History and Contemporary Scene
On November 29th, 1972, Atari released an arcade game that pitted two people against each other in a virtual game of 2D table tennis. Pong was one of the the first video games that encouraged competition between two players, and its legacy includes thousands of video games throughout the last 45 years that played to our love of competition. In 2009, Riot Games came out with a new game that would transform competitive gaming and be the driving factor that would give “eSports” (Electronic Sports) a fanbase of almost 300 million people by 2016. The “MOBA” (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) League of Legends, described as a “fast-paced, competitive online game that blends the speed and intensity of a [Real Time Strategy (RTS)] with [Role Playing Game (RPG)] elements” by the official website, is the most popular game in the world.
League of Legends pits two teams of five players against each other in a race to destroy the opposing team’s base, referred to as the “Nexus.” The game’s mechanics are very complex, with 132 “champions” (playable characters) currently available, each with their own unique attributes. The gameplay lends itself to long (30-45 minute) and intense games that makes it very suitable as a spectator sport and a constantly shifting “meta” (advanced strategies). The makers of League of Legends saw an opportunity in the untapped market of competitive gaming in 2011, and thus the first League of Legends 2011 Championship took place in Sweden, with a prize pool of just under $100,000 and total viewership of 1.3 million people . Only 8 teams (mostly from North America and Europe) competed. The 2016 League of Legends World Championship will host 16 teams from around the world for an expected prize pool that could approach $5 million, and viewership projected at over 300 million people.
How did League of Legends eSports became one of the most popular sports in the world in only a few years? To start, the game is free to play and easy to learn the basics. Additionally, LoL’s online community, although often pinned as offensive and juvenile, is one of the largest internet communities (let alone gaming community) in the world. You are never more than a single Google search away from anything you can think of that relates to the game: from updates on the competitive scene, fan fiction, artwork, guides, streamers (who play the game for an audience’s entertainment), and much, much more. Like most video games that have reached mainstream recognition, however, League of Legends has had its fair share of media backlash and hardships. At the core of the history of competitive LoL and eSports in general is the question of legitimacy, and the community’s efforts to attain it in the face of an indifferent, and very often condescending mass media.
Many deviant subcultures pride themselves in breaking the mold and proudly proclaiming their dissociation from mainstream culture. The “we don’t care about what you think of us” attitude is common for members of these subcultures, who would probably be content with keeping the “normies” disapproving and judgmental of their lifestyle. The case of competitive gaming and eSports differs from many other subcultures in that respect, as the entire history of eSports has been a battlefield for legitimacy (Hamari and Sjöblom 2016). There are, of course, those who would rather keep the politics of modern sports away from eSports, but for most professional gamers, gaming isn’t just a hobby, it’s their livelihood. Not being accepted or validated by mainstream culture may be alright (or even preferable) for some subcultures, but it can make being a professional gamer very difficult. Only relatively recently did the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services even consider granting a professional gamer a work VISA, and many laws that protect independent athletes from unfair and exploitative contracts simply don’t exist for professional gaming. Across all competitive gaming scenes are stories of professional gamers who suffered at the hands of companies and sponsors who would exploit the grey area of eSports labor relations.
Whenever mainstream media decides to weigh in on the discussion of eSports, it is almost invariably mentioned in the context of questioning its legitimacy as an “actual sport” or pondering as to why people would even bother to watch other people play video games. This dominating view has been the single largest factor for the shaping of the subcultural space of eSports and its inhabitants. There are, of course, always exceptions.
In South Korea, the self-proclaimed national sport is StarCraft II, a sci-fi real time strategy (RTS) game that pits two players against each other in a fast-paced game of war strategy. South Korea (and much of Eastern Asia) makes less of a distinction between more traditional sports athletes and professional gamers than Europe and the US, which greatly affects the social position that pro gamers hold in their country’s mainstream culture. Professional athletes hold a celebrity status in the US, where they can reap the rewards of their elevated social position, whereas professional gamers tend to be relegated to the more niche markets (Lee and Schoenstedt 2011). Companies in the US, for example, tend to favor more traditional athletes (soccer, football, basketball, etc.) over the token video game nerd to represent the latest cereal brand or be the spokesperson for their car insurance. Pro gamers in South Korea, however, are treated just as any professional athlete would be and are showered with TV spots, sponsorships, and mainstream stardom. The geo-specific cultural perceptions of eSports and professional gamers is an interesting subject and deserves further study; you would be hard-pressed to find another subculture that is so widespread and yet evokes such varied cultural responses across the world.
Themes in League of Legends eSports
eSports, when viewed through certain sociological lenses, can reveal much about the youth culture by which it is dominated. It is always important to ask questions that delve into the demographics of any given subculture, such as “who gets to participate” and “how does a person’s identity affect their subcultural experience?” Class is an important part of any identity, and plays an important role for shaping the subcultural space of eSports and video gaming in general (Graham 2014). Class influences what video games people play and how much they play them; middle-lower class families are the primary consumers of video games, and they strongly prefer sports games compared to other genres (Graham 2014). Perhaps most important, however, is the variance in accessibility that exists for people of different classes for participating in competitive gaming. Video games, and the computers and consoles used to play them, can be prohibitively expensive for many people. Additionally, the financial support networks for participating in more traditional sports are far more developed than those for competitive gaming, although that is changing quickly. Competitive gaming, at least for now, has a very significant barrier-of-entry that discriminates based on class.
Class is only part of the picture when it comes to the subcultural space of eSports. Gender conceptions, in particular the way masculine ideals shape competitive gaming, has resulted in a very pronounced gender disparity. About half of all gamers are female, yet roughly 95% of eSports fans and competitive gamers are male. It took Title IX to legitimize women’s athletic programs, and such legislation has yet to appear for eSports. Competitive gaming began when video games were a male-dominated pastime, which resulted in a subculture quite literally founded on masculine ideals. An environment that thrives off of aggressive hypercompetition and other masculine-identified traits creates an inhospitable atmosphere for people who might identify differently. A positive feedback loop results from such a culture of masculinity, in which the predominant anti-feminine ideals of eSports delegitimize female participation and perpetuates the gender disparity. Without the gender diversity necessary to challenge the existing discriminatory institutions, the subculture has stagnated. People are trying to change this aspect of eSports with a variety of strategies, from short-term solutions such as women-specific tournaments, to more far-sighted approaches targeted at the more systemic problems such as gender-based legitimacy (of the lack thereof).
Scholarship and Resources
Relevant Literature on eSports
Adapted from Red Bull’s list of “must-read books on eSports”
Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner; Talking eSports: A Guide To Becoming A World-Class eSports Broadcaster
Paul “ReDeYe” Chaloner was one of the first big figures in eSports when he started casting Counter-Strike games in 2002. His book “Talking eSports” covers his career as an eSports caster and what it takes to succeed in such a competetive profession.
In his short autobiographical book Shannon Webster talks about how he became a professional gamer and the path that took him to the Nintendo World Championships.
A more academic take on the history and contempory scene of eSports, T.L. Taylor explores the trends of an industry over its short but precipitous climb into immense popularity.
In one of the first published books on eSports David Sirlin, a professional Street Fighter gamer, lays out what steps you have to take if you want to survive in eSports and how to set yourself up for success farther down the road.
Looking specifically at the professional gaming scene in South Korea, Dal Yong Jin explores just how important gaming has become for South Korean youth and what the booming industry of competitive video gaming might have in store in the coming years.
Graham, Roderick. 2014. “Video Games and Class Reproduction: Social Class and its Effects on Teen Gaming“. Academia: 1-28
Hamari, Juho and Max Sjöblom. 2016. “What Is eSports and Why Do People Watch It?” Social Science Research Network, 27(2): 1-34.
Lee, Donghun and Linda J. Schoenstedt. 2011. “Comparison of ESports and Traditional Sports Consumption Motives.” The ICHPER-SD Journal of Research in Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Sport & Dance, 6(2): 39-44.
Seo, Yuri. 2016. “Professionalized Consumption and Identity Transformations in the Field of ESports.” Journal of Business Research, 69(1): 264–272.
Seo, Yuri and Sang-Uk Jung. 2014. “Beyond Solitary Play in Computer Games: The Social Practices of ESports.” Journal of Consumer Culture, 16(3): 635-655.
Ferrari, Simon. 2013. “From Generative to Conventional Play: MOBA and League of Legends.” Proceedings of DiGRA, 7: 1-17.
Wagner , Michael G. 2006. “On the Scientific Relevance of ESports .” International Conference on Internet Computing, 437-442.
Weiss, Thomas and Sabrina Schiele. 2013. “Virtual Worlds in Competitive Contexts: Analyzing ESports Consumer Needs.” Electronic Markets Electron Markets, 23(4): 307–316.
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