The Edge Episode 9: You Say Couch Potato, I Say Athlete

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How did video gaming, or esports, make it from your parents’ basement to the big leagues? Laura and Leah discuss with student esport “athletes,” an administrator, and a team owner. Also discussed: why Cal is investing in gaming as a career path, whether it should be considered a sport, and the industry’s fraught but promising relationship with women gamers.

Show Notes:

  • Bryan Schatz’s article about new legislation that could allow student athletes to cash in.
  • A Forbes article about the future of esports.

This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington and produced by Coby McDonald.

Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Maddy Weinberg, Kevin Chou, Lauren Tang, Vincent Cajayon, and Kirk Robles. Art by Michiko Toki and original music by Mogli Maureal.

Transcript:

LEAH WORTHINGTON: Hi Laura, how’s it going?

LAURA SMITH: Hi Leah, I’m good, how are you?

LEAH: I’m good. Okay, I want to play something for you and I want you to describe what you think it is:

[SPORTS ANNOUNCER AUDIO]

LAURA: Okay so basically it looks like people playing video games…but I don’t totally get it…like there are people talking over it…

LEAH: They’re definitely speaking with an Australian accent.

LAURA: Okay, that’s the problem, it’s the Australian accents. They’re also using words I don’t recognize. It sounds like…play-by-play announcers describing the game?

LEAH: Well you’re pretty much right about that. So, they are video games, and those are play-by-play announcers. Because this is a professional competitive video game! Also known as esports. Which is short for electronic sports.

LAURA: Ah yes, those newfangled electronic sports games.

LEAH: Yes, grandpa. [laughs] So these people you’re seeing, they’re actually called esports athletes! In fact, in 2018 Cal founded their own esports program and built this fancy facility that houses more than a dozen competitive teams. But first, I think we should start by explaining what esports even are.

LAURA: Okay so we’re not talking about, like, Candy Crush or, like, Angry Birds or the other video games that people play for entertainment.

LEAH: Right. Think teams with rosters, and players with specific roles, and coaches and rankings and leagues and superstars… and all kinds of things that you would normally associate with traditional physical sports. And the world of esports is kind of a big deal. Spoiler: There is actual talk about making esports an Olympic sport and of bringing it into the fold of the NCAA. It’s already nearly a billion dollar industry.

LAURA: So grab your headsets and buckle up because this episode is about esports and how they have turned video game enthusiasts into varsity athletes. And why universities like Berkeley are getting in on the action.

LEAH: Pew pew pew!

[THEME MUSIC]

LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association.

LEAH: Where we’ll talk to some students who play for Cal, an administrator who helps run the program, and a pro team owner. And also address the question of whether esports should be considered a sport.

LAURA: I’m your host, Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m your other host, Leah Worthington.

[MUSIC OUT]

LAURA: This episode is sponsored by Home Chef, Golden Bears receive $35 off their first box using promo code CAA35 at Homechef.com. That’s $35 off your first box using promo code CAA35 at Homechef.com.

LAURA: Okay, Leah, so how did esports get so legit? Like how did they come to Cal?

LEAH: Well, I’m glad you asked. It all began about 50 years ago…

LAURA: Oh so I’m really behind the times.

LEAH: Yeah, as usual. So the first video game competition took place at Stanford way back in 1972. The game was called…SpaceWar!

LAURA: Ok but why are you shouting?

LEAH: No, that’s the name of the game. It was called SpaceWar!…with an exclamation point. And it was basically a battle between two spaceships in outer space.

LAURA: Ok, now I get it. SpaceWar!

LEAH: You get it!

LAURA: I get it! Ok, I don’t mean to interrupt your history of esports, but…I just kinda feel like I know where this is going.

LEAH: Well…I prepared a whole spiel….

LAURA: I’m guessing that after SpaceWar! there comes…like…Donkey Kong and PAC-MAN, and more and more people get into playing these video games, and the games get more and more fancy, and more people play, and then they get more fancy, and back and forth until we have billions of people and billions of dollars and play-by-play announcers and colleges and eventually someone decides they should be called “esports.”

LEAH: Yeah that’s pretty much it. So why’d I do all the work?

LAURA: Because you love googling.

LEAH: That’s true.

LAURA: But let’s talk about now. So, how did we get to this point where Cal and other schools are building esports facilities?

LEAH: Well, it didn’t come out of nowhere. So if you rewind five years to 2016, when UC Irvine built this multimillion dollar esports arena. Their Overwatch and League of Legend teams were powerhouses, basically the best in the country. And UCI even started offering scholarships to student gamers. Meanwhile Berkeley had just this little club team.

LAURA: That’s very David and Goliath, I like it.

LEAH: Yes, totally. But! In 2018, Cal opened a center of its own. It wasn’t as big, but it was enough to help boost their own esports teams and give them a shot at competing with UCI and other major esports schools around the country.

LAURA: So in terms of how it actually works…are there like inter-collegiate competitions and rankings and such?

LEAH: Yeah, it’s a bit complicated, and I’m not sure I 100 percent understand it. But the gist is that there are a few college-level leagues around the country. They each have their own conferences and tournaments. And Cal is part of the CSL Esports, which is the largest league in North America, and Cal is currently ranked third in top competing universities in that league.

LAURA: Woo! Bronze. Not bad.

LEAH: Not bad at all.

LAURA: So this Cal esports thing, it’s really happening. Cal esports players…or should we call them e-thletes?

LEAH: [laughs] E-xcuse me? I think they call themselves gamers.

LAURA: Ok, so Cal gamers have this awesome facility and tournament victories and all the legitimacy that comes with that. But I want to know what drew them to get involved in this.

VINCENT CAJAYON: It’s just…it’s magnetic, you know? You’re drawn to it because it’s so sexy, it’s so…there’s so much glory to be had.

LEAH: That’s Vincent Cajayon, the president of a club called Gaming at Berkeley.

VINCENT: We’re kind of the partner club of Cal eSports on campus and I also manage the Valorant and Counter Strike teams for Cal eSports as well.

LEAH: And here’s another Cal esports player, Lauren Tang.

LAUREN TANG: I’m a third year data science major and I play Overwatch for the UC Berkeley team.

LEAH: Briefly, for those who might not know, Counter Strike, Valorant, and Overwatch are what are called a multiplayer first person shooter games—which you might hear abbreviated as FPS. So Overwatch, the one we’re going to talk about, is one of the more complex games, but that’s part of what makes it so interesting. The way it works, basically, is you have two opposing teams, one playing offensive, the other playing defensive, each with six players who work together to complete objectives, like capturing the other team’s flag or moving a payload through checkpoints without getting caught. And each player is assigned a different character, also known as a “hero,” with unique abilities. So you might be for example, Genji, a Japanese cyborg ninja. Or Ashe, an American gunslinger and the leader of the “Deadlock Gang,” aka a bunch of arms-trafficking outlaws based in Arizona. And these heroes are basically just moving around and interacting in this really intricately designed, often beautiful digital world, also known as a game “map.”

LAURA: And in non-COVID times, casual and competitive gamers meet up in the Cal Esports Center after class to practice.

LAUREN: I do see the Counter Strike team there pretty frequently. They have like this little table of five. And because there’s five people on a team it makes sense for them to all play at that one table. And they all have their jerseys on and everything, and they’re talking very intently. It’s something that’s honestly pretty cool to watch.

LEAH: Wait…you have jerseys?

LAUREN: Yeah! It’s really cool.

LAURA: As total gaming newbs, Leah and I wanted to see some of the action for ourselves. So Lauren showed us what Overwatch is actually like.

[OVERWATCH AUDIO]

LAURA: Oh, my God. What is this? So, what is this?

LAUREN: Overwatch is known for having a lot of really weird characters. [laughs] So he’s literally playing like a giant monkey. That’s what he is right now.

LAURA: He has a big machine gun, and he’s shooting lasers at all these little creatures. And honestly, it’s very chaotic. There’s a lot of moving around, and all these little creatures are popping up and he’s shooting them and there’s like a force field and…

LAUREN: This is what makes Overwatch so difficult to follow is that the maps are big, there’s a lot of aerial movement, there’s like different speeds for various characters, lots of leaping and jumping, while others are entirely stationary. It’s a lot to follow for sure.

LAURA: I see so many flashing lights! I might be carsick. I don’t know.

LAUREN: Yeah, there’s definitely like, there’s an epilepsy warning for this game for sure.

LAURA: Vincent, do you play this game? Is this making sense to you?

VINCENT: I played this game past tense and very casually. And yeah, no, this is…it’s like reading hieroglyphs, you know? I don’t understand what’s happening at all.

LEAH: Okay, that makes me feel a little better.

[OVERWATCH AUDIO OUT]

LAURA: Leah, the thing I’m trying to wrap my head around is the “sport” in esports. Like…are video games sports? I’ll admit there’s still a part of me that thinks sports should involve people physically moving around and trying to achieve some objective IRL. And maybe the term “athlete” should be reserved for people performing very physical feats.

LEAH: By the way, I just looked it up and ethlete is a real term.

LAURA: I knew it!

LEAH: But I think gamer is still the proper nomenclature.

LAURA: Ok fine.

LEAH: So, yes, let’s talk about these traditional notions of sports and athletes. Since you like history, I thought you might be interested to know that the word athlete originally comes from the Greek athlon, like decathlon or triathlon—athlon meaning ‘prize’—and from athlein, I think that’s how you say it, which means ‘compete for a prize.’ So for what it’s worth, there was never any official stipulation that athletics be especially physical per se. But, I hear your skepticism, and I’m here to tell you, you’re not alone. There is a lot of debate around how to classify esports. So here’s what the student “athletes” themselves have to say.

LAUREN: Yeah, I definitely would consider gaming to be a sport, particularly if it’s so team-involved. And the amount of like work and practice that goes into it definitely qualifies it as a high-stakes, rigorous event. Especially with competitions and everything. Those are so stressful and require a lot of management and practice for sure.

VINCENT: Yeah, I 100 percent agree. After seeing some of the people on my team, you know, play for like the same game 8-10 hours a day so they can get better because they have an upcoming competition or they have an important game coming up against the school they want to beat. The level of dedication, I don’t think you can downplay.

LEAH: I think now’s probably a good time to introduce Kevin Chou who was Berkeley’s 2019 Alum of the Year. And he’s also been working in gaming for the past 15 years and is the owner of a professional Overwatch team, Seoul Dynasty. And he says there’s a lot of teamwork involved.

KEVIN CHOU: It requires really working together and really understanding your role, but also how you work as a team to overcome whatever strategy the other team is employing in that particular game. Some of the marquee games like League of Legends or Overwatch, just like in a game of football, or soccer or basketball, they have different roles, like the offensive team or defensive team. Absolutely the team work at these games at the highest levels is much more important than the individual skill. I mean, obviously, the players individually are incredibly talented, but what sets the greatest teams apart, just like in traditional sports is the teamwork.

LEAH: And players practice for HOURS every day.

LAUREN: It’s definitely mentally exhausting. I just walk away from the scrims feeling like my brain is melting. It’s a lot to handle.

LEAH: So, despite the fact that the game is played sitting down, clearly Esports is mentally exhausting. And, I don’t know…I guess I’m sort of running out of reasons why it wouldn’t be considered a sport. I mean, if real-life shooting is a sport, why not not virtual shooting?

LAURA: Okay, but couldn’t we say the same about chess? And we don’t consider chess a sport.

LEAH: Well actually…according to the International Olympic Committee chess is a sport. And there’s even a movement among chess players to bring it to the Olympics. Which is to say that our understanding of what constitutes a sport is shifting as we speak, and becoming more inclusive of gaming in both the real and digital world. And get this, a lot of high-level esports athletes actually have, like, their own physical trainers.

LAURA: What, for their thumbs?

LEAH: Yeah, kind of…Here’s what Kevin had to say.

KEVIN: So, you know, most professional esport teams now have just like a football, you know, staff would have physical trainers, there’s physical trainers now for for eSports. And they generally help with two things. One is nutrition. So making sure that the athlete is eating properly to make sure that their mental and physical state is at peak performance for an upcoming tournament. What you eat affects your brain and your ability to process and make, you know, millisecond, split decision.

And so there are exercises as well as actual physical training and regiments that the top players in the world now go through because they realize that it extends their career. By the time you’re playing your 10th hour, you know, that day, that’s not really helping you. What is what is helpful is to spend a schedule that’s more like six hours a day, you know, playing the game, and then spending a couple more hours focused on your physical training and your mental state.

LAURA: So, can gamers like get injured? Like do they get eye strain? Or carpal tunnel syndrome maybe?

LEAH: Yeah, carpal tunnel and back pain are pretty common, I hear. And then, of course, there’s the dreaded “gamer’s thumb,” which is pretty self-explanatory. But recently, actually, there was a 25-year-old professional Call of Duty player (who went by ZooMaa) who announced that he’s retiring because of a thumb injury. 25!! Like, I don’t know, it sounds silly but…his whole career rested in his thumb.

[MUSIC TRANSITION]

LAURA: Okay, so I’m starting to warm up to the idea that this could be a sport.

LEAH: Yeah, me too. And there’s another big reason why Berkeley might want to add esports to their athletic roster. So let’s hear what Kirk Robles has to say. He’s the Associate Director of Business Development for the Division of Student Affairs, and he also oversees the Cal esports program.

KIRK ROBLES: I think that’s also why esports is very attractive. I want to say it provides kind of an even playing field for everyone, I think. And then also it’s an interesting opportunity, you can’t name many sports that you could play with a male or female teammate. And so that’s really an interesting opportunity, It’s really a sense of opening to be able to compete with everyone.

LEAH: And that’s something that Kevin, our alum of the year, talks about too.

KEVIN: You know not everyone’s going to be seven feet tall or have enough body weight to, you know, to play football, etc. So, I think these types of sports that are intellectual pursuits, primarily what is happening is at the cerebral level in terms of how these athletes compete.

LAURA: Okay so I hadn’t really considered that before. For students who join like the baseball team or the volleyball team there are all these great benefits. But those traditional sports can be really exclusive and limited to certain bodies. So by giving esports legitimacy with funding and a facility and all that, Cal is really opening up the team and competition experience to a much wider pool of students…potentially.

LEAH: Right. Potentially. Because we shouldn’t make it sound like it’s some kind of perfectly inclusive Eden. You know, all genders can play, and it’s definitely accessible to differently abled bodies, but gaming has had trouble attracting women. And for those who do join, they haven’t always found it a welcoming place.

LAUREN: Like right now I’m the only girl on the D1 team. But Overwatch is interesting in that, like League of Legends, it has a lot larger of a female player base than other games. I started off with Counter Strike and I noticed that in like, one out of 20 games I would find another female player on my team, whereas with Overwatch, it’s like one in five.

LAURA: So still pretty small either way.

LAUREN: Mm hmm. I think like esports in general, like the gaming scene is not necessarily welcoming to women.

LEAH: So then what is it like to be one of few women gaming at this level?

LAUREN: There is the occasional gamer who like when they hear my voice—because Overwatch is a game where the voice chat in the game is very important because it’s so fast-paced—when they hear my voice they’re like, “Oh, it’s a woman.” And then they either start, like, trash talking me or they actively throw my game. I’ve had that happen a few times. But other times people are pretty cool about it, and they just don’t care.

LAURA: People trash talk you?!

LAUREN: I mean it’s awful that I even have to, like, talk about it so casually, but it’s definitely something that happens. I don’t…I’m not sure exactly what fosters that sort of attitude.

LEAH: Does it feel just like old-fashioned sexism? Like, why are you here?

LAUREN: Oh yeah. Yeah, there’s this one character called Mercy who is typically very easy to play and because she doesn’t technically require a lot of aim and/or skill, and she’s a really good character for new players to learn. The stigma is that like, a lot of women are Mercy players. So I definitely have encountered a lot of male teammates who say, “Oh, go back to Mercy. What are you doing on this hero that actually requires a lot of skill?” And I’m like, “I’m doing better than you are.”

KIRK: It is a very, very male-dominated field. Even…so our teams are actually 90-95% male.

LEAH: That’s Kirk again, who oversees Cal’s esports. He and others have recognized the problem and are taking action.

KIRK: Why we created the Cal Women in Gaming program is to continue to basically build more relationships with our women gamers who are interested in just being in that field. They wanted to create a safe space to continue to foster that sense of community and give women gamers, who are often kind of ostracized and kind of pushed aside and not really given a comfortable area to compete in games, a way for them to connect with students at Cal.

[MUSIC]

LEAH: Laura, I’ve been thinking…college is supposed to be about preparing students for the next phase of life. Right? For the real world. And at this point it seems obvious to me that esports has the potential to do that. But beyond the college level there’s a whole professional industry with teams and international competitions. And I guess I’m curious to know whether that’s something students like Lauren and Vincent are thinking of getting involved in post-graduation…

LAURA: Do you both hope to work in gaming? Do you see pursuing this, like, in a career later?

LAUREN: For me? Absolutely. As a data science major, I think there’s definitely a lot of opportunities like in game development, or esports analytics, there’s like a whole world of applications out there within the gaming industry, for sure.

VINCENT: For me, it’s more like a maybe. I’m a political science and ethnic studies major, so I haven’t really been able to decide between gaming or politics or focusing on ethnic studies or whatnot. But I’m just trying to do the best to keep my options open and see what gets you paid.

LAURA: That makes sense. Jobs should pay you.

LAUREN: Yeah, I agree. [laughs]

LAURA: So, there are actual career prospects in this industry, even outside of gaming itself. And like you said Leah, college is supposed to prepare students for their future. Seems like another good reason for Cal to make this investment.

KEVIN: Some percentage of the student body or in the sports body, you know may go on and become professionals. You know, a lot of esport professionals, they find high-paying tech jobs, right within the gaming industry. And so for example, if somebody is a top 100 player in League of Legends, that person I guarantee is going to get interviews at a number of different gaming companies that are looking to hire young talent. And I think filling in the collegiate level is a really important part of the ecosystem. You know, there’s college football players that go off and become the next, you know, Aaron Rodgers or Marshawn Lynch, and make, you know, have an amazing career at the highest level and, you know, make tens of millions of dollars…that’s happening in esports. The top-paid esport athletes in the world are making $4 or $5 million a year at this point. And so, and this is happening, you know, at a global level, not just in the U.S. And I think it’s going to be a potential real career path for the best collegiate players to go off and have a potential career, whether it’s being a player on a pro team and signing contracts that are worth millions of dollars, to being coaches, to being analysts, to being casters, and commentators at the professional leagues. That’s going to be amazing.

LAURA: It’s worth mentioning that some professional gamers can make millions of dollars a year, from streaming alone. In other words, they get famous just because other people like to watch them play. And I looked it up and as of 2019, PewDiePie, one of the most famous gamers, has somewhere around 105 MILLION followers and makes about $58.2 million per year, which, let me break it down for you, that’s $4.85 million per month or $160,000 per day.

LEAH: Oh my god. Yeah, I don’t think we can overstate it: This is a HUGE industry. So, Activision Blizzard, the company that owns leagues like Overwatch and Call of Duty, they’re valued at a similar price to Starbucks. And they’re not the only ones. A lot of these gaming companies have actually benefited from the pandemic since people haven’t been able to go watch live football. And actually revenue from esports is starting to rival that of traditional sports like, for example, wrestling.

LAURA: Oh wow. So clearly collegiate esports have outgrown their status as “just another campus club.” But then the question is: What’s it growing into?

LEAH: Yeah exactly. What you’re hitting on is this sort of existential debate around the future of amateur esports. And currently they’re not part of the NCAA, and there’s actually no umbrella organization or governing body that oversees college gaming whatsoever. But Kevin thinks there may be some benefit to the legitimacy that comes with, say, NCAA status.

KEVIN: There’s a lot of value to obviously having a, some sort of nationwide organization that helps to promote the visibility, kind of validate esports in some ways. If that happens at the NCAA, I think that would be a very positive for the industry.

Legitimacy is very important, because I think, you know, for a student to invest a significant amount of their time into an endeavor like this, you know, having organized tournaments, and understanding kind of how that fits into the hierarchy of tournaments is really important, right? Whether it’s the Olympics for sports like, you know, swimming, and others that become validation at the very highest level, or the NBA or NFL or some other organized sport for soccer or basketball, etc., you know, there’s kind of a career path for the very best of the best. And Cal is, of course, an incredible university that consistently sends athletes to the Olympics, sends athletes to the NFL, NBA, etc. And so I think it’s a huge validation to say that there is, this is an officially recognized sport.

LEAH: That said, there are some benefits to being independent, for example, students are free to take prize money they win, and otherwise profit off their athletic success, which isn’t currently allowed by the NCAA.

LAURA: Although that may soon be changing, as writer Bryan Schatz wrote in a fascinating piece for us last year called “College Athletes Could Soon Cash In.” We’ll share the link in our show notes if you want to read it. The TLDR is that recently, Gov. Newsom signed a bill allowing college athletes to make money from their name, image, and likeness.

LEAH: Yeah, so in a lot of ways it’s still very much an unresolved issue, this question of NCAA status. But one thing’s for sure, esports are big enough for the big leagues.

LAUREN: I watched like the League of Legends World Championships recently sometime in November with my friends. And I don’t think I’ve seen any other sporting event quite that big. Not even the Super Bowl. I know that the Super Bowl does not get as many viewers as League of Legends live streams, like for the championships. It’s incredible. So I think that in terms of just pure viewership, there is definitely potential for esports to have a place of really big events such as the Olympics.

LAURA: Ok, so I guess we’ll see where things go, but for now, all we know is that esports are here to stay.

LEAH: And will probably become more legitimate with time and fancier and fancier, as you predicted at the beginning.

[ESPORTS AUDIO]

[MUSIC IN]

LAURA: This is The Edge brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.

LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald with support from Pat Joseph and Maddy Weinberg. Special thanks to Lauren Tang, Vincent Cajayon, Kirk Robles, and Kevin Chou. Original music by Mogli Maureal.

[MUSIC OUT]

LAURA & LEAH: SPACEWAR! PEW PEW PEW!

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Indeed, gaming is still misunderstood even to this day. When you’re playing a highly-competitive game like CS:GO, you’re very tense and burning a lot of calories. You can navigate to https://wewatch.gg/ to see how professional CS:GO players look and you won’t see to many overweight guys among them. Getting to the highest skill levels is hard work.