Whether it’s with a knockout finish at an EVO fighting game championship, a crushing play in League of Legends, or a dorm-wide Super Smash Bros. tourney, eSports are taking the world by storm. Playboy’s eSports Highlights articles celebrate and chronicle their rise.
A veritable war of words hilariously erupts whenever ESPN decides to broadcast eSports on their channel. Colin Cowherd threatens to resign if ordered to cover video games, and Polygon tell him to start packing up his desk.
Curiously, though, I enjoy an eSport like League of Legends much for the same reasons as a sport like hockey. Actually, they share quite a bit in common in terms of gameplay and culture—in addition to the fact that big-mouthed ESPN personalities don’t want to cover either of them.
Both are fast yet methodical games with a fairly simple objective. In hockey, five players try to fling a puck into their opponent’s goal, all while keeping the rubber disc out of their own. In League of Legends, five players try to destroy several turrets in order to destroy their opponent’s Nexus, all while keeping their own turrets safe from attacks.
Both games depend on players adequately performing in only a few predefined roles; a stark contrast to the complex makeup of an NFL team. Though many players make up a hockey team, they fill one of six roles on the ice at any given time: a goalie, a pair of defensemen, and a forward line consisting of a left winger, a center, and a right winger. Of course, each player performs differently in a role—some defensemen play more offensively while other, stay-at-home defensemen stick back to block shots and clog up space in their own zone—but they’re still expected to maintain the general responsibilities of the position.
In League of Legends, five players fill five different positions on the three-laned map: in most games, that means a top-lane tank who stacks armor and health points; a mid-lane mage who deals high damage with spells; a bottom-lane marksman who attacks from afar; a bottom-lane support class who assists the marksman early in the game and provides helpful “buffs” (health, attack speed, etc. increases) and offensive utility (stunning opponents, for example); and a “jungler” of mixed stats who sneaks into various lanes with the main goal of defeating enemy players’ characters (also known as “ganking”). These roles can vary, but the tenets are pretty well established.
PACING AND FLOW
What both League of Legends and hockey nail is pacing and flow—a balance of gameplay that demands constant attention with sudden bursts of elation or despair. Much occurs between scoring goals and taking objectives. A key aspect of hockey is creating opportunity, primarily in sustained possession of the puck. Defensemen snuff out rushes into their zone and help push play towards their opponents’ zones. Forwards create space and maintain pressure by checking along the boards, passing the puck effectively, and quickly retrieving rebounds off the goalie. Coaches seek favorable matchups with line changes, like throwing their best scoring line out against the opponent’s weakest defense pairing. The resulting action feels like a suspenseful tug-of-war before an eruption of adrenaline when a puck makes its way past the goal line.
Opportunity means much the same in League of Legends, only it’s channeled through gaining gold, leveling up, and seizing map control. The tank, mage, and marksman spend the early game farming—dealing the killing blow to non-player creatures (“creeps”) for gold. Players can also gain an edge by harassing opponents with attacks to prevent them from farming. That can also lead to a kill of another player’s character, resulting in not only more gold and experience, but a huge denial of such resources for the opposing champion.
Meanwhile the support and jungler spend some of their early game warding, or scouting to see what’s on specific sections of the map. More vision not only means tougher ganks for the enemy jungler, but also more opportunities for kills when opposing champions saunter over to your side of the map. And like hockey, if faced with an unfavorable champion matchup, players will often switch lanes—the marksman and support heading top to face the tank, for example.
The key to landing a big play in either hockey or League of Legends is momentum. Three goals in hockey, though definitely significant, seem like a molehill compared to three touchdowns in football. One lucky bounce or lapse in judgment can change the entire tenor of a game. Take for example the 2010 Game 7 playoff matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. Down three points, the Flyers ended the first period by scoring a garbage goal shot with a broken stick. The team went on to score three more goals to win the series.
Much is said about the strength of early leads in League of Legends, but they can evaporate in an instant with smart teamwork. As time goes on, kills give more gold and enemies stay dead for far longer. Theoretically, a losing team can avoid team fights and focus on warding their own side of the map, giving themselves a defensive advantage. One careless step by an enemy player can then lead to a kill, which allows the losing team time to grab an objective and gain the advantage.
GOALS WITHIN REACH
Plenty of kids (and adults) dream of getting drafted onto their favorite sports teams. That dream exists for League of Legends players too, and in the case of the game going pro is just within reach for many. Everyday players in the upper divisions of the game’s ranked ladder may find themselves playing against pros in random online matches, and those who rise high enough might find themselves trying out for a pro team.
And while fans idolize traditional athletes, the same is true of eSports players. Both the NHL and League of Legends feature some of the oddest personalities you can find in a competitive setting. For example, one of the NHL’s best players is Claude Giroux, a grilled cheese fanatic who once got tossed in the drunk tank for copping a policeman’s ass. On the flip side, one of the best European teams in the League Championship Series (LCS) named themselves the Unicorns of Love, and they constantly use weird tactics. Many pro teams even produce behind-the-scenes documentary series online that have more in common with HBO’s unhinged 24/7 Road to the NHL Winter Classic than the stiff sports PR done for traditional media.
Though the NHL season ended with the Chicago Blackhawks hoisting their third cup in a decade, the LCS is in the midst of its Season 5 Summer Split. Even if you spend your days playing Fantasy Hockey/Football/Baseball/whatever instead of Fantasy League (yes, it’s a thing), think about giving eSports a chance. You might be surprised at its familiarity.