Larissa Hjorth

Larissa Hjorth is an artist, digital ethnographer and Professor in the School of Media & Communication, RMIT University. Hjorth studies the socio-cultural dimensions of mobile media and play in the Asia

Raising The Stakes: E-Sports and The Professionalization of Gaming

by Larissa Hjorth

With the closure of Championship Gaming Series (CGS) and recent collapses of games companies in the fallout of 2009 global financial crisis one could foolishly believe that games, and its professionalization, had reached its heyday. Rather, as TL Taylor eloquently outlines in Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the professionalization of computer gaming, such claims miss the point. The professionalization of computer gaming-epitomized by e-sports-needs to contextualized within broader cultural practices and general trends towards professionalization of leisure activities.

E-sports is a curious phenomenon. Featuring the best of best players pitted against each other, it is underscored by the dream that if one can master a hobby so brilliantly, it can be transformed in a vocational activity. E-sports not only demonstrate the ability of some players to ‘transform objects and activities of leisure into a very serious endeavor’ (98) but also the role of computer gaming in creating new forms of ‘serious play’ and ‘sport’. (239) In other words, through the professionalization of players and industry we are not only seeing transformations around-and resistance to-a commercialization of an industry once based on sub-cultural and do-it-yourself principles, but, that this phenomenon speaks more broadly about cultural shifts around leisure. As Taylor reflects, is e-sports simply an example of serious leisure or actually a form of professionalized play? (246)

As an expert in mapping play practices within gaming cultures, as evidenced in her brilliant Play Between Worlds (2006), Taylor brings the same rigor and in-depth investigation to Raising the Stakes. While Taylor states that Raising the Stakes is not an ethnography, the ethnographer in Taylor is always omnipresent and reflexively engaging in the material. The ethnographic vignettes-from her palpably awkward “outsider” participation as a spectator of local gaming events in Denmark and CGS to visiting various companies involved in e-sport production/promotion-are rich with insight and reflexivity.

As Taylor notes in great detail, we need to understand the affective and embodied aspects of spectatorship (186). Through wonderful vignettes of watching e-sport events, Taylor provides great descriptions of the visceral and often-tacit embodied experience of spectatorship. As she notes, ‘even when players are sitting on a sofa or at a table, they are always already engaged in embodied action…’ (186).

As someone who “participated” as an awkward bystander in e-sports events in Korea, Taylor’s narratives made those experiences come flooding back. I remember vividly being handed a set of thunder sticks (compulsory) and being in a sea of Koreans madly cheering for their particular Pro-leaguer. Back in 2005, there was no Gangnam style here, but the contagious and visceral experience of being part of such a passionate audience made such YouTube phenomenon seem banal. As the only waegookin (foreigner) there, with no understanding of e-sports apart from a few TV programs, and only grasping rudimentary Korean, I remember experiencing gradiations of perpetual “outsiderness” across a variety of levels… as someone who didn’t understand e-sports, had only just moved to Korea, whose Korean language skills was child-like, and didn’t know the particular players and their star-status apart from gauging via screaming fan girls. Was it the gender, racial or general cultural politics making me feel like an outsider? Or was it the fact that as a game player I’m a terrible spectator? Think back-seat driver equivalent for game spectatorship.

From the outset, Taylor’s book is not about the Korean phenomenon-and its mythic status-which is very unique and has been detailed in the work of Dal Jin Yong’s Korea’s Online Gaming Empire (MIT Press, 2010). Instead, Taylor’s book is about the European and American e-sports scene. In doing so, it not only details the gaming industries and changing player practices but also their evolution into four major themes of future developments: gamer identity, mainstreaming, global play, and serious leisure versus professionalization.’ (24) In the six chapters-Playing for Keeps; Computer Games as Professional Sport; Professionalizing Players; Growing an Industry; Spectatorship and Fandom; Conclusion-Taylor provides a nuanced and situated understanding of e-sports as a ‘cultural work in progress’. (249).

Taylor’s book is most fascinating when she identifies some of the continuities e-sports has within broader sport practices and also the distinctions-particularly around entrenched definitions of play within dichotomous models (99). As Taylor notes, while in more traditional sports, the translation of play becoming work and work becoming play occupies a mythical status, in video games ‘alarm bells often go off’. (99) Drawing on the work of Robert Stebbins (2004) and his notion of ‘serious play’ (100), Taylor unpacks the multiplicity of ambivalences around serious leisure and the transformation of a hobby into vocational identity underlying e-sports. By exploring leisure studies and sociology of work literature to consider some of the salient ambivalences, Taylor investigates the resistance to commercialization (embedded in the genealogy of games within hacker cultures), individualism and “liminal” zones of consumption (105). As Taylor notes ‘for many a notion of authentic game culture rests uneasily alongside the requirements of professionalism’ (108). Indeed, ‘Gaming is something that weaves its way through their leisure, their work, their notions of self, their communities’ (106). Paralleling the work of Ben Fincham on ethnographies of bike couriers who argues that ‘distinctions between being at work and not being at work, implying a dichotomy in adult life, are overstated and that the discourse of a work/life balance is unhelpful (2008: 619), Taylor notes that ‘pro-players co-construct their professional identity, their vocation, alongside their leisure identity as gamer’ (106).

‘Because the border between amateurs and new rising pro talent is not as clear as in traditional sports, many regular players can also find themselves playing against emerging pros. This connection, between everyday leisure and fandom, between amateur and pro players, helps build strong affective attachments. It also helps make e-sports fandom a fairly tight and closed subculture. The insider/outsider distinction can feel strong to someone just starting to be interested in e-sports.’ (189)

You don’t need to be a fan of e-sports to enjoy this book. Rather, Raising the Stakes contributes ‘to new formations of leisure/work/sporting identities and activities, and on the institutionalization of gaming, on the governance of play, and on what it means to be not simply players, but audiences for new forms of digital culture’ (249).

This book is pitched in a highly accessible way and the detailed vignettes are enthralling. Unlike traditional sports that have a relationship between geography and fandom and have had their rules shaped by the televisual, the ‘history of e-sports spectatorship is fundamentally shaped as a product of the Internet, and indeed an assemblage of networks (websites, IRC, video archives, and so on)’ (210). As Taylor notes, ‘one of the interesting things about e-sports is the way it is constructed across national lines but still quite rooted and shaped by local contexts’ (243). And all one has to think about is the World Cyber Games (WCG) whereby fandom is clearly centered on national and transnational affiliations. As Taylor observes, how games ‘are handled in situ is also shaped via local contexts’ and ‘the cultural constructions of leisure identity influence how people take up and inhabit gamer culture, or not’ (245).

‘… e-sports has encoded in its very nature a deep rooting in both technology and media. There is no actual performance of e-sport outside of computation and media. It is co-constructed through human and machine action…Computer games prompt considerations about how the fundamental nature of spectatorship could be altered in relation to the technology’ (210-214).

As Taylor notes we are entering ‘an age in which the commercialization of leisure reaches ever-growing heights. In the realm of games and law, not to mention digital culture more broadly, the encroachment of overtly narrow definitions of ownership is the hallmark of our era.’ (172). The rise of e-sports ‘is not simply a story about the transformation of digital play into sport, but the production of that activity as a new form of industry’ (180).

Raising the Stakes is a must not only for game studies but also media and internet studies researchers as a wonderfully nuanced study of century-first digital play-based in DIY, grassroots ideology-in the face of burgeoning leisure commercialization. Play on.

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