First Person

First Person
The Challenge of Popularizing eSports

Dennis C. Scimeca | 1 May 2012 21:00
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While competitive videogaming, also known as eSports, is decidedly popular outside of the United States, the growth of eSports in America has occurred at a much slower pace. The challenge of finding broadcast bandwidth for eSports seems like it's being adequately addressed through online outlets like TwitchTV, but there's a lack of sponsorship, not enough coverage in the gaming press, no unified league structure, and not enough material to help introduce new audiences by explaining what eSports are all about and how they work.

Those are all legitimate concerns, but I think there's something much more fundamental for the eSports crowd to deal with when it comes to popularizing their pastime within the United States. They might want to come up with a name besides "eSports". The question of sparking interest among new fans is the first hurdle eSports has to overcome in order to grow, and starting off by claiming competitive gaming is akin or equal to traditional sports seems to create more potential turn-offs than avenues for getting people interested.

In March of this year the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Massachusetts. One of the featured panels was titled "eSports: The Future of Competition," and you can watch the panel here. If you skip to the 1:29 mark you'll hear the panelists trying to explain eSports to the audience, and they couch their explanations in comparisons to traditional sports. We have to take the context of this panel into consideration - this was being presented at a conference about traditional sports - but I'm bringing this video to your attention because you may hear this same line of argument from the eSports community even when the audience is comprised of gamers who are unfamiliar with eSports.

I don't know whether it's true or not that nerd or gamer culture is intrinsically hostile to sports but the argument has been made. That alone might be reason to abandon the use of the name eSports to identify competitive gaming. Invoking traditional sports as context for understanding competitive gaming also opens the door to a very old argument among sports fans about what constitutes a sport in the first place. Sports fans routinely argue amongst themselves about whether competitive activities like billiards or bowling or bull riding deserve the moniker "sport". The argument rests on how much physicality is involved in those activities versus games like football and basketball whose identity as seems obvious. That argument is important to sports fans because of what professional sports represent to them, and also highlights the deepest reason why trying to describe competitive gaming as an eSport is problematic. Competitive gaming is decidedly not like traditional sports on account of who is playing them.

Part of an athlete's appeal is doing something difficult that is tied to physical prowess, and human beings by and large appreciate other human beings with physical prowess. Some of this is culturally-enforced, but I also think we may be hard-wired as human beings to appreciate others who are fit, or fast, or strong, or dexterous, on account of the obvious survival advantages that person wields. There's something intrinsically attractive about the athlete, and that bleeds into and feeds the popularity of traditional sports.

The level of hero worship we attribute to our professional athletes varies from culture to culture, but sport is a human activity not limited to any one culture. Sport is one of our few common denominators. Athletes represent the ideal of what human beings can achieve. Sports only serve as viable receptacles for and expressions of our tribal nature (rivalries between baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey teams are essentially tribalism at heart) because there's enough underlying respect for the activities, based on a communal appreciation for the physical skills required to engage in those activities, that we're willing to put something of ourselves vicariously into the sports while we watch them. That's our team fighting their team.

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