Esports: Online gaming poised to take over, as mainstream sport closes down

Timing, they say, is everything and Esports NZ seems poised to ride a wave of opportunism into the sporting mainstream.

With most of the world's traditional codes bowing to the coronavirus pandemic, online gaming is well placed to replace the real thing - at least for the short term - and carve a sizeable niche for itself into the future.

As New Zealand heads indoors for a month, esports has finally achieved official endorsement from Sport NZ and is now poised to gain new popularity among Kiwis desperate for a competitive fix.

And funding.

"It is perfect timing, but it has been a four-year journey to get to this point," NZ Esports Federation spokesman Duane Mutu told The AM Show.

"With COVID-19, that kind of fast-tracked the rubber stamping of it all… perfect for everyone starting the lockdown today."

Until now, esports - or egaming - has struggled for traction against the traditional sporting codes, even though many of the world's top sportspeople are avid gamers in their spare time.

Now that pastime has a chance to strut its stuff on an empty stage. 

"It is competitive video gaming," explains Mutu. "It's where either a team or individual will take on someone at a title.

Esports spokesman Duane Mutu talks to The AM Show
Esports spokesman Duane Mutu talks to The AM Show. Photo credit: The AM Show

"Most of the big titles people will have heard of are things like 'Dota' or 'League of Legends' or 'CS Go'- those are the major competitive titles around the world.

"There's prizemoney, packed stadiums around the globe - up until pre-COVID-19 - and players competing in front of large crowds for glory and money."

Many purists - including AM Show sports host and former Blackcaps cricketer Mark Richardson - would argue that a bunch of computer nerds playing games is not a real sport.

"You have to understand that Sport NZ went through a four-year assessment and had to come to the conclusion of whether esports met the definition of sport," says Mutu.

"They unanimously decided that, 'yes, it does', therefore gaining status.

"There will be pro-gamers saying, 'absolutely, this is a sport'. It's competitive, it's super hard to do and only one percent will become elite and earn prizemoney, just like the traditional men and women of the world."

Part of the attraction of gaming is the 'cool factor' - like mixed martial arts - that separates it from traditional sports, but Mutu insists Sport NZ recognition is vital to esports' growth.

"When we set up the federation, we didn't know where the future would come, but we had a vision for that. It was really about trying to find where we fitted in the landscape.

"The Government said, 'for you to get some form of support, you need to be in the National Sport Organisation realm - that's why we went down that particular track.

"It opens up funding opportunities that all the other traditional organisations get.

"On the surface, if you speak to gamers and people in esports, a lot will ask why does it really matter.

"But as an industry and something that needs to grow - we have about a million-plus esports participants in New Zealand - you need to access funding for education."