is something shifting?

When I was finishing up my book on e-sports (Raising the Stakes, just released from MIT Press) I wrote that it felt a bit odd to be spending all this time talking about professional computer game play amidst the rise of the Wii and Facebook games. Though I’d started my fieldwork on professional e-sports in the early 2000’s, a kind of heyday for the scene, by the time I was wrapping up the manuscript the future was very uncertain. There had been some major shake-ups and while there were signs on the horizon of things that might re-energize enthusiasts (SC2, fighting games), I was pretty unsure where e-sports was headed.

Jump forward to March 3rd of this year, day two of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (hello moneyball), and the panel entitled “E-Sports: The Future of Competition.” Go figure. The line-up was sharp, and telling. It was great to see them use an insider to chair the panel, Stewart Saw (long-time e-sports commentator known as “TosspoT” to the community). Panelists were Alex Garfield (CEO of the team Evil Geniuses), Sundance DiGiovanni  (one of the founders, and CEO of, Major League Gaming), Sean Plott (popular e-sports commentator known as Day[9] to his fans), and Mike Morhaime (co-founder and CEO of Blizzard – you know, that little company whose titles have sucked up more eyeball hours than anyone may care to calculate). You may note I didn’t lead with Morhaime’s name, despite his being the only one you perhaps recognize. Even though Blizzard’s titles are prime drivers of a major part of e-sports, much of what is brewing right now and propelling things forward is happening well beyond the game companies. (The big omission on the panel imo was probably Justin Kan of Twitch TV but I’ll save that for another post.)

There’s a lot packed into that video and I encourage you to check it out. It’s an interesting peek into how e-sports experts explain to an audience that may not know anything about the scene – but a hell of a lot about sports – exactly what is happening in pro-gaming. A few things that really caught my ear:

  • The boom in streaming media is pretty dramatically reshaping the e-sports landscape and no one has quite figured it out. There are fascinating thorny questions lurking about the regulation and licensing of content (KeSPA v Blizzard anyone?), monetization, and the alteration of funding models for leagues, teams, individual players (witness famed player Manuel “Grubby” Schenkhuizen’s decision to go solo in 2011 and create his own sponsorship deals, most recently with… Twitch TV), and even commentators (Sean Plott has spoken about this, check out his visit to one of MIT’s CMS classes to hear his business manager muse about it even further).
  • The speculation and comparison about how e-sports compares to traditional athletics continues. Didja catch when Garfield likened EG to the Yankees or Man United? Or DiGiovanni equated e-sports rivalries to “Yankees versus Red Sox”? At the same time, it also seems it’s a question some old-timers are getting tired of and I wonder if perhaps once/if the audience gets massive enough it gets dropped as a rhetorical move (one that attempts to legitimize a set of play practices that may otherwise seem odd or worrisome to outsiders).
  • Spectatorship – especially constructed as “audience” – is on everyone’s radar now in a way it wasn’t early on. Certainly early organizers and visionaries thought a lot about bringing e-sports to the mainstream, but the community and LAN roots of the scene shaped what it meant to participate in pretty specific ways ways. These were often focused on close-knit dedicated player communities where people knew each other, played against one another night after night, and, when lucky, got to attend LANs and meet up in person. Spectating games required some insider knowledge (and if you were watching replay files, a bit of know-how). The growth of streaming media and the increasing mainstreaming of game culture is shifting things by bringing large numbers of people into e-sports that might not have been there otherwise. Unsurprisingly, the industry side of the scene (advertisers, team owners, league organizers, etcetc) are all looking at ways to monetize that.
  • There is a second spectatorship question lurking articulated a bit by Garfield and Plott, something one of them referred to as “participatory spectatorship.” Setting aside the awkward understanding of traditional spectatorship assumed in that term, there is an interesting issue here. On one side is the notion that e-sports are unique because they tap into games that you can, and perhaps likely do, play yourself (the comparison often being football, which you may watch a lot of but not play regularly). On the other is the idea that some games are actually pulling in spectators who aren’t huge players of the title themselves but simply love to watch it (StarCraft 2 and fighting games often being used as prime examples). Both models have implications for how to build audiences, how robust the industry can be, and what the nature of fandom in e-sports is. Both inquire about what participation means. Both speak to assumptions we have about how computer games “work” (and how they may, or may not, be different from other forms of media). There are some core empirical questions here we actually don’t yet fully know the answer to yet but are fascinating and well worth more exploration.
  • MLG has a 145 page rulebook. Okay, perhaps a niche interest on my part but I’ve long been fascinated by the issue of rules in pro-gaming so I got a kick out of hearing about this somewhat mythical document. Would love to read it… though interestingly I can’t seem to easily find it on their website (though you can find all the usual game-specific ones). Hrm.
  • The analytic side of the conference wove itself into the conversation. The stats of pro-gaming vis-à-vis computation seems to have a natural fit into a sports analytics conference. When DiGiovanni spoke about what they can measure and track, I can only imagine the lightbulbs going on over the heads of some in the audience. At the same time Garfield spoke about the lack of systemized, standardized, shared info they have available to make rigorous analysis of different financials and business models (and the subsequent challenges to growing e-sports into a true commercial venture).

Okay, it’s probably too easy to say it was great to hear this conversation because it intersects many themes I’ve long been interested in for my research into pro-gaming. But hey, I’m saying it. Well worth checking out the video.