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.

Painting Nationalism in the 19th Century

Three places, three artists, a 75-year time span, one recurring artistic motif: depicting an entire nation through a female figure.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

Eugène Delacroix, “La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple” [Liberty Leading the People], 1830.

American_progress

John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872.

Bharat_Mata

Abanindranath Tagore, “Bharat Matā” [Mother India], 1905.

And the legacies of all three depictions, all of which resonated widely at the time they were produced, continue to produce effects over a hundred years later, for both good and ill.

What’s in a (Region’s) Name? How an Australian Diplomatic Triumph from the 1990s Poses a Warning for Indian Foreign Policy Today

HippoReads.com has kindly published a piece of mine about how the names we give to different regions of the world matter.  I’m reprinting it here in case it would be of interest to this blog’s readers.

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In the 1990s, Australian policymakers faced a serious problem.  They were increasingly being sidelined in important decisions in the rapidly growing regions of Southeast and East Asia.  As a mostly white, settler nation, Australia was left out of Southeast Asia’s preeminent regional grouping, ASEAN, despite its geographic proximity.  And on the occasions when Australian politicians and diplomats were able to participate in pan-Asian gatherings, they ran headfirst into the exclusionary “Asian values” discourses of leaders such as Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.  Isolated and peripheral, Australia risked missing out on one of the greatest economic booms in world history.

Under Foreign Minister Gareth Evans (1988-1996), Australian diplomats deliberately sought to counter these trends by promoting the idea of an “Asia-Pacific region,” whose membership would depend less on culture than on geography.  They figured that while some might deny that Australia was an “Asian” country, it would be much harder to refute its location in the Pacific Ocean.  Significant rhetorical, financial, and institutional resources were devoted to facilitating the emergence of the new concept, and to provide it with an institutional anchor Australia championed the newly-formed Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.

Not all of the aims of the Australian Foreign Ministry ultimately succeeded.  For instance, APEC subsequently lost a lot of its initial momentum and has been eclipsed by rival forums, such as the ASEAN+ formats.  But the concept of an “Asia-Pacific region,” which Australia naturally belongs to, has firmly taken hold and seems uncontroversial today (see the figure at the end of this article).  Ultimately, a seemingly innocuous name change helped Australia to achieve a deeper level of economic and political integration with its neighbors than ever before.  Indeed, the invention of an “Asia-Pacific region,” practically out of whole cloth, was probably one of Australia’s most significant diplomatic feats in the 20th century.

The case of Australia in the 1990s has great relevance for Indian diplomacy today, but in an inverted fashion.  Australia’s problem was that the country did not fit well into the existing regional frameworks, and it took significant resources to change that perception.  India’s problem is that although it is already linguistically and geographically at the heart of an impressive region—the Indian Ocean region—it does not always avail itself of easy opportunities to ensure that things stay that way.

It is an incredible boon to Indian policymakers that the body of water between Cape Agulhas and the Straits of Malacca is referred to around the world as the Indian Ocean.  Not only does it help keep India’s name at the forefront of people’s minds, it semantically signals that India has a preeminent role to play in shaping affairs everywhere from Maputo to Perth.  While the appellation of the South China Sea grows more contested every year, there are currently no serious efforts to rename India’s ocean.  But there could be some day!  The relatively rapid invention of the “Asia-Pacific region” should remind Indian diplomats that without rhetorically and financially tending to the concept of an “Indian Ocean region,” it could conceivably be called “the West China Sea,” “the East African Ocean,” or even “the Bay of Pakistan” in a few decades’ time.

To its credit, the Modi government seems to recognize this, having embraced India’s role as an emerging naval power much more seriously than previous Indian governments.  The Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of India’s role in helping ensure “Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR, a play on the Hindi word for “sea”).  Military cooperation with other littoral states has increased significantly, and the Indian government is also helping the region’s small island states develop “blue economies” that make better use of the Ocean’s potential riches.  Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi has wisely accorded the Indian Ocean region priority in his foreign travels, conducting state visits to Sri Lanka (the first visit by an Indian head of government in 28 years), the Seychelles (33 years), Australia (28 years), and Mauritius (although not the Maldives).

Still, there remain a great deal of low-hanging fruits that Indian diplomats are not picking.  For instance, the Indian Ocean Commission (more usually referred to by its French name, Commission de l’Océan Indien) is a regional grouping comprised of Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Réunion (an overseas region of France).  Despite its SAGAR policy, India has never applied for membership or even observer status in the IOC; meanwhile, the European Union provides the Commission with millions of Euros every year and maintains significant influence in those countries.

A bigger prize is the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).  Founded in the mid-1990s at the instigation of South African President Nelson Mandela and Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, the organization is the closest entity the Indian Ocean has to a bona fide regional organization à la ASEAN or Mercosur.  Today the organization has 20 members and conducts periodic meetings, but it has not lived up to the high hopes of its founders.  Despite promising work in technical areas, like fisheries management and maritime search and rescue, IORA has not carved out a role for itself in helping to manage the region’s trade flows or political disputes.  Perhaps part of the reason it has failed to capture the public imagination is that its meetings have been conducted only at the level of foreign ministers, at least until now.  Indonesia, which currently holds the association’s rotating chair, will host a high-level summit of IORA in Jakarta in early March.  The Prime Minister’s Office has yet to announce whether or not Mr. Modi will be in attendance.  It would be a shame, however, if he did not go, given the rare opportunity to further promote the importance of the Indian Ocean region and highlight India’s role therein.

If India does not do more to shape its namesake region, others will happily step up to rechristen it, with unpredictable political and economic ramifications.  The time to act is now.  Already those wily Australian diplomats have for several years been hard at work on a new scheme: promoting a novel “Indo-Pacific region” which, conveniently, they would be at the heart of.
Regional Names.jpg

Which Countries Should Make the Cut?

Suppose you wanted to teach a schoolchild about the countries of the world, but had to limit yourself to only 54 countries.  Which countries would you pick?  To be sure, everyone will answer this question differently based on where they live, their family’s history, what languages they speak, what sports they follow, and many other factors.  Still, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the U.S., China, and Russia would make almost everyone’s lists.  And other major global powerhouses like Germany, Japan, India, France, the U.K., and Brazil would more often than not make the cut.  Meanwhile, for better or worse, poor Kiribati, Guyana, and the Gambia are usually going to be left out.

I ask this question because my awesome Hindi teacher recently gave me a poster that is typical of those used to teach Indian schoolchildren about the world:flags

It’s interesting to reflect on the choices the poster’s designer made when coming up with his or her 54 picks.  From my perspective, some are inspired, but a few are rather questionable.

For instance, I love that the designer included the U.N. flag!  Also, given that it’s intended for an Indian audience, having India’s neighbors (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal,* Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) is important.  And whether intended or not, it’s a nice touch that three of the countries that were founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement alongside Jawaharlal Nehru’s India are all here: Indonesia, Egypt, and Ghana (R.I.P. Yugoslavia!).

Looking beyond India’s immediate neighbors, though, the situation gets a bit murkier. Europe is arguably over-represented, with 14** countries out of the 54, including very surprising picks like Cyprus and Hungary (but not Spain).  With the exception of Afghanistan, Central Asia is per usual ignored, despite the fact that Tajikistan is  a stone’s throw from Kashmir.  Refreshingly, sub-Saharan Africa is actually relatively well-represented (with 5 or 6 countries, depending on how you count Mauritius), but the picks are kind of odd: Zambia and Ethiopia make the cut, but not Nigeria.

Perhaps the weirdest region of all is the Americas south of Mexico: the only two other Latin American countries listed are Cuba and Panama!!  Where’s Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country by both population and area?  Or Argentina?  At first I thought someone at the Panamanian Embassy in New Delhi had cleverly paid off the city’s educational printers, but a bit of research suggests that there may be more going on here than I first realized.  According to this surprisingly detailed Wikipedia page, one of the largest communities of Indians in the Americas is located in Panama City and traces its origins back to Sikh laborers brought in to help build the Panama Canal.  Apparently relations between the two countries are a flourishing example of South-South cooperation.

Who knows, perhaps there’s similarly cool things underlying some of the other apparently odd choices on this poster.  But I stand by my statement that Hungary really shouldn’t have made the cut, lol…

 

* Nepal has a cool flag!
** Not including Turkey, Russia, or Israel.

GDP Sure Stinks as Our Go-To Measure of Economic Activity

Measuring the size of national economies is hard.  That’s clearly true in the case of developing countries, where underlying economic data is often not available, made-up, or deliberately manipulated.  But even for rich countries it’s difficult to know how to factor in all the different kinds of economic activity humans engage in.  How should the value of multinational corporations be divvied up across the various countries they are present in?  How should public goods provided by the state be valued?  Should you attempt to measure non-market transactions, like the labor traditionally provided by “stay-at-home” mothers?  What about accounting for negative externalities, like the increasing threat of climate change?  What base year should you use?  And how should you deal with (highly variable) exchange rates?  The Economist recently asked if Brexit had helped France’s economy overtake the U.K.’s, and the best it could come up with was a tepid “probably”.

Every now and then methodological changes by national statistical authorities visibly highlight the artificiality of GDP figures. Consider the following few cases:

  • On November 5, 2010, Ghanaians went to bed thinking their country had a GDP per capita of about $753, placing them among the poorest countries in the world.  The next morning they woke up, however, to newspaper accounts proclaiming that the National Statistics Office had changed the base year for calculating GDP from 1993 to 2006, which (along with other methodological changes) had caused the country’s per capita GDP estimate to jump to $1318.  Overnight Ghana had become a solidly middle-income country!  Woohoo!
  • A recent European change in the way the investments of multinational corporations are counted in GDP figures caused Ireland’s GDP to grow by 26% in 2015…  at least on paper.  But, as an economist at University College Dublin tactfully put it, “It’s complete bullshit!”
  • Speaking of bovine shit, India’s 2015 GDP revisions for the first time officially included the value of the “organic manure” that the country’s livestock produce.  Just like that, India’s GDP increased by 9.1 billion rupees (roughly $135 million), but not before some serious academic work had been done calculating the “average evacuation rates” of various species (who says academics never have any fun!).  The Wall Street Journal has a good primer on India’s new GDP figures… and how other “real-world” statistics like the quantity of exports don’t seem to corroborate them much.

Perhaps the solution, then, should be to just get rid of GDP altogether, as more and more people are suggesting.  But then how would the hordes of quantitatively-minded political science Ph.D.s indulge in their favorite pastime of building econometric castles out of data made of sand?