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Esports Is Booming, But Its Reception Remains Divided

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In less than a decade, competitive video gaming has become a global phenomenon with billions in revenue and hundreds of millions of fans. But there are still many who remain on the outside of esports. Today in All Tech Considered, NPR's Tom Goldman reports on efforts to bridge the gaps in esports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: How big is esports? Big enough to poke fun out. A recent "Saturday Night Live" skit featured Chance the Rapper as a fish-out-of-water esports reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHANCE THE RAPPER: In a nutshell, there are 10 nerdy dudes sitting down at computers with headsets on while 20,000 people scream like they were watching the Beatles. I did not know this was a thing.

CHRIS GREELEY: I thought it was all in good fun, and it was very funny.

GOLDMAN: Chris Greeley's a good sport. He's the commissioner of the North American league that oversees esports' most popular game - "League Of Legends". Greeley knows there's truth in humor, meaning the show's portrayal of esports isn't too far off as a sometimes confusing world dominated by players and fans who are young, white, Asian and male.

GREELEY: I think five years ago, that stereotype was probably a lot more true than it is today. But we're not out of the woods in terms of that yet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

GOLDMAN: To the uninitiated, this esports practice session is a bit bewildering. We're in Santa Monica - Los Angeles is the epicenter of North American esports - at the headquarters for Team Liquid.

(CROSSTALK)

GOLDMAN: Team Liquid's five starting players sit in front of computer screens, calling out moves on headset microphones, simultaneously clicking on a mouse and tapping on a keyboard. The figures on the screens advance, retreat, kill enemies in a game said to be a mash-up of four-dimensional chess and capture the flag. Players like these earn, on average, $300,000 a year - in large part for their computer-like minds.

EE'L'YONG PENG: When I take in information, I can, like, process it and apply a lot faster than most people.

GOLDMAN: And that's helped Ee'l'yong Peng win seven North American titles, including the last four with Team Liquid. As a superstar, he earns seven figures a year and has tons of fans. For the non-fans...

PENG: Maybe you should check it out once or twice. It could be possible for, like, mainstream audience to like esports a little bit more.

GOLDMAN: There's still a generation gap to break through. But for those who may want to check it out, help's on the way.

BEN KUSIN: We have a responsibility to bring gaming to a broad as audience as possible.

GOLDMAN: Ben Kusin is co-founder of a new TV network called Venn. He says when the video game entertainment and news network launches in August, it'll include esports 101 programming for all.

KUSIN: It's not just an age thing. You'll still find people within Gen Z, millennial and older that want to learn more about gaming.

GOLDMAN: "League Of Legends" commissioner Chris Greeley says his league currently has no female players at the pro and semi-pro levels. There are two teams run by women. Tricia Sigita is the CEO of FlyQuest. She says she's doing what she can to make esports more female-friendly. Esports merchandise traditionally has included unisex clothing like T-shirts and hoodies. Sigita introduced clothes for women.

TRICIA SIGITA: We did a whole line that were crop tops, leggings, sports bras to really show people that, like, look; if you want a game and dress like this, that's awesome. And we want to create those opportunities.

GOLDMAN: Those inside the esports tent say it's a big one with room for everyone, even the skeptics, who may play games on their phones, which makes them gamers, says Greeley. They just don't have the headset, the computer screen, the special-made gamer chair - yet.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVO SONG, "GUT FEELING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.