eSports Tipping Point

Published on: Apr 17 2014 by Abe Stein

esports fans

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point can be rightly credited with advancing the idea of virality and stickiness of media. The structural metaphor still carries tremendous weight in the media production industry, despite efforts by some to correct the language. Jenkins, Ford, and Green most notably suggested the idea of “spreadable” media as an alternative to the metaphor of contagion and virality. They believe the metaphor of disease effaces the agency of actors to contribute to media’s spread. Either way you talk about it, the excitement usually centers on how produced content “catches fire” and become a hit. How do we generate, or for the slightly less cynical, co-produce popular media?

Perhaps lost in the bluster and excitement around YouTube videos with multi-million views and explosively popular cat memes is the notion of a “tipping point,” that moment or instance when an assemblage of forces triggers a seismic shift in cultural awareness or behavior. Gladwell’s leading example was the re-emergence of the Hush Puppies shoes in 1994 and 1995. Youths in NYC began to buy up the shoes from small stores, and wear them in clubs, which caught the attention of influential designers who began to feature the shoes in their collections. Word of mouth took over, propelling the shoe back onto the feet of the middle class office worker, and the brand was resurrected. The metaphor of a tipping point is a nice one, as often the cultural change seems drastic (Hush Puppies on the brink of death), when in fact a retrospective analysis of the forces involved suggests that changes were continuous not instantaneous, gradually pushing into broader public awareness until advancing past some imaginary boundary; the “tipping point” is passed and the cup runneth over.

A recent conversation has me wondering about where and when the cultural tipping point for eSports is, and what factors will push the scene into a broader public consciousness. I do not doubt for a second, that these changes are already taking place. Loathe as I am to talk about eSports monolithically, the industry around competitive videogame playing is growing exponentially. You can throw out any of a number of market statistics to support the idea that the industry, and importantly the community of eSports fans is growing. Most recently, NewZoo’s free eSports research brief suggests that viewership has been doubling yearly, with a “western” audience approaching 47.7M. Like all research reports, but especially ones without clear methodological explanation, these market reports should be looked at somewhat critically, as numbers can be selected and presented to support an argument (it’s the same thing I am doing here in this blog post, after all). But I think it is safe to argue that most indicators point to substantial and rapid growth in eSports.

But I am especially curious about how eSports is growing. It is one thing to say “more people watch,” but people don’t just spawn like-minded versions of themselves to grow a community. There is definitely enculturation that takes place, as new members of a community rectify their individual identity against cultural norms inside a community, but when a community experiences such rapid and dramatic growth, I am left wondering in what ways is the community diversifying? As a community grows, how does the culture change?

Raising the Stakes, by TL Taylor

Raising the Stakes, by TL Taylor

This is an especially interesting question to me when thinking about eSports, a community that is widely regarded as protective of it’s collective identity. There is tremendous cultural pride in what’s seen as  the “grassroots” and insulated culture of eSports. There is an interesting tension in the simultaneity of rhetoric about the unique outsider status of eSports in popular culture up and against excitement about it’s growth in popularity worldwide. T.L. Taylor does a wonderful job of considering this “insider” vs. “outsider” dynamic, and the myriad pressures exerted on eSports communities from many stakeholders in her book Raising the Stakes, which is absolutely a must read for folks interested in eSports. So too, Todd Harper explores this notion of identity and cultural boundaries in the Fighting Game Community in his great book on the subject, The Culture of Digital Fighting Games.

But back to the question of tipping points, and seemingly dramatic cultural change. I wonder, in the face of this rapid growth, at what point the eSports community will experience a shift from what I see as an inward facing posture, and appeal to a broader global market? Is this already happening? Has eSports penetrated into the mainstream?

Perhaps a better question might be, what would be the measuring stick for declaring that eSports has become mainstream? Is there even a viable concept of “mainstream” cultural phenomena anymore? Maybe media consumption has become so niche and specific, with so much available, that there are not major “consensus narrative” media forms as a professor of mine, David Thorburn, coined. I actually don’t think this is necessarily an either or question, distinctions of “mainstream” or “alternative,” are largely rhetorical and a matter of collective cultural posture. We might be better served asking, who declares whether or not eSports are mainstream or not, who are the stakeholders involved in that declaration, and what is their stake?

A close and natural corollary may be so called “traditional” sports, or even as others have suggested, Mixed Martial Arts or Ultimate Fighting. The cultural enormity of sports like soccer or American football is difficult to fathom or constrain. I’ve suggested elsewhere that there is only some utility in attempting to generalize a fan base around an entire sport, e.g. “Football fans like beer,” or “Soccer fans are excitable.”

Nonetheless, it might be worth thinking about how the National Football League grew in popularity over the course of the 20th Century. In the early half of the century, college football was far more popular than the professional game. The college game was more frequently televised, and generated more interest. As the National Football League (NFL) grew increasingly popular into the 1950s, more television coverage of the pro game was produced. The 1958 NFL Championship between Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts and the Frank Gifford lead New York Giants has been referred to as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” The game, decided in overtime, was not just a close contest between the two best teams, it was a tactical showdown, with Unitas’ throwing offense squared off against the ground game of the Giants. In many ways, it was a symbolic beginning to the passing oriented era of professional football we live in today. Oh, and the game pulled in a remarkable 45M television viewers, an amazing number in 1958.

AFL LogoNaturally, in 1960, the upstart American Football League (AFL) wanted a piece of that burgeoning football market. Rebuffed when trying to buy into the NFL via expansion, Lamar Hunt developed the AFL as direct competition to the popular NFL. Geography was a strength for the AFL, as four of the new teams, Boston, Buffalo, Denver, and Houston opened up markets that were previously underserved by the existing NFL teams. But the AFL needed more than just teams, it needed talent, and fortunately there was plenty to spare because of the still robust collegiate football programs throughout the country.

Hunt had a league, he had teams, he had players, but even more importantly, he had media coverage. Starting with the first season in 1960, there was a media contract with ABC to televise the games. That contract lasted through 1964 until NBC took over in 1965 to the tune of $36M. Media competition, and media coverage, a fundamental part of the “big business” of professional sports today, was built into the very foundation of the AFL.

It’s a fairly common oversimplified economic expression that competition strengthens a market, and improves the quality of the product overall. But the popularity of American football may have begun with competition, but the tipping point was likely the formation of a protected football monopoly through the merger of the two professional leagues. The merger of the two leagues in 1970 into the NFL of today was a major moment for professional football in America, and I believe it is a major tipping point moment that marked the perception of professional football as a “major” mainstream phenomenon, and the most popular sport in America. It’s important to note here, that passage of new anti-trust law by the United States Congress was necessary to make the merger legal. Passage of that law was “bargained” for with the promise of expansion into New Orleans.

The merger also meant stronger negotiating for television rights. We can see the effect of that still today, with multiple networks vying for the rights to broadcast the games, and paying huge sums of money. Television revenue remains a huge component of the NFL business, and now FOX broadcasts NFC (the teams from the old NFL) games while CBS broadcasts the AFC (the old AFL teams) games, with NBC picking up the lone Sunday night game and ESPN/ABC broadcasting the well-established lone Monday Night Football game.


But maybe the biggest outcome of the merger, the major symbol of the merger as tipping point for football popularity, is the new championship game between the top team from each conference, what is now known as the Super Bowl. It is a massive global media phenomenon, and it’s history and legacy can be traced back to the merger of the two leagues, and the consolidation of power into a centralized National Football League. It’s incredibly hard to estimate revenue from Super Bowls, but it’s estimated the most lucrative Super Bowl, in 2012, earned $245M in TV ad revenue.

“What does all of this have to do with eSports?” you are likely asking at this point. Well, despite some glorified statistics that show more folks streamed the 2013 LCS Final than the Super Bowl, the championship football game viewership is staggeringly huge, and still an order of magnitude larger than the largest, most viewed eSports event. The 2014 Super Bowl had a reported 212.4M TV viewers in the US. Worldwide figures are hard to estimate. So I think it is safe to say that if we are using “viewership” as a measuring stick for how mainstream certain content is, American football still reaches a much larger audience.

Is that audience more diverse? Not necessarily? Is a bigger audience necessarily better? That’s not necessarily true either. Professional football has many cultural problems and examples of injustice despite, and even because of it’s popularity. Gender representation, violence, hegemonic masculinity, racism, homophobia—listing issues feels a bit like downplaying them, but that is not my intention. It doesn’t take an expert researcher to find examples of the myriad problems with professional football. Of course, eSports is not immune to it’s own problems with social injustice, and many of the things listed before could easily be found throughout eSports when you look through a critical lens (thankfully, some great scholars like Emma Witkowski, Nick Taylor, the aforementioned TL Taylor and Todd Harper, and many others are doing just that).

So yeah, bigger is not necessarily better.

But I think it is worth noting how certain factors helped propel American football into the popular status it enjoys today, not least of which was the consolidation of a more disparate professional sports scene. That consolidation had many stakeholders, it had political implications and needed governmental involvement, and it depended on the role media plays in delivering sports content as the major product of the entire sports enterprise. The NFL-AFL merger is an interesting example to consider as we look beyond what eSports looks like today, and consider what is around the corner as the scene continues to grow, as new communities pop up, and as the various industries around eSports continue to develop.

Will eSports evolve and grow to the point of equalling the global cultural impact of traditional sports like American football? More importantly, is this something that present eSports communities even want? If they don’t, will it grow anyway?

Exciting times.

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