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HBO Real Sports' Soledad O'Brien on the side of esports

HBO Real Sports' Soledad O'Brien speaks on her League of Legends feature, and its impact on the HBO Real Sports year in review.

Soledad O'Brien talking to Riot Games Vice President of Esports Dustin Beck

Update - Editor's Note: The Real Sports year-end round table show aired last night, but is not yet available to watch Online. A preview clip provided by HBO is shown below.

In October, HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel profiled the rise of esports, focusing on the advancements by Riot Games' League of Legends and Major League Gaming. The piece, led by reporter Soledad O'Brien, was lauded by both those inside the esports industry and sports fans who were hearing about competitive gaming for the very first time. The story ended up being so influential that HBO has included it in tonight's final Real Sports episode of 2013, which features a roundtable of journalists discussing their favorite stories from the year.

O'Brien was kind enough to sit down with onGamers to discuss her time diving into the world of esports, the comparison to sports, and it's spot in the year-end review of Real Sports.

onGamers: When watching a preview for tonight's episode, the esports segment was said to be one of the most defining moments of the year for Real Sports. Why is that?

Soledad O'Brien: In a lot of ways, Real Sports is to get to the core of what's in a sport and how we can measure that. We look at stories that resonate for us and if there's that second level of conversation in the story. We felt that there was that next level of conversation around esports. Even around the esports story, I hadn't realized that many felt we would do a hatchet job on it. Afterwards I saw people were surprised after it how it turned out.

What I love about Real Sports, is because of the magazine format, that you can do all kinds of stories. With esports we were trying to do a different story, something that is invisible to so many people, and that's what I found so interesting. I was talking to a friend and was discussing the Staples Center being sold out for an event in the next few weeks, and he couldn't believe it was for an online video game, for League of Legends.

I took this deep dive into a world I didn't know much about, and came out with this knowledge of an entire new business and framework around a sports model that's furthering their sport, esports. It's fascinating to see the Staples Center sell out in under an hour and the number of people who play this game is stunning. All this and you can still walk down the street and many people would not know anything about this.

Did you have any knowledge of video games in this context before doing the piece?

Everybody who used to work on the site at my old job used to play these games all the time. They said to me "you can't say you're a woman and don't know about gaming". What I saw while doing the League of Legends feature amazed me. The infrastructure to in order to create competition, the leagues that drive the money which trickle back to both the professional and amateur level. It's fascinating that everything that's created for the game is free. Everyone involved has a very valid, well-paying job that speaks for itself.

In the preview clip shown below, the other reporters on the panel - Mary Carillo, Frank Deford, and Bernard Goldberg among others - seem to dismiss the esports story and say definitively that it's not a sport. Do you believe it is?

Yes, and that's part of why it was such an interesting story. Elite League of Legends players are on the grind with 10,000 hours of practice. Watching them play and commentate was fascinating.

You can't be subjective on this. Someone wins and someone else loses. People have the same argument over gymnastics, whether it's a sport or not. Even in esports, it's not based on a judge to make a decision, so I think it's even easier in that regard. I once covered a story on an elite level sailor - physically he wasn't doing anything on the sailboat. He was in charge of the mapping strategy with pencil and paper. Is that a sport? I believe it is. Anything that has a high level dedicated structure, business model, prize money, and an elite competitive level is a sport.

This is a discussion that those inside the esports industry have had for many years, with the general consensus being that it doesn't matter if esports is considered a sport or not, it still has the same competitive spirit we find in sports.

I think that's kind of the point. At the end of the day whether or not esports is a sport isn't important. I think what made this very successful, whether you played League of Legends or not, you had insight into this global phenomenon that's existing and is a serious, highly rewarding competitive environment where everyone else is also trying to get to that level. They are very athletic individuals. This is what makes it so personal.

In the clip Goldberg makes a snarky comment asking how many fans also go to Star Trek conventions, with similar disdain from Deford in the fandom surrounding esports. What do you think about the association of games as "nerdy" activities and the affect on how they are viewed in a sports context? Do you see perception of esports changing with traditional sports journalists and an older generation of people who are first-experiencing what is a younger generation's competitive outlet?

When I was in high school the people who played online games were generally awkward and non-social people. I went through the staples center and was surprised people were definitely not "nerds" in that sense. Only a few kids I talked to were into dungeons and dragons, notable "nerdy" things. It was very much a small sliver of people.

The nerdy/geeky thing I think is a small aspect of the whole thing. They have a very defined way of looking at things, and it usually has to involve a ball with someone running down a field or court. It's not just the "nerdy" thing, it's what we all believe in regards to the definition of a sport.

As soon as their parents saw our show, they understood what they were doing. As soon as they realized there's a son with a job as caster and that it's not just you in a basement playing games, they understood. I'm happy to be able to bring esports to parents as a wider audience. Anytime parents have a more open sense of what's happenings, only good things will come.

Why did the show only focus around one game instead of esports as a whole?

Storytelling is critical and for that we had to do a deep dive into only one game, which is why we did League of Legends. It wasn't about not doing Call of Duty for example or only focusing on League of Legends - there are many games within the grander scheme of esports - it was about keeping the story narrow to get the most concise point across possible.

What do you think about your own kids sitting down to play and compete instead of traditional sports?

If anyone would like to volunteer to teach them to play League of Legends, they can totally do so! I'd be more than happy to let that happen. I'm loving League of Legends - it's such a complicated and interesting story, not even so much about the action, hand-eye coordination, etc, which are all very important for the competitive aspect of course. What I actually find interesting is the storytelling and narrative around each and every character.

If one of them told you they wanted to try and become a professional player in one of these games, would you support them?

Of course! I want them to do what they want to do. They of course must also go to school and do well there, get sleep and do the things they need to do. If they can handle all that and want to pursue this, I absolutely would support them to the fullest.

Thanks for your time, Soledad.

Image Credit: HBO Real Sports