESPN. Blizzard Entertainment, the creator of Overwatch, structured the league on traditional sports, even bringing in NFL team owners Robert Kraft (Patriots) and Stan Kroenke (Rams) as franchise owners.

And the players' lifestyles don't appear to be much different from more recognizable stars.

For most in the league, the day starts after a good night's sleep. Overwatch coaches and managers have strongly encouraged a full eight hours - the Spitfire turn off wifi in team housing at 3 a.m. to cut down on distractions - and even employed physical trainers to further promote a healthy lifestyle.

After a breakfast cooked by a team chef, they go to work.

It starts with warmups - normally some individual screen time. Then comes in-game practice, usually scrimmaging for six-plus hours.

At that point, many teams encourage players to step back from the PC to talk strategy. Then there's solo time for sharpening skills.

"It's takes full commitment at some point," Fusion player Joona "Fragi" Laine said. "I think a lot of people need to think about their day-to-day life, but at some point, you've got to take the leap and really fully commit to it."

When the esports-as-sports debate really matters is off the field. As in, who will partner with the industry?

ESPN has a two-year deal to broadcast Overwatch matches, and gaming could even one day find itself in the Olympics - Overwatch League Commissioner Nate Nanzer was just in Switzerland with Blizzard Entertainment to meet with the International Olympic Committee.

Gaming doesn't look like a traditional sport, but when the players talk, it sure sounds like one. The buzzwords and phrases have a familiar feel - players talk about execution, focus, team chemistry and determination.

"Winning the final," Gouzerch said.

People around esports liken their games to darts, bowling or pool.

No 40-yard dash times, bench presses or vertical jumps needed. But some players are more physically gifted than others. Nanzer pointed to New York Excelsior sniping specialist Do-Hyeon "Pine" Kim as an example earlier this season.

"I promise you, you physically cannot do what he does," Nanzer said. "There's actually a physical component of moving that cursor across the screen in a split-second and putting it on a pixel. That's a physical move. And you can practice a lot, and you can get better at it, but you couldn't get to his level at it.

"There are players that have innate, natural ability, just in the same way that there are baseball players that can throw a baseball 99 mph and there are baseball players that can't."

Talent separates amateurs from professionals. In the Overwatch League, the pros get a minimum base salary of $50,000 with healthcare and a retirement savings plans.

With stakes like the $1 million grand prize, there's another traditional sports hallmark apparent: the sting of defeat. The Fusion lost the first of three matches to the Spitfire on Friday night. Facing possible elimination, tension and disappointment was apparent in their post-match press conference.

Then there was the Spitfire, riding high and relaxed after beating Philadelphia on day one. Another victory, and London will become the first club to hoist the Overwatch League trophy.

"We're dedicating our lives to this, making sure we are the best of the best," Spitfire player Jae-Hui "Gesture" Hong said. "I don't think anyone can do what we do."  


Sports Writer Jake Seiner contributed to this report.

No comments found. Sign up or Login to rate and review content.

In this Friday, July 27, 2018 photo, London Spitfire players Jae-Hui "Gesture" Hong, left, and Jun-Young "Profit" Park, righ, prepare to play in the Overwatch League Grand Finals' first night of competition, at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The Overwatch League is making a grand gamble: that its deep pockets and massive infrastructure can keep it atop the esports mountain even as Fortnite comes charging for the crown. (AP Photo/Terrin Waack) - The Associated Press

In this Friday, July 27, 2018, file photo, Philadelphia Fusion fan holds up a sign during the Overwatch League Grand Finals' first night of competition at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The Overwatch League is making a grand gamble: that its deep pockets and massive infrastructure can keep it atop the esports mountain even as Fortnite comes charging for the crown. (AP Photo/Terrin Waack) - The Associated Press