The Imperative Feeling to Legitimize eSports

When Forbes wrote the heated headline: “Why eSports Doesn’t Need ESPN“. There was some debate coming from both sides on whether or not the author, Paul Tassi, was making a valid point or simply coming at the topic too strongly. The author’s main argument was that the idea of eSports “needing to make it to television in order to become legitimate” was complete hogwash. When it came to whether eSports will ever be televised, the article gave a more moderate answer in which eSports may, someday, be on television, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

That is a key highlight in regards to outlets in which eSports can be publicized. While there are a variety of avenues to produce eSports broadcasting, it goes without saying that they are not all necessary and yet, we value them even if they are an outdated form of how fans consume their favourite games. The discussion of whether eSports necessitates being on television, radio or even in the paper is pointless when businesses are already embracing the opportunity to expand, and the benefits from these efforts are already accumulating. Unfortunately, vocal communities translate eSports expanding on any outlet other than via internet streaming as a step into a heightened environment of [uptight] professionalism and an influx of curious (and sometimes skeptical) newcomers. These concerns about eSports changing and merging into mainstream expectancies is moot. It is undeniable that eSports will change as coming generational cultures shift into more technologically-focused traits; this shift also includes competitions, incorporating practices of the old into the new medium. Those who question the importance of legitimizing eSports are opinionated, and do not take into consideration the companies who have already been trying to legitimize it for many years. The author, Paul Tassi, is also victim of this narrow-minded view in which he dismisses cable television as an outdated media platform without understanding that although the current demographic consumes their favourite tournaments in-person or online, large consumer companies and products go through mainstream television to access their audience. Not to mention the cultural significance of television and that viewing habits still favour TV-watching by nearly 20 hours more than online viewing a week ( – 2013).

As the internet becomes more widespread, advertisers are turning to online livestream channels but that doesn’t mean efforts to access television should be halted; on the contrary, they should be continually pursued. The disconnect between how advertisers reach their target demographic and how fans enjoy their favourite events can become further minimized. To add, broadening eSports’ horizon will only create more opportunity for organizations currently starved for financial support, hopefully avoiding taking up offers from explicit companies such as from the pornography industry who have been losing advertising options more and more. From a business perspective, your produced events will have stronger marketable points by being live on national television (whether it is Sweden, Finland or North America – ESPN) than by just livestreaming for the sake of maintaining a semblance of “legitimate eSports”.

A preview show for ESPN2 was produced during Valve’s Dota 2 The International 4 which, prior to its announcement, urged Forbes contributing writer, Paul Tassi, to dismiss both the television medium for eSports as well as calling it needless to expand to when your current fanbase relies on internet live streaming

It should be stated that legitimizing eSports and expanding the brands of our currently established production companies such as ESL, DreamHack and Major League Gaming are naturally one of the same. These flagships of eSports production are both representative of how attractive eSports can be for the average fan as well as the bridge to the mainstream gaming industry. While eSports doesn’t need validation from mainstream networks in a nearly exclusive online entertainment; it is heavily sought after regardless.

  • For DreamHack, the transition from being one of the largest LANs in the world since the 90s to becoming a fully-fledged studio as well as competitive event, has the interest of national television channels within their own country,Sweden – SVT (2009/2012) and now Finland – YLE (2014).
  • Likewise ESL has enticed similar national television interest with their advertised recent Dota 2 ESL ONE event at the Commerzbank-Arena World Cup Stadium. For years, they have widened their the two brands, The Intel Extreme Masters and their ESL ONE, previous EMS One, with massive events across North America and Europe. More specifically, they have been using mainstream gaming conventions to both advertise their brand as well as draw mainstream audiences into the excitement of competitive gaming including Gamescom (Cologne), SITEX (Singapore, Convention Centre), Comic-Con (New York), CeBIT (Hannover), and Fan Expo (Toronto). It’s a sort of ‘two-birds-one-stone’ plan in which ESL heightens the recognition of their branded events while also intertwining the conventions’ mainstream appeal to improve the marketability of eSports and the viewership of their own competitions.

Let’s not also discount the fact that ESL has been the frontrunner for game developers/publishers to rely on for hosting competitive events such as Blizzard’s StarCraft 2 World Championship Series (2013/Europe, 2014/North America) Titanfall at IEM Katowice (2014), Battlefield 4 at IEM Katowice (2014) and Halo at Gamescom (2014), Riot Games LCS Europe (2013), Firefall (2012), SMITE (2012) and Hawken (2012).

What’s also interesting about ESL is their Intel Extreme Masters events attracts many technology and mainstream game booths/kiosks marking that not only is competitive gaming using mainstream conventions to draw in new fans but also that technology and mainstream gaming companies can take advantage of eSports events in-person.

  • The progress publishers are making ranges from Riot Games’ massive budget and staff dedicated to all things LCS-related to Valve’s more long-term approach in meshing consumers with eSports fans to create cooperative businesses within competitive gaming (tickets and cosmetics that contribute directly to players, organizations or prizes at events). Together, they alleviate the risk with becoming involved in competitive gaming while also establishing a strong front for mainstream media to cover and expose both scenes (as we have seen with ESPN and The International 4 in addition to LCS World Championship on a variety of news sites)

The history in which competitive gaming has reached mainstream media stretches even farther dipping into its highs and lows with companies such as ESWC, CGS, WCG and more. This is especially true when it comes to national televised events as it is becoming the accepted norm in Asia (China, South Korea). Calling television a “dinosaur” when it has had such a relevant cultural impact in Asia for nearly a decade is just flat-out silly. ESports on television leads to better marketable numbers for tournaments, potentially more legitimate understanding and exposure of players and a step forward for generational values as generations are becoming born with access to the internet and outdated perspectives fall out. We can say that the value people put towards television is misguided especially with how impactful competitions are at conventional gaming expos. But the advantages of broadening our horizons among two audiences (mainstream gamers as well as the general population) are crucial for expanding eSports to greater heights. It answers the original article’s short-sighted question: “Why do all this work to try and expand to a medium that the majority of your fanbase may not even want or be able to access?“

iem-katowice-2014-2What you don’t see in this image is the massive lot behind for all the booths and kiosks for other games and technology companies using eSports events to market and showcase their products.

The pitfalls from the past are always seen as two steps backwards and lessons to be learned. But these consistent outreaches from developers and eSports production companies to conventional media platforms and established gaming conventions tell us that there is a gain from continually trying to reach a wider audience; that the benefits outweigh the flaws to morph eSports to a wider accepted form of entertainment.

To Summarize:

  • To dismiss television is to be caught in the progress of internet livestreaming without admitting the cultural significance and habits of those who still consume a vast amount of television (not to mention how it is best to show eSports to newcomers via television, a more shared media medium) and where television still has an impact on national societies.
  • eSports businesses and publishers are making major headway in developing eSports into a professional, long-term and stable interest for players and fans alike. This includes integrating mainstream consumers and gamers with the hype and excitement of eSports via live interaction at mainstreaming gaming conventions: Chinese, Korean, Finnish and Swedish national television. Whether the public dismisses television or not is superseded by these years of established action.
  • In many aspects, eSports is a legitimate marketing platform for many companies, audiences and businesses as there is an intertwining of cross-marketing for both sides (developers to eSports and eSports with developers; discounting technology companies). That content can be further outreached to advertisers still prioritizing television over any other entertainment outlet – sustaining businesses further.
  • Placing competitions at conventional gaming conventions may have a stronger interaction and impact on the gaming mainstream audience.

However, the question remains: at what point is eSports considered “legitimate”? What kind of measurements should it rely on to mark achievement: prize amounts? Media coverage (news, television channels, gaming conventions)? Or its influence on development companies’ business practices? It may very well be a combination of those areas and more but it goes without saying that the more eSports spreads, the higher its peak of interest and ultimately, acceptance as a showcase of the values in competitions, sports or not.

eSports is not a Sport

Whenever I read other editorials from other writers, I always check to see one thing: Are they going to compare their idea and issues with eSports to the success of professional national mainstream athletic sports? In some cases, they do, in others; they’ve come to approach eSports more as a spectacle or something similar as WWF or UFC. It’s more of an event than an actual sport. Overall, I feel that comparing eSports to professional mainstream sports can be a poor perspective that ultimately narrows potential and shapes it to be something it cannot feasibly become (but may be something even more).

In some parts, eSports is just like Sports. Forbes and Dustin Browder took the words right out of my mouth:

“These guys are athletes. There’s physical and mental conditioning to it. These guys are, in many cases, playing 12 hours a day to prepare for these matches, or even just constantly. These guys are training as hard as a regular athlete would to train for these things. They have to have the dedication and enthusiasm for it, and there’s a lot of coaching that goes on as well. A lot of these guys have coaches and are parts of teams. They create a culture of support around them so they can learn to master the game. What good are you if you can’t practice against somebody who’s great? So these guys create teams of people where they’re all really good, they practice against each other constantly, and they compete against other teams.

This allows them to create this sport atmosphere where they work as hard as any regular athlete, and try as hard. They have to have the psychology and mental endurance. You see these guys when they lose a match; they are crushed, just like an Olympic hopeful would be crushed if he didn’t make it. They’ve got to have the endurance to overcome that and say, “Yeah, I lost the biggest match of my career, but I’m not done. I’m going to come back and overcome this,” and sometimes they do. It’s just absolutely amazing the trials, tribulations, and challenges these guys face every day.”

(Dustin Browder interviewed by John Gaudiosi, Forbes, 2013)

In truth, the game(s) and the competitors who dedicate their lives to entertain us, the spectators, are athletes. Perhaps not physically from head-to-toe but their dedication, work and practice ethics, and approach to the game is comparable to that of sports. They are participants of a very competitive game and play for their careers, to remain an emphasized competitor ahead of the strategic curve. These acknowledgements lead me to understand the subculture of eSports on a three-level system (granted, this is a simplified model where we ignore a lot of involved parties, especially on the business end):

Three levels of E-Sports[Click to Enlarge]

The three levels are nearly all dependent on the community and drive. Both the games and Pro Gamers are on the core circle of Competitive Gaming: competitive gaming being without the spectators or much of a news media following. Essentially, it’s just the game, the players and the small community who were active or involved in the organizing of competitions. As we step further out into the second-level, we start introducing the large following of communities such as Team Liquid, the sub-reddits as well as large-scale events to connect further these online communities into a gaming expo-like setting.

This is eSports. eSports is a spectacle to dress and curtain the core of the game and competition. The atmosphere is what is the most appealing for events such as IGN’s Pro League, North-American Star League finals and Major League Gaming which helps add flair and life to something that occurs within computer systems. The roaring fans and the enthusiastic and excited commentators are areas that help emphasize and improve the excitement of what goes in the game. These elements are found within mainstream sports and are why we title competitive gaming as eSports.

eSports Population Activity is an overview of how popular, active and worthwhile is eSports for these companies. It takes into account of the core game, its active teams and Pro Gamers, leagues and events as well as growth of community websites. I titled EPA as a global measurement to help identify just how popular and strong this subcultures growth is. For some games such as Tribes: Ascend and Street Fighter x Tekken, their EPA has been greatly reduced despite numerous attempts at trying to improve it (this could be for a variety of issues). Team Fortress 2, also a popular competitive game, is not as popularly viewed as Counter-Strike for other reasons. Their EPA is low and thus perhaps why companies aim to not acknowledge, improve or work towards changing that (because it isn’t realistically feasible for the company’s resources to devote towards or maybe because the company sees other more profitable ways to take advantage of their video-game product).

We call competitive gaming “eSports” because it summarizes and eases outsiders into the idea of e-athletes. Even if someone had no idea what playing video-games at a competitive level was or what it entailed, these tournament events are gaming expositions that help show the appeal of watching someone do something better than you (better technique, strategy, approach, etc). The importance of the atmosphere mimicking that of Football stadiums or Hockey rinks is the ultimate goal and titling eSports as a sport helps push the idea further (sports is a subject nearly everyone can identify, understand and easily associate the interest of it).

So why isn’t eSports a sport? You have the athletes and you have the mimicked atmosphere (just on a smaller scale). What prevents it from being that of sports? Because the game changes. The core game mechanics improve, change, and are biased towards one side or another. In StarCraft, you have three asymmetrical races that have their pros and cons, in ARTS games such as Dota, you have a multitude of heros that interact with one another differently. For FPS games, a variety of guns also means countless approaches towards taking down your opponent. These varied factors help keep the game fresh, new and entertaining. It displays unlimited possibilities that surpass that of sports on a basic ruled level.

Because video-game(s) can change so much, be improved and become visually stunning, the possibilities to innovate it makes it better than mainstream sports. The way these games are accessed and the tools used to better spectate each match and provide insightful information for viewers and commentators alike surpass that of mainstream sports.

However, the level of understanding for E-Sport games requires a little bit more. When I wrote my article “What Makes an E-Sport”, I noted the importance of being able to demonstrate skill and add thrill for the spectator within a game:

“It must be thrilling to watch. Despite the limitations of development in the past, games such as StarCraft: Brood War, Counter-Strike: 1.6, Quake 3 and DotA were still exciting to watch. Excitement is key to an E-Sport and that excitement must be both innate as well as injected from the viewer’s perspective. Some games are less challenged by this first point than others. Fighting games for example are much easier to showcase and spectacular to watch than first-person shooters.”

The reality is that eSports will always be a “you’re either in or you’re out” sort of pond and because most current adults have grown being out of video-games or not as competitively involved with it, most are definitely out. However, as the digital age encompasses more generations and old values start to shrink, the accessibility and acceptance of video-games and potentially E-Sports is bound to expand.

One area we did ignore in this piece is the relationship of sports with the NFL in comparison to that of Blizzard, RIOT and Valve who need to prioritize both the growth of this subculture as well as maintain their dedication to what really sells and adds value to these products. Because E-Sports relies on the products of gaming development companies, not all changes could be interpreted as needed or beneficial for the scene. It’s a difficult thing for gaming companies who aim to really maintain their devotion to E-Sports, but also towards their varying fans. This was discussed a bit in my article “The Overabundance of Tournaments & Branching Problems” but could definitely be further looked into.

To summarize, eSports is not necessarily sports, but is an accurate term to help the general public understand what eSports composes of. I designated it to be more like the WWF and UFC because of how new these competitions are as well as the fact that it aims to both entertain and compete. Video-games are entertainment and eSports also needs to be entertaining to maintain its niche audience interest. How this interest be reinvented can only be told as more investments flow into the idea and as more game development companies become involved or determined to sell their game as an E-Sport.