What is eSports?
Among various social and cultural developments associated with the rise of computer entertainment consumption, of particular interest has been the emergence of an organized and competitive approach to computer games.
While millions of consumers play games for leisure, a newer breed of professional players are committed to making a living at what has been labeled as eSports. Playing eSports can thus be found at the intersection of computer games and professionalized sports, where consumers compete against others to improve their skills and abilities and outperform their opponents.
Accordingly, unlike some other gaming practices –where consumers may enjoy memorialized storytelling – playing eSports produces a sense of skill-based rivalry. In recent years, this form of computer game consumption has been fuelled by growing spectatorial followings and nascent governance infrastructures.
Computer games played for eSports consumption span across a wide range of platforms (e.g. personal computers, gaming consoles) and genres (e.g. sports-themed games, ﬁghting games, real-time strategy games).
Some games imitate physical sports, others are oriented towards combat or ﬁghting activities and yet other games simulate military battles.
Despite their contextual and playing diﬀerences, however, all games played for eSports feature some forms of comparative measures, which can be used to determine a player’s level of skillful performance within the game. For instance, in sports-themed games, these measures could be consistent with the rules of a physical sport (e.g. scoring goals in soccer games), whereas in real-time strategy games, players are required to defeat their opponents.
Moreover, in addition to these in-game rules, the formats of eSports consumption competitions are often governed by ‘external governing bodies and communities of eSports players, which now perform an institutionalizing role in ensuring the consistency of conduct among various competitive computer-gaming practices’.
While eSports is still in its infancy, it already oﬀers a rich context to observe the multifaceted social performance associated with the consumption of contemporary computer games. In 2019, the ESL reported over 3.6 million registered users in Europe.
In fact, there are more than 430 professional ‘athletes’ in South Korea who make a living from playing computer games, and the 2018 WCG – an eSports tournament comparable to the Olympic Games for traditional sports – saw 400 computer game players attend from 40 countries, 400 journalists and 155,000 on-site spectators (WCG, 2018).
Furthermore, various national (e.g. Korean eSports Association) and international (e.g. International eSports Federation –IESF-) governing bodies have been established to oversee the practice of professional computer gaming on free games and paid games.
Despite these developments, however, there have been few attempts to understand eSports practices in consumer research.
In the remainder of this section, we examine eSports consumption using three distinct nexuses of social practices, which include
- The playing,
- Watching and
- institutionalized governing
In doing so, we illustrate that the contemporary practices of computer games surpass the elements of leisure and digital play; they are embedded within even broader nexuses of practical activities, where consumers take on multiple interrelated roles that comprise the social performance of computer game consumption.
In the following section, we will be drawing the threads together in order to provide a more integrated view of eSports as an assemblage of consumption practices and discuss how this conceptual formulation informs our understanding of eSports as a cultural phenomenon.
Playing eSports – The elements of competitive gameplay
The elements of competitive gameplay
Playing eSports has been described as eliciting ‘a rich sensory experience that calls for layer upon layer of physically demanding action in order to be competitive in the high-performance game’.
As such, this type of gameplay varies from the user gratiﬁcations obtained in other computer game practices, such as virtual daydreaming or tourism.
In particular, eSports consumers do not seek temporary escapism, but rather, they strive to become ever more competitive and to improve their mastery of the game.
If we are to adopt a practice-based view, this implies that playing eSports is coordinated by its own nexus of understandings, tools, competencies and skills that consumers use in their routinized performances of the practice.
First, it appears that playing eSports connotes a form of understanding, where competitive gaming is more than just fun for players; rather, it represents a ‘serious’ activity, which has been compared to playing sport, adhering to a particular subculture and even to mastering a profession. In researches on gaming culture in South Korea – one of the major eSports hubs in the world – they asserts that for many young Koreans online games represents way of life.
The activities surrounding this media ecology determine how its members navigate within their vital orientations and make choices about how they take nourishment, spend money, earn money, and even partake in courtship rituals.
Furthermore, there are reports that there are a growing number of professional players who earn a living by playing computer games as a form of sport.
Consider the following excerpt from a Forbes interview with a famous eSports player, Steven Bonnel:
“I worked as a professional carpet cleaner! I still played the original StarCraft [computer game] quite a bit, but never for money, and never at a high level. As for when you cross over to playing full time, I think that line changes for every person, based on their personal situation at the time. For me, I own my house and have a little baby to support now, so I crossed the line when I was able to realize an income capable of supporting my lifestyle and ﬁnances”.
The excerpt demonstrates that playing eSports conﬂicts with deﬁnition of pure play found in leisure activities, where play creates neither goods, nor wealth, nor new elements of any kind; and, except for the exchange of property among the players, end[s] in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning of the game.
Instead, eSports players are empowered to ﬁnd extrinsic beneﬁts, such as prize money and social status. Accordingly, playing eSports could be understood better using the notion of ‘false’ play found in professional sports, where the intrusion of extrinsic gains and reality (e.g. money) brings with it the possibility of corruption of play, whereby a leisure activity becomes a form of labor.
In the following section, we will be returning to the concepts of leisure and labor to discuss the cultural development and professionalization of eSports within the broader eSports consumption practices and their roles.
Furthermore, playing eSports is coordinated by a unique set of competencies and skills required to perform the practice. It has, for instance, been suggested that eSports players develop a tacit knowledge about how to play competitively, whereby eSports can be distinguished from playing computer games for other purposes.
This is particularly evident from the rules governing eSports tournaments, such as those set up for playing the computer game StarCraft II at the WCG (WCG, 2018).
StarCraft II is a real-time strategy slot computer game produced by Blizzard Entertainment. In this game, a player chooses to control one of the three ‘races’: the Terrans, the Zerg and the Protoss. The game requires players to defeat their opponents by overcoming their armies, and the game ends when one of the opponents is completely defeated. However, on top of these generic in-game rules, eSports players participating in WCG must also adhere to the tournament rules (WCG, 2018).
These additional requirements outline the code of conduct, prescribed by the tournament organizers, to ensure ‘fair play’ among the competitors (WCG, 2018).
Accordingly, many of these rules – such as not using certain types of the game’s applications or disclosing a player’s race to a higher seeded opponent – are speciﬁed only for organized and competitive gameplay and, therefore, may not be followed necessarily by the players for other gaming purposes (e.g. when playing casually).
In other words, since participating in eSports tournaments represents an important element of an organized and competitive approach to playing computer games, this suggests that by regularly adhering to the tournament rules, eSports players routinize and sustain these rules as an integral part of the socially understood skills and competencies required for playing the particular games as eSports rather than for leisure.
The performance of playing eSports is also evident outside gaming tournaments. In particular, how the Internet cafe´s in South Korea, called ‘PC bangs’, have become a social space for nurturing organized and competitive computer gaming. Players use PC bangs to compete regularly in the same oﬄine space:
Players derived much pleasure in playing StarCraft with players while sharing the same physical and cultural environment. Even today, professional computer league game players (‘pro-leagues’) still conduct preliminary elimination contests in PC bangs– still the ground for aspiring eSports superstars.
Thus, similar to eSports tournaments, these Internet cafe´s ‘routinize’ playing eSports by reinforcing a particular form of conduct in speciﬁc locations.
Furthermore, studies report that playing eSports involves routinized training in order to develop the necessary skills required for competitive gameplay. For instance, eSports training is focused on optimizing players’ skills for maximum performance within a particular software environment.
This is also echoed when you outline a number of uniquely developed skills and competencies required for competitive gameplay, such as team management, balanced body and composure, and the salience and sensuousness of the technologies in play. These studies highlight the ‘seriousness’ of competitive gameplay, reﬂected by the particular sets of skills and competencies, which also diﬀerentiate playing eSports from other forms of gameplay.
Finally, playing eSports is further deﬁned by the tools and technology involved. More speciﬁcally, there is a tendency towards using a speciﬁc type of computer equipment, which is designed for playing games competitively. For instance, since most competitive games rely on the fast and accurate movements of the mouse for manipulating movements during competitions, playing eSports requires optimized user input performance. Consequently, ‘manufacturers of computer accessories have beneﬁted from gamers’ increased demand for high-dpi optical mice, specialized input devices and specialized mouse pads to give them a competitive edge with regard to control of input’. Similarly, as fast response is critical in competitive gaming and that ‘there is an increasing need to ensure that the keyboard and mouse used by the games [are] appropriate just for the purposes of gaming’.
From the practice-based view, these emerging specialized ‘tools’ produced for competitive gameplay further diﬀerentiate playing eSports from other practices of computer game consumption. In addition, these developments illustrate that commercial market actors can participate in shaping the nexuses of eSports practices, whereby they produce specialized tools, which empower consumers to distinguish eSports playing from other forms of gaming.
The importance of the audience
Practicing eSports does not only involve playing computer games competitively. As it is evident from many of the essays on eSports collected in (2018) eSports Yearbook, the same consumers ﬁnd pleasure in watching others playing, particularly if those others are exceptionally skilled players.
Consider, for instance, the major professional computer gaming tournaments, such as WCG. In these tournaments, while not everyone can participate, even those who come to watch can become immersed in the competitive culture of eSports. These events authenticate the consumption of eSports in a real world, traversing the boundaries between what consumers do inside the computer games and how they engage with eSports oﬄine. In this way, the tournaments oﬀer a venue for eSports consumers to share their devotion to the practice.
We suggest that watching eSports can also be deﬁned by its own nexus of understandings, tools, skills and competencies that are used by consumers to coordinate this practice. The recent studies in particular illustrate that, as with playing competitively, watching eSports engenders an understanding of competitive gameplay as a form of sport.
In this sense, the practice is comparable to watching traditional sports.
For instance, when consumers attend a soccer match, they understand that the match involves two opposing teams who try to outperform each other using their skills and competencies.
Likewise, watching eSports conveys a particular form of understanding, where eSports represents a staged performance of competitive rivalry, involving skilled players and their narratives. The studies also suggest that watching eSports requires distinct skills and competencies to perform the practice. For instance, it is important for consumers to internalise tacit knowledge about computer games and the rules of competition in order to follow the happenings of the game.
In other words, some of the skills and competencies needed to play computer games competitively may be also required for watching eSports – which could explain why so many eSports spectators are the computer game players themselves.
This requirement is particularly evident in the ethnographic study on eSports, where described the diﬃculties associated with being an outsider to eSports and understanding the happenings of eSports matches:
Things that were otherwise obvious for the insiders generally weren’t for me. When claims were made about how one game was naturally easier to watch than another, for example, I felt the unspoken assumptions all too clearly. I perhaps sensed the gap moments and breakages more acutely because I often lacked any easy internalized interpretive schema.
Finally, watching eSports can be also diﬀerentiated by the specialized tools used by consumers to perform the practice. In particular, it has been reported that Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) is increasingly becoming a preferred platform for watching eSports.
IPTV provides a number of unique features and beneﬁts compared with traditional television. For instance, this media channel enables a shared access for viewers from any part of the world, whereby the viewers watching an eSports tournament in Asia can connect to the viewers from Europe by using the same IPTV station.
Such features enabled the 2018 WCG to attract over 9.5 million viewers worldwide (WCG, 2018). Moreover, IPTV integrates communication capabilities (e.g. video chat) that enable interaction among and between viewers, encouraging these parties to connect with the broader crowd of spectators.
Finally, viewers are able to take control of their viewing cameras, which enhances their interactivity with the broadcasting event.
In turn, this suggests that the unique elements of watching eSports require consumers to develop new skills and competencies in using the associated tools that are necessary to perform the practice.
Interestingly, many computer games have now integrated the ability to watch live streams of computer game events within the game interface itself.
From the practice theory perspective, this means that the playing and watching of eSports are becoming more integrated through the shared tools which are used to perform the two practices.
Towards the institutionalization of competitive gaming
Following the increasing popularity of eSports playing and watching, we have witnessed the emergence of nascent governing bodies that begin to institutionalize the practices of competitive computer gaming.
These organizations, formed by and consisting of parties involved with eSports, perform a range of governing functions, such as providing a strategic vision for eSports’ growth, developing and overseeing the rules of practice and bringing a sense of coherent structure and organization to eSports consumption.
Some examples include Major League Gaming (MLG), which aims to build a full-ﬂedged sports league around competitive computer gaming, and the IeSF, which deﬁnes its key mission as to set ‘global standards of eSports for integrated development of each country by instituting international eSports standardization’.
The emergence of these organizations suggests that there is an emerging trend towards the development of more institutionalized and, perhaps, more professionalized eSports practices.
Consistent with the playing and watching, eSports governing appears to assume the understanding of competitive gaming as an organized and competitive activity.
In particular, the process of institutionalization plays a vital role within the transformation of ‘hectic play’ into organized sports, asserting the signiﬁcance of emerging governing bodies in deﬁning eSports as a form of sport.
Moreover, the practice is also consistent with the understanding of eSports as a form of subculture since the activities of governing organizations are aimed not only at those playing eSports but also at the broader community of eSports stakeholders.
Furthermore, the practice of governing eSports assumes the development of a particular set of skills and competencies necessary to perform this practice. For instance, we have noted that eSports players must adhere to the tournament rules of competition established by the relevant governing organizations (such as WCG).
This suggests that, in order to perform governance successfully, skilled practitioners would require not only an understanding of current rules but also of the ways in which changes in these rules might impact the existing practice of competitive gameplay.
As an example, the current tournament rules state explicitly that the administrators of WCG reserve rights to change rules based on their interpretation of the ‘fairness and spirit of gameplay’. This implies that these administrators are responsible for setting standards, which may determine what the fairness and spirit of gameplay connote within the boundaries of eSports consumption.
Finally, governance would also require competencies in ensuring the assimilation of the rules and policies within the community of eSports stakeholders (kind of Sportsbook). This process could, in turn, engender the development of skills and their associated tools (such as online forums, blogs, news), which are required to communicate eﬀectively with players, spectators and other stakeholders, such as computer gaming companies and broadcasting channels.
Overall, this suggests that, while still in its infancy, the governing practice brings yet another nexus to eSports consumption, where eSports is becoming increasingly institutionalized.
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