I used to play competitive basketball, and although I love the game like a bad cliché, basketball wasn’t necessarily my first love. I only started playing ball at age 12 - seven years after I picked up my true first love: A black game boy.
Nintendo Game Boy. A black 8-bit Nintendo Game Boy.
Still, being an overly tall person of melanin-heavy descent, I couldn’t escape the stereotype of hooping. Peer-pressured onto the courts, my no-hops-nor-skills-having-ass showed up to practice. Decked out in headband, jersey and wristbands, I looked as ridiculous as I was terrible. Yes, at home I was peerless in the use of my black Game Boy, but on the court, this black Boy had no Game.
No matter. I knew my calling: The digital realm was mine. Long, before there was online gaming, I was man-handling the NBA Live 2001 AI and local friends alike. I was a sure-shot for gaming stardom, but instead of an arrow to the knee, it was the lack of future prospects that stopped me. The real court had more to offer, so eventually I used the body I grew into and translated it into some championships: I traded game saves for medals.
Now, while it’s cool that I have silver, gold and memories that are mine to keep forever, I also have injuries that are mine to keep. Forever. A permanently injured back, two screws in my ankle and knee surgery. So you know what...
This wouldn't have happened if I'd stuck with NBA Live.
I've long since stopped playing ball. My body obviously wasn't having it and coming back from injuries is tough, especially once you hit 24+ and get your ass handed to you by 17-year-olds. I didn't need that in my life. So with the dawn of high-speed internet, I expanded my mastery of the digital realm and took my skills online to get my ass handed to me by 14-year-olds.
Why the long ass intro? Because it's my column, so chill out and bear with me:
From my days on the court to me typing this, times definitely changed. What was a waste of time to my generation has generally become a way of life to newer generations. These days, I don't game competitively anymore, but I sure am competitively raging whenever I get beat up in Street Fighter V. I’m also competitively engaged when I watch the LEC and I take it as seriously as I do watching real sports. Is it life or death? No. But anything I dedicate a larger portion of my life to deserves to be taken seriously – at least that’s what my ex said before we broke up...
Sports or esports, I see no difference, but the majority of people still do: While ‘real’ athletes are borderline gods, most people are still surprised, if not shocked, when they hear that someone is making millions playing video games competitively.
Admittedly though, I’m not one to judge nor am I an exception: I’m looking at a Kobe shirt on my wall as I type. The black mamba's presence graces my living room. If you’re not familiar with basketball, black mamba probably sounds like a movie from your deleted search history, and it might just as well be because Kobe Bryant was certifiably having his way with the game of basketball. I say was because Kobe has since tragically passed away in a helicopter crash in 2020. Now, the Kobe shirt I’ve owned for years is hanging on my wall in memory and nobody thinks anything weird of it. It’d probably be different if I had a shirt of Faker, Doublelift, Olofmeister or shroud on my wall though.
When I grew up, esports was a garage, or LAN event at best. It was far from the massive industry it is now. Basketball was there, though. Kobe was there. He was there at 17 in 1996, playing his first game, and I was still there, 20 years later, when he played his last game at 37. The fact that I played basketball myself obviously has something to do with my idolization, but the fact that it is a physical activity does not. It’s about what he inspired that turned me into a fan: The discipline, the hustle, the grit. The rollercoaster rides you go on with your favorite player and favorite teams. The rivalries they have in their respective competition, and those I have in heated debates with friends. It doesn’t really matter if it’s an orange ball, a black and white checkered one or a pigskin. It doesn’t matter if it’s race cars, mouse and keyboard or gamepad – the nature of the competition is the same.
The average sports fan is often so far removed from playing the sports they watch, it might as well be digital. Still, people don’t take gaming seriously because it is digital and 'not real'. Because it's just a children's game. You just pick up the controller and play. Anyone could do it at any moment, and it’s just a matter of practicing when to push which button. That's the common anti-esports consensus, and it's funny to me, because, first of all: all ball sports are literally children’s games. Also, you could just pick up a basketball and dribble, throw a football or kick the European version of it at any moment. The entry barrier and skill ceiling are the same – if not less for sports. Just because one started in kids' bedrooms and the other one on kids' playgrounds doesn’t make them much different: For the average Joe making 10 consecutive three point shots on the court is as unrealistic as 10 consecutive headshots in any shooter. The same work ethic is required in order to flourish. The same discipline to hone your craft. Each craft just requires you to hone different aspects of your mind and body.
Former NBA champion and standout defensive player Rick Fox bought an esports team a couple of years back. Fox had serious success as an NBA player, so I’ll excuse him for naming the esports team after himself: Echo Fox. Within Echo Fox, Rick instilled the same discipline he once had as an NBA pro:
- No more getting up at 11.
- No more scrimmaging randomly and publically and revealing tactics.
- No more unhealthy eating and snacking.
- No more getting to bed late.
- And much, much more, physical exercise.
Rick Fox’ practices have since become industry standards. He and anyone knowledgeable on esports knows: eAthletes are putting in hard work. Professional-athlete-levels-of-work. If you respect that at all, then eAthletes deserve that respect. All that people admire about the spirit of competition, work ethic and the discipline of sports… it’s all there in esports too.
If I grew up in this day and age, I’d pick up esports over traditional sports in a heartbeat. Save myself the surgeries, the accumulated 14 months of my life I spent on crutches and the lingering pains I’ll keep on carrying with me forever. Besides, I picked up basketball way too late anyway. If my story were written on esports, I’d finally be that guy: ‘Destined for greatness, at just five years old, his path to esports immortality was predetermined when he got his young hands on his first black game boy.’