If any game company wants to legitimize esports in the mainstream, it’s Riot Games. League of Legends is its moneymaker, its cash cow, but to take that next step requires the public at large to accept League as a legitimate sport — and not just a “video game.”
Enter the latest promotional video for the game. It starts with various media figures, both in and out of the sports world, such as Jimmy Kimmel, Whoopi Goldberg, and noted troll Colin Cowherd. It then transitions into many people defending esports, noting the passion and dedication of its players and fans, its attendance numbers (“71 million watched it last year … by 2017, it’ll be 145 million people watching it”), and a line about the government acknowledging professional video gamers as athletes.
It is, of course, marketing, using a few snippets of conversation to drive a narrative. The government recognizes esports athletes as athletes so that they can get visas — there’s no law that states you need to recognize e-athletes as athletes or anything like that.
As for the audience numbers, the “145 million viewers by 2017” total seems to come from this NewZoo report from 2014. It should be noted that this means 145 million enthusiasts across all esports. League of Legends may get a reasonable chunk of that, but there’s also Hearthstone, Dota 2, Overwatch, CS:GO, StarCraft II, and plenty of others to include in that total. Meanwhile, soccer alone is estimated to have about 3.5 billion fans — roughly half the planet — and even the small-by-comparison NFL thinks it has 270-300 million fans worldwide.
Where the video might be more successful is pointing out that passion and dedication of fans, and trying to at least paint esports as something that can be enjoyed in the same way as regular sports. You can compare unfavorably, if you want, the actions of playing a video game versus, say, making a tackle or running really fast, but when you get down to it, the fans are all the same. We sit on our couches or in our chairs, watching intently and cheering or cursing our team. That’s true whether you’re watching the Dallas Cowboys or Dignitas.
Maybe that’s the way to present esports and help it gain acceptance in the mainstream — not through misleading and unfavorable numerical comparisons, or the games and their athletes, which are very different from physical sports and their players (“If you don’t break a sweat, I don’t consider it a sport,” says Jenny McCarthy, who also thinks vaccines are dangerous). Instead, focus on the fans and the highs and lows of competition, which are the same for whatever league — “Champions” or “of Legends” — you’re talking about.