I’m probably The Verge’s most ardent follower of e-sports — video games played competitively for vast sums of money and in front of big crowds — but I have to concede that the Super Bowl that just happened was something altogether different. It delivered, in its resplendent reversal of fortunes, an experience that even the finest and wildest of online matches can’t replicate. And the magical ingredient was that it was entirely unmagical.
Sports in the real world are messy, deeply imperfect, and subject to an endless variety of external influences. Rather like people. So when something kind of perfect happens on a sports field — such as that Julian Edelman catch — we know it’s been wrung from a deluge of alternative scenarios where the ball gets dropped, the runner gets tripped up, or the referee makes a boneheaded call. It’s that inherent fragility and uncertainty to every little moment that makes us appreciate when the good ones stack up into a big euphoric high. (I say this even though I was rooting against the Patriots).
We value handcrafted goods because they took skill to not only design but also to make. Physical skill. And we go to live performances of music we already own, and we eat out at restaurants, and we patronize the theater for the same underlying reason. Video games (and future virtual reality simulations) can only give us a reductive version of these experiences. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of mechanical skill involved in cranking out hundreds of actions per minute in a game like StarCraft, or reacting instantly to sudden attacks in Dota or Overwatch, but those are drastically scaled-down to a player’s mostly invisible interaction with a keyboard and mouse.
E-sports are huge, but they’ll likely never be truly mainstream entertainment, and a major reason for that is the fact you need to play them to fully understand them. The out-of-breath NFL lineman, on the other hand, is a staggering sight to behold, and his struggle against a fellow outsized human being is understood at a very basic level. If you see two rams locking horns, you don’t need the play-by-play announcer explaining what they are doing.
In Super Bowl LI, the New England Patriots started off looking desperately outmatched by the explosive Atlanta Falcons offense and found themselves down 25 points in the third quarter. Then a barrage of accurate Tom Brady passes brought them back from a seemingly certain demise — to an overtime period and eventual victory. But that beguilingly simple summary omits the fact that, even while they were losing, the Patriots had their offense on the field much longer. The Falcons’ offensive efficiency worked against their defense’s need to rest — so that by the fourth quarter, all the Brady passes that were being deflected at the start were finally finding their target. This fatigue can be modeled in a game like Madden, as can a resurgent team’s momentum, but for all the decades that I’ve played games, I’ve always known I’m dealing with mathematical formulae in the background.
To win at competitive video games, you need passion, practice, skill, and a ton of self-belief. But ultimately, you’re still dealing with a human-designed, limited system that can be reverse-engineered and exploited. There’s too much precision and certainty in video games. Precision is an unnatural thing — and though you might argue there’s precious little that counts as “natural” about beefed-up NFL players, there’s no denying that we’re more impressed when a person achieves victory by using both their body and their mind.
This is the thing missing from e-sports as a spectacle: the exhibition of athleticism to go with the great mental fortitude already on display. Brady wasn’t just pushing buttons at the right time, he had to weigh every pass precisely while dodging onrushing hordes of bruisers desperate to flatten him. And when I look at Julian Edelman’s contused shoulders after the game, I’m reminded of the Isle of Man bike racers that I met in 2015, people for whom picking up injuries was just a price of doing business. They push the human body to its absolute limits, and it’s the same mix of skill and physicality that also makes the likes of Serena Williams, LeBron James, and Leonardo Messi amazing to watch as well.
I actually think it’s quite cool that you can compete in e-sports without having a reckless disregard for concussions. But there’s a certain subconscious resonance I felt while watching the New England Patriots literally battling their way back that I can never derive from video games. It just felt more real.