Learning All About E-Sports

Published on: Mar 20 2012 by Abe Stein

Konstantin and I had the great fortune of having three spectacular guests in our sports videogame class a few weeks ago. Our topic was about the rise of e-sports, with a specific focus on Major League Gaming and Starcraft 2 as examples. Our guests were three important foundational figures in the development of Starcraft 2 sports culture, and thus their insights were provocative and really interesting.

The first guest is probably the best known of the three, Sean Plott aka Day[9]. Sean is a former Starcraft champion, and a current internet sensation as a commentator and personality covering Starcraft competitions with his daily video podcast at Day[9].tv. It is no surprise that Sean enjoys the success he has earned, he is an exceptionally bright, and wickedly funny guy, and his loud personality, to invoke the egregiously overused metaphor, leaps off the screen.

The second guest was Alex Garfield. From a “traditional” sports perspective Alex is the entrepreneurial equivalent of an entire front office. He assumes the responsibilities of a President, CEO, General Manager, Coach, and more for one of the most successful e-sports teams, the Evil Geniuses. Beyond simply doing a lot of work, Alex should be credited with playing a foundational role in shaping how an e-sport team could be structured, not only competitively, but financially. Alex is a fan of so-called “traditional” sports, and I think in our conversations with him it was obvious how he was applying knowledge and experience in that domain to development of an e-sport team.

Our final guest was Cara LaForge, and I think it would be safe to describe her as a kind of mastermind behind the scenes at Day[9] TV. A former entertainment lawyer, I could tell right off the bat (ugh, puns) that Cara was looking at the emergent e-sport phenomenon with the eye of a media savvy businessperson recognizing that e-sports are operation on so many levels of entertainment innovation, and that riding the crest of the wave is a kind of risky, but exciting area to work. She and I spoke at length about the growing pains in professional sports as they transitioned between media forms, from newsprint, to radio, to television, and now into so-called “new media.”

I learned so much about e-sports, Starcraft, and about new domains for sport broadcast, so much that it would be hard to talk about it all here. I want to specifically reference one insight that I’ve been pondering since their visit.

We talk a lot in media studies about periods of transition, and about how in those moments of media flux important formative choices are made for myriad reasons. Sometimes technological, sometimes legislative, and always cultural, the decisions and trends that help usher in new forms of media tel us as much about the media as the culture that adopts it.

E-sports seem to be emerging on the boundary, in this space between television and internet, and yet still fundamentally informed by the long history of sports televisual broadcast. One cannot help but notice the similarities when looking at two commentators sitting side by side in front of a table talking about the upcoming  match. As players prepare to compete, windows with statistics flash onto the screen, echoing the practice of matting stats found all over traditional sports coverage. E-sports are building their productions based largely on a model established by mainstream sports television, even hiring sports television producers to direct the broadcasts. The founders of the MLG are admittedly trying to position e-sports alongside the other majors (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, etc), though a simple look at the red white and blue logo suggests as much.

And yet for obvious reasons e-sports are not built the same way as traditional sports, and they must be structured and broadcast with their own aesthetics that suit the presentation of the competition. The unique already televisual nature of a videogame, that it is played on a screen, suggests that a new dimension needs to be considered in the production and coverage of an e-sport. Also, the audience expects different forms of distribution than cable television, and that will effect how the broadcasts of e-sports are shaped and designed.

It really is a frontier for sports broadcasting, and our three guests are pioneers. I’m excited to see how e-sports will develop as a broadcast form, and how it will relate to older sports television broadcasts.

Filed under: Features, Games