Had Chris Kluwe not lined up a career in the NFL, it’s possible that he could have made a living with a keyboard and a mouse instead of a football. That’s according to the 31-year old self-professed hardcore gamer and free agent professional punter, who played eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. In an interview with Red Bull eSports, Kluwe said he believes competitive gaming is a sport on par with traditional baseball and football that could someday be a part of the Olympics.
Red Bull eSports: What’s your experience like with eSports?
Kluwe: Mainly watching streams like StarCraft tournaments, EVO tournaments and League of Legends. Watching these guys play at a really high level is fun. I’m a big video game player and I know what it takes to get to that level and it’s skill.
Do you play any of these games?
Yeah, I’ve been playing video games since I was like six years old, and I played a lot of Counter Strike when I was a teenager. Not super competitively but...I played StarCraft, I’ve played fighting games and League of Legends quite a bit - though I’ve tapered off recently, I’d like to pick it back up. I’m a big video game player.
The appeal for eSports is that whereas for normal sports, you see someone playing it and you pickup a football, in eSports you see someone play it and you go download League of Legends and you possibly have a chance to play against those guys. That’s pretty neat.
Did you watch the League of Legends Finals?
Yeah, Riot invited me to the Staples. So it was really cool, it felt like an actual sporting event. The crowd was into it, you could hear the noise level go up when there was a big play going down like when someone was hiding in the jungle getting ready to gank someone so it was really, really cool.
There’s still a lot of skepticism especially from the mainstream about whether or not eSports should be in the same conversation as mainstream sports – how do you feel about that?
I think they’re just as much a sport as football and baseball. You have to dedicate a large portion of your life to becoming good at it. You need to have reflexes, you need to have hand-eye coordination. You have to be able to react quickly to a changing situation.
It’s not as much physicality as traditional sports, but at the same time, it’s the same thing as the average person isn’t going to be able to go out and play football like Peyton Manning, and the average player isn’t going to be able to play League of Legends like Team Dignitas or Team SoloMid. There is that level of skill that you really have to spend a lot of time to get to that level.
Do you ever see a day when eSports makes it into the Olympics?
Yeah, I think so. As we start getting more and more into the physical - as society changes as a whole. You look at kids that are growing up, and having a PC isn’t strange. Everyone has a PC or a tablet or whatever and have access to the internet and so they get used to this world, whereas 30 or 40 years ago, computers weren’t really a part of growing up unless, you were a scientist or a government researcher. As society changes as people get more and more comfortable with computers, you get more kids who grow up with these games and they enjoy it, they play it, it’s something familiar. And so that’s how things change.
Do you think it’s tougher to punt in the NFL or play League of Legends professionally?
It's tougher to punt in the NFL because the field of potential applicants is so much broader, so your chance of actually making it to that level is pretty tough. That being said, it’s hard to play League at an elite level - you might be able to do good in public matches, you might be okay in ranked matches but you don’t develop that teamwork with other people then you’re never going to last at tournament levels.
And so, we’re seeing more and more that these kids have coaches now. They have training routines. They have houses that they stay in develop that chemistry. That’s how sports get started – people start getting more emmeshed together and there’s opportunity to be had.
Is there a particular kind of physical or mental training that you had to do for football that you feel would also be beneficial to eSports athletes?
I think there’s general physical training, it helps you focus longer. If you look at something like League of Legends, those matches take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. So to maintain that focus and concentration, being physically active is important because your body is in shape – you don’t lose energy.
How much of your job as a punter is mental compared to physical?
I think it’s about 50-50 because you need that technique, you have to be able to have your body do everything you want it to. But at the same time, you also have to be able to recognize a situation and you can’t be psyched out by the crowd, you can be out of the game. The hard part is focusing, especially when you have a bad kick. You have to be able to say, that’s in the past and I can’t change it now. I have to move on.
A really good example is the League of Legends Final when Royal Club got knocked back on their heels early on and couldn’t really recover and put the first game behind them and focus on the next game. As a pro athlete, it’s something you have to learn how to do. If you can’t, you won’t be a pro athlete for very long.
I think some people underestimate the physicality of eSports. There are plenty of guys who end up retiring before they hit 30 and some people are like 'Well, it’s video games, why would you have to retire?'
Well, you lose your reflexes. I remember that. I tried to keep playing Counter Strike a week or two ago I had my friends over at my house and we used to be really good. And we’re playing now and we’re just getting destroyed. I’m like “I can’t aim anymore!” The mind is willing but the body isn’t the same as it used to be. In football, I mean, you see older athletes extend their careers because they’re able to use their knowledge and put themselves in a better position to make plays but at a certain point, the body just isn’t able to do the things it used to be able to. That holds for normal sports and eSports.
Do you think had you put in the time earlier in your life, you could have succeeded in eSports?
I think I could have because I have the mental capabilities to force myself to do things over and over again. And I have pretty good reflexes, or had them. Physically, I had the tools but it’s something where I would have had to dedicate a lot of time to it, which – my parents wanted me to play sports instead and go outside. Once I was playing football at a high school level, to me, I was good at it. And I got to a certain point where it was my way forward so I dedicated to it.
Do you have a favorite eSports team or athlete?
Not really, I like watching good competition. To me, it’s more being able to see the moves that are happening and watching a team comeback in a game and have a really. I think that’s what makes League more appealing than some of the other games. You can see the teamwork happening, even if you’re not an expert at the game. I took my wife and kids to the Finals - my wife doesn’t play video games and doesn’t know LoL, but she could tell when things were happening. Its like any other traditional team sport where once you see how the teamwork flows, then you notice it and you’re like, okay I can watch this.
The NFL has a long history compared to these eSports organizations. Have any advice of what they could do better?
Mainly just make sure there’s no cheating obviously, that can really drive people away. Just trying to make the games accessible. I think people are looking for something people can watch and not have to be an expert to enjoy it. They’re doing a great job in making it a friendly environment…If you want your game to be seen as a sport, it has to be accessible to people.
Look at soccer and baseball, for soccer all you need is a ball you can kick. For baseball, you need a stick and a ball you can hit. The ease of access is very important, people can see them and then go play them. Of course, they may not be good as the pros, but they’re doing the same things the pros are doing.