Video games plug into Empire State Winter Games

Electronic sports growing in popularity worldwide

Mallory Mackesy, left, and Carly Sardine play the video game “Call of Duty” during down time at the International Children’s Winter Games, in which they were competitors, on Jan. 7 at the Conference Center in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

LAKE PLACID — This year’s Empire State Winter Games will add a new event that doesn’t require skis, skates or a snowboard, but rather a TV, a DualShock controller and a copy of EA’s “Madden NFL ’19.”

Esports (electronic sports) is the newest addition to the ESWG, a multi-sport event from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3 that is expected to draw more than 2,000 athletes.

The football video game tournament will be single-elimination, and first place wins a $300 gift card to the video game store chain GameStop. The event is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 2 at Paul Smith’s College, and registration costs $20.

The ESWG has adapted in recent years, since the state of New York dropped it and local municipalities and institutions took over its management. Because the athletes are generally students coming to the North Country with their families, the ESWG has taken on a more tourist attraction role. In 2018, the events featured an athletes’ village with ziplines, live music, food and beer tastings for adults.

Event Director Molly Mayer said the esports tournament is designed to enhance the overall experience of the ESWG and appeal to a wider range of competitors.

“If someone is competing as a ski jumper, but they also want to do the esports tournament, they can,” she said in a phone interview Thursday. “Or if someone comes to compete in an event and brings their younger sibling along, they might want to participate.”

Mayer said the idea for the Madden tournament came during a site tour at Paul Smith’s College.

“They said they were interested in starting a club or an esports team, and so we offered to partner with them and host the competition,” she said. “I think it’s a way to help support the communities and draw people to Paul Smith’s.”

As of Friday morning there were 22 competitors signed up for the Madden tournament, and there will be an esports group marching during the opening ceremony at the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena Thursday night.

What to veterans of the games think of this new development? Chris Morris of Saranac Lake, who competed as a Nordic skier and biathlete in the ESWG during the 1990s, said the inclusion of video games is different, but he’s interested to see how it plays out.

“I’m pretty sure if you asked me when I was 13, I would’ve looked at you sideways,” he said, “but there’s a whole world and culture around esports now that 34-year-old me kind of understands.

“I’m all for this kind of stuff and expanding competition. I’m not one to say no to things just because they’re different.”

Esports events have been around since the 1970s, and the ’80s saw the first large-scale competitions to see who can get the highest score in games such as “Space Invaders.” However, for a long time, video games were viewed as a gimmicky, niche form of competition.

In the ’90s and 2000s, esports became a cultural phenomenon in South Korea because of massive broadband upgrades and, possibly, high rates of youth unemployment. With tournaments for “Street Fighter II,” “Starcraft” and “Counter-Strike,” South Korea became the first country to make esports commercially successful. Professional gamers in South Korea are equivalent to rock stars in the U.S.

Though still not as successful as any of the major sporting leagues in North America, esports are grabbing people’s attention in the U.S.. About 106 million people tuned in for the 2017 “League of Legends” championship. In comparison, only 15 million watched the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

While not physically athletic, esports are often regarded as a competition of skill, patience and strategy. Esports do have their own competitions such as the World Cyber Games and the Championship Gaming Series, but they’ve also made their way in to events focused more on athletics such as the Asian Games and the Badger State Games, which are kind of like the Wisconsin version of the ESWG.

Though not a medal event, an esports exhibition was held before the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and five professional gamers from the South Korea-based team KT Rolster participated in the torch relay.

Esports won’t be present at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and it’s not clear yet if it will be a medal event at the 2024 Paris Olympics, but International Olympic Committee officials are said to have been in talks to introduce video games to the Olympic Games.