Since the advent and growth of e-sports giants like Starcraft, Counter-Strike, Dota, and League of Legends, the gaming community has clamored for mainstream recognition regarding the legitimacy of their culture. There are undeniable similarities between professional gaming and conventional sports, but rational arguments are generally ineffective in dispelling traditional beliefs and standards formed by the collective generations prior. However, the e-sports culture is still in its infancy especially within the United States, and needs the investment of members outside the community for it to prosper. Instead of challenging the definition of sports, members of e-sports should instead focus on expanding the fringes of their audience base by expanding into colleges, making themselves more accessible and allowing mainstream culture to naturally form their own opinions.
Introducing the Conflict
Let's compare conventional sports and e-sports by rationally considering the definition of professional sports and breaking it down into digestible elements. This will help illustrate why proponents of the e-sports subculture argue for equivalent status, and also why mainstream audiences reject the proposal.
The traditional definition of professional sport is: all forms of competitive physical activity which, through organized participation, aim to provide entertainment to spectators and provide an income for the athletes, who in turn devote time training to increase their skills and experience to modern levels of achievement. Extrapolating from this broad definition, professional sports include the following elements:
Competition: While a competition is generally a contest between two or more entities for a variety of utilities, in the context of professional sports, competition is a means to earn a living, rather than one simply performed for its own sake and pure enjoyment. This distinction is still unclear to many because video games were popularized as a form of recreation, and only recently have they been elevated to the status where it's possible to make a career in the industry.
Spectators: Spectators are people who watch the show, game, or other events. E-sports viewership has reached staggering numbers compared to those a decade ago, but the exponential rate coupled with the online platform for streams isolated the mainstream focus from the increasing relevance of e-sports fandom. This is especially evident in the confusion surrounding press coverage of major tournaments like The International and the League of Legends World Championships, when the average person is reminded of the size of this niche culture.
Game Mastery: The competitors in professional e-sports demonstrate a level of dedication and mastery that's sometimes difficult to discern, especially by those without the experience in the genre. It requires constant tenacity and practice to maintain the adequate mechanical finesse, adapting to evolution in gameplay and strategy, and a strong organizational infrastructure to support the team with communication, mental fortitude, and strategic depth.
Physical ability: Conventional sports are generally physically demanding, and top competitors demonstrate an exemplary level of fitness. Culturally, this has become the standard for individuals or team members performing at the professional level. However, gaming requires a different skillset prioritizing coordination, reflexes and game knowledge, and while muscle memory is critical to develop, the competition is not inherently physical in nature.
While each element present in professional gaming correlates to the sporting world, the struggle between perspectives is reasonable because rational understanding of each element requires an intimate knowledge of the e-sports world and even then, cultural definition is resistant to change.
While we've considered the conflict surrounding the definition of professional sports within the context of e-sports, this section will address how to explain the reluctance in evolving cultural ideologies and organic counter measures from a sociological perspective. This will help set up the knowledge base for recommendations in the last section.
Judging another culture solely by the values and standards of one's own culture is termed ethnocentrism, natural psychological phenomenon that a large majority of people conform to. People born into or surrounded by a particular culture begin absorbing its values and behaviors and build a worldview centered around these principles as the norm. This can include major beliefs like religion or politics, or smaller convictions like the fundamental definition of sports. These values are established through observation and subconscious filtering of empirical data in the surrounding culture, generally devoid of critical or rational thought. This implies that when a person with a consolidated belief comes into contact with an idea that doesn't align with theirs, the immediate response is dismissal. Even in cases where the opposition presents a case based on solid reasoning, it's considered irrelevant because a person with deep-rooted beliefs formed without conscious rational analysis cannot identify their own underlying assumptions. This results in a lot of dissent and even conflict between cultures.
Within the context of e-sports, this concept explains the psychology behind a lot of mainstream dismissal. Let's consider people born in 1960s onward because they both got to experience the start and development of gaming culture as well as modernization of conventional sports. Growing up, videogames were a leisure activity at best without any monetary value for players, while sports and players represented the height of athletic achievement. Through the years with countless tennis matches, football games, and Olympic events, the worldview of sports was defined by the physical accomplishments of these men and women. Forty years later, a videogame suddenly gains a large following and the members of the subculture are denoting professional players as sportsmen. Accepting this claim implies comparing the top competitors playing videogames [something considered to be an pastime for children or young adults] to the list of brilliant athletes from the entire modern era of competitive sports. Even though the e-sports community presents reasonable arguments, professional gaming doesn't hold up to the empirical cultural standards expected of sports and athletes.
While ethnocentrism lends to maintaining the cultural status quo, generational gap is a concept referring to the differences between people of younger generations and their elders, most notably children and parents, the conflict between which has catalyzed a lot of recent cultural change. Sociologists attribute the gap to institutional age segregation, where children enter educational institutions while parents are isolated in work-based domains. This allows for members of the younger generation to form their own identities and cultures outside of older and mainstream influences, a phenomenon that gained prominence after the 1950s. This has directly impacted waves of cultural change surrounding issues of race, religion, and sex in the past 50 years. Coupled with the generation gap is the hypothesis that our culture is evolving at an increasing rate due to higher connectivity and awareness of other cultures, leading to more acceptance of new ideas and beliefs. For example, until the 20th century, the younger generation predominantly followed the example of the older generation and their culture, remaining relatively ignorant or dismissive of outside ideas. With the introduction of institutional age segregation, the younger generation were able to form their own cultures and convert it to the mainstream as they became adults. In recent years, the younger generation actively challenges mainstream preconceptions, accelerating the rate of cultural change.
This is important to the development of e-sports because despite its young age, its rapid growth foreshadows a change in the mainstream attitude towards it. The younger generation is growing up with watching e-sports and including it into their cultural norm. This is happening rather covertly due to the accessibility of e-sports events and tournaments on the internet. The 1 billion dollar acquisition of Twitch by Amazon shows that businesses have recognized the market and are willing to invest in it. Small businesses are slowly following suit to accommodate this rising trend, and its only going to increase as the younger generation gains purchasing power. Within the next 5-10 years, there will be enough members in the community to challenge the mainstream dismissal of e-sports and even gain the respect of the older generation regarding its legitimacy.
This section will consider the arguments and concepts from the earlier sections to form a set of observations and recommendations by first arguing against spending resources to expand the base over focusing on the target audience in the base. Increasing accessibility and forming strong ties with small businesses and universities will allow for organic growth and visibility, relevant in creating a strong self-sustaining infrastructure.
There are multiple ways of increasing the size of a community or culture. The first is to expand the existing member base, while another targets the empty market in hopes of leveraging the attention to gain followers. Articles in the NY Times and Wall Street Journal and ESPN coverage of The International and League of Legends World Championships are examples of the latter, where the e-sports scene reaches those outside its community. Existing members of the community feel validated by the coverage, while the majority of the average public have an overwhelmingly negative reaction, especially when it challenges their ethnocentric beliefs regarding sports and athletics. While this publicity helps the case for financial investment into the scene, its effect on creating a positive image for e-sports in the minds of mainstream audiences is questionable.
Instead, e-sports can focus internally to expand its fan base by increasing accessibility. There are clear translations between e-sports and conventional sports, therefore adapting elements from sports to serve the needs of particular e-sports would get more casual gamers or fringe spectators to be more involved. This includes initiatives like fantasy e-sports and simplifying the stream interface. Fantasy sports provide casual viewers an incentive to watch more games and players, while separate streams with cleaner interfaces and casting would potentially engage more fringe spectators by easing them into the competitive e-sports. Additionally, e-sports companies have strong marketing potential through their gaming clients and streams. They could help promote third party businesses and events that support their game, like e-sports bars or cafes, viewing parties at theaters and auditoriums etc. The success and growth of these small businesses would provide organic visibility to the mainstream public, and position society for a better discourse on e-sports in a few years.
Finally, the interaction between universities and the e-sports industry can form a strong symbiotic relationship. From the perspective of professional gaming, university students by percentage are among the largest demographics of League of Legends players and spectators and leveraging that market throughout the western world will provide a lot of data to predict the future of e-sports. Following the conversation surrounding cultural ethnocentric tendencies and using the new generation to foster and promote new cultures, universities are the extreme examples of isolated institutions that allow members still forming their world views to explore and find their niche subcultures. Increasing e-sports visibility at these institutions will provide the maximum catalysis for changing the cultural perception. Finally, university pride is a huge source of identity for a lot of adults, and many professional sports have their amateur counterparts in colleges. Creating a system of strong competitive leagues between universities would both complement the professional and challenger scenes, produce more content for audiences, and allow people invested in e-sports additional mediums to be involved. [There are countless other advantages in strengthening this relationship, highlighted in a future stand-alone article.]
E-sports are on the verge of breaking out of their niche communities into mainstream focus. But, people and societies in general resist change, even in the face of rational arguments and indisputable facts. Therefore, instead of using elements of e-sports to find common ground with mainstream audiences, the industry should focus internally to create a more robust, self-sustaining infrastructure for its fanbase and increase accessibility for newcomers. Once the scene starts to receive diminishing returns from organic visibility, only then will the community gain from challenging cultural norms.
In summary, it doesn't matter if e-sports are seen as sports. People in the industry can identify similarities and use conventional sports as an example to adapt and grow the e-sports culture. Growth in target audience involvement is currently more important than acceptance of members outside the base.