First Person

The Challenge of Popularizing eSports


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.

eSports, on the other hand, espouse strengths and values that are not nearly as universal in scope or appreciation as physical prowess. The basic skill set of an eSports player is extremely well-developed hand-eye coordination and the ability to multitask. eSports players are quick thinkers who rapidly react to changing conditions – qualities that are much more difficult to appreciate unless you have some understanding as to why they’re impressive. It’s telling that at the State of the Game panel at PAX East this year, the idea was raised that one of the most commonly successful ways of getting people interested in eSports is citing the APM, or Actions Per Minute, of professional Starcraft players. 300 APM has been touted as a baseline figure for competitive players. That’s a combination of 300 mouse clicks and/or keyboard strikes in sixty seconds, which is an impressive display of multitasking when you consider that each of those actions is a considered and precise move as a regular part of gameplay.

Athletes are attractive in part because their skill sets are unattainable for most of us. In the case of eSports competitors this is much less so, especially in light of who the intended audience is for eSports, i.e. other gamers. Recreational gamers may not have their skills honed to nearly the same efficiency as professional gamers but they do have those skills, and in many cases have them trained to appreciable efficiency. The difference between a professional gamer and someone who plays videogames for fun is a greater sum of practice and discipline and less a factor of natural born talent. Casting eSports as sports begs the comparison between competitive gamers and professional athletes, and that comparison doesn’t hold up to scrutiny very well.

Forget the attempt to entice non-gamer fans into spectating at professional videogame competitions. That strikes me as the only rational purpose in attempting to wrap competitive gaming in the cloak of traditional sports in the first place. But while overt comparisons to traditional sports might not serve the eSports community in the United States, there is one lesson the American eSports world should draw from the traditional sports community: The popularity of professional sports in America is about the players as much or more as it’s about the games themselves.

eSports proponents should focus on how competitive gamers are similar to the rest of us who make videogames a part of our lives rather than try to brand competitive gamers as professional athletes who are decidedly not like the rest of us. I don’t relate to the professional football or baseball player who makes millions of dollars on the field and a few million more in endorsements off it. I’m much more likely to relate to someone who loves Starcraft 2, or some other game I can relate to more readily, so much they decide to utterly master it.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. You can read some of his other musings on his blog, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

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