The current climate in eSports is one of relentless optimism. The million dollar prize pots shout ‘sport’ louder than any comparison to bowls or snooker, and we’re all too happy to buy into it. Proof, at last, that gaming skill is a valuable commodity: a brain-training, reflex honing exercise. Keep your DS games, Dr. Kawashima; I’ll be playing League.
The streams wouldn’t put you in any doubt. The logo for eSports powerhouse Major League Gaming is inspired by the iconic baseball and basketball franchises. Studios exhibit a Sky Sports sheen, expert panellists bedecked with oversized headsets. Pairs of commentators, usually a journalist and a former player, narrate the matches with frequently incomprehensible excitement. Nowhere is it more apparent that developers and broadcasters want to be taken seriously.
Yet there’s an inherent tension. Cut to the post-game interviews and you’ll find most pros shuffling awkwardly on stage, spouting a few meek platitudes into the mic. Teens are playing their way from family bedrooms into 50,000 seater stadia.
Up in the commentary booth, young strategists and ex-players are now the faces of new media empires. When Duncan ‘Thorin’ Shields made off-colour remarks about Poland prior to a recent Counter Strike competition, he was hastily removed from his commentary position. Among players, Greg ‘IdrA’ Fields is perhaps the most famous casualty. The celebrated Starcraft 2 pro was released by his team after a string of insults to opposing players, and retired aged just 22.
People unused to fame are having it thrust upon them, and the responsibilities weigh heavy.
When it comes to emulating TV, South Korea is the prime model. Multiple TV stations there are dedicated to video game coverage, and the players are bonafide superstars. When the South Korean national football team needed a boost before a big tournament, they shipped in eSports stars to give them a team talk. On dating shows, skill at video games is a desirable attribute.
Efforts to emulate the traditional sport experience extend as far as pubs. Meltdown London lays claim to the capital’s first eSports bar: a small space packed with monitors and PCs, mixing the pleasures of watching matches online with playing the games themselves. It’s a distinct work in progress. When I pop down on Intel Extreme Masters finals day – a modest multi-game tournament – the screens outnumber the punters.
Whether it’s the status or, well, the unseasonably good weather, there is plenty of goodwill. London based pro team Fnatic have an ongoing relationship with the bar, their teams appearing on occasion to distinctly larger crowds. A poster in the gents is signed by Warner Bros mammoth game publishing arm – “great to see an eSports bar in London.” And as a few stragglers step in, it’s only about an 80/20 gender split, though you can probably guess in which direction.
It’s a microcosm of the difficulties eSports face moving forward. It can’t just be a simple cut-and-paste from existing sports; if anything, they’re aiming for the complete opposite audience.
Most gamers, true to stereotypes, don’t buy into traditional machismo. And what works for Korea or China won’t necessarily work in the US and Europe. In many cases, we don’t even know what those foreign scenes are like.
With China stuck behind the Great Firewall, one of the biggest eSports nations rarely competes in the West. When they emerge for international tournaments, they often end up using completely different characters and strategies to what’s popular elsewhere.
Tactically it creates a fascinating dynamic, but difficulties arise. Gaming is a cultural force of nature across Asia, but there has been a backlash. The pressure from parents to do well at school creates a hostile climate for would-be pro gamers, and MPs are getting in on the act. A bill proposed in December of last year would classify online gaming as an addiction, alongside alcohol and drug abuse. For Western-based companies like Riot, competition, maintenance and social responsibilities have to be juggled across continents.
The case of Team 8 rankles. The amateur outfit of five qualified for the Challenger Series by playing their way to the game’s highest rankings, and moved in together to practice. The story varies depending whose side you take, but the facts stay the same: on the eve of their first, crucial match, one of the players packed up and left to join a rival side. Team 8 were forced to forfeit their place in the league, wasting hundreds of dollars of the young players’ money.
Whether companies like Riot are liable for player safety is a complex issue. They’re having enough trouble just regulating the leagues. The Challenger Series was created last year as a way to foster semi-professional teams, offering a path to the salary-paying League Championship Series in League of Legends. But as it stands, an entire season and multiple tournaments are only rewarded with another playoff tournament, where three teams might battle their way into the top tier.
Team 8 regrouped, and took a surprise $5000 in a tournament just last month. And yet, as founding member Andrew ‘Slooshi8’ Pham tells me, they’re having to disband anyway. With no way into the professional league for nine months, continuing just isn’t viable.
“Right now the amateur scene is pretty set up for failure as I see it… the tournaments right now are good to start, but it is nowhere near a sustainable thing to depend on and dedicate 9-11 hours a day to.”
I ask him about the Richerich affair. He doesn’t want to say much, but tells me the group’s manager lost the most money, having paid for food and furniture. For the mostly teenage team, the lease on a ‘gaming house’ to train in cost $250 each. It’s a world that’s still being raised around us. While kids looking for a career have no history to reflect on, questions of sustainability and fairness are being ignored. eSports writers like Matt Demers scarcely want to speculate.
“I don’t think either company will take the responsibility for younger players, and I don’t think they should. It’s up to their parents and the players to make that tough decision.
“It’s a really tough situation because I don’t think Riot/Valve have made the decision of how “in” they want to be with their professional scenes. At some times they seem to be all for control, but at other times they seem to want to hands-off, especially for tough issues like this.”
Slooshi feels he was fortunate: “I didn’t have to worry about bills or anything as I was living with my parents. But I think that is coming to an end… to be the best, you have to dedicate a pretty ridiculous set of hours towards playing the game and learning.”
Demers agrees. “Young players need mentors, and they need to realize that getting into eSports as a player, caster, content creator, whatever full-time is akin to starting your own business around yourself. I don’t think many people treat it with that same level of seriousness.”
The tale of Cheon Min-Ki – nicknamed ‘Promise’ – might have one last miracle to spare. A recycling centre stopped his 12-story fall, though he remains in a critical condition.
Riot has offered its full financial support, and an official investigation is under way. Meanwhile, the League community reacted with shock, and wrote article encouraging players to seek help. And then it turned its attention to the latest showpiece. A Korean team, KT Roster Bullets, beat Fnatic in Katowice to take the $60k prize.
The mainstream games media report on the tragedy, but not the tournament. It’s the freelance’s lament. “Perhaps dedicated correspondents could be interesting,” says Rich Stanton. “I guess we’ll see, though, when someone decides to hire one.”