Digital Athletics: Poker & ESports

Gladitorial combat.

That's the appeal of poker to many: to prove that you are smarter, stronger, better than your opponent. Poker isn't the only way to do this, however, as videogame competitions for CCGs (collectible card games) like Hearthstone, Fighters like Super Smash Brothers: Melee, and FPSs (first person shooters) like Call of Duty have risen in popularity with the rise of Twitch streaming. The audience for watching these competitions like traditional sporting events have also increased exponentially, leading up to the sale of Twitch to Amazon for $900 million a few years ago.

Today may be Day 1B of Run it Up Reno for us here in Nevada and fans of poker, but for those fans of the most popular video game in the world League of Legends, particularly in the host city of Los Angeles, the LoL Worlds Finals between powerhouse squads SKT and Samsung is a much bigger deal. Currently pulling in 570,000 viewers on Twitch, 18,000 more on YouTube, and surely more on international sites like Japan's NicoNico, fans of JCarver's stream will certainly be no stranger to the popularity of the world's biggest esport, or "electronic sport," and the viewer pull that it has on streaming sites.

For those unfamiliar, League of Legends is a MOBA, or "multi-player online battle arena" game where teams of five compete against each other to try to capture the enemy bases using leveling-up mechanics, grinding techniques, and of course specialized playskill to try to gain an edge using some of the game's 100-plus playable "heroes."

As Day 1B soldiers on and the 5pm $125 NLH/PLO Mix 6-Max gets underway, a few Warriors would rather railbird the monster clash between Korea's (and the world's) top two squads: SKT and Samsung. The defending champs SKT have the world's best player, Faker, as their "midlane," and if they win Worlds it would be their third in five years. But Samsung has been here before, having won Worlds three years ago, in a year in which SKT failed to even qualify for the final 16.

This will be the fourth year in a row in which a Korean team will have won Worlds, but the game is insanely popular all over the planet. And esports in general is exploding, with Twitch as the American hub for the explosion of popularity.

One player eyeing the World Championship event is Richard Acovino. The Las Vegas local is a DotA, or "Duels of the Ancients," player, which is a different MOBA than LoL but within the same gaming genre. "I just really like the competition. Just like in poker, you really have to factor in your opponent's 'range,' in a sense, for their heroes. I relate it to basketball a lot because it's a team game with lots of different roles."

Fans of Run it Up will certainly be familiar with Pete "Ice3lade" Simm, our talented RIU Community Manager . He originally came to poker through esports like LoL: "I came from esports originally. One of my LoL friends suggested getting into poker. And that's how I met Jason [Somerville]."

Ice3lade has some similar sentiments about the similarities that exist between poker and LoL: "The 'champion select' phase is like your starting hand. Then, during the game, you have to maintain your cool, not go on tilt, even if things go wrong and you lose half your stack. There are instances and opportunities for bluffing, in a way, like misdirection, too. That's just a few of the similarities."

In recent years, attempts to "sportify" poker by companies like the GPL, the Global Super League, have attempted to bring new fans to poker by including esports-like elements. "I'd love to see more attempts like that," Acovino adds. But sadly, many of those attempts have fallen flat.

Ice3lade has at least one theory as to why it hasn't taken off: "It's missing the atmosphere. For [League of Legends Worlds], they packed the Staples Center. It's a big arena, loud crowd. It has a very live feel to it. That's one thing we are missing. So if someone created something where the crowd got into it, cards face up [for the audience], live, head-to-head, that would be it."

Poker is still in its infancy in terms of being an electronic sport, but if LoL is any indication there's plenty of room to grow with Run it Up and poker streaming!