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!

4 thoughts on “Why don’t we talk about eSports?

  1. Y’know, this has been a thing for a while now. At the risk of being a self-promoting jerk (lololololol) I’ve wondered the same thing before, though for me it was initially about competitive multiplayer games in general. Here’s a thing I wrote in 2011 that was a kind of mini-manifesto for how I think multiplayer competitive online games *should* be talked about, but which I generally failed to live up to as well:

    Admittedly, I tried my hand at it with Battlefield Bad Company 2, which I loved and was one of the recent BF games I spent the most time with, but quite funnily I called it part 1 and never came back to talk about others. http://iam.benabraham.net/2011/02/bad-company-2-part-1/

    One of the things that I think I learned from it is that it’s almost like an entirely different type of knowledge to usual criticism that the community engages in. You’ll see that I ended up describing things that are sort of like… genre tropes or something, but because each game tweaks them ever so slightly they still end up being important (from the perspective I’m writing about). It’s also exhausting to write, that piece is several thousand words long and doesn’t even begin to describe the whole game. If you’re not an aficionado of that particular game, chances are most people are going to be turned off by the wall-of-text that accompanies a really good, in-depth description, so that’s one reason.

    You said that “There are no close-readings of the map or of the rules. The lore doesn’t enter into any sort of critical discussion, often” and you’re right, but it’s also some of the hardest stuff to engage with as a writer and not get bogged down in. At the start of last year I tried a similar thing with Starcraft 2 which I was trying to get “good” at (never made it past very, very low Gold rank blerrgh) but you can see my efforts here: http://iam.benabraham.net/category/blog/videogames/sc2/

    They were fun to do, but I just got too busy to keep playing and practising SC2… But lastly (and maybe most importantly) I think that the kind of engagement with map layouts, skills, balance, and even lore is often sequestered away in sites that are about becoming really really *good* at the game, and so there’s a feeling of just creating the same knowledge as is already out there. To me it’s more of a problem of getting that knowledge out there to interested readers, which is difficult since top tier players and the people who do serious theorycrafting are not always engaging writers. There are no shortage of LoL/Dota/SC2/D3 player guides that will teach you how the systems work (though, often not in such a straightforward way) but they’re usually in a ‘theorycrafting’ vein and not the kind of criticism that the blogosphere engages in.

    None of this is an argument *against* doing anything you say in this post, obviously, but just to acknowledge the dynamics at work in the blogosphere that kind of sadly make this state of affairs somewhat inevitable.

    • Quick reply from my phone, but I agree so much. It makes total sense that it’s missing from certain parts of the srs gaemz crit blogosphere, but it also makes me sad.

      I’m actually exploring the thing you bring up at the end, where most of the writing is concentrated in guides and player-focused writing. The way that esports are constructed rhetorically as sports spectacles affects quite a bit of it, I think. But also, there are fascinating times where discussions (especially with devs) get undergirded with a sort of statement about the ideal relationship between players and the game and the developers: this kind of vernacular theory is eye-opening for me as someone new to the game.

  2. Pingback: How do players talk about eSports? | morbidflight

  3. Pingback: How do we talk about character in eSports, Part 1 | morbidflight

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