Look at What We Can Do
I had an interesting conversation tonight with a friend who had spend significant time in both Spain and Chile in the last few years. One of the observations she made that really stuck with me was that, in Chile, she found people generally downplayed the ability of the government and country to coordinate logistics and run complex institutions – Chile was, after all, a third-world country, they would claim, and would not have the capabilities of a first-world country, such a Spain. Except, by her experience, Spain was a mess compared to Chile, especially with government institutions and logistics, and the Chileans had grossly underestimated the relative competence of their countrymen/women. By aspiring to a mythologized idea of what Spain might be, Chile had driven itself farther than if it had copied what Spain had been doing exactly.
This is, of course, an anecdotal first-person oversimplification, but it makes its point. By aspiring to a thing, it is very possible to reinvent the thing to a degree that serves instead to create something entirely different.
A lot of people spend time trying to define “eSports” from the standpoint of “sports,” but I see fewer people looking to do the opposite – to identify the qualities in sports that eSports would have to achieve to have realized its mission and made its moniker real. And I think when you look at that, you realize that sports are not quite as elite or unapproachable as they often feel. Most people who play sports do it only occasionally, and never for any money. A lot of people who follow teams don’t necessarily watch many games. Sports teams have big stadiums, but they need to rent out those stadiums to music groups and job fairs and stuff to make ends meet, and even they the teams are occasionally crushed by debt burdens or need massive financing to keep their facilities current.
Most things that qualify as “sports” have much smaller and less enthusiastic followings than StarCraft does. HuskyStarcraft’s YouTube channel has more than 10 times the total upload views on YouTube channel for Major League Soccer, and more than 100 times the total upload views of the NFL Players Association channel (the NFL doesn’t even appear to have its own YouTube channel). For your amusement, here is one of HuskyStarcraft’s YouTube videos, which hit the top listings on YouTube very quickly out of the gates (it’s a Justin Bieber parody that isn’t all that accessible to non-StarCraft fans):
There is of course the myth that if you play sports, you will be popular, attractive and loved by all, whereas if you don’t you will not – but the sooner we all dispossess ourselves of this idea at any age, the better – except insofar as much as physical activity and friendships are healthy things to have. People who play sports still have difficult times in high school, people. The football captain who is happy when everybody else is sad is imaginary. And besides, high school only lasts so long, and a lot of pro gamers are done with it.
There is perhaps the desire to subvert this myth, however mistaken it always was – this is like calling government entities “terrorists” to subvert how they call all their enemies “terrorists.” (“I’ll tell you what the real crime is, man!” etc.) At a certain point these rhetorical conflations become unnecessarily confusing and unmoor you from what you are trying to accomplish. It might be satisfying to call an “I’m rubber, you’re glue” at first, but, as Robert Frost might say, it “butters no parsnips.”
Actually, the full quote from Frost is more instructive and appropriate:
There is one qualifying fact always to bear in mind: there is a kind of success called ‘of esteem’ and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands. I may not be able to do that. I believe in doing it — don’t you doubt me there. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do by taking thought.”
This is, to a degree, an apology for selling out, but it also acknowledges the unique problem of reaching this great mass of people who lie outside one’s niche community. This is, perhaps, the great proving ground for eSports. Can it reach out to this greater humanity who right now does not play these video games as enthusiastically as the eSports evangelists?
But who exactly does this effectively these days? The audience is fragmenting for even the mainstream media channels – I’m reminded of the college kids who eat their seed corn – the scores of interns who provide so much free labor they destroy the jobs they were looking to score in the future. By building their own edifices that take the place of sports – that draw more and more people away from “mainstream” sports and to their own hobbies, eSports evangelists are leaving a smaller and smaller “mainstream” pool on which to draw from if this tipping point for which they are searching is ever reached.
This is not a bad thing, of course, but it does mean that “eSports” is most likely an aspirational myth, not a cogent strategy – and that, if it does succeed in its mission, it will look very different from more conventional sports – or at least how those sports are imagined in the zeitgeist – or in the hearts and minds of StarCraft players.
Sports as we commonly understand them grew out of a combination of social factors – most notably a need to find something for industrial laborers to do with their time so that they didn’t get into as many of the unacceptable kinds of fights and trouble. Churches and schools were major drivers of the initial rise of modern sports, looking to drive connection within communities and provide ways for people to adapt to changing lifestyles. Everything that has come after has been built on this quirky foundation – it is not necessary that the thing that houses the Super Bowl Commercials is a football game, but because of historical luck, it is.
Perhaps eSports is the sign of a new wave of this adjustment – to the person-as-workstation, the knowledge worker who perceives him or herself as an extension of the computer, a way of actualizing the competitive drive and finding connection and personal fulfillment in online competition where it is denied by the realities of modern life. Perhaps future institutions will build on eSports they way they have built on traditional sports.
But even with money, superstars, branding, accessibility and a good way to broadcast, even if the North American Star League is a huge hit, I am of a firm belief that eSports will turn into something entirely new – its own cobbled-together phenomenon – and that its goal of supplanting or surpassing conventional sports, while motivating, is at this point not a precise description of its larger mission or qualifications for success.
What are your thoughts about eSports – its past, present and future? Will the NASL be a game-changer? Sound off in the comments!