I started playing Valorant, a multiplayer game from the studio behind League of Legends, when it was introduced in 2020. The free-to-play, competitive first-person shooter from Riot Games, takes inspiration from Counter-strike and Overwatch, but goes into the territory of Fortnite with slick gameplay, distinctive characters, and maps. But I had no idea that watching the same game being played live in a stadium packed with thousands of people would be such a different experience.
I have never quite understood the concept of other people playing video games, widely known as Esports, where different teams take on each other in professional video game competitions. But watching the finals of the 2023 Valorant Champions Tour in Los Angeles has changed my perception for sure.
Sitting down in the sprawling KIA Forum in Inglewood, California, I experience extreme emotions all around me. People were jumping up and down and cheering for their favourite teams, not much different to what you will experience in a football or cricket stadium for a crucial international match. These guys too love their teams just like fans of other sports.
Watching a crucial Valorant competitive match is nerve-racking. The arena was akin to an emotional cauldron, exactly what makes Esports such an important part of local and national identity among certain younger age groups.
Like in professional sports, in Esports too multiple professional leagues set up annual competitions, and publishers like Riot Games and Activision host events to promote their games. Players represent different countries and have different skill levels — the top players can earn up to seven-figure incomes and attract passionate followers.
But leveling up to the ranks of a professional player and excelling at a game involves coaching, training, passion to win, exemplary hand-eye coordination, mastery over the game controller, motivation, and hours of daily practice. Only a few can make the final cut.
The skilled Valorant players at this championship were mostly under 22 and the audience, maybe, younger. Quite a few were dressed up as game characters, displaying their love for the sport. For some, attending Champions 2023 provides an emotional outlet, for others, it was a platform to work on becoming a pro and to learn from the best. This is no longer a geek subculture, restricted to events like ComicCon. Esports fandom is changing and evolving in significant ways. They are mainstream enough to sell out giant arenas. Younger consumers relate to watching other people play video games and are ready to pay good money for a ticket to watch a live Esports competition in person, buy merchandise, and celebrate a professional video game. Not only is Esports a new form of entertainment for the younger demographic but it also reflects on the career choices they might want to make. After all – at a professional level, the game is no longer a weekend activity for the youth. Instead, it has become a marriage between money and fame. This is why companies like Riot Games believe so much in the professional gaming scene, which is becoming the standard model through which a swathe of fans relate to pop culture.
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