Whether it’s with a knockout finish at an EVO fighting game championship, a crushing play in League of Legends, or a dorm-wide Super Smash Bros. tourney, eSports are taking the world by storm. Playboy’s eSports Highlights articles celebrate and chronicle their rise.
Introducing someone to the world of eSports can be tough. If you want to show off how incredible video games can be when they’re played at a competitive level, you have your work cut out for you.
For starters, a lot of the thematic imagery around some of the most popular eSports games looks extremely childish, hiding the intricate play going on underneath; if you don’t know what you’re watching, a competitive game can look like a deluge of lights, sounds, and exaggerated cartoon characters. Even the most “normal-looking” competitive games (like Counter-Strike or World of Tanks) have an absurdity about them, and you’ll probably have to do a lot of explaining to the average viewer before they can appreciate what’s going on, especially if they don’t play video games regularly.
It doesn’t help that a lot of the communities aren’t exactly professional. From “Dr. Pee Pee” to “FruitDealer” to “MyNuts,” professional players in ever eSport have a tendency to go for some interesting name choices, and it can frustrating for fans who want to spread their excitement about their favorite games. Catch a player during downtime, as they stream casual games online, and they can seem like, well, the teenagers and young adults they are, repeating in-jokes and generally acting how you’d expect a teenager with a computer and tendency to be a jerk would. Commentators often end up using a lot of the jokes viewers spam in livestream chat rooms, and it’s often cringe-inducing and can give the scene a bad image to the outside viewer.
Whenever people talk about the merits of eSports or how they could look “more professional,” the conversation inevitably leads to a comparison to physical sports like football or tennis. This comparison usually leads to one of three points where physical sports have an advantage when it comes to exposure: they’re broadcast on television constantly and can thus reach a much larger breadth of people; they’ve been around longer and have a more entrenched legal and cultural status around the world, which helps create institutions as large as the NFL or FIFA; and they’re usually seen as being for all ages, whereas much of the aesthetic of eSports limits them to a particular crowd.
So why don’t eSports players, from those who play shooters to fighting game fans to any other kind of gamer who wants their hobby to seem “more professional,” take the medium more seriously? If their goal is to reach a larger audience, why don’t they take more steps to present themselves as more professional and make themselves palatable to the average person?
The answer is simple: they don’t have to, and in some cases, they don’t actually want to, despite the prevalence of this sentiment.
First, let’s talk about that whole “maturity” thing. Yes, it’s kind of embarrassing when you hear a play-by-play commentator shout things like “hHe’s going in on MyNuts!” Or seeing a the same emoticons, copy-paste paragraphs and terrible jokes a thousand times over in a stream chat. It makes it hard for a lot of casual viewers to take eSports seriously, and makes the whole community feel insular and not worth getting into.
But this isn’t always a problem. As I mentioned earlier, many of the personalities in eSports (and especially the players) are in their late teens and early twenties, and in many cases, they’re responsible for how the culture ends up developing because they have the most influence. And while many team managers and owners are much older than the players they oversee, much of the eSports audience is in the same age group as the people who play them, so the culture is going to evolve around the audience, the players, and the communities which form around them. Every eSport game has its own culture, and while many eSports take cues from broadcast sports when forming their tournament formats and presentation, removing a game from its culture is counter-intuitive.
Fighting games evolved from a culture of arcades, so they’re more concerned with building a tight-knit community that stands on its own legs; conversely, PC games are heavily influenced by internet culture, which means they’re going to orient themselves more towards the online side of things. Streaming services like Twitch have further shaped the culture, and it’s not likely that it’ll ever be anything like the culture built up around physical sports. That’s a good thing, because while there’s plenty of room for crossover, a lot of eSports fans wouldn’t count themselves among fans of other kinds of sports, so creating a more “professional” culture (which is often treated as being synonymous with becoming more like broadcast sports) wouldn’t appeal to them.
There are plenty of other reasons why eSports wouldn’t want to become like their forebears. Currently, competitive video games tend to be on television as a kind of curiosity, as a showcase—“Isn’t it crazy people take these games so seriously?” Either that, or it’s to spotlight tournaments because they make lots of money (like Dota 2’s The International) or specific moments that were so crazy they appeal to a larger audience:
But should a developer or league ever take a shot at creating an event or series specifically designed for television, it would be an enormous risk. Personalities in some scenes have expressed concern that creating such a league would mean leaving the online audience behind, since many of them either don’t have access to cable or don’t use it very often. To communities largely built up online or arcades, “being on television” isn’t a major goal. In fact, they’d rather avoid it.
Another thing to avoid: being classified as “real sports” from a legal perspective. Although some scenes have made strides in this department (such as granting P-1A visas for League of Legends players), fully entering the real world of sports would mean being bound by a lot of red tape. Lawyers have laid out many of the stipulations which would accompany eSports games being recognized as sports: they would, for example, have to to satisfy Title IX requirements (which prohibits discrimination based on sex or gender), figure out if there would be separate collegiate and professional leagues, and if there would need to be a players’ union.
For many scenes, which are a combination of grassroots efforts and corporate endeavours, “being taken seriously” isn’t something they want. To be sure, there are legitimate issues within many eSports scenes (such as their chronic sexism, racism, and generally open hostility towards newcomers), and these should be addressed. But the bombastic, immature nature of these scenes is part of their appeal—you often don’t get environments like these anywhere else.
To ask these scenes to change drastically in order to be “taken seriously” ultimately feels like missing the point. ESports are a messy, chaotic, embarrassing thing. But beyond a few changes to some of their worst, most endemic issues, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who’s had his share of embarrassing usernames over the years, most of which he’d rather not share. He’s written for Playboy, Paste, VICE, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter
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