eSports is in a very weird place right now. While it continues to pull in huge amounts of money and dominate social media channels like Twitch, it exists in the grey area between mainstream sports and traditional gaming, meaning that the category is occasionally looked down upon by both sides. But eSports does have one notable ally: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Cuban was at this weekend's Intel Extreme Masters competition, where he took on Intel CEO Brian Krzanich in a League of Legends exhibition match. Along the way, he called out mainstream sports pundit Colin Cowherd for his derision of eSports.
"I love Colin [Cowherd] but he's an idiot," Cuban said over the weekend. "I'm a noob. I'm still getting into it, but I love it. It's like playing five-dimensional chess against the world. It's one of the smartest games I've ever played. You've got to have dexterity, and you've got to be quick. This is a real sport, and people are going to figure it out really, really quick."
Cuban, who made his fortune by during the original dot com boom, is known for making large investments in trending technologies, having put his money into ventures like IceRocket - a custom search engine that scours the blogosphere for its results. Cuban is rumored to be interested in buying into eSports, though he's brushed off such reports with a simple "wait and see."
While eSports has managed to gain traction in recent years, Cuban's interest makes him something of an outlier in mainstream sports circles. When HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel examined eSports back in 2013, it featured a respectful and critical report on the category, but then followed it up with a panel in which eSports fans were derided as "crazy." There are signs that people are coming around, though. While eSports still encounter skepticism when airing on outlets like ESPN, the cable giant recently touted it as "massive and growing" in an article titled, "Resistance is Futile."
Cuban's presence at IEM brings with it some well-deserved mainstream attention, and as an influential figure in sports and tech, his praise is definitely meaningful. Of course, Mark Cuban is still Mark Cuban, even outside the NBA. In the exhibition match, Cuban's team, which included well-known League of Legends players like Doublelift, managed to defeat Krzanich's team; and in true form, he earned himself a fine for cursing, which was in turn donated to Cybersmile, an anti-cyberbullying charity (upon hearing that he had been fined $15,000 for dropping an F-bomb, he doubled down and quickly dropped another for good measure).
Cuban's exhibition match came against the backdrop of a competition that saw its attendance roughly double year-over-year. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends were the games featured at the event, and with well-known teams like Origen, Team SoloMid, and Cloud9 in attendance, the matches were raucous and exciting. You can find the results for CounterStrike here, and League of Legends results here.
As always, I was struck by the age and the enthusiasm of the crowd. The attendees were overwhelmingly young, and they were deeply invested in their favorite games, teams, and players. The eSports category will continue to mature with its key demographics; and as it continues to rake in money, more and more entrepeneurs like Cuban will take notice. When it comes eSports, it appears that resistance is indeed futile.