When critics look at how to improve the conditions of esports, such as player treatment, they often compare them to the practices of professional sports. It’s a convenient comparison to make, one that’s made all the more easier by the term esports itself. “Esports” evokes images of traditional sport and easily conveys the concept of competitive gaming.
That recognizability has helped esports gain mainstream acceptance and fueled an explosive growth in interest. But there’s an argument to be made that the sports parallel is far from perfect, and that esports could learn a lot from a culture that shares many more characteristics with esports than traditional sports do. And that is the culture that surrounds traditional board games in countries like South Korea, Japan and China. Practitioners of games like Go, Chinese chess and regular chess have a lot in common with esports teams and players.
Go is played professionally, and is seen not only as a legitimate game of mental strength and strategy, but as a tool for teaching life values to children and adults alike. It’s likely that Go has contributed to China and South Korea’s stance on the culture of pro (video) gaming, and the game could be a predictor on the future value of esports as more than just entertainment.
The Encircling Game
Go, also known as Baduk in Korea, is a game of strategy and foresight. Played on a simple 19 by 19 board, Go is similar to the Western game known as Reversi or Othello where one must trap and surround their foe’s stones. It is a game of territory with relatively simple rules, with the goal of capturing and holding more territory (areas of the board with no stones) than the opponent. The opponent will typically try to contest areas a player starts forming by engaging and surrounding stones that establish the area’s outline. A game is concluded typically by resignation, and then the points are counted based on captured stones and uncontested equal points. Komi is also added (points to the score of the player who plays second – typically white).
In Go, the goal is to capture your enemies stones (white), gaining more points and securing key spaces (territories). In both diagrams, by playing your black stone to the right of white, you surround your opponents and can remove them; freeing more secured territory, thus points.
In comparison to chess, Go is less sophisticated by nature. All pieces are the same and there is no setup phase. Players can place stones at any intersecting position they like and begin playing. Despite its simplicity, the variety of games that can be played out surpass that of chess, both due to the size of the board and depth of strategy involved. As for rules, there are two main ones:
- A stone or groups of stones must have one “opening” or liberty, otherwise they are removed from the board. As you can see in the diagrams above, white currently has one liberty available to the right. Once black plays in that spot (F5/E6), the white stone must be removed and points are awarded.
- You cannot play positions that were just previously played. This is to prevent endless circles or capturing and re-capturing of stones.
Unlike most current esports titles, Go is a game of open, perfect information without chance elements. The idea of open communication of past moves, as well as equal information presented to both players, leads to a spiraling level of mental strength, self-confidence and foresight of both the foe’s strategy and one’s own approach. The beauty of Go is the mix of both global influence and big-picture consideration while also focusing on a variety of skirmishes. It’s a clash of global struggle to maintain dominance on the board while also ensuring, defensively or offensively, that local battles are won. Go is subtle, layered with in-depth sequences and scenarios that come with experience and practice.
A game like Blizzard’s Starcraft also incorporates a big picture/little details perspective, where one must maintain global control of the map through vision (holding Xel’Naga watchtowers, spreading creep, scouting, and scanning) and keep up one’s macromanagement. But that is also in addition to the local battles of either defending ones bases against harassment, or engagements at their base – to diminish their economic pace, ultimately lowering the rate at which they can comfortably attack with the right unit composition. Whether you’re playing Starcraft or Go, the balancing act of remaining consistent in your strategy and goals while contesting your opponent’s plans is a question of self-perfection and execution in the art of war.
Go’s Unknown Beginnings
Go’s origin is unclear. Written history of it is recorded as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (between 1000 and 250 BC). Legend has it that the game was devised by Emperor Yao 4,000 years ago in an attempt to correct his son’s lack of discipline. As the story goes, Yao’s son, Danzhu, was a no-good slacker who ignored his father’s orders and wouldn’t study. Yao invented the game for his son to play, and Danzhu became so interested in the game that he dedicated himself to it, getting rid of distracting thoughts. By studying Go, Danzhu changed the way he thought, learned many valuable lessons, and got onto the right path.
Regardless of its origin, the game’s initial growth has parallels to esports. The famous Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote about the game, although he didn’t necessarily speak well of it. He cited it as being, comparably, better than being idle or doing nothing it all: “The Master said, hard is it to deal with him, who will stuff himself with food the whole day, without applying his mind to anything good! Are there not gamesters and chess players? To be one of these would still be better than doing nothing at all.” That sentiment probably sounds familiar to many gamers:
As betting was very popular in Go, it was initially considered a game for the common people rather than aristocrats. It wasn’t until its popularity grew and spread to Korea and Japan that its acceptance as a game of intellect and strategy came about. Go’s ability to persevere as a relevant game in today’s era, despite remaining unchanged in its rules, is due to its timeless elegance and depth. It’s intellectually challenging and can teach one qualities that can be applicable at any point of their life. While certain esports titles will lose their popularity over time, the genres (MOBA, RTS, FPS) and their competitiveness will remain a part of the industry for years to come.
That sentiment probably sounds familiar to many gamers. As it should, as esports still faces many generational differences of perspective. Watch as CBS’ Sunday Morning panelist, Luke Burbank, demonstrates his inability to understand the appeal of esports as a “spectator sport”. He’s no Confucius, but his need to dismiss and degrade something that’s becoming so massively popular among a large group of people sounds familiar to those 3,000 years ago.
The Current Professional Scene
Go, as a competitive game, is incredibly popular. The International Go Federation estimates that over 40 million people play Go, and the federation currently encompasses 74 country members around the world. The core ranking system in online Go is a lot more direct than those of League of Legends or StarCraft II. Only two grades are attributed to players. Amateurs/students are typically graded from double-digit kyu to single-digit kyu (30 to 1k) and masters are ranked ascending from 1st dan to 7th dan. Professional players have their own dan rank, ascending from 1st dan to 9th dan. Ranks help determine a person’s ability of play while also figuring handicaps for players who play at different levels. In order to reach dan rank, you must compete in tournaments and complete exams, making the professional scene of Go regulated and official.
Becoming a professional Go player is a question of commitment. Those who are committed begin studying the game at a very young age. In Japan, student professionals are referred as insei, and are sponsored by a professional player. The professional supports and tutors the insei so they can pass their exam in becoming professional. This tradition continues to this day, and the hand-me-down ideology of older players passing their knowledge to younger players to improve their technique is a core reason for the game’s longevity and popularity.
Commitment and learning is paramount to a person’s overall improvement. For an aspiring StarCraft pro gamer, to join a pro gaming team-house in Korea, they typically have to give up their personal practices (hotkeys, creative strategies) and adopt ones that the team uses, which have been heavily researched by the coach to be the most efficient. Joining a team house is a statement that the player is willing to take his ability to the next level and to commit to the highest levels of efficient play. Go has a similar sign of commitment by a person studying at a Go school. At some of the most elite Go schools, students dedicate hours every day to the game – similar to the dedication pro gamers practice their respective esports titles with. Students who enroll in these classes typically aim to go pro before the age of 18.
Professional Go tournaments can have prize pools of up to half a million dollars, and are highly regarded in local mainstream culture. Go enjoys a wider respect and understanding in China than esports, with regular broadcasts of Go matches on television – something esports doesn’t have in China. Go is even incorporated with children’s education, as a tool for teaching dedication, patience and thinking ahead. Similarly, some Korean universities have departments dedicated to Go, where one can achieve Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Go studies.
The Culture of Teaching in Competitive Games
With Go making the leap to online play, services such as teaching games (where the teacher and student play a match for learning), tsumego (life-and-death Go puzzles) and analyze mode all become readily available via the browser. Esports offers similar services for analysis and support, like Dota 2’s coaching mode which allows a player to enter a matchmaking game with a team to better instruct them on the ins and outs of the game. To add, commitment in Go is a decision someone makes at life. Very few pros make their living on tournament winnings while others teach amateurs, similar to paid coaching in Counter-Strike, Starcraft, and other esports titles.
Similar to someone analyzing your match in StarCraft, League or Dota, online Go offers an ‘analyze mode’ where higher-ranked players can review your match, suggest better moves and add notes explaining their suggestion. In this diagram, we see a complete Go match and annotations at the top right, reviewed by TeamLiquid.net community member, nimbim, who holds the rank of 1Kyu online.
The hand-me-down attitude in Go, where older players are open to review and teach newcomers to play, is surrounded by the variety of devices that summarize how much of a lending hand they can offer. These institutions and infrastructures place a hierarchal responsibility for professionals to always seek and assist newcomers to the game they are professionals in. This helps ensure the continuation of the game and its viability as a leisure activity, but also embodies the ingrained Eastern culture of sibling relationship, respect and etiquette. In short, Go etiquette and manner branches from the traditionalist culture of the East, which has ensured its survivability and the passing of its wisdom, strategy and respect. Despite their similarities, Go and esports are worlds apart in terms of public perception and even in atmosphere within the game. While Go is intertwined with a national culture, esports faces the stigmatization of video games as a whole. Both are enjoyed by spectators that understand the game, but the entryway for traditional games and video games are in stark contrast to each other.
Go and esports both focus on self-improvement, mindfulness, and gauging the application and execution of learned capabilities. Virtues such as diligence and patience can be learned from these games and are applicable to the real-world. Simply put, the ability to develop your dedication to Go, regardless of your desired level, mirrors that of esports, but with much better regulation, balance, and institutions.
The age and simplicity of traditional board games have given them a wide mainstream acceptance that esports has yet to grasp, due in part to its higher sophistication of initial knowledge, making it esoteric as a spectator sport. For Go, the drive to that mainstream peak has ripened a variety of attitudes such as respect, patience, and diligence in addition to tools to pass down higher knowledge to new players.
What both iterations of gaming can offer are two sides of the same coin: applicable life virtues and self-improvement through leisure. One is acknowledged by the public while the other is still facing mixed views. The perspective of games being used as educational tools isn’t new, and has become even more widespread than ever before. The values of a game like Go are mirrored in our everyday life, either through final papers, remedial work or chores around the house. They impart a sense of responsibility, communication and diligence to perfect, whether in the context of wording of our arguments or the washing of dishes. Incorporating those persistent attitudes in an addictive way, such as progress in ladder ranks or mastering a layered depth of strategy in a game, is unique to gaming; board or video. Emphasizing the values of gaming in a mainstream context, such as working with others in the office and communicating problems among teammates, will open up promotion and acceptance of esports.
With Go having initiated the idea of a professional scene surrounding gaming (alongside international Chess), the imitation of many of Go’s establishments can hasten the benefits yielded to esports. Those benefits stem from a positive public reception that leads to resolving a variety of issues, such as the processing of visas for international travel or initiating leagues for all ages and levels, including national leagues, high-school and college leagues as well as national circuits. That acceptance can also lead to government support from departments of culture and sports. Potentially, current esports businesses could get better regulation and playing could start towards becoming upheld and recognized as a legitimate career, thus offering players an easier transition in to or out of the scene.
With Internet live streaming becoming more widely used by esports fans, television is no longer an essential part of esports; however, it is symbolic to a mainstream cultural relevance. It’s arguable whether TV is important right now, depending on who you ask. But for Go, it helped sustain a competitive scene and cemented its value as a cultural identity for many parts of the East. The applicable lessons one can learn from Go can just as easily be achieved in esports titles. This is especially true as technology becomes an integral part of our everyday life. Using esports as a tool to emphasize real-life attitudes such as communication, dedication and the desire to self-improve, is useful for all environments and ages. Incorporating those persistent attitudes in an addictive way, such as progress in ladder ranks or mastering a layered depth of strategy in a game, is unique to gaming; board or video.
Despite its explosive growth in popularity, one of the major challenges faced by esports is the relative lack of accessibility. The rules of Go are simple, whereas the rules of Dota 2, for instance, are almost impossibly complex to newcomers. Looking to Go, and the culture of teaching and embracing new players that surround the game, could help overcome that challenge. Esports has raised prize-pools to the millions in its climb for establishment and business opportunity, and has gained wider acceptance as a fortunate side-effect. But only looking to traditional sports for inspiration is a misunderstood parallel when we could also look to an even more relevant and, arguably, equally interesting board game that’s survived for thousands of years.