I spent the last six months of my freelance life reporting on the world of eSports. One of the questions I fielded most frequently during that time was "What's so great about eSports?" People with no involvement or current interest in the world of professional competitive gaming were often confused as to where the pleasure was in watching those matches. The bafflement only increased when conversation involved some of the prize pools.
I spent an entire appointment with an optician a few months ago explaining how the annual Dota 2 tournament, The International, managed a $10.9 million prize pool this year."Tell me if this is clearer or blurrier. And also why have I never heard of this game and why are so many people into it?"
One of the biggest reasons for my own enjoyment of eSports is how it puts a spotlight on people and their relationship with gaming.
The world of eSports encompasses a lot of different genres of gaming and types of community. There are the fighting games you'll encounter at EVO like Ultra Street Fighter IV, Super Smash Bros Melee, Injustice, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3. There are the teamwork-driven MOBAs like League of Legends, Dota 2 and newcomer Smite. There are the shooters like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike. Oh, and let's not forget StarCraft, Hearthstone, FIFA, World of Tanks, Super Mario Kart… It's a diverse scene, is the point I'm getting at here.
But running across that mechanical and aesthetic diversity is the continuous thread of human enthusiasm and endeavour. Regardless of the specific game, you can follow narrative arcs involving the competitors. You get to know whether they're on a losing streak or have just found their footing after a game patch. You work out whose playstyle excites you. You know they have a history with a particular opponent so you keep an eye out for those clashes. You see them failing to gel with a new set of teammates and follow the rumour mill to work out where they're going next. It's that same human soap opera aspect you'll recognise if you've ever followed celebrity gossip or the dramas of professional football teams.
The ongoing stories around the pro players add an extra layer of involvement between the people watching and the action taking place on screen. There's weight to the cheers and jeers beyond just responding to the mechanical skill on display. There are heroes and villains, teams to invest in (literally if they have a merch stand) and upsets to be gasped at and dissected in the line for refreshments between games. Attending live eSports events really brings this extra layer out.
I tend to have my camera with me at those events in order to capture some of the atmosphere. That generally means I'm keeping track of the game itself but frequently turning to the crowd. If you do that you'll see whole rows shift forward in their seats in unison, tensing up as a dramatic face-off unfolds. There's that one solitary fan who's accidentally ended up stranded in a block of rival supporters and leaps to his feet punching the air while everyone else slumps down. From the press area - usually a room near the auditorium where you'll find writers clustered around power sockets - you'll still be able to feel the rumble as thousands of feet stamp and you'll be able to follow the emotional trajectory of a match through the roars which reverberate around the auditorium.
You can see it in Twitch chat (woven between the Kappas and the nonsense) or on social media too - thousands of fans sharing that same emotional experience as a result of their own investment and knowledge. I wasn't at IEM Toronto in August but I was watching bits of it and actually burst into tears when Flash - a legendary StarCraft player from South Korea - finally scored his first StarCraft 2 championship.
eSports deals in human experiences. Sure, that can encompass the petty, the obsessive and the aggressive too. But, in my experience it's overwhelmingly about shared passion – both elation and devastation. eSports is the human and emotional side of gaming writ large.
This post was published October, 2014 for the RPS Supporter Program. Thanks supporters!