Jason Gay

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E-sports aren’t nearly the weirdest event to have graced the several iterations of Madison Square Garden, which hosted poultry shows during a more agrarian age and week-long walking races that thrilled a pre-automobile audience. The question is whether the action, mostly virtual, at the League of Legends World Championship, which held its semifinals recently at MSG, announces a new and lasting arena-friendly competition or if someday these gatherings will be looked back on as are handsome chickens and panting pedestrians.

After attending the LLWC gathering, Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal was transformed from skeptic to (sort of a) true believer, despite his Frogger Era upbringing. “If you are a serious e-sports fan, I apologize that this column probably reads as if the Journal sent a dog to cover the World Series,” he says, in one of his typically witty articles.

Without necessarily understanding the game, Gay explains the culture and the seemingly mysterious allure of people watching a screen showing other people playing a game on another screen. God knows if such a spectacle will truly sustain, but the NFL in 2016 probably wishes its athletes were comprised of pixels, unblemished by domestic-violence charges and undiminished by brain injuries.

An excerpt:

We arrived Friday night to a cascade of thousands walking into the Garden. E-sports owns a rap for being a predominantly male audience—unlike, say, a Jets game, which is a richly cosmopolitan crowd—but there were a good number of women. I’d say the average age was somewhere in the early to mid-20s. Josh and I stuck out like Regis Philbin and Larry King.

Inside, the arena was packed, loud, happy. This really threw Josh. He is a lifelong Knicks fan whose family had season tickets to the team for years. He’s not used to seeing enthusiasm at Madison Square Garden.

If you’re wondering if e-sports really is people sitting in an arena watching other people play videogames, I’m going to give it to you straight: It really is people sitting in an arena watching other people play videogames.

But the drama was fascinating! Underneath an enormous four-sized jumbo screen, two five-person teams were positioned at the Garden’s center, like Ali vs. Frazier: SK Telecom T1 and the Rox Tigers, both of South Korea. (South Korea is to e-sports what Brazil is to soccer.) They had nicknames like Peanut, Joker, Bang, Wolf and Faker. (Yes: e-sports names are about 900 times cooler than golf nicknames.) The 20-year-old Faker (real name: Lee Sang-hyeok) is considered the Michael Jordan of e-sports, a revolutionary player who has transformed the game.

“Faker right now is the greatest of all time,” said a fan behind me, Elias Vargas, 17, who’d driven to the Garden from Lancaster, Pa with two friends. “He does things, like his rotations and his mechanical skills, that nobody has reached.”

I’m not going to pretend any of this made sense to me.•



If someone had told you 20 years ago that TV was to soon be dominated by Real Housewives, Biggest Losers and Kardashians, that network sitcoms and police procedurals would become secondary not only to great cable programs but also cheap reality shows, you might have thought they were nuts. Who would trade Jennifer Aniston for Kris Jenner? But the center did not hold, the barbarians stormed the gates, and now the sideshow of Bachelors and Bachelorettes has moved to the front of the aisle. In a decentralized medium, the financials no longer made sense for expensive offerings, so cheap content became king.

In an excellent Wall Street Journal article, Jason Gay wonders if multibillion-dollar professional sports could be destabilized by American Ninja Warrior and the like. You know, junk sports that serve to post-millennials’ minds (and smartphones) thrilling pseudo-athletics in which spectacle is more important than winning and losing. I have no doubt that in the coming decades video games and virtual reality and gadgets will change not only the way we watch competitions but the competitions themselves, but could they be surprisingly deep alterations?

It all depends on technological shifts, something beyond the control of sports. Baseball has been richly rewarded in recent years with outsize regional cable contracts because Fox Sports wanted to challenge ESPN, and MLB could offer a huge slate of live, family friendly content. But MLB and the other major sports leagues are a couple of new tech tools they didn’t anticipate from being back on their heels. Money and history are on the side of MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, but that’s been the case with many supposedly unsinkable entities. I would bet against some American Gladiators knockoff KO-ing big-time team sports, but I also though Star Search a silly afterthought just a short time before American Idol ruled the airwaves.

Gay’s opening:

Last summer, on a family vacation in a house with 10 very loud children, I attempted to watch a baseball game on the only available television set. It did not go well. My nieces and nephews acted like I was forcing them to watch a process hearing in the state legislature. They groaned and booed. They rolled their eyes. They dropped to the floor and pretended to sleep.

Frantic to please, I turned the channel, and happened upon a reality show I’d never seen before: a wacky obstacle-course event called “American Ninja Warrior.” Situated on an outdoor stage bathed in red, white and blue lights, it featured sinewy men and women of all ages, jumping and scurrying from platforms to ropes to monkey bars, plunging into water traps when they missed.

The room erupted. It was as if Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber had just shown up with free pizza and iPhones. It turned out my loud, young in-laws all loved “American Ninja Warrior.” They crammed around the TV, rapt.

The scene made me feel like an out-of-touch geezer—how had I missed this phenomenon?—and also made me think about sports, and their future.•


Finally got around to reading “The Delivery Guy Who Saw Jeremy Lin Coming,” Jason Gay’s fun WSJ piece about an amateur numbers-cruncher who predicted the unlikely rise of the NBA’s newest superstar. An excerpt:

“In May 2010, an unsung numbers hobbyist named Ed Weiland wrote a long-term forecast of Jeremy Lin for the basketball website Hoops Analyst. At the time, Lin was a lightly regarded, semi-known point guard who had completed his final season at Harvard. But Weiland saw NBA material. He emphasized how well Lin played in three nonconference games against big schools: Connecticut, Boston College and Georgetown. He noted how Lin’s performance in two unsexy statistical categories—two-point field-goal percentage (a barometer of inside scoring ability) and RSB40 (rebounds, steals and blocks per 40 minutes) compared favorably with college numbers put up by marquee NBA guards like Allen Iverson and Gary Payton. Weiland concluded that Lin had to improve on his passing and leadership at the point, but argued that if he did, ‘Jeremy Lin is a good enough player to start in the NBA and possibly star.’

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