In front of me, a young girl is sat, leant forward, hands clenched together, fidgeting as she watched her sporting idols go to battle to try and avenge defeat last week against a team at the top of the league and unbeaten this season.
I’m not at a football match or inside a rugby stadium, I’m at the Vue Cinema on Fulham Broadway, where on this Friday evening a screen has been converted into the Gfinity Esports Arena. It’s ‘Street Fighter Night’.
‘esports are no longer the preserve of spotty teenagers in their bedrooms’
Now in its second season, the Gfinity Elite Series features eight professional esports teams, who compete against each other on three different computer games over nine weekends, with the competition broadcast via both Twitch and the online-only BBC Three.
The first of these games is Rocket League, a relatively new offering compared to the others, in which two teams of five play against each other in what is essentially football with cars, but with more excitement and explosions than what Top Gear once broadcast as car football.
Second, there is Counter Strike: Global Offensive, which without doubt the most popular game amongst the three beyond the series, it has been bought on the computer-gaming hub Steam over 25 million times. Known as CS:GO, two teams of five are tasked with killing each other and either planting or defusing a bomb in the middle of the map.
Of the three, Street Fighter V is probably the most recognisable, even to those who aren’t avid gamers. It remains close to its arcade origins, with both players moving left and right only and it still features its classic finishing moves and typically Japanese styling.
Now, I’m not here to give a jargon-heavy description of the night’s play; my motivation is to argue the case for why esports are no longer the preserve of spotty teenagers in their bedrooms, and deserve to be taken seriously as real sports.
To begin, let’s look at the sheer size of the esports community. In 2016, its global viewing figures via streaming service Twitch and other online streaming platforms sat at 320 million people.
‘This has created a huge online community which is watching for free; a massive factor when considering esports’ young fanbase and target audience’
To put that into comparison, Formula One currently has an international viewership of 500 million, and 400 million watched the Rabobank Hockey World Cup in 2014.
Bigger figures, yes, but both hockey and F1 have been around for a long time. The first Grand Prix in Pau was held in 1950, and hockey began a century earlier, whereas professional gaming is recognised to have begun when 2,000 people in the US played Quake in the Red Annihilation tournament in 1997, with the prize being gaming developer John Carmack’s Ferrari 328 GTS.
Esports’ rapid rise in popularity means that it has the fanbase and has the growth potential to challenge sports that have been played for decades.
On the topic of this community, the night at Gfinity also revealed an unexpected diversity amongst the crowd, with the male-to-female ratio roughly 50/50. Obviously the audience was not necessarily representative of gaming in general, but to see such an even split was a positive sign.
The way a sport is covered in the media can make a huge difference to its profile. The punditry of the likes of Thierry Henry and Gary Neville is hugely important to football, and in their way, esports are no different – but with more technological platforms for users to chose from.
Whilst Sky spend billions to transmit the Premier League via their satellites, the top esports leagues in the world use Twitch, a live-streaming service.
The unique relationship between the fans and the professional gamers in esports, where many gamers play online and broadcast it on Twitch or YouTube, means that competition broadcasters can show the tournaments via the same platform as what the community is already watching their favourite players on.
This has created a huge online community which, most vitally, is watching for free; a massive factor when considering esports’ young fanbase and target audience.
This makes the BBC’s decision to broadcast the Gfinity Series on BBC Three via the BBC iPlayer seen strange.
It means viewers must use a different online viewing platform than the rest of the community. Even the players stream themselves on Twitch when they aren’t in competition, which makes it even harder to understand why anyone would switch over to iPlayer.
‘The four other presenters are the esports equivalent of the Match Of The Day panel, or the Test Match Special line-up. Their knowledge of the games is incredible.’
Are Twitch users going to switch over to a ‘traditional’ broadcaster like the BBC? It seems unlikely to say the least.
However, it must be said that both Gfinity and every other esports broadcaster does an incredible job of making esports seem more than just people playing computer games.
The Gfinity Arena perfectly encapsulates the style and theme that any serious gamer will recognise. The studio is detailed with aggressive, angular lines and red lighting that makes the whole studio reflect the style that modern gaming computers use.
The huge screens both behind the presenters and set inside the two tables mean that when both players are in combat, you can see exactly what is going on.
This is while the players themselves sit raised, above the same screens that you’re watching them play on, also with monitors behind them showing their names and a picture of them in a classic Sky Sports arms-folded style.
If you take the Fantasy Football Show with Paul Merson on Sky, their studio reflects an old changing room. This is esports’ equivalent.
From the set to those inside it, the presenters also help esports raise itself to just ‘sport’ status.
The use of Tom Deacon as the main presenter, a comedian rather than an esports expert, means that he is entry point for someone who is still learning the ins and outs of the series’ games.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, he admitted that he is learning all the time about competitive gaming and the intricacies of each game and its tactics.
On the other hand, the four other presenters or ‘casters’ as they are called in esports, are the esports equivalent of the Match Of The Day panel, or the Test Match Special line-up. Their knowledge of the games is incredible.
Onto the games themselves, and there are so many similarities between esports and its ‘traditional’ rivals that its hard to really differentiate between the two other than one is done via a micro-processor.
‘Choosing a certain character or weapon to your advantage is no different, even if it’s on screen rather than on the pitch’
For example, esports is not lacking tactically. In terms of Street Fighter, different characters mean different moves and different play styles that may suit a certain player better.
For example, there was a moment during game one on Friday when the casters were baffled by a certain character selection when going into battle.
It shows how using a certain character can be weaker in a certain situation, and that having the knowledge to make use of the best possible match-up for victory is key.
Having extensive knowledge of the game you’re playing is key across every game that is played professionally. In any shoot-em-up, if the map you’re going to play on is full of interior, tight, close-quarter spaces, you’re hardly going to want to take a sniper rifle in there.
In comparison to football, taking the correct tools into battle applies in both sports. When Arsenal played Manchester City and Chelsea this season, Arsene Wenger decided to select Alex Iwobi rather than Mesut Ozil in behind the striker as he has a higher work rate and is more likely to aid the defensive effort.
Choosing to use a certain character or weapon to your advantage is no different, even if it’s on screen rather than on the pitch.
There has even been moments when the real and virtual worlds have collided and created incredible success.
The Gran Turismo Academy has seen players from across the globe set lap times on the GT racing game and the fastest are then trained to become real-world drivers who can compete in international motorsport.
Lucas Ordonez has gone from racing round the Le Mans circuit on his PlayStation at home in Spain to racing round it in the Le Mans 24 Hours, and coming second-in-class in 2011.
Nissan, who partner Gran Turismo for this series, even entered an ‘all-gamer car’ in the Dubai 24 Hour race in 2012, which finished on the podium.
To further draw comparisons between esports and its rivals, the financial might of the players is now being tapped into by Coutts, the bank and ‘wealth manager’.
With the prize funds that are involved in competitions across the world, plus YouTube and Twitch revenue for all of the major players, the bank of the Royal Family are now looking to expand their services to notable esports stars.
Speaking to the Guardian, Peter Flavel, the chief executive of Coutts, said that they are going to treat video gamers “much like footballers”.
If a major bank is treating them in the same standing as other sportsmen and women, its surely time that the rest of us follow suit.
Taking into account the size of the esports community, its financial potential and above all, the time it has taken for this all to happen, it’s clear that, before too long, Sky and BT will have to commentate and cover esports just like they would golf or cricket.
However, with the unique way that esports competitions are broadcast and consumed, twinned with the huge reliance on the Premier League that Sky has always had to bring in customers, could we now start to see a decline in traditional television broadcasting?
There is some evidence to suggest that viewing figures for live games across a number of sports, including football and the NFL, are declining.
As the youth of today view their sport online rather than watching traditional TV, the rise of esports could not only elbow its way into the public eye alongside football and rugby, but it could also help transform the way we watch television altogether.