Buckle up for some academic reading or skip to the TL;DR at the end.
Part 1: Introduction
The foundation of today’s most popular esport titles such as League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and Overwatch is skill-based competition (Brockmann 2011; Jonasson and Thiborg 2010; Taylor 2012). These games are designed to reward those who master specific roles and acquire in-depth game knowledge. Nowadays, a growing number of players commit intensely to develop these skills and abilities in order to outperform others and fulfil their gratification needs (Murphy 2009; Llorens 2017). But this isn’t where video games started off. There is a clear difference between single-player games and multi-player (esport) games in terms of their motivators. And while this may not be the most controversial thing you’ve read all day, its still an important fact to acknowledge before diving into detailed explanations.
If you want to find out more about your own gaming personality and what motivates you to play, have a look at this online test from Quantic Foundry.
Why motivators are interesting to look at in esports
For many, playing competitive video games is no longer just about having fun (Snavely 2014). Recent ecosystem developments in esports have proven that players from all skill-levels seek competitive environments and are looking for new ways to improve their game play. For example, start-ups such as Gamer Sensei and DOJO Madness have raised significant amounts of funding since 2016. Their platforms help players improve their skills either by connecting them with mentors and trainers or by giving them access to game-specific analytical tools.
There have also been numerous investments in online tournament platforms for non-pro players. Below are just some of this year’s investments.
All of these platforms give casual, amateur, and semi-pro gamers the opportunity to participate in competitive play and connect with other like minded people. And while every year several large-scale offline tournaments fill out stadiums and draw mass media attention, the majority of esports is still happening online every day, away from the big screens (Jenny et al. 2017). Esports is not just about the top 1%.
Furthermore, the continuous professionalisation of the industry, including coverage of tournaments and storytelling around individual players, has undoubtedly played a major role in conveying the aspirations of many players (Seo 2013; Seo and Jung 2016).
The industry seems to be growing around the world in virtually every aspect. More and more people play and watch esports games, an increasing amount of start-ups focus on providing competitive environments to non-pros, and companies produce storytelling content about the careers of young pros.
So… what have academics found motivates people to engage in competitive video games/esports?
Part 2: Academic literature review
2.1 Competitive drive and gratification in video games
The research of achievement and gratification systems in video games has become a popular and intriguing cross-disciplinary research topic especially over the last 10 years (Hoffman and Nadelson 2009; Heeter et al. 2011; Blair 2012). However, many of the studies within this field, such as the one by Hoffman and Nadelson (2009), focus on single-player games and their particular motivators. Unsurprisingly, these studies found that single-player gamers are mostly motivated by in-game challenges (e.g. quests) while their competitiveness is driven by the desire to achieve certain goals (predetermined by the game or set individually by the player). 100%-ing a game such as the Witcher 3 or Fallout, for example, can leave players satisfied and proud of their own performance.
More interesting, however, are the different motivators in multi-player (esports) games. For instance, Murphy (2009) argues that preliminary research showed that theoretical approaches from traditional sports psychology can be used to examine different motivators in video games. The author therefore makes use of Nicholls’ (1984, 1989) motivational framework which distinguishes between task-involvement and ego-involvement. Nicholls proposes that some athletes judge themselves and their abilities based on their own level of effort, performance, and personal improvement — this is called task-involvement. These athletes are likely to be more motivated by intrinsic factors linked to the nature of the task rather than by the actual outcome. Task-involved esports players will look at their past performance and effort in order to find new ways to improve their game. (By the way, single-player games also cater to players’ task-involvement by challenging them, for instance, with difficult quests and timed missions. … All you had to do was follow the damn train CJ. )
Ego-involved athletes and esport players, on the other hand, judge their own ability by outperforming others. They are motivated to improve themselves and beat others in-game because they want to feed their ego and receive praise from their peers. It may therefore be argued that ego-involved players will be more prone to hit ‘slumps’ or go on tilt. Failing to outperform their opponents challenges their view of themselves.
Today’s competitive esports titles encourage both task- and ego-involvement through in-depth performance statistics and leaderboards that let players compare themselves with others right down to the last detail. To be fair, the best of the best in sports as well as esports will most likely always be motivated by both, task- and ego-involvement. Thus, you will often find that players such as Bjergsen, Doublelift or TaZ are their own most vocal critiques. They continuously acknowledge and analyse their own flaws, and work relentlessly to improve themselves even if they already outperform the majority of their peers. — Judging on several interviews, I would even say that Doublelift in particular has made a significant shift from being majorly ego-involved to being more task-involved in recent times.
2.2 Esports specific motivators
Across the majority of studies that I read, the most prevalent motivators for playing esports games were found to be related to competition, challenge, and social interactions (Hoffmann and Nadelson 2009; Martončik 2015; Weiss 2011; Weiss and Schiele 2013; Seo 2016). Contrary to single-player games’ motivators, ‘fun’ was more often than not found to be a result of winning in competitions rather than an end in itself (Weiss and Schiele 2013; Seo 2016). Yet, it has to be noted that there were significant methodological differences between these studies which may explain some of the inconsistencies in the findings. The three above-mentioned motivators, however, were consistently found as motivational themes throughout all studies.
Each abstract below will summarise the most important findings from 4 studies that I think were most interesting.
Wagner (2007) suggests that esports has become a ‘serious activity’ for many and that, other than with single-player games, esports players may not necessarily be looking for temporary escapism when playing. In this context, escapism is concerned with playing video games to ‘switch off’ for a while or to forget about real life problems.
Seo (2016) also talks about esports being a ‘serious leisure’ — a term coined initially by Stebbins (1982). In the context of esports, serious leisure may describe how amateur players can find an interest in developing serious skills and focusing in on a semi-pro or pro career by systematically pursuing a specific game. Seo further argues that esports players are motivated because they are able to fulfil their need for socialisation and self-development, experience self-actualisation by competing and winning in competitions, and gain intrinsic satisfaction from playing.
Further notable findings from Seo (2016):
- Esports players establish strong almost family-like bonds amongst each other, similar to what can be found in traditional sports.
- Esports players differ from casual players in terms of commitment and responsibility (they are driven to do their best in every match because of the expectations of others e.g. teammates, family, sponsors, owners).
- Social recognition and reputation is not to be underestimated as a motivator.
- An esport player’s self-improvement drive is also fuelled by seeing others excel and master the game.
- Esports is about realising one’s own potential, and committing to esports games symbolises an individual’s pursuit for self-development.
- The interviewed esports players still found that their games were inherently fun and self-motivating (however, this is not guaranteed in the long run when their hobby becomes a job).
Weiss (2011) categorised ten need gratifications that his research found to be important for competitive gamers. I ranked these ten need gratifications below based on how often they were also mentioned by other studies on esports motivators. They did not have a ranking in the original study.
Martončik (2015) researched the relationship between esport players’ overarching life goal tendencies and motivators to participate in esports. The study found that esports players mirrored their ‘life goals’ when engaging in esports. For example, compared to casual gamers, esports players were found to be more interested in the life goal of affiliation which is characterised by the desire to interact intensively with others. Furthermore, the life goal of diversion, which highlights the need for new experiences, was also found to be a stronger motivator for esports players compared to casual gamers. New experiences may be sought by studying a game and learning new techniques, practising in teams, or by participating in more/different competitions.
The author of the study does however note that some aspects related to life goals and motivators were not taken into consideration in this study, and that there were significant differences in the demographic of the two groups of esports players that were compared.
Conclusion & TL;DR
- Single-player games and esport games ‘play’ with different sets of motivators.
- Industry developments (e.g. increasing amounts of start-ups that are concerned with in-game skill development and online tournaments) show that more and more players from all skill levels are eager to compete both individually and in teams.
- The three most common motivators to play esports games were found to be related to competition (e.g. measuring one’s own skill against others), challenge (e.g. self-improvement), and social relationships (e.g. reputation in the scene, being in contact with like minded people).
- The best esport pros are likely to be both task-involved and ego-involved, meaning they are intrinsically motivated to get better at the game and they are motivated by the desire to outperform others.
- Not everyone plays esport games to seriously compete and win. Some still put fun and escapism from reality in the foreground.
- Those that pursue a pro esport career can fulfil their need for socialisation and self-development, and experience self-actualisation.
- More academic research is needed with a focus specifically on modern esport games and their motivators.