MIT x Tencent

Last weekend we were fortunate to host some visitors from Tencent China for an extended two days of gaming and conversation. You can read the full write-up over at our GameLab blog.

One of the things I did during the weekend was offer some opening remarks at a panel on the positive values of esports. Writing it was an interesting challenge given so much of my research and writing takes a slightly different angle, one that looks at everyday lives and institutional practices often through a critical lens. Trying to distill into just a couple pages a very straightforward account of the positive side of the scene was a great exercise. Below are my remarks that will perhaps be of some interest to folks.

The Power of Playing, and Competing, Together.

I want to speak today about the power of playing, and competing, together. I’m a sociologist and over the past two decades I’ve dedicated myself to the study of the internet and gaming, some of the most exciting domains a scholar can work on. In 2012 my book on the professionalization of esports in North America and Europe came out. It was the culmination of research that began in 2003 and involved interviewing players and organizers, visiting tournaments, and following how the growth of computation and the internet was facilitating a whole arena of sports.

In this era of huge tournaments with massive prize pools, we may sometimes forget that esports originates in grassroots communities that took their passion for gaming and transformed their play into vibrant competitive spaces. They took the games developers made and pushed them to their limits. They built entirely new sporting scenes out of these digital playing fields.

When I finished my esports book, it was unclear how popular competitive gaming would become. It was still a subculture, a niche gaming space.

Live streaming has, of course, changed everything.

In the last few years the growth of esports broadcasting has bought competitive gaming to bigger and bigger audiences. The industry – from the players to the teams to leagues and developers themselves – are having to grow, adapt, and scale up quickly. Amidst it all we are also seeing esports transform into a global broadcast media product.

So how can we think about the positive values of competitive gaming in this moment of growth, even hype? What might it look like to talk about good values – ones we can stand behind and champion – in the midst of an emerging industry?

I turn to the origins of esports for inspiration, to those grassroots movements that brought people together. It’s there we find the kernels we would be well served to not only hang on to during this period of growth, but to amplify and build.

The power of participation is one of the best values within esports.

One of the things that has historically distinguished competitive gaming from so many other sports is that it is rooted in your own play.

While you aren’t likely to find football fans out on the field when they aren’t watching pros on Sunday, esports has been traditionally rooted in being a player of the game yourself. You may be watching elite players on sites like Twitch but you are likely to also be playing at other times… perhaps not with the same level of expertise as the pros, but often with the same passion and enjoyment (maybe having even more fun than those who are working long hours to be professional!).

You may also be a part of your college club, building a local community with other gamers. Participating in esports doesn’t just mean playing, or watching professional tournaments, but all the other moments you find yourself integrating gaming into your life.

Maybe you help host viewing parties, run friendly or amateur competitions in your dorm or city, maybe you show a friend a new game and teach them how to play, maybe you take your fandom online participate in forum discussions, perhaps you even cosplay. Esports offers a variety of ways for people to participate.

These social connections that are made within the esports scene is the second positive value I want to highlight.

One of the things I’ve found in my research over many years is that gaming is primarily a social experience. It’s a place where we connect with each other, where we bond. Even professionals are deeply rooted in social networks. Think about how you start playing, and how you become good – it’s often deeply tied to learning from others, being pushed by being challenged through playing people, becoming better through teamwork.

The passion for competitive gaming, the fandom that can surround your favorite title, team, or player, is also something that often deeply connects you to others. It can be in small ways – having something to chat about between classes or during work – while other times it’s profound and our gaming community helps us through tough times or real periods of struggle. The positive connections people make through their love of competitive gaming can be powerful.

These themes, of participation and social connection, come together in especially profound ways when we compete together. Whether playing head-to-head, on a team, or facing another group in a match, the power of shared competition is the third value I want to highlight.

In these moments we strive, we push ourselves, we learn about failure and the value of trying again. We break down systems and piece them together again. We innovate and transform play. And just as importantly, we do it with others. We experience the power of play together with all its highs and lows, joys and difficulties. We work to help others succeed… even if that’s through our rivalry. We connect. We build something together. Competition can be a powerful, bonding experience.

The value of participation, social connection, and competition together have been present since the earliest days of esports. Indeed they are some of what drove the creation of this entirely new sporting arena we now have.

Our challenge, as esports grows and becomes a mainstream media product, is to not lose sight of its creative, positive potential; to make sure to not only retain the value of competition together but expand it to include even more people. To foster inclusion and diversity in our spaces. To build systems that grow healthy competitive communities. To leverage the positive power of participation in this new arena of culture.

We have a choice about the kind of esports future we want and I look forward to our conversation about how to make it the best one possible.