Attitude toward esports does 180 at X Games

Esports returns to X Games this year with action sports athletes expressing a different attitude toward competitive gaming. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS -- When esports was first introduced at the X Games in 2014, the initial reaction from most ranged from amusement to confusion. Video games were increasing in popularity, but esports as a whole, despite well-developed ecosystems for Starcraft and Counter-Strike, was still seen by the general public as a fledgling industry, if it was recognized at all. X Games, of all competitions, seemed like an odd fit.

"My initial reaction was that I wasn't sure how it fit with action sports in general," professional BMX rider Morgan Wade said. "But everyone deserves to have fun I guess."

Wade was a competitor and silver medalist in BMX Freestyle Big Air in 2014.

Eight teams competed in Call of Duty: Ghosts in the MLG X Games Invitational in Austin, Texas. OpTic Gaming, then made up of Matt "Nadeshot" Haag, Seth "Scump" Abner, James "Clayster" Eubanks and Jordan "ProoFy" Cannon, became official X Games medalists.

The reaction against esports athletes receiving the same medals that the action sports athletes were getting was instant and vocal. At the crux of the issue was the fact that gamers didn't put their physical bodies on the line in the same way as action sports competitors.

"I can see both sides," Wade said. "I wasn't particularly bothered by it, but from one point of view, the X Games are really physical sports in general, and gaming isn't really physical. It's very difficult, I'm not taking away from that, but the physical aspect of it, we do stuff with our bodies, we show our talents physically with what we can actually do. Whereas gaming is on the other end of the spectrum. The other side of that coin is that the gaming industry brought in a lot of sponsor revenue to keep all of us alive, so I'm not hating on it. Gotta keep the games flowing."

A lot has changed since 2014.

"Honestly, the attitude shift I've seen is that no one talks about it," Wade said. "When it first came out it was like, 'What is this? It's not even an action sport.' Now it's just kind of old news. It's cool that there's a spot for those guys. Everyone deserves to excel in what they love."

Gaming has become more mainstream and is currently at the forefront of public discussion due to the $30 million prize pool -- one of the largest prize pools ever at an esports event -- offered at the Fortnite World Cup Finals last weekend. The winner, Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf, took home $3 million as the solos champion.

The World Cup even made its way into an X Games Minneapolis news conference this week, when the EXP Apex Legends Invitational was introduced, with skateboarder Jagger Eaton asking if the event was a Fortnite tournament.

"Sports has always been the backbone of what we do," said Tim Reed, vice president of X Games. "But the focus is on trying to remain relevant to youth culture and what kids are into so that people who show up at the X Games get a sense of what's important to kids and important to young people in the world. So what we've just tried to do from the X Games perspective is make sure that we can bring in those elements that are also relevant.

"This year we're doing more gaming. They're getting different medals because last time we made that decision it was, uh," Reed paused and laughed. "One that wasn't very well-liked, so we made some adjustments, but we're excited to bring those in."

BMX rider Ryan Williams joked, "I'll see how this X Games goes, and if I don't do too well I think I'm going to start gaming."

"I'll carry you, I'll carry you," BMX rider Kyle Baldock replied.

"What's the rule with that because I'm down to win some money if we're going to do this," Eaton said. "I'm down to play Apex. Let me know."

"When we did it in, I think our first one was 2014, just the reaction was totally different," Reed said. "There's more athletes that play games than there was back then. You guys should hop in and try it out."

"I'm gonna," skateboarder Nicole Hause said. "Let's go."

Hause, a Minneapolis native, turned to video games while recovering from an injury that kept her from skating.

"I've been pretty shy about it," Hause said. "I don't usually talk about it that much, but at the same time, I don't really care if anyone knows. It's not something a lot of people would guess I do in my free time, but I do. A lot."

Hause enjoys Battle Royale games, including Apex Legends, describing it as a mix of Halo and Call of Duty, but with a Battle Royale component.

"I like the Battle Royale gameplay style a lot," Hause said. "I like Apex, but everyone wants to play Fortnite, and you need three people to play Apex," Hause said. "I like both of them a lot, but I play Fortnite the most. In the past I played a lot of Call of Duty. A lot of Call of Duty."

As for whether esports belong at the X Games, Hause thought it fit since so many X Games athletes play video games casually. In a way, video games have become a low-impact sport that traditional athletes can play in their offseason without serious injury risk.

"I think it's cool because a lot of the action sports people play video games," Hause said. "Especially nowadays. Most of the dudes in the park that I know play Fortnite -- everybody plays video games now, NFL players -- it's like a sport we do in our off time. When we're resting or it's just a rainy day or whatever, you're not practicing, it's something everyone does whether they want to admit it or not."