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.

Straddling the Fine Line between Healthy Nationalism and Troubling Racism at the League of Legends Worlds Tournament

You probably don’t know this, but the annual League of Legends World Championship is going on right now.  What is “League of Legends,” you ask?  Simply put, the most popular computer game in the world.  And since I’m currently in the process of writing an academic paper about it, readers of this blog are going to be hearing about it in the coming months.  (Curious to see what the game looks like?  This five-minute video provides a good primer.)

If you’re unfamiliar with League of Legends (often abbreviated LoL), the first thing we have to talk about is its globe-spanning popularity.  Riot Games, LoL‘s developer, recently announced that it’s averaging a mind-blowing 103 million monthly players (i.e. individuals who play at least once a month).  Prior to this announcement, Riot had last disclosed its player numbers in January 2014, when it claimed 67 million monthly players and 27 million daily players, so the game is continuing to grow in popularity even 7 years after its initial release.  Perhaps even more interestingly, while Riot did not break out its average number of daily players in the latest announcement, if we assume that the proportions of monthly to daily players from 2014 still hold, then somewhere on the order of 40 million people around the world play LoL on any given day (roughly equivalent to the population of Algeria).

Compare those numbers to something like Pokémon Go, which you surely heard about during the big craze in July.  At its peak, Pokémon Go was averaging around 43 million daily users worldwide (see Figure 1 here), but has since seen a precipitous drop-off in its player base.  And while it’s not a perfect comparison, the bottom line is that insofar as you thought that Pokémon Go was significant/important/worthy of further study, you should be even more interested in the bigger, richer, and much more stable LoL.  Indeed, one (admittedly non-randomly-sampled, and hence suspect) analysis done in November 2015 found that LoL accounted for 23% of all the time people spend playing online computer games.

Ok, so the game is a big deal, at least for people who play computer games.  But the second thing you need to know about LoL is that people don’t simply play the game, they also watch it.  As in, they watch highly-skilled professional players compete live or online as a form of entertainment.  Watching video games in this way is called e-sports, and e-sports, according to its proselytizers, is the future of all sports.  I don’t want to wade too much into that debate (you can instead read a random Wall Street Journal columnist tackle it here).  Rather, what’s significant for our purposes is that the biggest LoL competition of the year is the annual World Championship, which 334 million viewers across the world tuned into last year (a number which will be undoubtedly even higher for this year).  And the World Championship is directly owned and operated by Riot Games, which invites the teams, chooses the venues (this year’s finals will be in a sold-out Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles), broadcasts the matches, and sets the overall tone of the event.

The third thing about LoL we have to talk about is “the Koreans.”  Statistically speaking, professional LoL teams based in South Korea are the most dominant in the world.  As the figure below shows, while South Korean teams have only made up 19% of the entrants in the five most recent LoL Worlds, they have taken 33% of the quarter-finals spots, 50% of the semi-finals spots, and 70% of the finals spots.  A Taiwanese team managed to take home the trophy in the 2012 tournament, but since then a Korean team has won the top spot every year… including in this year’s finals, which hasn’t even happened yet, but given that both of the finalists are from South Korea, the trend is sure to continue.

lol-chart

(* All teams based in Russia and Eastern Europe are categorized as “European,” even if they qualified for the tournament via the Wild Card slots.)

What makes the South Koreans so dominant (and not just at LoL, but e-sports more generally)?  Arguably a series of interconnected factors: a well-established professional gaming infrastructure, with things like dedicated gaming houses, coaches, and support staff; financial and social rewards for elite pro players that are higher than anywhere else in the world; accordingly, more elite competitors in close proximity, giving Korean teams better opponents to practice with; and lastly, truly relentless training regimens.

From the perspective of Riot Games, the continued streak of Korean dominance at Worlds is not necessarily a bad thing, since it generates some handy narratives and provides a useful framing device everyone can grasp: will this finally be the year the Koreans are upset?  Indeed, in my academic working paper I focus on how Riot Games is seeking to commodify nationalism in order to generate interest in its professional-level e-sports offerings while at the same time trying to avoid the problematic racism and xenophobia that is often prevalent in the online gaming community.

This is an ongoing tight-rope walking act for the savvy, Chinese-owned but Santa Monica-based studio.  Some other game developers have punted in similar situations.  For instance, Blizzard Entertainment designed its popular Hearthstone game in such a way that players can only interact with one another through a very limited set of pre-scripted dialogue options, lessening the possibility of negative player interactions.  At the other end of the spectrum, Valve Corporation seems to have little interest in policing the notoriously toxic Counter-Strike community.  Overall, e-sports is already and quite unfortunately developing a reputation as a nasty realm, with all-too-frequent examples of racist language occurring (e.g. here, here, and here).  And the misogynistic streaks rife in online gaming culture were on prominent display during the 2014 Gamergate saga.

It is into this potent and problematic brew that Riot is making huge splashes.  I argue in the paper that Riot’s model thus far seems to be to emulate FIFA’s World Cup, while also borrowing liberally from ESPN and the Olympics.  Thus, Riot allows some displays and markers of what I believe it considers to be “healthy nationalism” to appear in its broadcasts as a way of playing up regional differences and generating audience interest in its tournaments.  For instance, Riot has allowed players at Worlds to incorporate national flags as part of their on-stage uniforms and even to drape themselves in their national flags.*

But at all times Riot remains extremely leery of opening the door to racist and chauvinist behavior from fans and players, which the company clearly believes would delegitimize its product, affect its bottom line,** and dash its dreams of bringing e-sports into the global mainstream.  That fine line between healthy nationalism and troubling racism was on prominent display at this year’s LoL Worlds tournament.  For instance, the Chicago crowd at the quarter-finals waved American flags and cheered on North American team Cloud 9 with chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”, but also had the dubious distinction of openly booing South Korea’s Samsung Galaxy team when they took the stage, a first for the LoL community (see reactions here and here).  On an even less positive note, Riot took the drastic decision to formally sanction a professional Chinese player while the tournament was ongoing for having recently used racial slurs in non-tournament play.

In the end, what all of this offers the outside observer is a window into the thinking of a hyper-globalized company that makes a digital product that it seeks to distribute and monetize across cultural lines.  How can nationalism and international competition be commodified in “good” ways in the 21st century?  We’ll have to see what Riot’s long-term answer is, and if it continues to prove as successful as it has.  For the time being, though, if you’re at all curious about any of this, I invite you to tune into the world finals on Sunday.

Put your money down on the Koreans.

* Technically Team Solo Mid’s support player Biofrost wore the Canadian flag onstage at last month’s North American regional qualifier, not Worlds.

** For a useful discussion of the limitations of Riot’s commitment to diversity, particularly in its hiring of broadcast personnel, see Ferguson Mitchell’s commentary here.  But see also Phil Kollar’s recent paean to Riot’s farsightedness and all-around decency here.  The truth is doubtless somewhere in the middle.