Moving Towards an eSports Future
eSports are a specific category of computer games. eSport games like StarCraft II are intentionally designed by the game developer to be both highly competitive (“difficult to master”) and also easy for fans to watch. eSports is an emerging market participated in by professional gamers, coaches, sponsors, event organizers, and celebrities. An eSport is an emerging sporting genre entering public spheres occupied by traditional sports like football and soccer. Today’s gamers are already enjoying a wider selection of eSports activities, such as watching games in bars and participating in league games. But many StarCraft participants believe there is work yet to be done. They dream of a day when eSports will be sanctioned by schools, played at the Olympic Games, and accepted as family activities. This shared-purpose brings together the eSports community—gamers, companies, professionals—as peers to build a better eSports future.
BarCraft, a combination of bar and StarCraft, is watching StarCraft in a bar (including in restaurants). I visited one of my first BarCraft events one Saturday afternoon in October 2011 at a local restaurant, Buffalo Wild Wings, just five minutes drive from my apartment in North Irvine. I went to the restaurant to join other StarCraft gamers watching live matches of a major tournament, Major League Gaming Orlando. The moment I entered the restaurant, I was greeted by a guy in his early twenties dressed in jeans and yellow polo shirt, standing next to a table full of stickers with Starcraft icons. He greeted me and asked if I was there for BarCraft. He enthusiastically passed me a sticker to write down my StarCraft II user id, league, and where I live.
BarCraft is a new way of watching StarCraft with other gamers. Volunteers anywhere in the world who were enthused about organizing an event could read up and follow protocols made available online by its co-founders. Primadog, an American Chinese and one of the co-founders, saw BarCraft as an opportunity to bring eSports to where others are also watching mainstream sports—thus setting up a stage where others, such as football fans, may witness, question, and discuss the legitimacy of eSports. “If you bring a bunch of nerds into a bar next to a bunch of jocks who are watching football or soccer or whatever, they’ll be like, ‘Holy shit. What are you guys watching?’” said Primadog. This publicity stunt was reported by newspapers including the Wall Street Journal on August 23, 2011. By now, BarCraft has been held in over a hundred global locations (see a map of BarCraft locations).
Another social movement in eSports is the development of sporting leagues in high schools and universities--namely the High School Starleague (HSL) and the Collegiate StarCraft League (CSL) in the U.S. (see my previous blogs ). Both enterprises are sharing similar needs and doing similar things to support eSports. On the one hand, participants of both enterprises, in the process of organizing eSports activities in various schools, including asking teachers and university departments for venues and funding, are testing the tolerance of schools towards computer gaming as a school sanctioned activity. On the other hand, and more so for schools with budding interests in eSports, both enterprises are developing league formats, specifying how players would compete, who will compete, when will they compete, how do to determine a winner, and developing ties with the industry to support these school activities. Just a week ago, CSL won an $180,000 sponsorship from the game media company Azubu. Members of HSL and CSL are working tirelessly to develop a blueprint for eSports in schools—an operational model schools can possibly use as-is when the day comes that they recognize eSports as school sports.
Around the time of the 2012 Olympic Games, thousands of eSports participants were signing petitions to bring eSports to the big stage. Subsequently, Brandon Beck, co-founder of the game company Riot Games and developers of the famed League of Legends, proclaimed that “eSports will be an Olympic event in my lifetime.” Within the StarCraft community, there are skeptics with good reasons, but most would love to see eSports being played at Olympic venues. Clearly, making eSports Olympic-worthy has to be a joint endeavour between players and companies. If more people are playing games, gaming products will also sell better. But this is not all. In a bid to see eSports flourish, companies like Riot Games have aligned some of their ideologies with that of the gamers. These companies are selling not just games, mice and headsets, but also an imaginary future of eSports that captivates the gaming community.
A group of less visible, but no less important, participants of the eSports movement are the employees of tech companies. I cannot ignore the repeated observation of tech company employees appearing on occasions in the StarCraft scene. (Which programmer hasn’t played video games?) In the online forums and at game tournaments, we generally do not know what each other’s day jobs are. But the After Hours Gaming League (AHGL) is acting as a platform on which corporate identities of eSports participants get recontextualized in the gaming scene. The AHGL, organized primarily by the celebrity caster Day, now hosts game competitions among employees of IBM, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, and Adobe.
The future of eSports is being crafted (pun intended) by peer-supported activities consisting of multiple actors working as volunteers or in companies to pursue a lofty dream. That future is not anywhere near yet, and movements are never easy. But eSports participants are ready to live up to these challenges. Duran Parsi, commissioner of the North American Star League and administrator of the CSL is one such person, “I think right now is the right time for this to really become mainstream.” At the very core, such are the beliefs that bring strangers together as peers, as a community, and as producers. Such are the beliefs that inspire and motivate learners to connect with each other, to learn new skills, and to challenge existing institutions to redraw cultural boundaries, and to capitalize on that opportunity to bring eSports onto the main stage.