The growing pains of eSports

Jun 1, 2016 |3 min read
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Behaviour science, sporting participation and digital psychology are topics that we love at 2CV. Our interests in these areas have led us to conduct research for clients from both the worlds of professional sports (including the NBA, Sport England and the NFL) as well as video gaming (including EA, Activision and Square Enix). It's therefore only natural that we are fascinated by the world of eSports. Although a rapidly expanding and evolving scene, little is known or understood by the vast majority of people outside of the gaming world. In the interest of shedding light on this scene, we did some digging and interviewed some eSports fanatics to learn more about it.


Prodigious beginnings

In October 1972 eSports, or 'professional competitive gaming' was born. The first 'Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics' was held at Stanford University and sponsored by Rolling Stone Magazine. Prodigious beginnings for a new breed of sport that in 2016 is big, really…really big. The eSports industry pulled in $252 million in global revenue last year, there are 113 million loyal fans worldwide, 147 million occasional viewers and a total prize pool of $71 million for all tournaments and competitions worldwide. 

Since the turn of the millennium, eSports has gone through a tremendous growth spurt alongside the first generation of digital natives. As we push past the mid-point of a second decade of rapid growth, the eSports industry seems to be entering a difficult teenage phase of conflict, introspection and maturation. Scandals, controversy and community debates have rocked the eSports world in recent months, and some of these problems would be familiar for any sport - ( live-event disastersmatch-rigging scandalstransfer window controversies etc.), but other issues are arguably much more unique.

Player/Observer Dynamic

ESports has a spectator audience that is better connected and catered for than any other sport on the planet. The League of Legends 2014 World Championships had more than 32 million viewers online. Streaming platforms like Twitch (which Amazon  acquired last year for $970 million) provide incentives for both professional players and audiences to gather and interact. Both professional players and commentators ('casters'), can gain income through a combination of advertisements, streaming subscription fees and donations from viewers. 

For online audiences, streaming makes eSports extremely accessible and interactive. Twitch chat facilitates open discussion and commentary on games for live-streaming fans around the world. Audiences and casters can directly engage with players, sending comments and questions while the competitions streams. Both inside and outside of professional competitive matches (where tournament finals can be played in giant sports arenas), players can stay in constant dialogue with their fans, many will even invite viewers to join friendly games. According to a 2014 report from Twitch, in that year there were 16 million minutes watched, 100 million unique viewers and 1.5 million unique broadcasters every month on their platform. 

Online Disinhibition Effect

In 2004 the psychologist Dr John Suler published an article titled "The Online Disinhibition Effect". This article posited that social restrictions found in face-to-face interactions are loosened during communications on the Internet. In the article, Suler described "benign disinhibition" as the expression of secret emotions, fears and wishes and "toxic disinhibition" as the malicious behaviour that results from understanding that one's actions will not result in any meaningful consequences. This effect is more commonly known in web culture as GIFT ("The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory"). The impact of the online disinhibition effect is at the core of the ever developing conflict between eSports fans and the eSports industry. 

The instantaneous nature of interaction and equality of both access and exposure for players, commentators and observers creates a very unique dynamic. In more traditional sports - professional players are insulated (to a certain extent!) from criticism and commentary, especially during play. The worst they can expect is boos from a crowd, a dressing down from their coach or poor post-game reviews from commentators. With eSports, your audience is always there, they are semi-anonymous, they are not bound by social restrictions of face-to-face interaction and they have an equal platform to communicate with a global audience. 

Racism, Sexism and Toxic Banter

The negative upshot of this fascinating dynamic between player and audience is that Twitch and the eSports community more broadly is rife with all of the problems of trolling familiar to Twitter or YouTube, except arguably worse, with even less accountability for the actions of individuals. This isn't to say Twitch and other services haven't taken steps to combat hate-speech on social platforms, using teams of human moderators complimented with auto-moderation tools such as phrase/emoji blacklists, r9k mode, slow mode and Facebook account linking. Despite all the safeguards put in place - the stream of toxic chat often still manages to cut through. 

High profile incidents such as the racist abuse that Terrence Miller suffered at this year's DreamHack tournament are beginning to shine a light on the darker side of the eSports community. Incidents like this doing nothing to combat the image of eSports as the domain of the pre-pubescent teen. The controversy surrounding Valve's very public dismissal of the caster James "2GD" Harding during a major DOTA tournament is another example of the eSports industry clashing and struggling to negotiate with the sometimes deeply problematic 'banter' in commentary. If game publishers, streaming platforms, and sponsors are serious about eSports attaining mature mainstream legitimacy, this is a culture that has to change. 

ESports Evolution

All of that said - eSports continues to grow, change and evolve at a rapid pace. There are positive aspects to the unique digital viewer dynamic - the benefit of online/screen based viewing is that production decisions by eSports event organisers can be decided upon and implemented very quickly. The recent Manila Major event organised by PGL was a great example of an event organiser monitoring Reddit, Twitch and social media and using viewer feedback to change how the event was broadcast and engaged with by viewers. The speed at which changes were made during this event are emblematic of how rapidly the world of eSports are changing. 

As professional gaming continues to evolve - it will be interesting to observe how the dynamics between developers, publishers, event organisers, players, casters and viewers change both how eSports is played competitively as well as how it is engaged with by its audience. We will doubtless see many more changes to eSports in the next decade - virtual/augmented reality has tremendous potential to disrupt the industry. Equally, investment in tournaments by businesses and media outlets will likely play a huge role in changing the image and audience of eSports as it edges ever closer to the mainstream. Regardless of what happens in the next few years, it will be fascinating to see what happens when eSports grows up.