eSports: A Return to Roots or a Dangerous New Path?

Narrative in videogames is evolutionarily quite new – with the exception of good old text-based adventures and the oddballs in the shape of Zelda and Pokemon that grew to become timeless classics, games early on had little to offer in terms of plot. While today even a rail shooter needs to have some semblance of a story to be acknowledged by the critics, back in the day there was little concern for the how or the why – instead, you’d get a nice big dose of “just shut up and solve the puzzles/shoot the enemies” all day long. And there was nothing wrong with that, and I say that with my nostalgia goggles off. After all, the one big takeaway I see in that is that back then we didn’t need a motivation in the form of plot – the sheer thrill of winning was enough. For many, winning is the reason games exist. There are schools of thought that would go so far as to assert that games were created, among other reasons, as an extension of our fighting nature – another way to both channel our aggression and show off our abilities. Back then, you’d do it by setting the high score in your local arcade. Now, the very existence of the internet raises the stakes. The late ’90s and early ’00s were marked by the trend of games trying, with limited degrees of success, to tell a story. There’s no shortage of those games nowadays by any means, but as soon as most of the civilized world acquired broadband internet access, large-scale multiplayer became a reality and people flocked to it like flies to a turd, eager to interact with some real live people, and possibly #rek them in the process. I fondly remember my late elementary school days, when I’d go to a stuffy, dark internet cafe with a few friends and spend the day playing the old Counter Strike, calling people across the world noobs and talking about fornicating with their mothers. That was around the time the first real videogame tournaments started happening, and a few shy voices could be heard saying videogames could become sports in the future.

Fast forward a few years. The prediction became a reality, with hundreds of thousands tuning in to watch their favorite athletes duke it out in League of Legends, CS: Global Offensive, Dota 2, or even card games like Hearthstone, with dozens of millions playing the games every month, thanks to no small part in the genius invention of the freemium system, which lets users get the games for free, but requires microtransaction payment or a tedious grind to unlock content. Additionally, Defense of the Ancients (Dota), originally a mod for Warcraft III, first brought a new genre to the masses: the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) model proved to be a perfect environment for a team sport, entertaining to players and spectators alike.

Well that all sounds just dandy, doesn’t it? People’s gaming skills are finally getting recognized, they’re even getting to make money playing videogames (livin’ the dream, innit?), spectators are enjoying the show… surely nothing is wrong with this picture? If only.

Now brace yourselves because I am about to sound like a filthy commie. It’s money, ladies and gents. Winning is no longer something that brings satisfaction; it’s something that you have to do to keep your job. A job that more often than not requires you to drop out of school and deprive yourself of alternate career choices. That game that you played for 8 hours every day and couldn’t get enough of it? Awesome. Now you have to play it for 12 hours a day, and play it the way your coach tells you, whether you like it or not. It’s a job that means you’re not getting out of the gaming house, and you’re surrounded by your teammates 24/7, as Crumbz, the departing jungler of Dignitas will tell you below. Even among best friends, that creates tension – hell, I couldn’t stand being in the same room with my mother for more than a few hours a day. And that’s cool if you know what you’re getting into. But if you’re a 15-year-old hotshot who just got into the Challenger tier and thinks he’s the shit, you’re in for a rough ride, which brings me to my next commie point…

Wherever there’s money involved, there are filthy capitalists looking to get as much of it as they can at others’ expense. While some eSports organization (Cloud 9, Dignitas, Counter Logic Gaming come to mind) are definitely exemplary in terms of how they treat their players, some of them abuse the fact that their players usually are 15-year-old hotshots who jumped right into it without reading the fine print. So, for instance, Supa Hot Crew, a German eSports organization, just flat out did not pay their League of Legends team for 3 months, upon which the team was nominally purchased by Meet Your Makers, even though the people in charge of the team remained the same. Since the team was renamed, the executives claimed to not be obligated to pay the players the money owed to them by SHC, going on to threaten that a player’s mother would lose her house if he decided to leave the team for the breach of contract. Read more on it here.

Another example took a turn for the more sinister. The owner of ahq Korea decided the money made from competitions was not enough, and coerced players into fixing their matches, enabling him to win money betting against his own team. The incident was uncovered last March, when one of the players left a suicide note unraveling the scandal before jumping off a 12-storey building. Fortunately, he survived and made a full recovery, but this illustrates another problem that currently plagues eSports…

Even though reports of the IOC considering the inclusion of eSports as an official Olympic discipline hit the news recently, it is an undeniable fact that competitive gaming is still a very young industry, and as such, has issues with standardizing and codifying rules and policies. As shown by the examples above, player protection is one of the biggest problems. With the social media being what they are, the Internet Hate Machine constantly spinning at high revs, the pressure on the players is immense. Even the most calm and collected players have been brought to tears by wins and losses alike. When you add to the mix the fact that a substantial number of them have a pre-existing history of both physical and mental conditions, the need to formulate a health and wellness policy becomes apparent. Part of why I’m writing this is because I watched the League Championship Series last weekend. As Team Winterfox pulled a surprising win last weekend, the camera focused on their support player, Gleeb, arguably the MVP of the match, looking completely sullen and forlorn, a stark contrast to the smiling and screaming fans around him. It didn’t take me long to remember the times when Hai and TheOddOne were hospitalized due to conditions brought on by excessive mouse use and eating “gamer food” respectively. Needless to say, something needs to change.

In the end, I certainly believe that eSports present a wonderful throwback to what gaming used to be about – doing your best and trying to win, even if the objective is a MacGuffin with no ties to the plot, if there even is one. It’s also another way for us to express our fighting spirits and a valuable addition to the vast collection of sports we’ve come up with over the course of history. However, especially in these early development years, they’re also an avenue for many people to unwittingly lose money, health, future, or just the enjoyment of playing the game, which then kind of defeats the point.

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