Duncan Partridge could see the revolution coming from miles away. He just didn’t think it would be televised.
“You know the comic The Far Side?” the former Iowa swimmer turned Big Ten Network associate producer said. “There was this one that I always think back to. It’s parents looking at their kid just gaming. ‘One day, he’s going to be making $100,000 playing video games.’
“Now that’s kind of happening. The stadiums are filled. And as a gamer, all of this, it blows me away to this day.”
When Partridge wasn’t training for or a part of Big Ten champion 200-meter and 400-meter relay teams in 2012, he was knee-deep in the books. Or as a brain snack, gathering friends and teammates over to his pad for a marathon session of Riot Games’ addictive hit, League of Legends, one of the most popular MOBA — as in, multiplayer online battle arena — franchises on the planet.
“There would be days we’d have like 14 people over at my house and we’d be doing the full 5-on-5 in League of Legends against each other in the same house,” Partridge says. “It was so much fun, it was wild.
“Still, to this day, (it’s an) easy way to keep in touch. I get text messages from my friends where there’s a game going on. It’s just hilarious to me, it’s just like a text about a football game, just, ‘Wow, did you see this play? Look what this team is doing.’ Just stuff like that.”
“I just always enjoyed gaming growing up. We used to joke that maybe video games will be on television, basically.”
The joke’s on him. It’s on all of us, gamers and non-gamers alike. A few weeks back, the Big Ten announced a partnership with Riot to become the first NCAA conference to establish a formal schedule of round-robin regular season and tournament play among teams that would represent member institutions.
E-sports have been televised before — DailyDot reported that the first week of ELeague broadcasts on TBS in spring 2016 averaged more than a half-million viewers — but it had never been sanctioned by a Power 5 collegiate league and feted as part of that league’s mainstream calendar of content. The Big Ten Network this winter is streaming five conference League of Legends matchups via its BTN2Go app every Monday, culminating with a telecast of the conference championship March 27 on the parent network.
— University LoL (@ulol) February 6, 2017
— Twitch (@Twitch) February 7, 2017
“I think, from the Big Ten Network’s perspective, you may have your regular basketball fans, your wrestling fans,” said Erin Harvego, BTN’s vice president of marketing. “To me, e-sports are just another form of content that appeals to a different audience that maybe we didn’t have before. That’s what I find really compelling.”
‘It’s a very real and surreal thing’
It’s not just compelling. It’s booming. The Big Ten has more schools in the current College League of Legends top 25 coaches poll (five) than in the latest men’s basketball coaches poll (three).
Purdue’s hoops team ranks 18th; its League team is 12th. Maryland’s men’s basketball is 22nd; its League team ranks 21st. (Michigan is the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the League top 25, at No. 9; Rutgers is No. 13; Ohio State is No. 22.)
The Big Ten title-winner will eventually compete in the League College Championship in late March. Riot recognizes roughly 700 college online gaming clubs and 25 universities currently offer some form of scholarship for e-sports.
The League of Legends World Championship in 2016 was broadcast by 23 different carriers and shown in 18 different languages, roughly as many as Super Bowl LI’s 20. The 2016 final series was reportedly watched by an audience of 43 million — or 3 million more than the 2016 World Series Game 7 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And Riot reported a peak concurrent viewership of 14.7 million for the final matchup:
14.7M peak concurrent viewership and 43M unique viewers for the League of Legends Worldchampionship 2016 https://t.co/CImDaoKAJk
— Marcel Feldkamp (@MarcelFeldkamp) December 6, 2016
League of Legends combines the team strategy of keyboard-based offerings with the hand-eye coordination of traditional console gaming. It’s a 5-on-5 contest — just like basketball — with the goal to score points in the opponent’s territory and to work together to achieve a group objective, usually the destruction of the other team’s base. Players control characters described as “champions,” each with their own unique set of abilities and strengths.
The sword-and-sorcery motif evokes memories of Dungeons & Dragons for the 40-and-over set. But in layman’s terms, it’s a bit closer to the spirit of the classic video game series, The Legend of Zelda.
Actually, think Zelda on steroids, and you’ve got a pretty fair starting point.
“There are ways in every game where the hand-eye definitely trumps the strategy, just because it’s so second nature with some of these games,” offers Jared Simonsen, president of the Madison eSports Club, which represents Wisconsin in the 2017 BTN competition. “There are little intricacies that come into play (that players) pick up such as being able to cancel the animation of an attack, where if you cut off 0.5 seconds off the animation of the attack so you can get the second attack in faster.”
Less than three years ago, the Madison eSports Club had roughly 50 members; at last count, it’s up to 200. Simonsen says he’s got enough League of Legends players to make up two divisions, one for the competitive players and one for a less intense crowd.
“One thing we do as an organization, for our social events is, we offer viewing parties,” Simonsen says. “We have all of our teams go against other colleges in their separate divisions. Every year, it seems, we have more and more teams for more and more games. Two years ago, they only had one team for every game, and they started to offer more teams of League of Legends this year. We decided we were going to have to try two teams of Overwatch, two teams for Heroes of the Storm.”
Simonsen attributes the growth to platforms such as Twitch and to the explosion of broadcast dollars — and broadcast money — on the professional scene. Reports in 2014 speculated that South Korean player Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok was fielding offers in the $1 million range from Chinese media conglomerates. While compensation details are usually hush-hush, in December 2015 one North American team, Ember, announced base salaries for five players ranging from $57,500 to $65,000 per year.
Robert Morris University in Chicago added e-sports to its athletics program in 2014, becoming the first university to do so; the University of Pikeville in Kentucky followed in 2015. In September, UC Irvine opened the first e-sports-specific arena at a public university. The Anteaters feature a coaching staff, analysts and 10 players on scholarship.
Simonsen’s group isn’t quite … well, there. They practice weekly, for at least three to six hours, minimum. A sophomore majoring in economics and communication arts, Simonsen plays in the club’s lowest League of Legends division and cracks that he’s “not at the skill level I should be.
“As I talk to the (top) division players more and more, it’s a very real and surreal thing. At this moment, when they’re playing, they’re playing (against schools), getting these scholarships and we’re playing against Big Ten teams. And I’m like, ‘You guys were always playing against colleges. This isn’t any different now. You’re just getting recognized for it.’”
‘I can’t explain it’
Harvego attended a League of Legends exhibition match at PAX East last April in Boston between teams from Michigan State and Ohio State, and “it was packed. It was standing room only. There was a hallway behind it and people were standing in that hallway looking (over) to watch it. Those games can go two-and-a-half to five hours, sometimes.
“And I was really surprised. As I was standing there watching it, what I noticed was that the audience was completely engaged in what they were watching. I asked my counterpart at Riot, ‘Why is that?’ What they said to me was, ‘All of them are gamers, they all participate in the game themselves. They like to watch other people play because it teaches them to play the game better.’
“Right then, I knew that we were on to something.”
BTN’s 2017 broadcast schedule is a one-year pilot program, officially. But if the clicks come back, this digital bandwagon is only going to pick up speed.
“Every time we got into conversations with (people) who want to know more about our organization, (we say), ‘Hey, we have a team playing on the Big Ten Network,’” Simonsen said. “And some people are like, ‘What, with video games?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’
“I never like to compare (traditional) sports to e-sports. And that’s where I fall on that side of the argument. It’s one of those where people (say), ‘Well, you’re not playing a sport. And I’m like, ‘You’re right. It’s an e-sport.’ But it’s definitely a kind of competition.”
Partridge admits he doesn’t compete as much as he did as an undergrad — real life, and real work, tend to get in the way. But when he got word of the Riot partnership, his ears perked up, and he helped put together this segment with BTN host Mike Hall explaining the similarities between League of Legends and basketball to a non-champions audience:
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) February 6, 2017
That said, he still can’t believe how quickly the domain of dorm rooms and basements and man caves everywhere has been embraced by the mainstream. Or how the man behind The Far Side, Gary Larson, proved to be a soothsayer in more ways than one:
— Maytag Madsence (@MaytagMadsence) April 25, 2015
“I think the gamers are just as surprised as even some of the traditional sports folks,” Partridge says. “With League of Legends, it’s kind of like the NFL of e-sports, where it’s just the most popular, really sets the market and all that.
“I can’t explain it. I wish I could.”