The Case for Gaming

“Hello?” “No, Halo.” “Halo?” “Yeah. It’s a video game.” Coach Stevens was confused. I was really nervous. There are a number of reasons a high school recruit would call his future school. But this was definitely a first for him. “And you want to play in a tournament?” “Yeah … I’m on a team with some friends and there’s a cash prize, so I just want to make sure it’s cool with the NCAA.” “A video game tournament?” “Yeah.” “Uhhhh, okay, let me look into that and get back to you.” ***

Contra. Duck Hunt. Double Dragon.

If these phrases elicit any sort of emotional response inside of you, we have something in common. I get the warm and fuzzies just saying those names out loud. Some of my best memories growing up were playing these games with my dad. A lot of people my age have similar stories. To us, video games have never been thought of as a fad or something strictly for “nerds.” They were just fun moving puzzles that required hand-eye coordination and an active mind. And they’ve always been around. More importantly, as we grew up and matured, the consoles and games matured as well.

Ocarina of Time.

If that phrase elicits any sort of emotional reaction inside of you, then we really have something in common. When that game came out, I was just reaching the age when N64 was in its prime.

Those. Were. The. Days.

I fondly remember sitting in my living room for hours and hours playing that Zelda game. The time would pass by in an instant because I’d be so focused and mesmerized.

Even though they’re an important pastime for millions and millions of people, there are still some serious stigmas surrounding gaming, for a variety of reasons. For one, our society’s conception of what a video game is has changed so drastically in the past two decades that unless you’re pretty plugged into the industry, it can be difficult to keep up. Non-gamers generally hear the term “video games” and immediately associate it with outdated stereotypes.

But to me, video games have always been an escape. They’re something I associate with relaxation. And if nothing else, they’re really, really, really fun.

I think I was initially drawn to serious gaming for the same reasons I was drawn to sports: I’m a naturally competitive person. I enjoy being placed on an even playing field against a competitor and trying to outperform them. It drives me. Growing up, video games allowed me to feed this competitive drive while still hanging out with my friends and being a kid.

Now when the Xbox came out, that was really a game-changer (in a manner of speaking). It wasn’t even the Xbox specifically, but how gaming was changing around the time that Xbox came out. Suddenly, video game bragging rights weren’t reserved for arcades and sleepovers with friends. Now everyone in the world who shared a common interest in a game could be connected online. The world became one gigantic living room: a very loud, lewd, amazing — at times annoying — but by every measure incredible, living room.

A large chunk of my free time during high school was spent in my basement playing Halo. That was all I wanted to do. School dances? For the birds. It was Master Chief or bust. And I wouldn’t change anything.

With Halo, the competition aspect was taken to another level. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown a controller across the room in anger or roared in excitement after a well-placed frag got me a triple kill. My mom would always know when I came upstairs from the basement whether or not I had moved up in rank or moved down. She knew to leave me alone for a little bit if I stormed up to my room and slammed the door. Or if I came up and was super talkative, she knew that I had won.

If it were up to me at that age, I would have spent every waking hour gaming. That, of course, wasn’t ideal. So eventually my parents began putting me on a two-hour time limit whenever I gamed. Every night at around 10:30 or 11 p.m., they’d shut the Internet off in the house to make sure I’d go to bed.

Some people might classify that as an addiction, but my gaming hobby didn’t hinder my development as a basketball player or student. In fact, having passions outside of sports probably made me better at them in the long run.

But to this day, despite constantly increasing popularity and acceptance, a lot of people (some even with their own national syndicated radio show) will roll their eyes if you say you like to spend your free time playing video games. There’s a bizarre logic that if you’re willing to put in the time to become good at a video game, you won’t be willing to put in the time to become good at anything else. This complete nonsense regresses the conversation surrounding these thoughtful, challenging, advanced games that are consistently pushing barriers.

When discussing the legitimacy of video games as a pastime, for one reason or another, people always go back to the same question: Is it a sport?

My emphatic answer to that is: Why does it matter?

Video games are fun. They’re getting more fun. And more people than ever like watching them.

Yes, I said watching.

There’s something really exciting happening in the gaming world right now since live streaming became popular in the past five years or so.

Games are extremely complex and nuanced now. Take, for example, a game that’s already past its prime, but for a long while was the dominant force in competitive gaming: Starcraft II. In my opinion, it’s the most difficult game to get good at. I put hours and hours (and hours) of time into it and basically amounted to an average player (well, to be fair, I almost made it to Master level, which is pretty good). What do I mean when I say the game is complex? Well, there’s a metric in Starcraft called Actions Per Minute (APM). The best players in the world hover at an APM of about 300. That’s five actions per second, with each individual action at least having some impact on the final outcome of the match.

Given that context, watching players’ minds work in real time is nothing short of fascinating, and it’s also the best way to improve. Plenty of people watch major sporting events, but the vast majority do so strictly to be entertained. When gamers are watching professionals, yes, they’re entertained, but they’re also trying to learn. In my opinion, that’s pretty cool.

Now some of you might be confused as to why I’m using the term “professionals” when referring to video game players. Well, in the past few years in particular, professional gaming has become a thing, and it’s becoming more and more of a thing. This isn’t even a fringe culture. It’s a movement, really. And as a non-gamer, you can either acknowledge this fact, or you can be wrong.

The United States is slowly coming around, but in Europe and Asia, the secret is out. Professional gaming is booming. Just like people enjoy watching different sports, the popularity of spectator games fluctuates based on region.

Contra, Duck Hunt and Double Dragon have been replaced by Hearthstone, Counter Strike, League of Legends and many others. In August, a game called Defense of the Ancients 2 (commonly known as Dota 2) holds its international championships. Here’s a photo from the event:

This isn’t in Korea or Sweden. This is a sold-out arena in Seattle full of people watching teams compete for a combined prize pool of $16 million.

This isn’t a fad. It’s the future.

Professional gamers themselves are developing a massive following. These guys train just as rigorously as any professional athlete to master their craft. And while they probably couldn’t be distinguished in a crowd of people, when they log in under their usernames — whether it be Doublelift, Faker or Snip3down (who actually grew up down the street from me; really good tennis player) — there are hundreds of thousands of people who want to watch them do their thing.

I’m not writing this to defend gaming. It doesn’t need defending. I just want non-gamers to recognize this incredible thing that’s happening right now. Video game culture has now gone mainstream — and we’re only scratching the surface. Because whether you acknowledge or not, you’re probably a gamer. Have you ever felt a certain rush when a perfect candy arrives and takes out multiple rows? You’re a gamer. Have you killed some time by flinging a bird into a rudimentary structure? Gamer. Have you moved even numbers around to make them add up to 2048? That’s gaming, bro.

These days, I see kids playing games on iPads and I can’t help but wonder where we’ll be when they’re my age. In the meantime, I’m going to keep lugging around my Razer laptop on road trips so I can get a few games of League in after morning shootaround. I’m a 100 percent unapologetic gamer. And you should be, too.

Coach Stevens eventually gave me the green light to play in that Halo tournament, by the way. We won. Owned some noobs. No big deal.

Gordon will be an ongoing gaming correspondent for The Players’ Tribune. He also has a gaming section on  his personal website, which you can check out here.