5 Rambling Thoughts About Esports

1. Esports are not “sports”. Well, not in the colloquially sense, anyway. You see, we exist at the beginning of a new idea about what spectatorial competition could appear, and it may very well point towards the digital realm. However, one must remember that, for the majority of people, “sports” professional and amateur remain forever linked to the idea of physical fitness, prowess, and perfection in a variety of different games and challenges. That impression will not suddenly change until…all of them die off. Expect this conversation to persist for a while.

sports balls

Pictured: actual sports.

2. While I am for the idea of “competitive gaming” – that is, playing games in a competitive setting to express your own inner potential against friendly foes – I am not exactly for the co-opting of existing words just to legitimize your own causes (see here). Trying to re-define a word with decades of attached meaning seems disingenuous to me, if not borderline hostile. A proper recognition of that fact, and the ideas of other people on the subject, is necessary – not just ESPORTS ARE SPORT NUB. Words have power, and trying to replace a word will certainly NOT endear you to people who already know what the word means.

competitive-gaming

3. I suppose it goes without saying that I have watched high-level play of many such games, and while I can see the spectating appeal (the same sort of appeal, for example, that goes into a Youtube Let’s Play video), I’m not sure what I am watching. Unlike, say, soccer, understanding League of Legends at a glimpse turns into a terrifying prospect right from the get-go. Just think of the number of heroes, the concept of lanes, experience boosting, jungling, ability chaining, last hitting, item builds, and other concepts versus the completely oblivious user – yes, the game looks pretty interesting, but so many things are happening that it’s difficult to perceive why one person over another even wins.

Certain genres just work better from this standpoint, and MOBAs are not one of them. While Heroes of the Storm simplifies things, the RPG elements continue to hamper the immediacy of “esports” due to the inherent complexities of numbers (SO MANY NUMBERS) and talent choices. Otherwise, the game can only be understood on a real surface level. You might say we could level the same charges towards soccer, but human beings already share an intuitive sense of physical space and shooting a ball in a specific way – there’s a reason why football (not the American kind) is the most popular sport in the world. It’s also the same reason why StarCraft II, even with all its high hopes, died so fast compared to the MOBA scene – the simplest, most accessible game always wins in the end, especially from an outsider’s perspective, and all that micro wasn’t going to work man.

That’s why fighting games work so well from this standpoint – they hold many of the elements of typical physical sports, simply heightened to a fantastical degree. Boxing, for example, relies on spacing and timing, along with blocking and endurance, to actually win. The same principles hold true for fighting games. The lack of physical exhaustion means that the mental game takes a much larger role than it would otherwise, which leads to some incredible moments. I think it comes down to one thing: when you hit a dude hard, you see it, and that helps a lot more than “a jumbled mess of crazy abilities all happening at once so fast the announcer can’t even begin to keep up with a billion things on a map”.

HeroesOfTheStorm_x64-2015-03-05-19-10-21-89

Fun to play – not very fun to watch unless you know way too much stuff.

4. So, what does that mean about myself and “esports”, so-called? Well, they are fun to watch, depending on the game, but I really have no stake in the matter either way. If you want to play video games at a competitive level, that’s fine. If you want to play them for money…well, I suppose you can do that also. But, on some level, does this not defeat the purpose of playing video games? Honestly, I play them as a hobby. Not as an obsessive hobby, mind you; while I do play them extensively, I like them more in finding out how the gears work and the interactions between mechanics than I often do for “winning” against an opponent. The winning is part and parcel of mastery, not an extrinsic goal.

That said, I can only lament the inevitability of people cheating. Code is a malleable creature, able to be shifted and molded. When that first cheating scandal hits (not that pot-splitting and collaboration has not already happened in some “esports”), it will become quite devastating when investors realize the very shaky ground upon which their funds sit. Heck, you can deflate a football, but how do we begin to comprehend how any number of elements, from a lack of regular tools (mouse, keyboards, monitors, etc, can all be said to provide an advantage) to the unlimited possibilities of crafty hackers and cheaters, could be mitigated in the long run. When gaming is based on extrinsic goals, it can turn sour real quickly.

Pot splitting fgc

Not surprised at all that this is a thing.

5. So, where does that leave us? I honestly don’t care whether or not you watch, follow, or love esports. Just know that some people will never accept its existence, nor bother to understand it. Further, we don’t all HAVE to accept anything we don’t want to. Me? I honestly don’t think “doing what you love” is a great way to go through life. I love video games and enjoy them; I would not want them to become a chore or simply a job which I mix with the rewards given. I suppose that’s why Theology Gaming doesn’t take donations, either – I like to separate the things I love from what I do, if at all possible.

That, I think, is my primary objection with esports, if I have one at all – it turns video games into a job, and then this job suddenly becomes the be-all, end-all of that particular game. You see this in MOBAs especially, wherein people leave the community simply due to the mentality of “esports”. The necessity of team play means everyone needs to be good, or they bring the whole team down (noticeably absent from fighting games, just for example). Thus, a toxic environment develops when actual, personal stakes and livelihoods are on the line – not every person playing the game needs, nor should they have, that kind of mentality, yet it is demanded of all. Strange, no, for a “game” that should be “fun”?

Once a video game loses notions of being for entertainment, they become yet another way to obtain money – analyze the end goal, not the means to get there, and you’ll see that much of this comes down to exploiting an emerging market. Plus, who can play video games forever, really? Esports people retire quickly, simply because it’s a young man (or woman) game; there isn’t the longevity you see in other sports, mostly because that high turnover rate helps bring more players to whom they can dump money and burn everyone out (read the link above, and you’ll know why).

So yeah, “esports”. They should not determine the direction of gaming culture as a whole, but they are rather interesting in and of themselves. Just don’t take them TOO seriously. The real rewards lie in the realm of human relations, not in some man made structures.

23 Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. 25 For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.

Colossians 3

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.