Esports 2020

World Cyber Games 2010: Counter-Strike 1.6 finals field of play. Photo by Emma Witkowski.

As the curtain closed for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the future host nation played a trump card for the involvement of another kind of game in the 2020 schedule. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, popped out of a green “warp pipe” cosplaying as Mario. Yes, the Japanese PM just dressed up as a computer game character at the premiere international sports event, televised to millions, many of them currently in the throes of catching Pokémon on their screens as an alternative to consuming sports on them.

The Olympics as a mega-spectacle has among many other issues a viewership problem, in particular with the bracket known as the millennial market. In case you missed it, the millennial market loves to play and watch other people play videogames. As such, there’s no better time to talk about the interconnected and relational work being done between “Pro-Am” computer games practices, elite sports, and mega-events.

The games are dead. Long live the games!

Videogames and esports have been inundated with statements from sports legacy insiders and esports outsiders on the suspected shortfalls of esports for some time now. In 2008, then IOC (International Olympic Committee) president Jacques Rogge expressed his concern for the waning market for sports participation and spectatorship in direct reference to the troubles with videogames. In an interview with The Times newspaper, he noted

“Kids are attracted to visual, interactive forms of communication. It’s not going to be easy for sport to counter that. You won’t hear me saying sport is not fun — it is. But it requires austerity and discipline. The answer is achievement. You will never achieve in a video game. It is not really success.”

Esports achievements were ample that year. At the World Cyber Games, the Danish Counter-Strike team redeemed themselves from their silver medal performance in 2007, making it back-to-back championship match performances and medals and for team member Danny “Zonic” Sorensen, who today coaches the Astralis Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) team.

Another kind of success played out eight years ago for diversity in esports, with Rumay “Hafu” Wang’s team pulling out a series of major tournament wins in World of Warcraft, marking her personal expertise as a high performance player (she still plays as “itshafu”, broadcasting her play on Twitch as one of the top 100 streamers), and a historic first for women in esports in claiming major open tournament wins.

Zonic and Hafu represent the depth and breadth of expertise and professionalism which can be cultivated in esports, as individual actors and as team players, with both of their careers spanning over a decade of engagement with high performance play.

Important institutional work was also initiated in 2008. The International eSports federation (IeSF) saw its nine founding member nations commit to the successful development of esports under the umbrella of a unified and professional sporting organisation. I happened to attend my first International Esports Conference in 2008, and the dialogue there had also tacked far ahead of the disdainful statements made by Rogge on youth game cultures. The rooms were filled with conversations involving sports scientists, games and media sociologists, national esports associations, franchise owners, and former players asking questions on the state and future of esports, and initiating dialogue on the stakes involved in cultivating esports under a framework of traditional Western sports cultures on national and international stages.

The importance of such questions was then and still remains central to many players’ everyday lives and livelihoods. Whole careers have been spent doing the mundane work of explaining players’ sportslike practices online, to school friends and families through metaphors of golf (precision, body control, and endurance) and ice-hockey (teamwork, tactics/strategy, and effecting practiced corporeal skills) to mixed support and reactions.

An expert player recalled to me that her parents shunned her serious engagement with esports, right up until the first paycheck came in the mail. That was in 2010, prior to the surge in esports broadcasting, and the subsequent increase in attention from popular press and financial endorsements from mainstream businesses. The value of engagement was, and often still is, frequently questioned of esports participants. Their positive valuations of the activity through the personal use of esports is often belittled (where the pleasures and personal gains of participation can include cultivating self-confidence or skill development and performance), and even met with contempt where there are rewarding interchanges that come from high performance play (such as status, fame and, for the few, monetary gain).

To add to this, the values stimulated from esports participation also have deeply gendered and ethnic tilts for an individual identity participating in everyday networked play, in which structural administration and systems of support contribute.

A decade on, players can certainly rely on more institutional backing of their serious play (through collective franchise power or advocacy organisations like the Electronic Sports League’s “AnyKey” or recently launched Esports Integrity Coalition), as esports as an encapsulating category are being driven towards interconnected models of media sports professionalism and traditional sporting standards through a push for recognition by the leading world of sports organisation, the IOC.

The checks and balances of IOC recognition includes steps such as gaining World Anti-Doping Agency approval (achieved by the IeSF in 2013), and the endorsement of esports national associations by government sporting bodies. For example, The Russian Ministry of Sports recently announced esports as an official sports discipline, granting players improved visa processes for tournament play and taxation improvements. The Australian Esports Association (AESA) is currently in dialogue with AOC (Australian Olympic Committee), and looking to improve Australian esports along the lines of national sporting standards for the benefit of player communities lacking resources to support their playful passion.

Gaining recognition from national sporting bodies over the last eight years has been somewhat slow going for the now 47 IeSF member nations, but the active lobbying (Denmark has for example been pushing for recognition for over a decade) and increased media presence and conversations around esports has seen the number of successful associations gradually ticking upwards as esports gain visible traction.

But perhaps the largest obstacle for esports admission into the Olympic schedule is an intermediary body called SportsAccord (providing expertise in core sports tenets including anti-doping, integrity and social responsibility) and its terms of membership constructed along the lines of traditional sports definitions. The IeSF first submitted an application to SportsAccord in 2013, and as of yet has not been approved.

Outside of formal IOC requirements, other points of influence are being harnessed internationally. The IeSF partnered with the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) in 2015, bringing together a legacy sports sector with a popular youth sports and high visibility digital media market. The U.S. Government has already recognised esports players as professional athletes, making international players eligible to enter the country for tournament events on an athlete’s visa. France is pushing The Digital Republic Bill this year, which includes an action to remove esports from its classification as a gambling event. (Interestingly, Australian senator Nick Xenophon is driving the reverse position, calling to regulate and classify games like CS:GO as gambling on the basis of its incorporated item transfer economy). France’s amendment would ultimately enhance the lifestyles of esports players through government recognition and the chance to contribute to their pensions (as a recognised part of the labour force), as well as streamline the process for burgeoning European esports markets to enter France, a market which has been advised to the government as in the millions.

The cogs are clearly turning, driving esports towards the first step of IOC recognition with an end game in mind — becoming an Olympic discipline. Though we need to ask what are the real costs and gains in “going for esports gold” on the existing foundations of legacy sports? Several basic issues with the quest for a scheduled slot in Japan 2020 and problematic features of esports as sports remain. Three of the most dominant issues that deserve the continued consideration by all parties sit with the themes of players, diversity, and governance.

All-female CS:GO team playing in the DreamHack Summer 2016 BYOC open tournament. Photo by Emma Witkowski.

Scheduling and youth waste

Top esports players are pretty beat up. Take a quick look at the CS:GO schedule in 2016, and you’ll see a non-stop series of international tournaments demanding the attention of the best teams. Addressing this issue, major European CS:GO teams drafted an unofficial unionised statement ideally looking for accountability from event organisers and stability for the working life of players and associated clubs by, for example, defining their economic and scheduling conditions of participation in longer online league tournaments and shorter co-located LAN events. The letter was directed at major esports tournament organisations, some of whom are underway consolidating core events which may see improvements to the rhythms of practice and performance for players and teams — depending on their ranking.

With such high demand for high performance teams, there is clearly a need for improved governance around player preservation while also considering what effect the organisational alliances being formed will do to players/teams on the cusp of major tournaments and their specific pro/am player conditions.

The IeSF and newly launched WESA (World Esports Association) have both located the need for a player committee, as did the G7 union before them, but serious consideration to the welfare and sustainability of player participation is required in esports more broadly, taking the entire pipeline feeding esports as a practice into consideration, not just the commoditised top end.

Accordingly, the question remains: how would an additional mega-event like the Olympics, and the added managerialism that would come with national sports representation in esports, contribute to player fitness? Similar considerations have been discussed by sports sociologists, particularly since the Olympics left the amateur ranks after the 1988 Games. The timing of the ramp up to a major event is difficult with multiple organisations vying for importance. Additional layers of practice are added to an already overstrained schedule — placing the players in the role of widgets in somebody else’s professional game (career coaches and administration, organisations, and sponsors). If this is an Olympic sport in the making, improved consideration and representation for esports players, within their broader practice, is in the interest of all.

Diversity in esports

Traditional sports consistently churns out “lessons to learn from” around diversity in organised games, from the problematic issues around gender testing along a sex-binary which does not represent how humans live and experience their lives, to the more inspired constructions of sports events, such as “mixed gender” competitions, which may be an alternative tournament construction to balance current sex-segregated competitions by exposing a more diverse palette of players to expert practice and performance. The IeSF’s recent partnership with the IAAF can as such be read as somewhat prickly.

The ongoing poor-handling of elite 800m runner Caster Semenya is an insensitive and conservative case in point on gender and legacy sports, and esports can move beyond such dated and non-inclusive practices (there are cases of both unfortunate and constructive examples of inclusivity in esports).

A sports legacy organisation may provide legitimacy for esports to the IOC, but it may also challenge some other steps towards greater equality in esports cultures of participation which have concomitantly tackled other intertwined aspects of internet cultures throughout its development. While many players face structural inequalities which alter the passageway towards high performance play, and as such equity programs are put in place (like ESL women’s CS:GO tournament), some players, like an up-and-coming Hafu, would be marginalised in sportslike binary constructions of competition — ultimately keeping “marked” players away from top level practice and competition by way of institutionalised divisions and more subtle social exclusionary practices.

The IAAF isn’t alone in failing to consider athletes self-worth in such mega-spectacles. Some careless structuring of a Hearthstone tournament saw the IeSF reeling back from a discriminatory gender ruling in 2014, despite their statue article protecting non-discrimination and the promotion of female participation, though they were quick to absorb their blunder. But a reactionary role isn’t the best position for any international sporting body on equity goals, and good governance for esports and sports alike requires a proactive orientation to diversity that trickles down to national associations and reaches for ideals.

This throws into question the managing boards of such leading esports associations and institutions, which have a tendency for selecting homogenous groups to represent their public. While leadership work is being done by other esports institutions at local levels — for example, Swedish esports associations’ work on a collectively penned Esports Code of Conduct, or the ESL’s collaboration with Intel and their support of AnyKey, an advocacy organization dedicated to supporting diverse participation in esports, — there is substantial diversity in esports work to be done together with critical debates on what baggage esports don’t wish to carry from a conservative sports legacy.

Intellectual property, game studios and SportsAccord

As a rule-making trifecta, this is perhaps the trickiest terrain being navigated in the esports as Olympic sports discussion. The IeSF applied for SportsAccord membership in 2013, and they are still working towards gaining membership.

The IeSF hosts annual esports tournaments (The Esports World Championship) with games such as CS:GO (Valve Corporation), League of Legends (Riot Games) and Hearthstone (Blizzard Entertainment) on the roster, in other words they have steady, structured, and international tournaments. Though a key issue in acquiring membership sits with SportsAccord’s definition of sports, and it’s a construct which the IeSF will need to frame itself within. The fifth and final point of the SportsAccord classification states:

“the sport should not rely on equipment that is provided by a single supplier.”

Valve, Riot, and Blizzard own and “manage” not just three but six mainstream esports on the scene today, and all have some imposing player/spectator/sponsorship numbers:

· Valve Corporation: CS:GO and DoTA2 — top prize pools in 2016 reaching $1 million and over $20 million per tournament respectively

· Riot Games: League of Legends — 32 million unique live views of an esports tournament in 2016

· Blizzard Entertainment: Hearthstone and Overwatch have drawn over 40 million players, where Heroes of the Storm and StarCraft II show their street value by way of traditional broadcasting support — an ESPN funded series (Heroes of the Dorm) and mainstreaming through popular culture, such as referencing StarCraft II in a prevalent South Korean soap opera.

While the figures and figurations each company is cultivating are impressive, they also highlight the major hitch in the road to the Olympics: the software comes from a single supplier, each package with its own unique intellectual property arrangement and existing commercial market to consider.

In sports lingo the software is the field equipment itself, and it can’t be relied on to be distributed from elsewhere nor really relied on at all. These are popular games that are all regularly patched (software updates — changes to the infrastructure of the software itself from game balance changes to arena design).

I recall a tense night before a major competition with World of Warcraft players as they found out a patch would be likely to drop that evening. They had been negotiating with the Blizzard esports team to delay the update until post-tournament, but in a game that contained millions of other players, a single esports tournament wasn’t Blizzard’s main priority and the teams were left on a completely unpractised playing field. If the Adidas Jabulani football design affected the professional play of the bulk of the 2010 FIFA World Cup roster, you can imagine what happens when not one technical alteration but many occur overnight, changing the deep practice of expert play itself.

While the SportsAccord ruling on equipment alternatives isn’t a full knock-back to potential membership — fighting games, for example, from alternate studios could be rotated — it does highlight an exciting challenge (for the lawyers) as well as the fragility of playing fields that have IP ownership and commercial stakes in (some of) the game rules. This last statement on who manages the rules is a central discussion in esports organisational circles, player communities, and games research. And the uniformity of international rulings is another key struggle that an international esports federation will have to negotiate. The recent CS:GO coaching controversy, ruling that coaches can no longer make calls during a match, highlights how rule administration (Valve) and the uniformity of rules (IeSF) have different bosses with different market orientations.

Valve’s claim to the rules of CS:GO in their esports tournaments changes the game at the top level of play and has a direct trickle-down effect on all top level play. Valve sponsored tournaments are the major event of each season (each tournament prize set at $1 million), and teams practice towards that format. While there are clear considerations around Valve’s direction, esports player/communities are not well represented there-in. The move could even be said to devalue the sustainability of CS:GO esports, as the active and visible role of the coach is diminished (though not all together gone).

As Zonic’s trajectory highlights, the coach is a valuable role for many players looking to develop an esports career as they transition from player to sports administration while also giving back to the next cohort of players. Good coaches can be seen as a robust fulcrum between players and management, who provide better support to future generations of young players as they transition into a mysterious and specialized career.

The role of the coach has clear cultural significance for esports as a community, though from a commercial perspective, the culling of this central actor’s role simply changes the broader impacts which result from the rules of the game.

“Hey, it’s okay. Don’t cry!” — Mario in Mario vs. Donkey Kong

Don’t cry traditional sports enthusiasts. Mario’s right, it’s going to be ok. Esports have some hurdles to jump before Kayla “Squizzy” Squire or An “Minkywhale” Trinh don the Australian green and gold on the Olympic stage. And besides, isn’t sports “for all”?

Esports writ large have a number of obstacles to confront in their ongoing developmental phase, and they are as deeply challenging as player welfare, diversity issues, and good governance can get. But esports across the board — and remember, there are endless forms and ways of doing or engaging in esports — also have some core achievements to celebrate and stakes to build on.

In esports, alternative play cultures and different kinds of sporting bodies and physicalities are supported within play to engage in structured contests that involve ongoing practice, dedication and austerity. Organised competitive play, which can encapsulate intense forms of cooperation and collaboration, is practised both alongside and outside of local communities — making esports an internationally shared language and participatory experience.

Australian esports participants and their connections through play to near regions, such as South East Asia, starts up a conversation on what esports can do for our national sporting ties. As The Australian Independent Sport Panel highlights, these sporting and community connections are meaningful not only for global understanding but also for migrant populations through the cultivation of a shared connection to familiar expressions of self in society. Again, a lot of work is to be done as the less savory parts of internet cultures don’t just seep into esports, rather they are always already a part of them.

So, esports in Japan 2020 you say? Sure, let’s give it a go, because what can come of it includes improved consideration, and more rigorous dialogue, around all the structural complexities in question. Esports are serious forms of sporting practice, so let’s take youth cultures seriously.