From Humble Beginnings: the NFL vs. eSports

By most accounts, American Football1 started out with humble beginnings: a college sport that branched off association football (rugby) that spawned a bunch of disorganized professional organizations that eventually coalesced into the NFL and the college football behemoths we know about today.

The game started in the mid 1800s. The first professional game was in the 1890s, with the first player getting a secret single game contract that paid him $500 (a staggering $13,000 in 2016 dollars). By 1920, what would be the NFL was born. Players were averaging a few thousand dollars a year ($27K in 2016 dollars) by the 30s and often took second jobs to make ends meet. By the 70s, the modern game and the college game began to take the form we see today. The rest you know: Billions of dollars and a billion fans watching for it’s marquee event.

Parallels

In the late 90s, a new genre of competition now called MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arena) came to be. Derived from a popular real time strategy game, Starcraft, it has since spawned a growing industry of games in that genre. A few games, League of Legends (LoL) and Dota 2, have tournaments with million dollar prizes. They have college clubs around the world, including at a few you may have heard of. They even have their own doping problems.

Discovery

ESPN streamed a Dota 2 tournament in 2015 and even broadcast a MOBA on ESPN2 last year. Hard core sports fans were less than impressed.

I admit, I also was a little confused why a game I personally had never heard of, let alone played, was worth broadcasting on TV. Being me, that meant I started doing my research: learned about big prizes and huge audiences, read about the massive popularity of eSports in Korea, and looked at the games themselves.

That these games are the popular tournament ones makes sense to me. I used to love RTS games back in the day2. These RTS games are the predecessor to LoL, Dota 2, and Vainglory. MOBAs still share a lot in common with their ancestors. These games are a mix of:

  • pure reflex and physical skill
  • complex strategy carried out on a deceptively simple field
  • clear, easy to understand objectives

Actually, kind of like the NFL.

In other words, if you don’t play, you can still tell what’s going on at a basic level (kill the other team, take an objective). But if you play… wow, there are layers to unfold and strategies to debate and technique to admire.

I don’t play Dota or LoL, which is why a single Dota 2 broadcast couldn’t keep my attention for the whole event. I thought it was cool, recognized the RTS heritage, and basically went back to watching sports.

Revelation

One day, I picked up Vainglory. It’s a free MOBA for iOS which was featured during an Apple event. I dove in and immediately was hooked. I wrote about Vainglory (indirectly) last year. At that time, I had been playing the game frequently for months, so now (except for a couple month hiatus around the birth of my daughter) I’ve been playing this game for over a year. I literally play a round most nights before I head to bed.

I’m naturally competitive, and so naturally I want to be good at this game… Which is when the whole thing finally clicked.

In the Twitch post, I likened watching Twitch to the Golf Network. Boring if you’re not a golfer, but a great source of tips and help if you are. This is true of the entire community around video gaming now. For example, I’ve been watching videos on YouTube like BenTimm1’s videos to learn strategy and tactics. Tournaments are often streamed on Twitch.tv, so that’s another good resource.

Vainglory also has televised tournaments in Korea. The Vainglory IPL is broadcast on OGN, “a South Korean cable television channel that specializes in broadcasting video game-related content and eSports matches.” Here’s one of their broadcasts of a Vainglory IPL final:

Those are pretty good production values, which isn’t very surprising given the popularity of eSports in Korea. You can see a huge improvement, though, as each subsequent tournament is streamed. There’s a big improvement in the commentary, for example, even from the Vainglory World Invitational final, which took place right before the IPL tournament embedded above.

It’s important to note that this is for Vainglory, a relative newcomer to the MOBA and eSports world. Take everything I’ve said above and amplify it for LoL or Dota 2. This is a shot from Wikipedia of the Dota 2 finals crowd in Seattle:

By User:DarthBotto, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33874814
By User:DarthBotto, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33874814

Legitimacy

While the Great Depression hurt the growth of the NFL, it did provide one benefit: it convinced otherwise respectable men to turn to football as a primary source of income. These were college educated men, disproportionately from white collar families who probably would’ve pursued other opportunities. This raised the talent level, making the league stronger and likely creating a feedback loop3.

Vainglory, my favorite, is still small, paying out 10s of thousands for their grand prizes. Dota 2 has much higher payouts and an enormous prize pool. LoL is further along in their growth, and their tournaments provide a sense of where things are going. Riot Games, makers of League of Legends, provides salaries for their tournament players along with travel stipends. Make the choice to leap into professional eSports easier and the talent should follow.

All of that combined makes being a professional “League of Legends” player a viable career opportunity. This helps the game reach its full potential, because we want to avoid our pro players coming under financial stress and having to hold down part-time jobs. We want to make it so being a pro player is a completely viable career opportunity.

Riot Games’ CEO, Brandon Beck

It’s still not huge money. With sponsors involved, some of these players are making a decent living, even if they need to also have a side job. Kind of like the early NFL.

Prediction

The big MOBAs are growing the infrastructure around eSports in a way that points to a sustainable future. There are campus organizations forming along with amateur associations. There’s also more mainstream acceptance of gaming thanks to smartphones, and thus a bigger potential audience. The choice to play competitively is getting easier to make for players. Those trends just need to continue in the same direction, and eSports could be a huge thing. Maybe… kind of like the NFL.


  1. … hey, I’m overseas now, have to distinguish! 🙂

  2. I was a decent Starcraft player in my youth, and related titles like Warcraft III and Command and Conquer are still some of my favorite games. And wow, I didn’t realize C&C was still being released…

  3. I didn’t find too many sources aside from that one book (which I only have the Google excerpts for – it’s out of print, it seems). The draft came to be toward the end of the Depression and pre-WWII, which could correlate. It’s unclear (to me, right now) if the draft initially was because of an abundance of potential players or a way to entice players in. Worth doing more reading around this.

Master & Dynamic MW60 Headphones – Bluetooth headphones that live up to the hype

So, I may have a headphone problem the way some people have shoe problems.1 It’s not quite as bad as what I see with hard core audiophiles, but still, it’s bad.

Headphone addiction is kind of like they way people get hooked on adrenaline sports. You just need to get a taste, that first moment when a pair of headphones make you sit up and go, “whoa!”

For me, it first started with the first pair of headphones that really drove consistent bass (remember Sony’s Mega Bass? I totally got sucked into that hype). Eventually I grew up, realized that there was a lot more going on aside from the bass, even for EDM or whatever. The real a-ha moment came with a pair of Etymotic ER-4Ps that I still own to this day. They are my reference for great mid & treble response. Their only drawback is their bass response. It’s good, but not great, especially for tracks that really need solid bass response.

Still, I have so many “whoa” moments with these headphones. I’ll be listening to music I’ve listened to a hundred times with other headphones and I’ll just hear some detail that will pull me out of whatever I’m doing. “Whoa, what was that?” I’ll just stop & listen. It might just be the brush of fingers on a guitar, the bite of a bow on strings, or individual instruments that seem to merge together on other headphones.

The problem with the Etys is that they are IEMs – in ear monitors, or what everyone else calls earbuds. They go into the ear canal, creating a seal. The quality of the seal affects bass response. That adds a variable on top of the 4Ps flat response. So, while they feel exceptionally clear, sometimes I want to feel the sub-bass thump of an EDM track or the bass line of a hip hop track. They just showed me what was possible, but I knew there had to be better. Beyond that, IEMs aren’t as comfortable for long sessions, and they’re not interruption friendly (can’t just drop them to my neck). Plus, no mic or playback controls on these, either.

So when I returned to ESPN, knowing I’d be working in an office again 2, I started looking for over ear, closed headphones. I’ve used a pair of Sennheiser HD-280s (which I also love) at work since I moved to CT, through 4 different companies, but they are finally falling apart. Besides, they aren’t very portable nor do they have controls for play/pause/skip or a mic for calls. So, I began searching for a good desktop pair that also had phone controls and great, “whoa!” inducing sound.

One caveat – I’m not an audiophile, I don’t have golden ears, so while I aspire to own something truly crazy like the HiFiMan HE6’s3, I’ve generally stayed around the $300 mark (or less). For me, headphones are less about an ideal sound and more about clarity. I want them to show me something new about my music while staying very close to what the artist heard in the studio.

I’ve gone through my share of headphones. I tried the Sennheiser Momentums, knowing I like Sennheiser’s sound, but returned them due to fit issues (ear cups were too small for me). I bought a pair of PSB-M4U1s based on reviews at Marco Arment’s site and The Wirecutter. Those were the pair I was using daily until recently.

Though the reviews were great, for my taste I found the PSB’s a tiny bit bass heavy and a little muddy in the mids and muted in the treble. Good all around sound, I like them, but I had very few “whoa!” moments. Maybe even zero… I can’t remember any right now. They’re also huge, at the outside edge of portable.

So I’ve been keeping an eye out for a new pair. This winter, I decided to get myself a gift, the Master & Dynamic MW60 Wireless headphones.

I found out about them from a bunch of press reviews around the launch, all of which were uniformly positive: The Next Web, Wired, Engadget, the Verge. Basically, a great sounding Bluetooth headphone with a unique design and a listening profile that matches my tastes.

The main criticism is their cost. These are expensive, luxury headphones but they live up to the luxury end of the deal. The materials are amazing. The construction is solid. The earcups are so soft and just plain pleasant to wear that I’m happy to wear them for long stretches.

They’re also Bluetooth headphones, with the tradeoffs that implies: requires charging, can have interference, and requires codec support on your playback device.

I’m not concerned about charging. The MW60 have a built-in Li-Ion battery, and charge using a micro-USB cable. I have yet to run down the battery, and I’ve gone a few days without charging at times. They claim 16 hours of use between charges. They can also fall back to corded use.

On the interference front, I’ve had nearly zero issues. The MW60s have much better range and reception than most Bluetooth headphones owing to their iPhone 4-like external antenna design. Like the iPhone 4, though, you can touch the antenna or brush it accidentally and cause the signal to drop out. I’ve had a few blips now and then, but not enough to get me to switch to corded use (a cord is included, can be used instead of BT). It is awesome, however, to not have to deal with the cord anymore and to still have really good sound.

To maintain sound quality over Bluetooth, the MW60s support aptX, so you have that available if your phone or other playback device supports it. iPhones do not support aptX, but not to fret. Apple chooses to send AAC audio over Bluetooth, which the MW60 supports (I confirmed w/ Master & Dynamic before ordering). Depending on who you ask, the quality is comparable to aptX.

As I mentioned, my sound preferences tend toward the more balanced side of things. The MW60 delivers on that, with a slightly bumped bass response. That’s pretty much perfect for me.

There are a few things I would improve. The button controls for play/skip/previous could use a rethink. The buttons have several functions overloaded in unique (to me) ways. The headphones have 3 buttons, but they don’t map to the typical 3 button remotes on other headphones. The Apple earbuds, Bose QC-25’s and my PSBs all use the main play/pause button as a skip/previous button: single tap play/pause, double tap skip, triple tap previous. The MW60 uses long presses on the volume buttons as skip/previous buttons. It introduces a delay in the skip process – basically, I want to go to the next track, but I have to wait. I also can’t skip quickly because each skip is a press, wait, press, wait, etc…

One other smaller gripe: I wish the included cord was a mic + remote cord. It’s nice to have the ability to go corded for long calls, especially in the car, and to know that I can move the mic closer if it’s particularly noisy.

These are all ultimately small issues. My only real regret is not getting the brown leather version. I ordered the black pair, as all my other headphones are black, but almost immediately regretted it, too late to change the order, though. I’ll live though. They’re still amazing to look at. Just not as striking as the brown leather.

I haven’t yet mentioned the price, but they’re expensive (MSRP is $549). There is a lot of competition in this price range. Other reviews have suggested the Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H7, the B&W P5s, or the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 as alternatives. Those are cheaper and many have a noise-canceling option at a similar price point. I haven’t tried any of those, to be honest. I’ll admit that this purchase was at least 50% driven by the design of the headphones4 I’m glad I took a chance on this.

Overall, I would recommend these if you like the look of the headphones, are OK with the tradeoffs around Bluetooth (which, IMHO are minimal with this or any high-end modern set), and are looking for a luxury item. There are better value picks out there, but this pair is gorgeous.


  1. though my wife swears I have a shoe problem, too…

  2. I really miss working at home sometimes… being able to crank a pair of desktop speakers is pretty nice.

  3. … which require a higher end amp to drive them, probably another $500-1000 on top of the price of the headphones…

  4. Though, I did research Master & Dynamic’s previous releases to make sure I would like the sound and they lived up to the reviews. The MW60 are based on the wired MH40, which have a longer review history. For example, check out Head-Fi’s reviews of them.