‘Bellwethers for the Liquid Life: The Rise of Professional Video Gaming and the People Happy to Sit and Watch’ by Craig Cliff
Friday drinks. One colleague asked another about her plans for the weekend.
‘Oh, you know, try to convince my sons to venture outside.’
‘YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft.’
‘There’s a guy who talks with a pirate voice. I — I don’t get it. They have the game, but they’d rather watch someone else play it.’
‘Just wait till they’re old enough for League of Legends.’
Knowing what I know now, I might question whether the sons were watching YouTube clips or a Twitch livestream. But back then I was stuck on one question: How different is this to the spectatorship of traditional sports? A girl neglecting the netball hoop in her backyard to watch the Pulse play the Vixens on TV. Adults watching others drive around in circles for hours.
It seemed to me one of those generational blind spots. The way my parents’ generation couldn’t understand the appeal of hip hop. The packaging might be different, but the same base needs and desires are being satisfied. It’s fun to watch others display mastery. And if you can emulate those moves, your next play session will be elevated — whether that’s the Dilshan scoop (cricket), the Ginobili Euro-step (basketball) or a Doublelift split push (League of Legends).
I started my reading on the topic suspecting I was more in the unhip parent bracket than the with-it gamer. I hadn’t played League or Dota 2 or Starcraft – basically any game that came out this millennium. And even when I did play videogames — from the day we got our first PC to the day I left home for university — they were never my primary focus. (One of the first things I did with the new PC was type up my fantasy novel, The Creed of Temptor. I was ten.)
‘I’m not a gamer, but…’ I’d say when explaining the focus of my reading to others. Note the familiar echoes: ‘I’m not a racist, but…’, ‘I’m not criticising you, but…’
Turns out, I am a gamer, just a lapsed one.
One of the challenges of reading about video games was making sure I didn’t spend all my time reading about the 90’s and reminiscing.
It was intoxicating to read the middle chapters of Dylan Holmes’ history of storytelling in videogames, A Mind Forever Voyaging, which covered games I’d played in my childhood — The Secret of Monkey Island, Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life — and see these things being taken seriously. Video games as narrative vessels. Video games as art.
I couldn’t flick through the artwork in SUPER iam8bit: More Art Inspired by Classic Videogames of the ’80s without Googling ‘Jose Emroca Flores’ in the hope I could get a framed copy of his Donkey Kong-inspired painting, ‘I Thought I Came to Plumb’, for above my fireplace (I could).
Even Joerik van Ditmarsch’s often dry ‘Video Games as a Spectator Sport: How electronic games transform spectatorship’ was full of wormholes. His discussion of on-site spectatorship, focussed on Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, took me back to the summer of 1992, watching older boys haduken and sonic boom each other on the machine in the Whitianga campground store. It was riveting, despite the fact I’d not yet played the game and — that summer — had no desire to take the controls.
While I had no direct experience to draw on when I read contemporary accounts of e-sports (professional video gaming) tournaments published in mainstream outlets, I found myself sympathising with the gamers and their spectators rather than the flummoxed parents and Gen X reporters.
One comment in a Reddit thread about a particularly egregious BBC clip sums up the shortcomings of such reportage:
Condescending Reporter? Check
Massive bias? Check
Talking almost exclusively about numbers and money, not the games? Check
To this I would add that most articles begin with the confounding nature of video game spectatorship (‘They’ve finally come up with a start-up for dudes who are so lazy they’d rather sit on the couch and watch other people play video games… Western civilization is doomed,’ New Republic), then spend an inordinate amount of time dismantling this strawman.
Some oft-related points:
- E-sports are a national pastime in South Korea, with pro leagues and at least one TV channel since 2000.
- When the South Korean football team needed a locker room gee-up before a World Cup match, the heroes they sent in were top Starcraft
- In the US, Gamers of international renown are eligible for P1-A exemptions, otherwise known as ‘athlete visas’.
- A handful of colleges now award athletic scholarships for e-sports.
- Red Bull, long-time sponsor of extreme sports, teams and athletes, now backs Starcraft and Dota 2 gamers, and treats them the same way they treat their other athletes, with boot camps and nutritionists to enable peak performance.
- In June 2014, the X-Games featured Call of Duty: Ghosts as an event. The winning gamers took home the same medals as the top skateboarders and moto X riders.
Even the more detailed and nuanced surveys of video game spectatorship devote significant space to elevating e-sports to the same status of traditional sports. Yes, skill is required. And yes, thousands are willing to watch matches in stadia, and millions on-line. So what? What does the rise of e-sports tell us about contemporary mores? And what is the cost of the rapid assimilation of gaming into the culture of traditional sports?
To answer the first question, Hinnant leans heavily on Allen Guttmann’s From Ritual to Record (1978). Just as baseball rose to prominence in the second half of the Nineteenth Century to fill a pastoral void in the lives of new city-dwellers, and American Football’s surge in popularity in the 1960s was influenced by military conflicts of the era, the popularity of e-sports is a reflection of the lives we’re living now.
How? Information. Hinnant:
Unlike field sports, which place a significant emphasis on physical acumen and athletic ability, League of Legends and other e-sports texts place significant emphasis on mental skills like memorization and the ability to think through large amounts of variables to find an optimal solution. This emphasis on mental abilities is due in part because of the design challenges of creating a game to be played as competitive sport without much of the physicality of field sports, but it is also the product of the neoliberal immaterialization of labor. This labor immaterialization lies at the heart of the e-sports text’s emphasis on mental processing, and League of Legends shows us how e-sports texts allow for its practice and demonstrate its usefulness in a neoliberal economic environment.
Just as jobs that rely on physical strength and stamina have been, and are being, replaced by digital technology and workplace automation, a new brand of sports has risen that relies on mental skills (though hand-eye coordination remains important). According to Hinnant, ‘In e-sports, all that “matters” is your ability to play the game, not who you are or what you look like.’
Professional gamers are an extreme example of the impact digital technologies are having on our lives. We can now lead ‘liquid lives’, according to Mark Deuze (Media Work, 2007), where the boundaries between work, home and play are nebulous and ever-shifting. It’s easy to open a browser at work and read about the Royal baby, just as it’s difficult to avoid checking your work emails on your phone when you get home.
Pro gamers are the bellwethers — or the guinea pigs — for the totally liquid life. The best Dota 2 teams, for example, live together in group houses. The living room houses the PCs, and is thus the locus of activity. It’s here the gamers play 16, 18, 20 hours a day. But play is also work, whether it’s streaming for payment, offline team practice or online tournament play. When you watch the stream of one of these pro-at-home gamers, you observe glimpses of this liquid life: a housemate/teammate walking past the webcam carrying a bowl of ramen; the commotion when a nearby game reaches a thrilling conclusion. Sustenance, income, enjoyment — it all intermingles in this one space.
Anyone who has dreamed of being a full-time writer, or running their own business, and has had a taste of this life will know how difficult such liquid living can be — though it seems more and more occupations are headed this way.
Another reason e-sports fits the moment is the sudden expectation that public figures should connect with their followers. Pro gamers have a distinct advantage over traditional athletes in this respect. ‘If Peyton Manning could throw footballs during practice and constantly talk to people live on television or live on the internet about how he was throwing footballs he probably would,’ explains Christopher ‘MonteCristo’ Mykles in a YouTube video promoting the 2013 League of Legends Championships. ‘I think that’s a unique advantage that e-sports has.’
This is overstated slightly. When streaming a game via Twitch, spectators can ask the gamer questions, but the streamer is often too busy to respond and the only conversation is between spectators. Still, the perception of connection is there, just as it is when we vote to save a singer in a reality TV show or tweet at Kanye West.
More tangible connections are formed around gaming websites – often convened by collections of pro or semi-pro gamers — and the guides penned by individual gamers to help less experienced players get a foothold in their game of choice. The biggest names in e-sports tend to be those who are talented and insightful exponents of their game who are most open to sharing their talents and insights with others.
E-sports games themselves often lend themselves to greater engagement than passive Twentieth Century media. Many allow the spectator to control the virtual camera, or select how it will operate (focussing on a particular player or following the action), though this option doesn’t exist when watching a streamed game.
Indeed, the rise of big money tournaments and Twitch is railroading competitive video gaming back toward old paradigms. If you choose to watch last year’s Dota 2: The International Grand Finals (all 4 hours 53 minutes of it, available on YouTube), you’ll receives 90 minutes of build up, with a desk of five broadcasters and recognisable gamers passing time by making predictions and throwing to snazzy highlight packages and clips from press conferences. In structure, tone and visuals, it’s indistinguishable from ESPN’s NCAA Game Day (college football). When the games begin, the play-by-play shoutcaster describes the action and the others provide colour commentary, as with any other ESPN broadcast.
Not all gamers are happy that e-sports and jock-sports broadcasts are becoming indistinguishable — but the biggest demographic for e-sports (18-24 year old males engaged in higher education) seems to be lapping it up.
The quest to turn video games into a sport has also led to significant centralisation of control, a winnowing of the field of possibilities and a slowdown in the rate of innovation. It all seems reasonable when viewed through a Twentieth Century lens. For a video game to become an e-sport, it requires a level playing field and a critical mass. League of Legends (Riot Games) was released in 2011 and is free to download. Starcraft 2 (Blizzard) has been around since 2009, and isn’t that far removed from the original Starcraft (1998). Riot, Blizzard and other developers of e-sports titles make regular tweaks to their games to ensure no champion or species becomes too dominant, but players and independent developers are discouraged from modifying the games themselves. Anyone found using the ‘zoom hack’ in League of Legends (a reasonably innocuous tweak that allows the player to zoom out further than the standard limit) can be banned.
This is in stark contrast to the democratic, homebrew origins of many fundamental e-sports titles. Counter-strike (1999), a mod by Minh Le and Jess Cliffe, turned Valve Corporation’s single-player first person shooter Half-Life (1998) a into a five-on-five shootout — a model emulated by most shooting e-sports today. The multi-player online battle arena genre, of which League of Legends and Dota 2 are its most popular examples, owes its existence to a mod of Warcraft III (2002).
While the heavy-handedness of developers like Riot Games will not extinguish the creative enterprise of gamers, it certainly leads many to look elsewhere for entertainment and chicanery.
Some of the most exciting mods and experimental games I’ve come across in my reading subvert one of the fundamental pillars of video gaming: that it should be fun. Dear Esther, a mod for the Source video game engine, is a first person shooter with no guns. That’s okay, because there’s nothing to shoot. No zombies or terrorists. Just an uninhabited Hebridean island to explore. Reaching certain spots on the island triggers the narrator to relate fragments of his letters to Esther. The game engine and the gamer combine to enact a narrative cut-up technique. But it’s more than just a jumbled story. So much of the power and weirdness comes from the use of the first-person shooter genre. The player, having grown up with Wolfenstein and Doom, explores the island with a sense of dread. She expects Nazis or demons, but gets only story. Dear Esther does have fantastical elements – trippy moments in the island’s caves – but I left the game wondering if we weren’t all living in a first-person shooter. Maybe the time of aliens and uzis and restorative potions is ahead of us, and this is just the exposition while the game engine fully loads?
There are other ways to be competitive when gaming that are not currently encompassed by e-sports. Platform games, for example, do not lend themselves well to large scale, live events. However, there’s a healthy sub-culture obsessed with speed-runs: the fastest complete play-through of a game. Speed-runs rely on extreme practice and hand-eye coordination, but also a knowledge of the bugs within the game’s original code. The record to complete Super Mario Bros (1985) is four minutes and 57 seconds. The run (viewable on YouTube) is the culmination of thousands of hours of gameplay by thousands of gamers. When an invisible block (a glitch in the code) is found on a level that allows Mario to clear an obstacle a half-second faster, every speed-runner soon knows about this trick.
T.L. Taylor notes in Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming that most e-sports games are notoriously difficult to watch without some sort of prior play experience. I certainly felt this way watching Dota 2 matches, where the action was spread across the map and ‘junglers’ looked to ‘gank’ their opponents with one of the innumerable spells a hero can produce. For a lapsed gamer, it’s much easier to understand the mastery on display in a platform game — timing and practice, timing and practice. The effect of a good speed-run upon the viewer can be hypnotic. There’s a sense of inevitability. This is life perfected. To MacKenzie Wark (Gamer Theory), when we look away from the game, our life is the imperfect shadow on the cave, rather than the other way around. Through the expansion of digital technologies and the ‘military entertainment complex’ the world has evolved into one that wishes to be a game but cannot.
As a writer of fiction, I’m duty bound to ask two final questions:
- Where does fiction fit within e-sports?
- Where does e-sports fit within fiction?
The answer to the first is potentially discouraging. Hinnant:
The hyper-competitive nature of high-level competitive play leaves little room for the narrative elements included in most games. Instead, professional players focus on the rules and mechanics of the game and work to utilize them in order to yield the greatest strategic benefit. League of Legends, like most games, contains its own narrative exposition and world, one couched in the familiar tropes of many fantasy games. However, this has little ultimate bearing on the competitive nature of the title… While there are many players who engage with the text’s lore and characters (evidenced by the large amount of fan creations that are shared through various channels), those who are concerned with competitive success focus solely on the mechanics of the game.
But consider once more my colleague’s children who choose to spend their weekend watching a man who talks in a pirate’s voice play Minecraft. The game itself focuses on creativity and construction more than competition. It is a narrative tool, and is being used as such by the pirate-talker. Minecraft is constantly in the top ten most watched games on Twitch, suggesting that the technologies that have enabled the growth of e-sports can also be used for world-building.
In this regard I am far from discouraged.
Similarly, there are boundless possibilities for competitive video gaming to power a narrative. There are already a number of Young Adult titles that follow a protagonist from hopeful spectator to professional gamer — this new generation’s version of the rock star narrative. More broadly, anyone writing about contemporary children and adolescents must understand the centrality of gaming to their lives — and the appeal of game spectatorship — or risk condescension.
But it would be wrong to ring-fence gaming as a contemporary phenomenon. The novel I have enjoyed most so far this year, Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, is about gaming, though a different sort: pre-PC text adventures that rely on the postal service. Darnielle manages to say much about the world of e-sports and Minecraft, without indulging in time-slips or anachronism. The packaging might be different, but the same base needs and desires are being satisfied: to escape oneself; to do so in the company of others.
The Iliad, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dungeons and Dragons, Super Mario Bros., Starcraft, Dear Esther — they are all vessels for story-telling, for escape. We are, truly, spoiled for choice.