Oldies But Goodies: Reading U.S. Diplomatic Cables with Students

In the “Deciphering Diplomatic Writing” class I’m teaching at George Washington University this semester, my students and I spend a fair amount of time reading U.S. State Department cables available through WikiLeaks’ “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy“.  Most are from the 1970s, but there’s also many from the 2000s.  Here are some of the funnier entries I’ve spotted in recent days:

 

* The actual history here seems pretty interesting.  Five years after Nixon’s “opening to China,” before the U.S. had fully opened an embassy in Beijing and was instead only working out of a “Liaison Office” without sufficient office space, the United States Information Agency was already organizing relatively large-scale public diplomacy campaigns in urban parts of China.  Then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger seems to have personally followed up on the Cinderella film screening (see here and here).

** I haven’t yet been able to figure out who Gandhi would have had working for her who had spent time at Harvard.

The Four Questions I Get Asked About E-Sports

I’ve now twice had a chance to give a talk to some aspiring sports lawyers about the continuing growth of e-sports.  I’ve noticed that when discussing e-sports, I tend to get asked the same few questions, so I thought I’d jot down my current answers here.

1)  Are e-sports a sport?

Well, it depends on how you define a sport.  Do you have a minimalist definition, which usually says something like “a sport is any type of competitive yet recreational activity centered around human skill,” in which case e-sports can safely be said to be sports, alongside activities such as chess, poker, billiards, bowling, curling, and competitive eating?  Or are you a maximalist, holding out for a definition that would also require that a sport have elements of significant physical exertion, fast reflexes, and major teamwork?  (For an extended discussion of these and other criteria, see this scholarly paper by Jenny et al. 2016).

Personally, I don’t think the question matters.  If it looks like a sport, walks like a sport, and quacks like a sport, it’s a sport.  Consider the following: more people (60 million) watched the finals of the League of Legends Worlds tournament in November than watched the most recent finals of the MLB’s World Series (28 million) or the NBA finals (24 million).  Professional e-sports players have agents, coaches, analysts, physical trainers, and nutritionists.  And they compete in tournaments where the prize pool can run in the tens of millions of USD (the prize pool for a major pro golf tournament in the US typically runs between $10 and $12 million; the prize pool for Dota 2‘s The International 2017 was $24.7 million).

Basically, if there are player associations, teams, tournaments, umpires, professional dispute arbitrators, production crews, videographers, play-by-play announcers, color commentators, translators, hair and make-up people, grueling practice schedules, and hundreds of millions of fans, how are e-sports not sports?

2)  What’s the appeal of e-sports?

For the most part, fans of e-sports watch for the same reasons people watch “off-line sports” (the genius moniker e-sports fans have bestowed on traditional sports).  There’s the appeal of rooting for your team; the gripping narrative arcs that emerge over time; the preternatural reflexes that are showcased; the intricate teamwork that is required to win at elite levels; and the combination of high-level strategy and split-second tactical decision-making that must be mastered to be successful.

In addition, there are probably two additional factors that contribute to the appeal of e-sports.  One is the sense of trendiness the whole enterprise retains–it’s cooler to be seen around campus wearing a Fnatic t-shirt than a Lakers jersey.  The final element, I would argue, is that e-sports taps into novel forms of masculinity that are resonating with young men around the world, but particularly in East Asia.  It’s relatively rare to find examples of Asian male athletes who can attract a global following.  There are several, of course (Jeremy Lin, Sachin Tendulkar, Manny Pacquiao, for starters), but the somewhat parochial appeal of many Asian sports combined with the continued marketing dominance of U.S. and European sports makes it difficult for young Asian athletes to break out onto the world stage.  Or at least that was the case until the advent of e-sports, which is allowing young South Korean athletes like Flash or Faker to become household names for millions.  This strong presence of East Asian athletes in most e-sports is contributing to the emergence of potentially less aggressive and “macho” models of masculinity.  It’s important to remember that this ongoing transformation is still occurring in an all-male space—-there are currently zero professional female players in most e-sports–and I don’t want to downplay the widespread sexism, misogyny, and homophobia prevalent in the e-sports world.  But from my perspective there does seem to be a widespread shift in the type of masculinity an athlete is expected to perform.

Contrast, for instance, these two recent hype videos, the first from halfway through the recent League of Legends tournament, the other previewing the 2017 NFL Superbowl match-up.*  While both videos attempt to depict their athletes as cool, powerful, motivated, and skilled, I would argue that the masculinity on display in the first video is markedly different: the men are younger, quieter (no player shouts in the first video), and less physically imposing (crossed arms and stoic faces are favored over dashes and leaps).  I suspect that ultimately it will be these boyish, bespectacled, beardless-yet-immaculately-coifed, and occasionally rotund young men who will go on to reshape our image of what an athlete is in the coming decade, in part because they seem so much more relatable to fans who live increasingly sedentary lives.

3)  Why do some countries have well-developed e-sports scenes while others don’t?

Some countries have very well-developed e-sports scenes, with numerous players, teams, and fans.  Other countries do not.  While some of this variation can be explained on demographic grounds, much of the rest remains a mystery.

There are some basic variables that explain why e-sports are bigger in some countries than others.  All things being equal, we would expect countries with faster internet rates, higher disposable incomes (to be able to afford fast broadband connections), youthful populations, and greater amounts of leisure time to both play and spectate e-sports more.  Accordingly, rich countries with fast Internet and lots of leisure time like South Korea, Taiwan, Sweden, and Denmark have well-developed e-sports scenes, despite relatively older populations.  E-sports are also strong in the United States and China, two countries with large youth bulges, booming tech sectors, and governments which are actively lending their support to the nascent industry.  (In the U.S. this has taken the form of official recognition of e-sports athletes for visa purposes, while China has gone further by integrating e-sports into its national sports training academies and setting up an official national team in 2015.  Analysts note that China seems to have decided to highlight its strength in e-sports as part of its “soft power” outreach to the rest of the world.)

If we were to use our basic variables to predict the relative strength of each country’s e-sports scene, we’d quickly discover a number of outliers—countries located either very above or below the regression line.  I suspect some countries which would be plotted well above their predicted scores might include Brazil (dominant in CS:GO), Vietnam (where a TV station airs e-sports full-time), and the Philippines (with strong Dota 2 teams).

Conversely, I expect we would find Australia and Mexico to be punching below their weight.  Also worth considering is the case of Japan, whose e-sports scene lags far behind East Asian peers like South Korea, China, and Taiwan.  A while back Bloomberg ran an article examining why e-sports aren’t more prominent in Japan, given Japanese young people’s love of most things digital.  Fascinatingly, the article advanced a path-dependency argument, proposing that the current disinterest stems largely from an obscure piece of legislation from the 1980s that defined illegal gambling in an overly broad way.  (The law has just been repealed.)

Perhaps the country whose e-sports deficit I’m most interested in understanding at the moment is India’s.  Yes, India’s Internet is slow and unreliable, and yes, there’s a cultural taboo against playing video games.  But if you consider India’s massive youth population, you’d think it would have a far more developed e-sports scene.  A Taiwanese team once managed to win the LoL Worlds Tournament, but India, with 56 times the population, isn’t home to a single professional LoL team.  Some online commentators blame India’s under-representation on an early Indian e-sports tournament held in Noida in 2012 that at the very least was quite poorly organized and at the worst was a deliberate scam.  But while it’s true that the fiasco may have “dragged [the Indian e-sports scene] five years back,” I feel like there must be other factors at play which I don’t fully grasp as yet.  Hopefully recent investments of money in the Indian e-sports scene can shake it out of its present lethargy.

4)  Is there anything uniquely different about e-sports qua sports?

The International Olympic Committee has said it is open to considering including e-sports events in future Olympics.  Does this mean that e-sports and offline sports are fundamentally the same?  Or are there unique aspects to e-sports without precedent in traditional sports?

Consider, for instance, this list Forbes published about ten emerging legal issues related to e-sports.  For the most part, the article simply lists legal issues that apply to any professional sport: the importance of well-structured contracts; the need for appropriate revenue-sharing to keep leagues, team owners, and players all content; the perennial difficulty of obtaining visas for foreign players.  There’s nothing really new or distinctive here (except perhaps the point that existing sports stadiums are often ill-suited to displaying e-sports in their best light, which may require new types of infrastructure to be built).  Similarly, a lot of the scandals that have already occurred in the e-sports world will be familiar to fans of offline sports: match-fixing; illegal gambling; young players trying to skirt minimum-age requirements; pervasive racism; etc.

But there are a few genuinely novel aspects to e-sports that will require athletes, fans, and regulators to adopt new practices and attitudes in the coming years.  Unsurprisingly, most stem from the virtual nature of the software systems that undergird e-sports.  There are several I could discuss, such as how e-sports will deal with the existence of in-game bugs, but in the interest of space let me focus on just one, illustrative example: the frequency with which the rules change in e-sports compared to offline sports.

Consider that the Laws of Cricket were codified in 1788 and have largely remained the same since then, with only a few minor revisions.  In contrast, as of mid-March 2018, League of Legends has had over 267 significant changes to its rules since its creation in 2009 (see the complete list of these “patches” here).  This is a difference of orders of magnitude!  Freed of any hard-to-change physical components (like the cleats, balls, nets, goalposts, and fields of soccer) and with total control over their IP (whereas no one “owns” soccer, even if it is governed by FIFA), the game companies that own the software that enables e-sports have shown no compunctions about constantly tinkering with their products, ceaselessly altering them to encourage certain types of behavior, prohibit others… or sometimes for seemingly no reason whatsoever.  This can be infuriating for professional teams, who often find that strategies and techniques they have carefully prepared and honed are deliberately invalidated by the game’s developers, as happened to Alliance’s “rat Dota” strategy circa 2013 and the use of “lane swap” tactics by many North American LoL teams shortly before the 2016 Worlds Tournament.  Defenders of the frequent rule changes argue that they help keep e-sports fresh and “balanced;” to succeed in e-sports, pros must constantly innovate and adapt rather than rely on the same strategies.  Whether or not that’s a compelling argument, there’s also a cost to spectators as well: because the rules of the games change so often, casual fans who are not constantly keeping up may find the sport nigh unrecognizable if they revisit it after an absence of several months or a year.  Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer for how often the rules of e-sports should change, but it is unquestionably a significant difference in comparison to offline sports, and one which is tied to the virtual nature of the underlying software.

As e-sports continue developing and becoming ever more popular in the decades to come, players, fans, owners, coaches, and game developers alike will collectively have to determine how best to govern and oversee this emerging form of competition.

 

* I couldn’t easily find online the equivalent video for the most recent Superbowl LII.

The Koreans Are At It Again…

For the 2016 Summer Olympics, the New York Times made some beautiful charts displaying which countries have dominated which Olympic sports over time.  You should really check out all the charts for yourself here, but just to make things easier here are two of them:

Total Medals Across All Sports

(My goodness was East Germany a sporting powerhouse during the Cold War, especially compared to West Germany, which had four times its population–16 million vs. 63 million in 1990!!!)

At the level of individual sports, the dominance of specific countries is even more clear-cut.  Here’s the chart for the medals just in long-distance running events (the 5K, the 10K, and the marathon):

long-distance-running

Ethiopia and Kenya nowadays account for well over half the medals in these sports, although that honor used to go to Finland (of all places) during the interwar period.

This relationship between sport and nationalism, about a country performing well on the international stage is important to a lot of people, which is why some governments are willing to spend $7.2 million in training and support for each Olympic medal their athletes bring home.

Entering into this potent mix of nationalism, money, and athletics are the new e-sports (about which I’ve written here previously and will again shortly).  One thing that’s interesting thus far in the brief history of international e-sports competition is that it’s not the usual suspects bringing in the loot.  Over-generalizing somewhat, the U.S. and Russia tend to be conspicuously absent from elite global tournaments, which are instead usually dominated by the South Koreans and the Chinese.  Indeed, in the ongoing League of Legends Worlds 2017 tournament, for a remarkable *third* year in a row the two finalists are Korean teams, ensuring a Korean threepeat regardless of the outcome of the matches that will be played in the sold-out “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing on November 4th.

As my own just-updated-but-much-less-pretty-than-the NYT‘s graph shows, this isn’t because more Korean teams are qualifying for the World Championship, but rather because of simply outperforming teams from other countries during the tournament itself:

Geographic Origins Chart

The last aspect of this story to consider is that the International Olympics Committee, with its finger in the wind, has just formally offered to consider e-sports for inclusion in the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics and beyond.  Now, if I’m the next South Korean minister for culture and sports (not the one that was recently convicted of perjury as part of the corruption investigation into now-ousted President Park), I’ve got to figure that for a tiny fraction of the £350 million the British spent acquiring their medal haul in the Rio Olympics, I can simply lobby the IOC to include as many e-sports in future Olympics as possible.  The medals should simply drop into my country’s lap, although only time will tell…

The Rise of a New Regulatory Power in the East?

One form of power states can have in global politics is regulatory power (also sometimes called market power).  The idea is that if your state contains a large, rich domestic market, you can derive influence over other parts of the world eager to gain access to it.  For instance, the United States is by far the largest market in the world for pharmaceuticals, which gives decisions taken by the U.S.’ Food and Drug Administration a significant international impact.  Pharmaceutical companies from all over the world have lobbyists in Washington D.C. who carefully scrutinize the agency’s every move (in fact, Big Pharma is the industry that spends the most on federal lobbying).

Scholars of the European Union (EU) in particular have seized upon the idea of regulatory power.  Most international observers agree that the EU is a powerful actor on the global stage, but few agree as to why.  The EU doesn’t have the most jaw-dropping military in the world (as Donald Trump seems to have recently discovered, the U.S. accounts for the bulk of NATO’s combat readiness – one NATO estimate claims that US defense expenditures effectively represent 72% of the Alliance’s overall defense spending).  And while the EU collectively provides just over half of the Official Development Assistance in the world, claims that it is a significant “civilian power” have yet to attract many adherents.  Others argue that the EU’s power stems from its consistent commitment to human rights and other global norms, but critics retort that the EU is just as hypocritical as any other great power when its interests are on the line.

All of which leaves some EU-philes to fall back on the size of its market and argue that the EU’s main influence in the world comes in the form of regulatory power.  And it is true that the EU’s Common Market is the richest market in the world, even with the U.K. poised to leave in a few years’ time.  Industries in developing countries sometimes live and die as the result of internal EU regulatory whims.  On topics like vehicle emissions standards and food safety regulations, when the EU speaks, the world listens (especially at places like the WTO).

As with so many other things, however, the emergence of China as the major new economic power threatens to disrupt this regulatory status quo.  You can see it in lots of places (for example, regulations surrounding renewable energy), but recently it’s become apparent to me in an unusual corner of the world economy: digital games.

Both the Chinese government as well as Chinese society more broadly are worried about their children spending too much time playing digital games, particularly on mobile phones.  In 2008, China became the first country to officially declare internet addiction a clinical disorder, and the country’s relationship with digital gaming has only become more complicated in the years since.

For instance, earlier this year the Chinese government forced all digital game companies that release games in the PRC to publicly report the formulas that calculate their in-game item drop rates.  For context, in many kinds of digital games, you get rewards for accomplishing various in-game tasks: perhaps a better sword or a cool-looking suit of armor if it’s an RPG, or perhaps a unique color scheme for your character in an MMO.  Game makers discovered decades ago that having an element of randomness to these rewards kept people more engaged (and playing longer) than if it was a simple matter of doing X leading to Y.  Accordingly, semi-randomly generated items that “drop” when the player is successful remains a core mechanic for many of the world’s leading digital games.

The Chinese government is now forcing game makers to publicly reveal the rates at which such items are generated. While the government’s announcement didn’t give a lot of detail about its rationale for the move, most observers agree that the main goal is to try and limit excessive gaming: if players can do the math themselves and realize that it will on average take them dozens or even hundreds of hours of performing a same repetitive action to obtain a given piece of loot, they might just give up on the whole thing.  (Or they might just decide to buy the desired loot at the in-game store using real-world currency, but that’s a separate problem.)

Chinese gaming companies are increasingly paying attention to these signals emanating from Beijing.  Last month, the world’s biggest digital game maker, Tencent Holdings,  took the unprecedented move of voluntarily restricting how many hours a day its younger users could play King of Glory, the leading mobile game in China.  Henceforth, players younger than 12 will be restricted to only one hour of playtime per day, and those between 12 and 18 will be limited to two hours a day.  (In addition, the age-verification system, which is already linked to real-world identities, will be beefed up).

Why would a publicly-traded company interested in its bottom line volunteer to limit access to one of its most profitable products?  Perhaps because the influential state-run newspaper People’s Daily had recently run a slew of editorials against the game, calling it “poison,” with a predictable drop in the company’s share price.

Overall, the big takeaway here is that the Chinese government is displaying a willingness to directly regulate a global media industry in a way that used to largely be the domain of Western nations.  What we are witnessing emerging in China right now has the potential to re-shape the global entertainment industry in a way not seen since the rise of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its film ratings system in the 1930s.  With digital games having overtaken movies in terms of both their sales and cultural salience, China is taking the lead on regulating an industry that promises to be one of the most dynamic of the 21st century, with consequences that will likely ripple out for decades to come.  Stay tuned… and don’t spend too much time grinding for that loot.