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Esports is Dead! Long Live Esports!

The fraught and intransigent relationship between competitive gaming, sports, and humanity

Will Partin
May 8, 2017 · 19 min read

In the spring of 1961, a handful of graduate students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology began programming what has been canonized as the first video game: Spacewar! Inspired in part by the space race and pulp science fiction, Spacewar! was intended to test the limits of MIT’s state-of-the-art PDP-1 computer. But the game’s developers quickly discovered that the PDP-1 was too weak to simulate the choices and actions of a virtual opponent. Their solution was to design Spacewar! for two players, and then let the players do the thinking for themselves.

Spacewar! debuted in 1961, at the MIT Department of Computer Science’s open house. The game’s designers organized a small exhibition match for attendees to watch. Writing about the tournament for Creative Computing in 1981, J.M. Graetz recalled that “to provide for the crowds we (accurately) anticipated, [we attached] a large screen television to the computer to function as a slave display. Perched on top of a high cabinet, it allowed a roomful of people to watch in relative comfort.”

This was the first video game tournament in human history, and perhaps it’s not coincidence that it took place alongside the debut of the “first” video game.

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Spacewar! on its original hardware, the PDP-1. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

Competitive gaming, in other words, is exactly as old as video games themselves. Video games are often maligned as a solitary, antisocial hobby, but single-player games are not the origin of the medium — they’re a deviation from it. As players, our heritage is competition. Long before video games could ever be played alone, they were designed to be played together. And as long as there have been multiplayer games, humans have used them to satisfy our seemingly innate need to compete and bear witness to competition. From Massachusetts to Seoul, from 1961 to today, in every time and place that video games have existed, they have been accompanied by some culture of competitive play.

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But something changed in the waning years of the second millennium. In 1999, Eurogamer, then the world’s largest independent game magazine, announced the formation of the Online Gamers Association (OGA). Despite its amateurish presentation (you can still access a Geocities-chic website on the Wayback Machine), the OGA was founded with a lofty goal: to become the centralized regulatory body for the nascent world of professional gaming.

“Certainly it won’t be that long before eSports are covered on television in the same way as traditional sports,” reads one of the press release’s wildly optimistic quotes. “I remember a few years ago when I could hardly imagine that the man on the street would ever actually know what the Internet was.”

In the late 1990s, the need for an organization like the OGA was becoming clear. Over the preceding decade, the number of gamers interested in serious competitive play grew exponentially as a result of widespread access to cheap and reliable in-home internet, and a new generation of games — especially Doom, Quake, and Counter-Strike — were designed to take advantage of these technologies. By 2000, there was a modest circuit of online and LAN tournaments, most famously investor Angel Munoz’s Cyberathlete Professional League, meant to determine who among a growing and global field of players was greater than great. Some even had prize pools, and a small number of truly excellent players were able to eke out a modest living on tournament winnings alone.

The Online Gamers Association didn’t last long. It had almost no tools to enforce its policies, and players had very little incentive to heed them in the first place. Despite the pomp and circumstance that surrounded its debut, the OGA went dormant within 18 months. In 2004, when its website went offline, 1,588 players and 278 teams were registered with the OGA. No official explanation was ever offered for its closing.

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The OGA wouldn’t warrant more than a footnote in the history of video games were it not for the fact that the press release announcing its creation contains the first reliable appearance of the word “esports.” Though the term was a popular colloquialism in some online forums before 1999, its use in an “official” press release was indicative of a shift in how people thought about competitive gaming and the possibilities for its professionalization.

Why then, and why esports? By 2000, competitive gaming had been around in various forms for nearly four decades. But as competitive gaming began to consciously emulate (however poorly) the infrastructure and conventions of what we commonly consider to comprise sports — teams, sponsors, leagues, etc. — a neologism was necessary to distinguish between competitive gaming in its modern form and whatever it had been before.

Esports—that is, electronic sports — emerged as the favored term. As T.L. Taylor explains in Raising the Stakes, one of the few scholarly books written on competitive gaming and its cultures, “though uncoupled from athleticism, [the term esports] retains a link to serious competitive pursuit via ‘sports’ yet it also signals something other than physical activity through that simple ‘e.’” But through these very evocations, the term also made unavoidable the debate that now sits squarely at the heart of professional gaming, the biggest, thorniest, most loaded question of them all: Are esports sports?

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A lot has changed since the founding and failure of the Online Gamers Association. Though esports is still regarded in some corners of society with skepticism or outright disdain — it’s just kids playing video games, right? — esports has nevertheless become one of the largest online (and, increasingly, offline) subcultures in the world, with hundreds of millions of fans across the globe.

Even so, the Oedipal question of whether esports are sports still hangs low and stormy over professional gaming. The word “sports” cloaks esports with a veneer of legitimacy, and, as T.L. Taylor mildly puts it, “situating playing computer games within the frame of sports has been an important rhetorical move for many.” That’s the nice way of saying that insulting esports in a public forum comes at the risk of a barrage of angry comments from those who passionately believe that esports should be thought of as sports.

It’s not hard to see why the question of esports’ relationship to sports is so fraught and so intransigent. In many ways, discussions over whether esports are sports capture in microcosm a dizzying array of 21st-century anxieties, like the chasmic cultural difference between digital natives and their elders, our complicated relationship with digital media, and even the fate of the human body itself in a world that’s becoming more virtual by the quarter. How did we come to a point in history where our competitive urges are seemingly expressed just as easily through computers as they are through our bodies? What does that say about us and how we live now? And what kind of future does that augur?

It’s perfectly true that professional gaming is “new.” But what happens if we take up the exact opposite viewpoint? What if esports aren’t new at all, but instead are only the latest expression in an unbroken lineage of human competition that stretches back to antiquity and beyond? From this perspective, esports aren’t interesting because they’re new, but because they are very old indeed. Ask yourself: When pro gamers take the stage, do you see a generation of young people lost to digital ecstasy, or Gilgamesh wrestling Enkidu?

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Kevin ‘PPMD’ Nanney, after winning APEX 2015, one of the world’s largest ‘Super Smash Bros. Melee’ tournaments. Photo: GoodGame Agency

Questions like these rarely make an appearance in the thudding disputations over whether esports are sports. Tempers flare, and fruitful reflection gets drowned out by an endless parade of polemics. Debates over whether esports are sports almost always come down to someone advancing a particular (and specious) definition of sport and declaring that esports do or don’t fit that criteria. In different moments, esports are “real” sports because they require incredible dexterity, attract a large viewership, or require a huge amount of talent and dedication to play at an elite level. Inevitably, though, these arguments conclude with the smug certitude of “yes” or “no,” with little sense of what these answers actually mean or why we should care about them in the first place.

But defining what is and isn’t a sport is a futile endeavor, because there’s no one definition that can possibly encompass all the things we commonly call sports. You can nuance your definitions, but you can never nuance them enough. Rather than asking what sports are, we should be focusing on what sports do. This shift is subtle but profound, in that it asks us to imagine that “sporting” is contingent on historical context. Rather than yoking us to analytically useless definitions of sports, we can instead begin to reflect on how the idea of sports has changed over time and why certain definitions made sense to certain people in particular moments.

Unlike “what is a sport,” “what do sports do” is a historical question, and it demands a historical response. The same is true of esports. From this perspective, we can shift the entire debate about sports and esports away from a matter of definition and toward a richer exploration of the historical conditions that would eliminate any meaningful distinction between the two — and, ultimately, whether our own era constitutes such a moment.

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History teaches us to start at the beginning, but when we look for the birth of esports, we’re confronted with a dizzying array of origin stories. Did esports commence when Riot Games first opened its doors for the League Championship Series? Or was it in 1997, when John Carmack offered up his Ferrari 328 GTS to the winner of Red Annihilation, a Quake tournament? Perhaps esports was born when two dozen programmers gathered in the basement of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab for the first Intergalactic SpaceWar! Championship in the fall of 1972? Or how about 1878, when two Scottish soccer teams scrimmaged under a halo of artificial light for the first time — I hear your protests, but doesn’t that “e” in esports stand for electronic?

There’s a mythical quality to each of these vignettes, as if they contain within them entire futures that might unfold like proteins in a primordial soup. But the truth is that history begins wherever you start searching for it, and so to triangulate the beginning of esports to a discrete moment in space and time is to miss almost everything that makes esports interesting. Writers both in and out of esports like to talk about how new esports are, as if it’s this newness that makes esports meaningful, but really, it’s exactly the opposite.

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy writes that when we have nothing left, we should “make ceremonies out of air and breathe upon them.” For McCarthy, ceremony has an eternal power that has nothing to do with history and everything to do with being human and our need to make meaning out of (and in spite of) an indifferent universe. The same could be said of competition, the friendlier cousin of conquest. Virtually no culture from which archaeologists have uncovered significant material lacks evidence of some kind of organized competitive activity, meaning that competition is linked not so much with particular societies but in the deep structures of human nature itself.

Still, even if our will to compete transcends historical circumstance, our lives are finite, and we can compete only in the space and time we are thrown into. In that sense, the causes, effects, meanings, rules, and equipment of organized competition are always shaped by the imaginations and materials available in particular historical moments. Simply put, we find a way to compete with whatever we have at hand, and whatever we have at hand is shaped by our circumstance.

Writing in 156 CE, the itinerant Greek historian Pausanias suggested that the ancient Olympics were founded when five dactyls, an archaic race of mythic male beings, engaged in feats of strength at Sanctuary at Olympia to charm the newborn Zeus. More sober present-day historians have suggested that the formalization of the Olympic Games was indeed meant to honor the pantheon of Greek gods, but it was also a venue in which representatives from rival city-states could peacefully compete, offering a kind of catharsis from Peloponnesian political tension for athletes and spectators alike. Though the number and type of events waxed and waned over the millennia or so (776 BCE to 393 CE) during which the ancient Olympic Games were played, most competitions made use of whatever materials were at hand, like chariots, javelins, and the discus. What counted as sports for the ancient Greeks, in other words, emerged from the technologies of their moment, and the purpose of sports was conceived in relationship to contemporary political needs.

Robert Delaunay, ‘The Cardiff Team’ (1913). Van Abbemuseum, The Netherlands

Our modern sports and media infrastructure also emerged from its own historical context, in the late 19th century. For spectators, international competition was one way in which the newly powerful nation-states could imagine itself as a kind of community. Despite the lighthearted character of rugby and football, Western European nations (France, Germany, and England in particular) recognized the potential for sports to instill discipline into the young and rushed to make athletics part of schooling. Sports could strengthen young men’s bodies for the demands of military service, which was hypothetical until nationalism and industrial capitalism conspired to summon the horror of World War I.

But long before Western Europe slaughtered a generation of its young men in the fields of northern France, spectator sports were a happy pastime made possible in large part by widespread urbanization. International sports were dependent upon a growing network of railroads, electric floodlights, a budding middle class in need of leisure, and a press that was willing to write about the endeavor of sporting. The same spirit of competition that enthralled the Greeks animated the entire enterprise and eventually led to the founding of the modern Olympic Games. But sporting now found itself in a continent that was connected by steam and metal, caught in the thralls of nationalism, and experiencing a deep anxiety over what it now meant to be human in a world that was being transformed by industrialization.

The interplay between technology, culture, and war recurs throughout the plentiful literature on all three topics. In his legendary profile of Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace observed that “men may profess their love of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war; elimination vs. advance…obsessive statistics, technical analysis, trivial and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, banners chest thumping…; for reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer to us than love’s.” (It comes as no surprise that all of these terms are extremely familiar to fans of esports).

It’s not a coincidence that the technology of sports often takes after the technology of war. Almost every event at the classical games, from the hoplite race (a sprint in full armor) to chariot racing to javelin throwing, simulated some aspect of battle as it was then fought. The modern pentathlon — originally imagined to be the modern Olympics’ premiere event — was designed to simulate the experience of a cavalry officer trapped behind enemy lines. (Legally speaking, cavalry soldiers were considered professional athletes under French law until the 1950s.)

In many ways, the appeal of sports is that they enact a fantasy of battle without the oblivion of death, describing (but not conferring) the experience of war, that peculiar activity of the human animal.

Should we be surprised that so many esports, like League of Legends and Dota 2 especially, are based on the dramatization of kills, death, logistics, and rebirth, while other competitive games — Counter-Strike: Global Offensive most of all — simulate “real” wars? In fact, many of the same technologies that make esports possible today (international networks, broadband internet, satellite broadcasting) are the same technologies we now use to wage war in the late modern era. As Patrick Crogan writes in Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture, video games and militarism have always been intertwined — the same computers on which SpaceWar! was programmed grew out of the need to simulate nuclear ballistics with ever-increasing sophistication.

It’s not a historical accident that esports came to prominence in the same years that the U.S. Air Force began training more drone pilots than fighter pilots, or that cyberwarfare has become a crucial element of exercising military might. This isn’t a causal relationship — esports did not lead to surveillance drones any more than surveillance drones led to esports — but it’s not coincidence, either. The fact remains that no society capable of producing surveillance drones is incapable of producing esports, just as no society capable of smelting copper was incapable of forging javelins for both sport and war.

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Only the most cynical and conspiratorial of historians genuinely believe that European governments at the dawn of the 20th century designed their national athletics programs with the expectation that their young men would soon be slaughtered at the Somme. Even in peacetime, the virtues sporting was thought to promote — self-discipline, coordination, teamwork, and a mastery of the body — were ideal traits for industrial laborers, then a major portion of the European workforce. Sporting was tied to not only militaristic ends but also productive ones.

From the 1960s to the present, the structure of the world’s economy has shifted profoundly as a result of the widespread adoption of computers and related technologies. The same technologies on which esports depends, directly or indirectly, shape virtually every aspect of how we work. Again, this isn’t a causal relationship, but isn’t coincidental. Now and before, how we work and how we play share the same technological conditions of possibility.

Increasingly, video games themselves are implicated in labor (and in the case of esports, they quite literally become labor). Gamification may indeed be smoke and mirrors — “marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is video games and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business,” as Ian Bogost once put it — but there is now an entire cottage industry of thinkers and designers extolling the benefits of enforced play in work, the ultimate Taylorist nightmare.

In fact, the promotion of video games — even and especially competitive games — as productive tools has a much longer history than the trendy concept of gamification implies. In her book Coin-Operated Americans, Carly Kocurek dedicates an entire chapter to examining arcade culture in the early 1980s, when competitive gaming first gained any kind of mainstream recognition in the United States. Arcade owners quickly found that leaderboards were an effective way to attract customers and made an effort to promote their highest-scoring players. Still, the rise of neoconservatism in America coincided with a backlash against the arcade, which many, especially traditionalists horrified by the radical spirit of the 1960s, saw as a breeding ground for laziness and degeneracy.

In response, arcade owners tried to frame arcade gaming as a wholesome “all-American” activity, modeled in part on the culture of high school sports. In one of the most famous photographs in video game history, Twin Galaxies arcade founder Walter Day summoned the members of the U.S. National Video Game Team to Ottumwa, Iowa, in the fall of 1983. On an empty street in the American heartland, the team posed behind a phalanx of arcade cabinets and a cluster of cheerleaders on loan from the local high school. Were it not for the garish color palettes of Defender, Donkey Kong, and Ms. Pac-Man, the scene might be mistaken for the varsity football team’s yearbook photo. When it was later published in Life magazine, the photograph’s purpose could hardly be clearer: to legitimize gaming as a wholesome pastime in the eyes of a skeptical public, even as it pushed a very particular idea about who could be a “gamer.”

One of the key arguments behind this sentiment was the idea that playing games would condition young people to the technologies that were reshaping the world. By the early 1980s, it was obvious that computers were an epoch-defining technology, and, far from a slothful distraction, arcade games were a way in, especially for young men (Kocurek rightly notes that this is when the link between video games and geek masculinity began to take hold). Today’s gamers are tomorrow’s workers, and the National Video Game Team—masters of the machine that these good ol’ boys were—represented the ideal player-worker to which amateurs could aspire. That arcade-friendly argument might seem like a stretch, but you can still hear it echoing in today’s endless hype cycle over serious games and gamification.

The latest wave of this kind of thinking led game designer and theorist Eric Zimmerman to write his “Manifesto for a Ludic Century,” which debuted on the website Kotaku but emerged from an earlier essay at at somewhat lower emotional pitch, “Game Design as a Model for Literacy in the 21st Century.” Ours is an era that call us to play, Zimmerman holds, proclaiming that “media and culture in the Ludic century is increasingly systemic, modular, customizable, and participatory.” Operating effectively in that world demands certain forms of response that are embodied most of all, in Zimmermann’s view, by video games. “The problems the world faces today require the kinds of thinking that gaming literacy engenders.”

For Zimmerman, the skills the 21st century workforce in the developed world should value most — multitasking, computer literacy, flexibility, systemic thinking — are captured by the experience of playing games. By extension, many of these very skills are taken to their (il)logical extremes by competitive gaming, and esports puts them on public display so that we might see everything else more clearly. They set the limits of what is possible, so that the rest of us might know where we stand in the order of things. As I once put it in a short essay on the sublime joy of watching elite Dota 2: “How is it that [top players] held to, yet not limited by, the same set of rules as we are, may do and see what we may not?”

And when it comes down to it, is testing for a typist’s words-per-minute really all that different from celebrating a pro StarCraft II player’s actions per minute? How often do we hear video games being justified in productive terms, whether it’s hand-eye coordination or the wonders of computer-aided laparoscopic surgery? That these are dubious comparisons is hardly relevant — no one can seriously argue that having a nasty 4Gate All-In in StarCraft II will automatically make you a better remote surgeon or better at launching missiles halfway across the world. But they arise from the same historical conditions, and if sports have been one way for testing and appreciating the skills that we as a society have chosen to valorize, then esports may also do the same for us today.

“Every culture loves its own form of violence,” writes the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his classic essay “Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” an essay I assign to undergraduates when I teach esports at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (a student body somewhat more familiar with the agony and ecstasy of sports than most). We have a tendency to think of games and play as removed from the exigencies of everyday life, but Geertz argues that games and play — in this case, cockfighting on the island of Bali — aestheticizes daily life to bring it into sharper relief. Geertz asks us to imagine cockfighting as a text to be read, something that makes the culture it emerges from legible and meaningful, bringing abstract concepts down to earth.

To quote Geertz at length:

As in any art form, for that, finally, is what we are dealing with — the cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensive by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequence removed and been reduced (or, if you prefer, raised) to the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived…What it does is what, for other peoples with other temperaments and other conventions, Lear and Crime and Punishment do; it catches up these themes — death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, beneficence, chance — and, ordering them into an encompassing structure, presents them in such a way as to throw into relief a particular view of their essential nature. It puts a structure on them, presents them in such a way as to throw into relief a particular view of their essential nature. It puts construction on them, makes them, to those historically positioned to appreciate the construction, meaningful — visible, tangible, graspable — “real,” in an ideational sense. An image, fiction, a model, a metaphor, the cockfight is a means of expression; its function is neither to assuage social passions nor to heighten them (though, in its play-with-fire way, it does a bit of both), but, in a medium of feathers, blood, crowds, and money, to display them…[The Cockfight’s] function, if you want to call it that, is interpretive: it is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience; a story they tell themselves about themselves.

What happens if we dare to dream that esports do the same for us? Try swapping “cockfight” for “esports” and see if it rings as true for you as it does for me. And the cockfight emerges from the Balinese’s political, cultural, and economic circumstances no less than esports emerge from ours—an emulsion that suspends history instead of luminescence.

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In 1896, when petitioning European governments to revive the Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin argued that sporting was not antithetical to culture, but rather an essential component of it. De Coubertin believed that sporting said — says — something about our shared humanity. Today, esports replies and says that everything new is also a return. The “why” of competition never changes, only the “how.” In that sense, esports are not a distortion of this tradition, but of the tradition of sporting as it has always existed, updating to remain the same.

Esports, of course, are not the only medium through which indelible thoughts and feelings — death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, beneficence, chance, yes, but also defeat, victory, fear, jealousy, vengeance, and triumph, among many others — are expressed today. Nor are esports necessarily the “best” way to express them. But such themes can surely be read into esports because they are an extension of the kind of society we now live in (and now lives in us). For millions upon millions across the globe, esports help us see and react to these abstract (but deeply human) concepts, the same way sports did for millennia, and, of course, still do. This, ultimately, is what I think makes esports matter — they help us keep track of the ghost in the machine.

Today, in a world where digital culture is so wrapped up in everything else that it might as well be everything else, is it really so hard to imagine that the distinction between sports and esports isn’t so clear? Ultimately, it isn’t really a question of what esports is, but what it does. And as far as I can tell, esports does (for some) the same things that sport did (and do) for others. It also answers — but doesn’t quite settle — the question of whether esports are sports. Of course they’re both and neither. The equivalency implied by “is” misses the point entirely, because it flattens the very subtleties that make esports meaningful in the first place. Esports and sports are the same and they are different, new and old, continuous and discontinuous, all at once. Esports is dead; long live esports.

For so long, we needed sports to show us something about what it means to be human. Today, perhaps we need esports not simply because we’re human now, though that’s certainly part of it. We need esports because — in spite of everything — we’re human still.

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