If churches are smart they will learn a thing or two from the launch of Blizzard’s Overwatch League.
As a twenty-something nerd who is also a minister I sometimes get caught between the levity of my millennial identity and the depth of serving a faith community. One example of this tension is in my relationship with video games. I love playing video games. I have since I was five years old and my grandmother first bought me a Gameboy color with a port of Super Mario Brothers. Video games and video game culture have been elements present in every one of my life stages, including my time in seminary and now in my parish ministry.
Culturally, gaming and religion have historically existed at odds with one another. In fact, I rarely mention to congregants my love of video games because I know the associations that many folks from previous generations still have about the medium: video games are for kids, they rot your brain, they cause children to be violent, etc. We live in a culture in which video games continue to carry a heavy stigma to those outside of ‘gaming’ communities. These stigmas are doubly harsh in the American religious milieu. In my experience people cannot tolerate that I am a religious professional that is also a gamer. I would go so far as to say it makes people uncomfortable when I identify as both a Reverend and a top ranked Hearthstone player- for whatever reason, people just don’t know what to do with it.
And beyond the stigma I face as a religious professional who might disclose that I play video games, the stigma as a religious professional who watches eSports (competitive video gaming) is even greater.
There is already a profound stigma in the greater American culture surrounding eSports. There have been no small amount of ‘hot takes’ published over the past five years about how eSports are an insult to the world of ‘real’ sports. And though there have been strides made between Riot Games pushing competitive League of Legends towards an increasingly global market and the Valve Corporation developing Counterstrike and DOTA 2 to hold tournaments whose prize pools at times top twenty-one million dollars, eSports is still a largely fringe enterprise. ESports still exist on the fringe of the mainstream, on websites such as Twitch.TV and MLGgaming.com. Though on these websites major eSports events garner hundreds of thousands of viewers at any one time and though eSports has blossomed into a multi-billion-dollar industry, the world of eSports has until this point existed largely outside of the public eye.
I began watching eSports in seminary when I was procrastinating reading my New Testament homework. I would turn on the OGN Sponsored Korean League of Legends stream broadcast by Christopher ‘Montecristo’ Mykles and Erik ‘Doa’ Lonnquist and alternate taking notes on Gospels and watching pixels fight one another for sovereignty over the rift (battle arena). I grew hooked to the pageantry of it, the competitive nature of the seasonal rankings, and how relatable it was to me as a gamer who was fresh out of college. The players were all my age or a few years younger and in watching them I felt a connection to my generation and to this counter-culture that I was a part of.
I continued to watch eSports when I could. I began to watch Hearthstone, an electronic card game, and got drawn in by the personalities of the people who would stream themselves playing the game competitively. After a particularly stressful day at work, after the death of a congregant for example, these streaming personalities would provide me an escape. I could put my mind on their win-loss record instead of the nagging question of mortality.
Video game streaming, and more particularly following eSports, has grown to be a major source of self-care for me in my work. In much the same way that I have colleagues who watch every Patriots NFL game or make sure to stream the most recent episode of This is Us the second that it is uploaded to Netflix, I regularly retreat to eSports as a safe place that I can detach from the real world into the world of entertainment and competition I can live vicariously through.
This past week the world of eSports took a major step out of the shadow of its stigma. As the Seattle Times reports “eSports history was made Wednesday night with the debut of the Overwatch League, the first attempt to present elite computer gaming within a traditional North American sports structure comparable to the NBA or NFL. The league’s 12 franchises represent cities from Shanghai to London, and they build teamwork and stress player development while competing on a weekly schedule stretching into summer.” Blizzard, the company behind the game, has launched the league with the financial backing of such powerful electronics sponsors as Intel and HP. After one week of action the league has surpassed all viewership and revenue expectations.
In launching the Overwatch League to critical acclaim, massive sponsorship, and international interest, Blizzard has paved the way for eSports to be the new normal. As the generations shift eSports will continue to be normalized and take its place in the mainstream spotlight. If institutions are smart they will embrace this change and not fight it. Sponsors such as Intel and HP have already figured out the sheer amount of money and influence there is to be gained in embracing eSports as a legitimate enterprise. If American Christianity is smart it will also embrace eSports for all it has to teach us.
At the core of religion and spirituality is a quest for connection. That connection can be to what one understands as God, the eternal mystery of the universe, a community, a feeling of being a part of something greater than oneself, or any number of other things. For a number of reasons, Christians in America are leaving the church. Young people especially are leaving the church in droves. Millenials are believing less and less in tradition for tradition’s sake, dogma, and waking up early on Sunday morning to go get preached at. They are feeling less and less connected to the old way of doing things.
At the same time that exact younger generation is turning out in droves to eSports events, both in person and online. This is a generation, myself included, where many have grown up feeling more connected to video games and video game communities than the church communities of their parents. In this present moment, and it looks like in the future, the communities growing around the eSports communities are places where millennials are finding meaning, connection to one another, and connection to something greater than themselves.
I will save my answer as to exactly what American Christianity should learn from the rise of eSports for a different essay. However, I want to close by arguing that if Christianity is to survive in this country then it is going to need to adapt to the needs of connection being requested by the younger generation. This does not mean the Baptists should sponsor an Overwatch League Team (there is probably a legal issue with that anyway).
But what it does mean is that church leaders need to listen to the rumblings of the eSports counter culture, take seriously the meaning that young people are finding in those communities, and see if there is anything tangible that they might be able to learn from to better serve those in their midst.