Why don’t we talk about eSports?

Or, Do We and I Just Don’t See it?

In trying to find an angle onto games criticism and its relationship (or lack thereof) to sports discourse, I had a discussion with my advisor (yay advisor, doin it rite), and he advised (lol) that instead of looking at eSports broadcasters and how they construct the game, I should investigate why eSports titles don’t show up in the main outlets of games criticism that I’m familiar with. I understand the danger of making sweeping claims about the lack of discourse, because it’s quite possible that I just don’t see it. And if this is true, pleeeeeeease tell me.

On the other hand, I consider myself pretty on top of current games criticism: I read Critical Distance almost every week, I follow a set of games critics on Twitter that keep me in touch with what’s going on, I read Borderhouse Blog, I read other outlets ranging from Kotaku to Nightmare Mode to certain tumblrs (this isn’t meant to be braggy; the thing is, as someone researching games criticism, I have to know these things). And rarely do I come across any kind of discussion of eSports titles.

For example, I’d like to look at Critical Distance. Critical Distance bills itself as a curated archive, creating a weekly round-up of critical writing on video games. It’s one of those sites that is central to games crit, and really does have its finger on the pulse, as they claim.

With our coverage we aim to provide both an entry point into the wide network of like-minded blogs and websites, and to promote up-and-coming or lesser-known authors. We are not, however, a site for original writing that is criticism itself, instead we aim to capture the videogame criticism ‘zeitgeist’ and act as a ‘memory bank’ in this notoriously short-sighted and quick forgetting industry.

– “About“, Critical Distance

Keeping this in mind, let’s try an experiment. How often does League of Legends (or another eSports title) show up in the kinds of critical posts that are featured on CD? Searching the archive of Critical Distance (using their own site search tool) reveals three compilations linking to posts on League of Legends. Two of these compilations are from 2012 (December and August), and one from November 8, 2009 (within two weeks of the open release on Oct. 27, 2009).

For a site that has had weekly round-ups since 2009, the (admittedly not thoroughly controlled) numbers are dismal. I searched for some other games, popular and indie, using the same interface (CD’s in-site search). Here are the results in the order that I thought to search them, and remember, LoL had 3 hits:

I also did a (highly unscientific) attempt at widening the net by searching for “league”, got 14 results, only 3 of which referenced League of Legends and were in fact the original three results from my first search. As you can probably see, all of the games on this list had more results than League of Legends, except “dota”, another eSports/RTS title. Even “tetris”. Really.

Back to these elusive three posts! One of the posts, the most recent, highlights a discussion around character design: responses to Todd Harper’s open letter to Riot to claim Taric as gay.

In a similar vein, Zoya Street of The Border House responds to recent calls to ‘out’ League of Legends champion Taric as gay, challenging the assumptions taken in assigning Taric’s gender and sexual identity […]

UPDATE: Also recommended is Todd Harper’s response post.

– Kris Ligman, “This Week in Videogame Blogging: December 23rd“, Critical Distance, 12/23/12

I’ll definitely be returning to the centrality of character in discussions of eSports. Bother me if I don’t.

The other two posts, one from August 2012 and one from November 2009, discuss the League community and its notorious toxic behavior; these posts try to explain why the relationship between players within the game is often so riddled with negativity and zero-sum competitiveness.

At Moving Pixels, G. Christopher Williams actually attempts to answer the question of “u mad?” He’s a braver person than I, evidently. His piece is an interesting consideration of why League of Legends players so obsessively want to know if they’re hurting their opponents. The answer speaks quite directly to the lack of consequential signifiers in online competitive play, he says.

– Katie Williams, “This Week in Videogame Blogging: August 5th“, Critical Distance, 8/5/12

And from 2009: “The Blame Game“.

This is getting long, but I guess I just want to pause here: the three posts on CD talk about individual character representations (again, I’ll go into this more) or the community. There are no close-readings of the map or of the rules. The lore doesn’t enter into any sort of critical discussion, often.

Why not?
aka, stay tuned for the next segment, where I offer some rampant speculation!

Criticism vs. Reviews

In the past day, I’ve had the fortune of stumbling across two recent pieces that (as I said, apparently snarkily, in a tweet), illustrate the problems that come when people conflate “review” and “criticism” (and are really talking about reviews).  It’s one of those things that I care about, not out of some misguided noble quest to preserve the integrity of High Games Criticism (that amazing new art form that all the kiddies are tweeting about), but to isolate the two functions instead of muddling them.  Yeah, I am a bit of a systematic thinker.  It doesn’t bother me too much here, though.

Basically, I distinguish “reviews”, which tell you what’s worth buying and playing, from “criticism”, which models how to respond to a work.  I think this is a fair distinction, based on…oh right, reading a fuckton of games criticism and games reviews (I’ll have a citation or thousands for this, because it’s kind of central to my reading; I’ll go into this emergent distinction later).

So imagine my response when I hear something like the following (in reference to a spate of negative reviews of a recent release):

I believe these criticisms are more a product of the current state of games criticism than they are legitimate detractors that keep it from being stellar.

– Drew Dixon, “Dissonant Reviews: Miasmata“, Bit Creature, 2/20/2013

Yeah, I understand the point that is being made—that the culture of reception around games is hampered by false assumptions of equivalence—but a very large part of me bristles against calling this “games criticism”.  It’s a part of me that recognizes that whatever calls itself “games criticism” must be taken as such, but that objects to lumping in criticism and reviews.  It only leads to misunderstandings of “critical”: as a negative outlook as opposed to a framework of interpretation.

Something of a different tone that captures this same slippage of “review”/”criticism”, can be seen here:

While film criticism rarely reflects the taste of the broad public, and music criticism has little in common with the pecking order of the charts and heavy rotation playlists, the game industry sees a direct correlation between game reviews and sales.

– Peter Krapp, “Ranks and Files: On Metacritic and Gamerankings“, Flow TV, 12/18/12

The rest of this piece is fascinating as fuck, and worth a read by anyone interested in industry response to reception.  This line, however, stuck out to me (grad student bingo, just for saying “stuck out to me”) because of how game reviews were contrasted, falsely, to music and film criticism.  Obviously those established forms of criticism have a detachment from the monetary value of the work.  Whether this detachment is an illusion of immateriality or a real thing may be argued, and I think I might later.  What is not up for argument is whether reviews and criticism serve the same functions in response to a work.

I lied, it’s up for argument, because this post exists.  But.  Assuming that everything anyone says about games is “reviews” is as bad as what I did last year, which was assuming that anything anyone said about games was “critical discourse”.  Reviews tell us why it’s worth our time and/or money.  Criticism pins down why it’s important to society, that it appears now.  (To throw a wrench into the whole thing, journalism investigates the material conditions around it, and reveals them to us.)  All of these modes of response form an ecosystem that support the development and evolution of a medium, form, whatever you want “it” to be.

And here I must thank Christopher A. Paul’s excellent text, Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games: Analyzing Words, Design, and Play, for helping me see some of the larger issues at work.

I care about words; I believe words have power (how many times do I need to say this, in every piece I write?).  For games “criticism” to exist as anything other than a purely nitpicky mode, it has to have objects worth studying.  For games to exist as valued cultural artifacts, there has to be a discourse that seeks to interpret.  It’s this cyclic dependence (throw in the importance of preservation of the object in question, and you’ve got something I may want to write in a year or two) of object and reception, this endless feedback loop, that constructs something meaningful out of a new form or genre.

Consider it Reader Response theory, writ large.

The Beautiful Game?

Something older, but still mine!

With a game like this, where every player’s movements matter, communicating with teammates is essential, and playing with friends in the same room takes play to a whole new level. You talk, of course, because talking is faster than typing and why would you type when she’s two feet away? Sometimes, he gets loud and you know, without even hearing it, that you need to hurry back to your base and help defend.

I wrote this in December 2012 as part of Culture Ramp’s series on “What it’s Like to Play” (link goes to series).  I looked at the movement and communication in Team Fortress 2 as the same kind of movement and communication that I was personally used to as a soccer player.

Have a go and tell me what you think.


This isn’t by any means my primary blog, and I’m not sure I have one, but if you feel like following the academic (and other) adventures of me, come find me.  Maybe I’ll use this to expand on my rampant random tweeting about video games.