In sports, will fantasy beat reality?

Just what an obese, increasingly sedentary and physically inactive world needs: The explosive popularity of athletic competition without ever breaking a sweat.

Fantasy sports and video games, including games that mimic real-life sports such as football and boxing, are looking more and more like their real-life counterparts. And they may be edging out the real thing.

Fantasy sports that mimic real-life sports such as football and boxing are looking more and more like their real-life counterparts.

Competitive sports in electronic arenas are becoming an accepted norm, especially among younger generations growing up in the era of blurred lines between reality and augmented reality.

No need to train… learn skills… feel the pain of defeat or the joy of physically earning victory… or even sweat…

Perhaps half of all Americans play electronic sports. These include fantasy baseball or football, video games of death and conquest and e-sport games that mimic boxing or tennis.

It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. And growing.

In September, seven e-sports teams formed the Professional eSports Association, the first professional video-game league. The league’s first 10-week season will begin in January.

Teams will vie for $500,000 in prize money in the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. “This will allow us to finally build a stable, healthy long-term environment for the players, the community, the media and the sponsors,” the league commissioner says.

There’s even a Fantasy Sports Trade Association for people and companies that make and sell the tech, gear and venues.

Sound familiar? With pro teams, celebrity players, seven-figure purses, discussions of pro players’ welfare and cutthroat competition to buy media rights, this looks like any other pro sport.

Only no one, not even the players, has to get off the couch.

And big tech companies want in on the action.

In summer 2014, Amazon paid $970 million to buy Twitch, a leading video-gaming platform and e-sport community center. This year, Twitch bought Curse, a company making games and products for e-gamers.

In 2016, Microsoft gobbled up Beam, which developed a streaming technology that allows people watching a game to join in. The combination makes e-games “more social and fun,” like being in an actual sports arena, Microsoft’s announcement said. The purchase price wasn’t disclosed.

Gamurs, an online network for players and fans of the games League of Legends and Counter-Strike, went on an expansion spree of its own. Recently, it bought eSports Guru, eSports Nation and GoldPer10, an online fan community. Vulcan, backed by the giant Sequoia Capital venture firm, acquired TwitchAlerts, which lets gamers donate to streaming services that carry their games.

As e-sports and fantasy games take on the trappings of traditional sports, it’s not surprising that they deliver the same psychological satisfactions that real-life athletics do.

First, they give us the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Psychologists tell us what we all have experienced: Competition is cathartic. It builds tension as we strive to best our rivals. The release of that tension as we win or lose can channel and vent general frustrations through a safe outlet.

The possibility of winning lets us feel hope. And sports does all of this in an environment that doesn’t put our lives, limbs, homes or families at stake.

This tension and release activates dopamine in our brains. It’s a neurochemical that motivates us to seek pleasure and reward. This explains why both physical and digital sports can be addictive.

Because competition is an extrinsic motivator, the dopamine disappears along with the fun and thrills as soon as the game, season or championship is over. The memory of the excitement and possibility of new hope is what keeps dopamine primed — and keeps us coming back.

Second, fandom is inherently social. Talking about sports is an icebreaker among strangers, a glue that coheres social groups that share our joys and heartbreak. Family members who find it hard to talk about difficult personal issues can still talk baseball. In these situations, sports can become a proxy by which relatives can communicate indirectly about issues that are touchy.

Third, sports let us live exciting, if vicarious, lives. Some of us wish for fame or public admiration of a valued skill. By aligning ourselves with a team, we borrow a little of its reflected glory and feel part of something dynamic and exciting.

Also, especially for young people, playing sports has always been a tool for personal development.

It can help a person learn teamwork and discipline. It can help us learn to deal with loss and disappointment and use them as motivators to improve. Some high-tech employers now count e-gaming as a plus for job candidates, just as conventional sports have been in the past.

TRENDPOST: E-sports is another example of the multi-billion-dollar industry virtual reality is presenting to consumers and investors alike. And it’s just getting started. We’re barely scratching the number of different applications we will find for VR technology.

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