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masculinity, esports, gender, sports

Kinaesthetic Masculinity and the Prehistory of Esports

Nick Taylor (North Carolina State University)


Esports’ gender-based inequalities remain intractable, particularly among the highest levels of competition and also, increasingly, in the burgeoning North American collegiate esports scene. Rather than viewing these inequalities as merely incidental to the professionalization of competitive gaming, particularly in North America, I argue that esports arose as a response to the threat of greater gender-based equity in gaming cultures. Esports does not have a gender problem; it is a gender problem. This article connects three historical transformations in the history of professionalized spectator sports in order to constitute a media genealogy of esports and a prehistory of its gender troubles. Through a series of vignettes—a late nineteenth-century boxing match, a mid-twentieth-century football game, and a 2008 esports tournament—I trace the development of “kinaesthetic masculinity”: the capacity for masculine subjects to feel a sense of belonging, by virtue of broadcasting media techniques and infrastructures, to aestheticized (and most often violent) competition between men. 

On September 7, 1892, Jack L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strong Boy,” squared off against “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in a heavyweight title boxing match, in front of ten thousand spectators in New Orleans’s Olympic Club. The match, followed by millions more via telegraph and newspaper, would later be regarded as a turning point in the professionalization of boxing. Sullivan was the hard-living paragon of a generation of bare-knuckled brawlers who relied primarily on brute strength and instinct. He was roundly and methodically beaten by Corbett, a younger and far better-conditioned fighter who approached the game with a disciplined, scientific approach.1 But the match was much more than a generational passing of the torch. Also in play that night was a complex rearrangement of capital, new technologies, infrastructures of communication and transportation, and discourses around gender, class, race, and sport: what we might regard as an emergent “apparatus”2 of professionalized boxing.

In terms of its immediate technological arrangement, the Sullivan-Corbett match was the first heavyweight title fight in which the boxers used gloves.3 It was conducted on a canvas mat, illuminated by electric lighting. All of these (gloves, mat, electric lights) were relatively recent technological developments, with the latter two in particular serving to make the fight more clearly visible to live spectators. The match made use of standardized rules (Marquis of Queensbury rules, approved by the New Orleans city council two years prior), which among other things, outlawed contestants’ use of wrestling holds and kicks, and mandated rounds of equal length.4 As part of boxing’s transformation from a much-maligned saloon sideshow to profitable (if perhaps not respectable) professional sport, financial support for the event was less directly reliant on gambling and more on entrepreneurial capital. Corbett’s manager William Brady, for instance, used the match to extend Brady’s own interests in the motion-picture industry, effectively positioning boxing as an appendage of the emerging media entertainment complex.5 These changes in the economic and administrative structure of boxing helped protect it from calls for its outright prohibition, as championed by the suffragette movement and by progressive-minded civic leaders.6

Well before the 1892 match, Sullivan himself had become a celebrity, an object of endless attention for the emerging class of paid sports journalists. They fixated in equal measure on his brutal efficiency in the ring and his hard-partying lifestyle outside it. This celebrity status was deliberately engineered: a decade earlier in 1883, Sullivan had embarked on a sweeping railroad tour of North America, stopping at hundreds of towns and challenging anyone (so long as they were white and male) to see if they could last more than four rounds against him.7 The eight-month excursion served to transform Sullivan from a skilled bare-knuckled boxer to a cultural icon. In fighting and carousing his way through almost 150 train stops in under a year, Sullivan made canny use of two relatively recent infrastructures that had started rapidly transforming North American life beginning in the mid-nineteenth century: the railroad and the telegraph.8 Traveling by rail, the arterial network of industrialization, Sullivan could not only rest and luxuriate between stops but could interact directly with the working-class populations who inhabited the mining towns, mill towns, and factory towns dotting the rapidly industrializing continent. And with telegraph stations common in any stop on a railroad line, Sullivan could ensure that crowds gathered ahead of him wherever he paused, and that word of his exploits could be documented and globally distributed.

Sullivan embodied the white hegemonic masculinity of his tumultuous time.9 When industrialization was drastically altering the nature of working men’s labor and its demands on their bodies, Sullivan cultivated an image of a virile, muscular, working-class white man, whose body was not so much subjugated by industrialization as expressive of its power; he was described as a “living locomotive going at full speed.”10 When economic and political gains by an ascendant Black middle class further undermined the project of white supremacy in the decades following the abolition of slavery in the US, Sullivan established a precedent of white boxing champions explicitly denying challenges from Black fighters. In the challenge he issued that led to his unsuccessful heavyweight title defense against Corbett in 1892, Sullivan publicly stated “in this challenge I include all fighters—first come, first served—who are white. I will not fight a negro, I never have and never shall.”11 His proclamation had the effect of Jim Crowing one of the most significant titles in the emerging domain of professional sports, “at a time when ‘separate but equal’ was becoming the law of the land.”12 And when the suffragette movement was making headway toward granting political agency to white women, Sullivan—like male athletes in other professionalizing sports, including track and football—served as visible evidence of male superiority, and certainly of the masculine body’s capacity for violence.13

For all these reasons, the Sullivan-Corbett bout marked a watershed moment in the rise of professional sport during a time of acute crisis for white masculinity. Almost all the transformational elements put in play—from the raised platform illuminated by electric lighting on which they fought, to the venue holding thousands of spectators, to the rules designed to standardize and sanitize the match, to the telegraph networks that relayed news of the match throughout the world—operated to make the match, and its contestants, visible to an audience of millions. Taken together, these elements constituted an emergent apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity:14 the potential, through the aestheticization of masculine bodies in violent motion, and the capture, storage, and distribution of their athletic performance, to provide other masculine subjects in other places and times with a feeling of belonging to the activity—of virtually being there. A portmanteau of kinetics and aesthetics, kinaesthetics is used by Melanie Swalwell to describe the embodied feeling of playing we get when we watch someone play a video game with which we’re familiar.15 Here, I am retooling the arrangement a bit. The feeling of belonging is generated not by virtue of having played a particular game or participated in a particular sporting activity (though that helps), but rather by virtue of sharing with male competitors the same ontological grounds of masculine embodiment. Masculinity functions as an infrastructure for the circulation of feeling and the sense of belonging, as surely as the material network of telegraph and newspaper functions as infrastructure for the circulation of information about the match. The professionalization of boxing is inseparable from the development and refinement of this apparatus and from the infrastructures of visibility that allowed it to become a hugely popular, mass-media commodity.

All of this makes for fascinating sports history, but what does it have to do with esports? The productive prompt for this special issue of ROMchip—“what is esports history a history of?”—offers guidance. Esports history is a history of a lot of things: globalization, the platform economy, competitive video game play, performance-enhancing drugs, and “experience advertising,”16 to name a few. In this article, I make a case for approaching esports history as part of the history of how, and why, certain activities get elevated to the status of professional sports. The short answer is that since the late nineteenth century, professional sports have served to shore up notions of white male superiority during times of crises in masculinity.17 North American esports, in deliberately aligning with professional sports, continue this history.18 In what follows, I weave through the successive crises in masculinity that have served as the problematizations for the development of, first, professional sports and, then, esports in North America. These crises are the effects of industrialization, enfranchisement, and abolition in the late nineteenth century, as alluded to above; the shift to a more atomized, postindustrial economy and the attendant white flight to the suburbs, in the decades following World War II; and the rise, in recent decades, of a global platform economy and its precarious forms of gig work, coupled with urgent and overdue calls for greater gender equity in the thriving domains of technology and media.

My aim is to clarify two foundational, and interconnected, aspects of esports that I see coming out of this history. The first concerns the stark disparities along lines of gender and race in terms of who gets to compete in North American esports, even as a growing body of scholarship acknowledges that women have always been central to the organization and production of esports, and even as initiatives like AnyKey and their affiliates craft incremental gains toward making some esports more inclusive.19 The gender disparities in the rates of participation, winnings, earnings, sponsorships, and team signings compound the more mundane gendered conditions of competitive gaming that pre-existed esports and that persist, such as access to leisure time and to high-end gaming machines, and the capacity to play networked games without being subject to rank misogyny and harassment.20 The professionalization of competitive gaming all but guaranteed that its long-standing marginalization of women would be re-entrenched, made to appear inevitable, even natural—because historically, that is what the professionalization of sports does. To put this another way, esports does not have a gender problem; it is a gender problem. The marginalization of women is a feature, not a bug.21

The second point of clarification concerns the relationship of spectatorship to esports. It has become fairly commonplace to think of spectatorship as important to esports—but this is an understatement. Particularly when situated in the longer history of professionalizing sports, it becomes clear that spectatorship is as indispensable to the economic and cultural viability of esports as it was to the professionalization of boxing in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and in the establishment of football (among other professional sports reconfigured for television) in the postwar years. What are esports if they are not watched? Like the professional sports to which they are linked in the history I offer here, esports are cultural productions that are designed, from the ground (or code) up, for circulation across the dominant media infrastructures of our time. The media platforms and infrastructures differ—canvas mat, electric lighting, telegraph; stadium, cable networks, television; computers, internet, Twitch—but each forms the conditions of possibility, economically, technologically, and discursively, for their respective sports.

Media Genealogy: Approaching the Apparatus of Sports/Media/Masculinity

As a researcher who feels most at home in ethnographic traditions, I am stepping out of my comfort zone in constructing this history of esports. To do so, I am leaning heavily, and possibly awkwardly, on the work of media historians and philosophers who articulate media genealogy, an approach well-suited to tracing the operations of and transformations in relations of power under changing technological and economic conditions. Media genealogy is a method of historiographical knowledge production articulated through the later works of Michel Foucault, and brought into studies of media by Alex Monea and Jeremy Packer (among others). Unlike the interrelated methodology of “media archeology,” characterized as the study of how technical (and often obsolete) media come to embody “specific affordances and constraints,” media genealogy takes as its object the “visible surface of contesting forces and power relations” that the media archeologist plumbs for historical episodes.22 Both methods engage what Monea and Packer, following Foucault, termed problematization: historical crises that emerge “when a field of action, behavior, or practice becomes uncertain and unfamiliar or is set upon by difficulties imposed by (often non-discursive) elements surrounding it (e.g., social, economic, or political processes).”23 In the case presented here, these problems are the successive crises in masculinity alluded to above. But whereas media archeology focuses on the articulation, invention, and deployment of specific technical devices or practices meant to address a particular problem, media genealogy aims to articulate the conditions of possibility for media—the “network of interested and associated forms of knowledge that are directed toward creating strategic administrative and technological ‘solutions.’”24 To put this another way, media genealogy pays close attention to the historical transformations that gave rise to contemporary media apparatuses, leaving the work of describing the formation of media objects to media archeology. A media apparatus is understood as a historically situated crystallization of artifacts, practices, discourses, and political economic relations arranged toward the production of subjects: in this case, people invested (economically, socially, culturally, and always politically) in the discursive and material reconfiguration of certain masculinized leisure practices into spectator sports.

Returning to the Ring

Here is how we can understand the 1892 Sullivan-Corbett boxing match as an apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity. Certain new technologies (electric lighting, gloves, canvas mat, telegraph) were marshalled by certain well-situated actors (promoters, politicians, journalists, and certainly the boxers themselves) in conjunction with legal maneuvers (the adoption of standardized rules) and discursive statements (the dramatized personas of combatants) to produce a sports spectacle that could be circulated to millions. The mediated spectacle provided its target audience with a feeling of belonging, by virtue of their bodies that were capable, in theory, of being there. One key effect of this apparatus—crystallized in the Sullivan-Corbett match, but adopted and iterated upon in other professionalizing activities of the time (baseball, basketball, horse racing, rugby)—was to entrench notions of white male superiority at a time of profound transformation. As Michael Messner notes, the rise of industrial capitalism and wage labor meant fewer men owned their own livelihoods; this, coupled with the “rise of female dominated public schools” and the existential threat to male superiority posed by enfranchisement, led to acute fears of “social feminization” among conservative pundits, civic leaders, and other citizens. Sports were articulated and enacted as a “safe retreat” from “feminine influence,” and as a “male-created homosocial cultural sphere” that offered “dramatic proof of the ‘natural superiority’ of men over women.”25 In a comprehensive look at how this worked in practice, Victoria Dawson examines women’s involvement in organized rugby from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. Women’s roles in the professionalizing sport of rugby were heavily regulated, with leagues barring women from competition (either officially or unofficially) while relying utterly on their invisible labor as organizers, spectators, and caregivers. In the following passage, if we swap rugby for esports, we gain a sense of the historical recurrence (and persistence) of gendered relations of power surrounding professionalized/professionalizing sports: “whilst women were traditionally excluded from playing rugby league, they were involved in the game, as supporters, volunteers and organisers. Women were also the mothers, wives, sisters or daughters of men who played or administered rugby, and were thus involved in the sport at the most personal level, providing a reservoir of unpaid labour to support their menfolk, but also suffering when injury or retirement from rugby reduced the family income. The thesis demonstrates that women have been an integral part of rugby league from its earliest days as a spectator sport.”26

Another key effect of this emergent apparatus was to heavily circumscribe the line between competitor and spectator—a line that excluded all but the most skilled and well-trained competitors, but also operated to exclude any who were female and, for a time at least, Black. The elevation of leisure pastimes to spectator sports during the Industrial Revolution was made possible, technologically, by the media infrastructures of the telegraph and newspaper, and economically, by the recognition that sports were more valuable to industrial capitalism as a media commodity than as participatory activities.27 Of key importance here was the newspaper industry and its increasing reliance on advertising as its primary source of income in the 1830s and 1840s. Around this time, sports journalism emerged as a stable feature of most newspapers; sports brought readers, which brought advertisers.28 Mass-media coverage of sports in the latter half of the 1850s was the “sine qua non to the rise of sport” as a North American institution.29 It was made possible by the telegraph and by a class of sports journalists whose craft consisted mostly of spinning narratives out of telegraphed statistics of sports matches (particularly baseball, which proved exceptionally well-suited, even then, to datafication). Professionalization was both a condition and outcome of this mediatization; sports leagues needed to adopt standardized equipment and rules in order for games to be accurately reconstructed for newspaper audiences.30 In turn, sports journalists and newspaper audiences were primarily interested in the more skilled, better-trained, spectacular athletes, such as Jack Sullivan, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, and eventually and begrudgingly, superlative Black athletes such as the boxer Jack Johnson.31 Out of these cultural, economic, and technological conditions emerged the apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity captured in the Sullivan-Corbett fight: the capacity for certain masculine-identified subjects to feel a sense of belonging and participation in mediated contests of hegemonic masculinity via the storage, processing, and distribution of professionalized sports events. The next step on this media genealogy of esports is a consideration of how this apparatus was retooled in light of the post–World War II crisis in white masculinity.

Postwar Masculinity, Football, and the “Technology of Citizenship”

In 1963, the annual Army-Navy college football game was postponed one week because of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22. At the insistence of Jacqueline Kennedy, the match was not cancelled but instead moved from November 30 to December 7—the twenty-second anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.32 With football’s overtly militaristic rule structure, in which specialized units arrayed in a battle for territorial supremacy, orchestrated by a centralized intelligence, it has historically lent itself well to symbolic displays of American militarism and cultural imperialism, particularly during the height of the Cold War. Given this connection, and the long-standing tradition of the Army-Navy game itself, the 1963 Army-Navy game was an auspicious and ideologically loaded event. CBS, the network that owned the rights to broadcast the Army-Navy game at the time, was under pressure to craft a respectable, polished television event. By that point, producers at CBS, as well as NBC and ABC (the so-called Big Three networks) had developed a keen sense of how to compensate for the limitations of televised sports, primarily an inability to fit all the action on the screen “without making Lilliputians of the characters.”33 They did so, in part, by employing some of the conventions of Hollywood cinema. These included a mixture of “establishing and panoramic” shots to give a sense of the spatial relations of the field, with close-ups of players that “bring viewers close to a player and magnify the emotional effect of the ritual space.”34 In the closing moments of the 1963 Army-Navy game, after the Army quarterback scored from a yard out, the CBS team deployed an additional innovation that was, at the time, unique to televised sports: the instant replay.35 According to Tony Verna, the director of the game, they had planned to use instant replay much earlier in the broadcast, but were stymied by a series of technical glitches. It wasn’t until Army’s one-yard touchdown scramble that Verna had a recording that was clean enough to use; upon broadcasting a replay of the touchdown, the CBS announcer felt compelled to explain to the television audience that “this was not live” and that “Army did not score again.”36

As with the apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity at work in the 1892 Sullivan-Corbett boxing match, the televised broadcast of this Army-Navy game offers a snapshot of how the production of professional sports responded to a contemporaneous crisis of white masculinity. It illuminates a broader arrangement of media technologies, communication infrastructures, economic transformations, and political imperatives that coalesced into a mode of televised sports production that gave white American men a sense of preserved cultural and political superiority. As in the late nineteenth century, the decades after World War II saw profound transformations in how North Americans lived, worked, and played. The acceleration of corporate capitalism and the intensified “rationalization and bureaucratization” to which large sectors of the workforce were subject, not to mention the increased shifts in North America toward a postindustrial economy based primarily on the production of services, information, and the culture industries, served to erode a hegemonic masculinity based in connecting physical prowess to masculine sovereignty and material success.37 At the same time, the rise of the automobile and its sprawling infrastructures, and the mass migration of middle-class North Americans out of cities and into “ethnically integrated but racially exclusive” suburbs, led to anxieties that white men would be trapped in suburban homes, regarded as the domain of women (as if women themselves were not as, if not more, trapped).38 Weaving through this political economic reorganization of gender was the pervasive anxiety of the Cold War. In this, US citizens were enlisted not as soldiers but as consumers, tasked with supporting an industrial machinery that had been converted from the wartime production of artillery, military vehicles, and uniforms, to the production of household appliances, consumer electronics, cars, and clothes. Within the geopolitical logic of Communist containment, buying American-made goods became “a cultural weapon of the Cold War.”39

As Lynn Spigel notes in her landmark examination of media domestication during this period, television was at the center, materially and discursively, of these shifts. Housewives were encouraged to position televisions centrally in family rooms. Advertisements and editorials promised that television would be the glue that could hold together a family unit, which was threatening to break apart from the tensions of dramatically reconfigured gender relations.40 Men were being warned of the “feminizing” influences of television and encouraged instead to invest leisure time and dollars in the more masculinized, “barely domesticated” domain of high-fidelity stereos, which could offer them a means of technological escape.41 But television was far too important to the postwar economic order of the United States to be denied—as numerous political economists of media have pointed out, it was the primary instrument by which North American consumers could be delivered to advertisers.42 College football was the ideal content for this instrument. Football, like other sports, had been reworked by the same intertwined processes of media commodification and professionalization as boxing throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; as Sut Jhally contends, its development as a commodity spectacle both preceded television and primed it for investment from television networks.43

The production and distribution of televised college football during the Cold War, made possible by the technological and economic arrangement of oligarchic cable networks, provided viewers with a more heightened sense of belonging and participation in professional sports than was possible under the conditions of the telegraph and newspaper. Television addressed an immediate problem: how to provide greater access to the college football stadium, symbolically positioned as a key site of American citizenship. Televised college football offered more than just an electronic ticket to the stadium; in doing so, it offered a technological means for civic participation. It constituted a “technology of citizenship,” though far from an inclusive one.44 The college football fan watching at home (or at the bar), the subject interpellated by this apparatus, was presumed to be white, male, and straight, as evidenced in advertisements and promotions both of and during college football broadcasts, not to mention the similar identities of the majority of its players, journalists, announcers, coaches, and so on.45 This subject’s emotional and embodied investment in college football was far from just a matter of the sport’s ideological positioning as a dramatization of American masculinity and militarism; it was secured through specific televisual and cinematic techniques that worked on the audience’s attention and affect.

The production techniques referenced earlier as means of compensating for the televisual challenge of adequately capturing the action (and drama) of a football match—establishing shots, close-ups, cutaways, slow-motion replays, as well as the highly deliberate and trained work of sports broadcasting—worked to bring television audiences into the game. Viewers of the 1963 Army-Navy game, discursively constructed as white, male, and heterosexual, would be invited to “emotionally identify with the game, its drama, and the masculine athletes as well as perform their dual role of fan and national subject.”46 Messner notes the curious effect that these techniques for inviting a sense of belonging with televised athletes had on the male sports fans he interviewed; in the words of one interviewee, “a woman can do the same job I can do—maybe even be my boss. But I’ll be damned if she can go out on the field and take a hit from Ronnie Lott” (emphasis in original).47 Noting that very few people of any gender could “take a hit from Ronnie Lott,” Messner writes that this is not the point: “males are given the opportunity to identify—generically and abstractly—with all men as a superior and separate caste.”48 Men were more capable of participating, affectively and discursively, in the televised spectacles of Cold War collegiate football because they were invited by an apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity into imagining that they could participate, by virtue of their male bodies.

Videotapes and the Aestheticization of Athletes

The production of sports highlights, and the related technologies of instant replay and slow-motion replay, were vital components in this retooled apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity. Neither was invented by the producers of televised sports. The slow-motion replay of athletic performance, in particular, was made possible at an early stage in the development of film when the movements of athletes (and animals) were recorded as a demonstration of the new technologies. The adoption of replays into broadcast sports had profound effects on how sports were both produced and consumed. The technological barriers to their widespread use were lowered when, in the late 1950s, scientists at Ampex developed the magnetic tape recorder. Unlike kinescopes, which could only be used for recording once, videotapes offered a system of modular recording and storage in which individual tapes could be swapped in and out of a single camera. As importantly, tape could be edited, resequenced, and so on. Segments of it could be cut out of the initial recording and pasted into another tape (highlights). They could be re-recorded at a slower speed (slow-motion replays). And tape could be wound back, on the fly, to show earlier footage (instant replays).49

The effects of these innovations were manifold. In terms of viewers’ direct experience of watching sports, slow-motion replays and instant replays had the effect of transforming what may have once been intended as an experience of “immediacy” (as in, a mediated experience that does not feel mediated) into an experience of “hypermediacy.”50 They were the first foray into the temporally dislocated, multimodal presentation of statistics, backstories, interviews, clips of other games, and so on that constitute the contemporary sports (and esports) broadcast. This arrangement is well-suited to the routinized placement of advertisements; when a game is no longer presented as a seamless narrative unfolding in linear time and in a singular location, what’s another interruption?51 Highlights ushered in a whole host of alterations to the broader political economy of news production; the economic arrangement of the Big Three and its local affiliates, coupled with the later development of a satellite communications infrastructure, meant spectacular moments and key plays from professional sports matches could be easily distributed to regional news affiliates, displacing coverage of amateur sports in local news’ sports segments.52 Highlight reels would quickly become their own genre of televisual commodity, encompassing everything from ABC’s Wide World of Sports to Don Cherry’s “Rock ’em Sock ’em” franchise of professional hockey highlights (usually, spectacular body checks) to ESPN’s partnership with Major League Gaming (MLG) in producing MLG’s “Top Ten Halo Plays of the Week.” Slow-motion replays enabled the aestheticization of the (usually male) body in forceful motion, as well as its wide circulation across the infrastructures of first network and then cable and satellite television. Within a couple decades of the introduction of slow-motion replays, isolated and decontextualized moments of athletic virtuosity—the dunk, the three-point shot, the no-look pass in basketball; the overhead kick in soccer; the between-the-legs pass, the “Savardian Spin-o-Rama” in hockey; the no-scope in first-person shooters—became signature moves of both the particular sport and its individual athletes, invaluable tools in their marketing and promotion, and objects of emulation by aspiring athletes and, later, by video game programmers and players.53

Finally, the adoption of analog video recording and its lowered barrier to various replay techniques laid the foundations for the ongoing and intensifying transferal of epistemic authority, in professional sports and elsewhere, from trained specialists to media instruments.54 With instant replays, the autonomy of referees and other officiating crews was irrevocably undermined: the camera could record and broadcast, in agonizing detail, what officials may have failed to see. As a result, “instant replay is now part of how many sports are officiated with the replay system used to determine whether or not an official’s call should stand.”55 But this was not the only epistemic shift: analog videotapes and their (seemingly) endless capacity for rewatching, at varying speeds, enabled the increased accumulation of statistics and the application of statistical analysis. These processes have been profoundly intensified by the adoption of, first, digital video and, increasingly, automated and algorithmic video analysis into the training and scouting regimens of professional sports.56 As I note in other work, the increasingly totalizing capture of athletic performance puts sports and esports on similar footing with regard to how the “movement performance” of athletes is recorded, analyzed, and controlled.57 It has also led to a shared set of technological priorities and shared marketplace of techniques among the professional sports industry, the esports industry, and the military-industrial complex, all of which are heavily invested in developing techniques to optimally control and predict the movement of adversaries across a digitized field.

With these considerations in place, the image of the Cold War sports viewer comes into sharper focus, as does its connections to the contemporary apparatus of North American esports production. Though the lines of gender, race, class, and sexuality are less obviously drawn than in the 1890s, the college football viewer of the early 1960s is presumed to be white, male, and straight. Via the deliberate arrangement of both cinematic and sports-native production techniques, made possible by innovations in analog video and by terrestrial and then extraterrestrial communication infrastructures, the viewers are invited to affiliate with the athletes on the screen, to get a feel for what it might be like to be there, by virtue of a shared set of essentialized bodily capacities—a kinaesthetic masculinity that can be retooled to fit particular economic and political imperatives. At the same time, via new techniques of capturing and deploying replays, the viewer is invited to engage with the spectacle as both an aesthetic and statistical text, layering and complexifying the pleasures of consumption. Through the televisual aestheticization of bodies on the screen, viewers are invited into a virtual fraternity with players, a technocultural imaginary in which they can feel the superiority of the masculine body as expressed through its capacity for spectacular violence. These are the technological grounds through which the claim by Messner’s interviewee—he may have a female boss, but unlike him, she would not be able to take a hit from Ronnie Lott—makes sense affectively, if not logically. The stage is now set for esports, as the most recent instantiation of this apparatus.

Playing Video Games for a Living

On Wednesday, November 19, 2008, soft-drink maker Dr. Pepper announced that it would be putting the face of a professional athlete on its drink bottles for the first time. As the New York Times reported, “the shaggy-haired athlete on the label is not a traditional sports star: he’s a 21-year-old who has a three-year, $250,000 contract to play video games.”58 It was never disclosed how much Dr. Pepper was paying Tom “TSquared” Taylor,59 captain of Str8 Rippin, then one of the most successful of the fifty professional Halo 3 teams that played for Major League Gaming (MLG) between 2005 and 2010. While the promotion marked the first time an MLG athlete appeared on a soft-drink label, the beverage industry was no stranger to MLG; Dr. Pepper was also sponsoring FINAL BOSS, the 2007 MLG champions, and since 2006 Red Bull had been sponsoring David “Walshy” Walsh, a decorated player who, at twenty-four, was the elder statesmen of MLG’s professional Halo scene. The timing of the Dr. Pepper and TSquared announcement proved serendipitous.60 The following weekend in Las Vegas, at MLG’s final event of its six-city 2008 Pro Circuit, Str8 Rippin beat Instinct, Walshy’s new team, to take the $100,000 prize for the top Halo 3 team. The event was streamed live on, with key segments posted on MLG’s YouTube channel.

MLG was, at the time, the most identifiable esports organization in North America. This was primarily based on their aggressive pursuit of sponsorships and their use of tactical shooter franchises for the Xbox 360 that were highly popular among their core demographic of young, white males: Call of Duty, Gears of War, and the centerpiece of their league, Halo. The league was blatant in its efforts to connect to the world of masculinized North American pro sports and had recently entered into a partnership with ESPN to broadcast its “Top Ten Halo Plays of the Week” on In terms of its economic relation to players, though, MLG was more akin to professional wrestling, or for that matter, to the traveling circuses of the late nineteenth century, than to the professional sports leagues it otherwise emulated. Players on the top fifty ranked teams were signed to exclusive contracts with the league (with contracts for key players, such as Tom “Ogre2” Ryan of FINAL BOSS and Tsquared, worth USD$250,000).61 Individuals and teams were able to take on corporate sponsorships but could not compete in other esports leagues.

Bodies on the Screen

The period culminating with Instinct’s victory in Las Vegas was a time of experimentation in how MLG produced its televisual commodity. At the end of the 2007 Pro Circuit, MLG announced it would be switching to Halo 3 for the 2008 Pro Circuit, a move that effected a dramatic leveling of the playing field among their top teams, leading to numerous roster changes (such as Walshy’s move from FINAL BOSS, the most dominant team in Halo 2, to Instinct). YouTube clips of the 2007 and 2008 Pro Circuit Halo events show further changes, in addition to the graphical and mechanical updates introduced by Halo 3: while the broadcast still cycled from one player’s camera (their first-person, in-game perspective) to another, a synchronous livestream of that player’s face now appeared in the lower left corner of the screen. This replaced the practice, in earlier years of MLG broadcasts, of displaying another player’s camera view in the top right corner.62 With the rise of low-barrier streaming software such as OBS, relatively cheap webcams, and a robust global infrastructure of server farms and high-speed connections, the use in broadcasts of a synchronous, picture-in-picture feed of an external-facing camera has now become so commonplace among Twitch streamers and YouTube gamers as to seem unremarkable. In the context of North American eports circa 2008, though, this marked an innovation in the production of competitive gaming, effectively allowing viewers to not only see what players saw, but to see the players themselves. We can read this innovation alongside other attempts by MLG during this time (2007 to 2009) to center players in their televisual content, including pre- and postmatch interviews and “Player Profiles,” in which MLG’s stars sit down and tell the viewers their favorite Halo maps, their favorite foods, and so on. While MLG was likely not the first esports organization to engage these techniques, their efforts certainly helped establish certain expectations around how and when players’ bodies appeared in esports broadcasts going forward.63 Indeed, physical appearance has become a central concern for esports competitors themselves, seen as both a source of competitive edge and as a key aspect of their brand.64

Michael Kane, in his behind-the-scenes look at the establishment of the Championship Gaming Series, considers these and other related efforts as an attempt to furnish esports with the kind of personalizing narratives that enable viewers to connect to professional sports athletes—complementary to the techniques I described above, piloted by 1960s football broadcasts, to invite (certain) viewers into the action.65 This is a useful, if perhaps partial, picture of what these techniques accomplish. I see these innovations as bringing esports more in line with the historical project carried out by previous iterations of kinaesthetic masculinity: that is, to re-entrench notions of masculine superiority by making the bodies of its predominantly young, male, and less frequently, white competitors visible in esports’ televisual commodities.66 The display of players’ bodies has since become a defining feature of the contemporary esports apparatus. The practices that have emerged in the decade since this broadcast innovation took hold reveal the deeply gendered and racialized politics of this bodily visibility. Such politicized practices include (but are not limited to) the careful curation of esports’ stars personas according to hybridized masculine tropes; the Orientalist racism directed at players from South Korea and China; the consternation within certain esports communities over the success of trans athletes; the rise in pharmaceuticals and food products designed to augment players’ performance in accordance with militarized logics of force, speed, and adrenaline, as well as gamer clothing clearly aimed at sexualizing women and athleticizing men; and the overt and subtle forms of racism and misogyny faced by Black Twitch streamers and by female streamers respectively.67 For the underlying reasons behind the increased visibility, and increased politicization, of esports competitors’ bodies over the last decade, we can return to the central question addressed by the apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity, across its various mutations and including this most recent one: what is the crisis to which it responds?

Esports and the Current Crisis of Masculinity

The prominent display of players’ bodies—presumed to be young, male, and white, problematized when not—became a defining feature of esports at a time when gaming in North America began to attract a greater diversity of players beyond its conventional player base. As was documented productively in scholarship beginning around 2005, a host of new gaming platforms, peripherals, and play experiences meant that games were no longer strictly for young men. Family-centered devices such as the Nintendo Wii were advertised in women’s magazines; controllers for games like Dance Dance Revolution and Rock Band no longer linked console use to the accumulation of gamepad competencies; the Nintendo DS and other mobile gaming devices no longer necessitated investment in PC and console setups, not to mention the time and space they took up in the home; the emergence of casual games catered to women’s more precarious access to leisure time; and a growing industry of indie and, later, personal games allowed us to think of game design not (only) as a high-tech, black-boxed, masculinized domain, but also as craft and/or punk DIY practice.68

Reactions among those who were used to being the primary, if not exclusive, target of the gaming industry were many and varied, ranging from the harassment and sexualization of female players to more civil insistences in academic conferences that such-and-such game, or genre, or platform, which just happened to be popular among women, was not actually a real game, or genre, or platform, and not a proper object of study for game studies. These energies would come to a boil via the Gamergate hate campaign beginning in 2014,69 which took umbrage with this supposed feminization of games, and the insistence by Gamergaters that men were being robbed of one of the few safe spaces they had left to exercise their essential masculine traits—a logic remarkably (though unsurprisingly) reminiscent of arguments leveraged against efforts to increase female participation in sport in decades prior. But Gamergate was nowhere near as successful as esports in cementing the notion that at its highest levels at least, gaming is essentially the domain of men. As an apparatus meant to buttress masculinity, esports offers something far more pernicious and stable than Gamergate’s reactionary tantrums and its well-publicized, well-documented acts of harassment and rank misogyny.70 In North America at least, esports’ deliberately cultivated connections to professional sports—its reconfiguration of the apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity—anchors esports in notions of the natural superiority of men’s bodies, in much the same way as televised college football in the postwar years, and telegraphed boxing matches at the close of the nineteenth century. These notions have proven remarkably robust, even as they have been routinely undermined, along with the underlying faith in human sexual dimorphism.71 At the same time, proponents of esports continue to insist that it is fundamentally meritocratic, even as the majority of esports organizations rely for their “development pipeline” on gaming communities that are themselves exclusionary.72 This ensures that the ongoing domination of esports’ upper echelons by young, male competitors can be framed as an inevitable outcome of greater male interest in, and propensity for, the twinned domains of athletics and computation, rather than a predictable result of the greater access granted young men in North America to leisure time, high-end gaming technologies, and social networks centered around competitive gaming. Thus, when one of the top Halo 3 players in Canada claimed in an interview with me in 2008 that “women just don’t have the testosterone” to compete in esports, his outlandish statement was nonetheless internally consistent with the epistemic frameworks of the apparatus. Women lack the testosterone to play Halo 3; women could not take a hit from Ronnie Lott. We understand these statements to be ludicrous, not rooted in reason or science, but they nonetheless make sense for subjects invested in the apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity.

The crisis in masculinity is not confined to games. Gamers’ concerns that their pastime is being taken away from them is part of a wider nexus of anxieties regarding the status of North American white men in the face of widespread changes in demographics, massively diminished employment opportunities and job stability, and efforts on the part of the culture and technology industries (however patchy and inconsistent) to address widespread misogyny.73 We should be careful to not overstate the role that contemporary esports and its reconfigured apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity plays in these formulations; certainly, the rise in white nationalist terror, the increasing presence and support for alt-right and neofascist masculinities, and the toxic spread of the so-called manosphere all require more urgent attention.74 But in placing young, mostly white men at the center of a cultural industry that insists that fame and success can be found in playing games for a living, the apparatus does carry out vital work within our contemporary political economic conditions, so defined by white male grievance.

The Cruel Optimism of “Get Good”

As articulated above, televised college football and its associated texts and techniques helped fashion a masculine subject whose job, outside of work, was to protect the American way of life by investing, emotionally, in American militarism, and financially in American consumer goods. The work demanded from the masculine subject that is fashioned by contemporary esports is considerably more demanding, but the tools available to him are, in some respects, more powerful. Entering adulthood at a time when the social safety net has been thoroughly eviscerated, and when the gig economy offers the most immediate path to employment (at least before the COVID-19 pandemic), the subject of the contemporary esports apparatus is offered numerous examples of young white men (and a few examples from folks of other backgrounds) who have found financial stability, if not wealth, from being really good at competitive games. Indeed, he has been told that esports is particularly primed to take advantage of pandemic conditions, however unfounded these claims may be.75 Unlike the football fan from a half century ago, the mediated participation of the esports fan is not confined primarily to a form of watching in which he is invited to imagine himself as a participant; when he plays Fortnite, or League of Legends, or Overwatch, he is playing the same game as the professionals. For the subject of the Cold War football apparatus, the sense of belonging to football crafted by the networks’ televisual commodities was entirely virtual. The esports fan can engage more directly. Because he actually, not virtually, participates in the same arena as professional gamers like Ninja, he can subscribe to and participate in their stream; perhaps he could play them; perhaps he could even beat them, if he worked (played) hard enough. Perhaps they can even teach him some of their tricks.

As Jeremy Packer articulates, one key to understanding the operation of any apparatus lies in the array of pedagogical materials—manuals, training guides, and so on—that instruct a subject in the practices and dispositions conducive to certain modes of conduct. Packer states “such how-to documents carry not only practical advice but very often articulate a vision of a changed subject and an ethos said to be fused with such practices.”76 We can see this play out for professional gaming in the numerous training services, how-to videos, and so on provided by esports athletes; indeed, Tom “Tsquared” Taylor founded this kind of service upon his retirement from esports in 2015. The document I briefly consider here, though, is Get Good: My Ultimate Guide to Gaming, by Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the top Fortnite streamer on Twitch at the time the book came out. The book serves as a step-by-step guide for attaining the kind of fame and success as Ninja, walking through how to set up a good gaming and streaming rig, which particular competencies to work on for which game genres, how to craft and maintain a streaming persona, and how (and why) to balance gaming with sources of emotional and mental rejuvenation. Aimed at young (presumably male) teenagers, the book is a balancing act through the tensions that characterize the contemporary apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity: offering descriptions of gaming and streaming as sets of learned competencies, on the one hand, and on the other, claims about the innateness of certain qualities for success (regarding a competitive drive, “you have it or you don’t”); establishing the universal appeal of gaming (“everyone’s a gamer”) while almost exclusively showing pictures of men; and insisting on the fundamental meritocracy of professional gaming, while depicting and describing the extraordinary moments that helped elevate Ninja’s career, not to mention the stability provided by the largely invisible labor of his wife/manager.77 The arrangement prescribed in this book resonates with what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”: a mode of moving through the world that demands we maintain an unwarranted faith in the ability of our institutions to reward our sacrifices. As Berlant describes, cruel optimism is a necessary disposition for “embarking on an intensified and stressed out learning curve about how to maintain footing, bearings, a way of being, and new modes of composure amid unraveling institutions and social relations of reciprocity.”78 Berlant’s conception of cruel optimism has proven useful in articulating the machinery of the games industry.79 It seems equally applicable here in describing the operations of an apparatus that invites its subject into the same playing field as the most successful athletes, and tells them that their own success in its precarious and demanding world is almost within reach, and that their hard work and investment will be rewarded. “See you in-game,” writes Ninja in his introduction.

Esports Are Made (to Be Broken)

In this piece, I have offered a media-genealogical perspective on esports that stretches back much longer than esports, or for that matter, competitive gaming; it is a genealogy of how and why certain leisure practices become professionalized as spectator sport, as a response (in part) to perceived threats to the political, economic, technological, and cultural status of hegemonic masculinity. I have named and traced an apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity as it has been reassembled across three particular periods. In the late nineteenth century, the professionalization of activities such as boxing and football, and their mediatization by the telegraph and an emergent class of sports journalism, served to entrench notions of male superiority in the wake of industrialization, abolition, and the suffragette movement. In the mid-twentieth century, white men in particular were called upon to stave off communism, and to protect their own masculinity, by investing equally in televised professional sports and in the products advertised during its frequent breaks. Late in the first decade of the 2000s, North American esports developed a set of techniques, rooted equally in professional sports and in the capacities of networked competitive games and the ascendant gig economy, by which the masculine esports fan could imagine that he, too, could make a living playing games—and in doing so, prove that gaming and its attendant rewards are the rightful domain of male bodies.

As I expressed near the outset, my aims in offering this history are twofold. The first is to assert that the gender disparities in esports are not incidental to it but are foundational to the ways in which the apparatus of North American esports, at least, has been articulated and arranged. The second is to insist on the foundational role that spectatorship plays in the constitution of esports. Spectatorship did not just get tacked on to esports with the arrival of Twitch; esports was articulated and enacted through the efforts to persuade large numbers of people that, like sports, competitive gaming can be a compelling televisual commodity. The highly deliberate, technological, and discursive formation of audiences using emerging technologies and communications infrastructures—“audiencing”80—has been as central to the professionalization of competitive gaming as electric lighting and telegraph networks were to the professionalization of boxing and cinematic techniques, replays, and network television were to televised football.

I want to end with a third assertion, one that might point a way forward to reconfigure esports away from its connections to the historical project of maintaining unjust hierarchies of gender and race. The particular vignettes I focused on offered some firsts (use of gloves in a heavyweight match; use of instant replay; use of a Dr. Pepper model), but they are otherwise unremarkable. I selected them not because they offered stunning examples of athletic performance—quite the opposite. Rather, they seemed compelling as case studies in the crystallization of how professional sports are made. As feminist sports theorists have noted, a key component in the ongoing service of sport to hegemonic masculinity is the belief that sport is, above all, an essential mode of human activity that transcends particular places and times.81 This transcendentalist notion of sport (and by extension, why esports are sports) almost always serves to anesthetize us, both to the specific technological and cultural conditions that form the possibility for certain sports and not others, and to the ways that sports are very much made: that sports do work. Sport may well be a mode of human activity that transcends history, but sports are technocultural productions that both engage and transform the relations of power that constitute their conditions of possibility. To offer a pithy illustration: when we think of how esports are like sports, should we think in terms of how competitive gaming represents the timeless drive for ritualized competition into new technological forms? Or could we think, instead, of how it is produced, what work goes into those productions, and what work these productions carry out? Tie-ins with energy drinks and cars; jerseys emblazoned with sponsor logos; the circulation of endless statistics; the constant excited chatter of announcers; product placements and commercial breaks; cutaway shots of cheering fans; and the people positioned technologically and culturally at the center—young, almost always men—displaying the skill with which their bodies occupy and manipulate a technical milieu. None of this has come naturally; none of it ought to be understood, primarily if at all, as the inevitable expression of an essential human activity. Esports are the result of a lot of work, experimentation, and deliberate, often highly reflexive alignment with other modes of cultural production that seem to make the most sense (and potentially, money): in North America at least, professional sports. Esports are like sports because they are produced that way. In ways explicitly similar to (and continuous with) how sports have been produced and consumed in North America since the late nineteenth century, much of the work that esports carry out—perhaps the primary work they do—is to circulate performances of masculine superiority via the dominant technologies and communication infrastructures of their time: electricity, telegraph, and railroad for nineteenth-century boxing; instant replays, close-ups, and network television for postwar football; and for esports, streaming services, networked video games, and the global infrastructure of the internet.

Focusing on the artifice and production of esports, on its status as a media apparatus, reminds us that we can do competitive gaming differently. After all, the project of media genealogy is to offer a “history of the present” that is revealed as mutable and contingent, rather than inevitable.82 The apparatus of North American esports, in all of its manufactured connections to the historical project of hegemonic masculinity, has been made to work in particular ways; it could, and should, work differently.


1. ^ Wyatt Kingseed, “John L. Sullivan: Last Bare-Knuckled Champion,” HistoryNet, December 17, 2019,

2. ^ Giorgio Agamben, “What Is an Apparatus?” and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).

3. ^ Ray Gamache, A History of Sports Highlights: Replayed Plays from Edison to ESPN (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014), 23.

4. ^ Michael T. Isenberg, John L. Sullivan and His America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

5. ^ Alan Woods, “James J. Corbett: Theatrical Star,” Journal of Sport History 3, no. 2 (1976): 162–75.

6. ^ Isenberg, John L. Sullivan and His America.

7. ^ Randy Robert, “Emperors of Masculinity: John L. Sullivan, Jack Johnson, and Changing Ideas of Manhood and Race in America,” in Sport, Race, and Ethnicity: Narratives of Difference and Diversity, ed. Daryl Adair (Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology, 2011), 41–76.

8. ^ Christopher Klein, “John L. Sullivan Fights America,” Public Domain Review, April 30, 2014,

9. ^ Here, I am drawn to R. W. Connell and James Messerschmidt’s rethinking of this concept, in which they clarify that hegemonic is not simply adjectival, as if referring to whichever version of masculinity is ascendant. Rather, it guides us to how masculinity functions, in particular places and times, to fortify the political economic project of hegemony: the domination of one class over others. R. W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept,” Gender & Society 19, no. 6 (December 1, 2005): 829–59.

10. ^ Klein, “John L. Sullivan Fights America.”

11. ^ Sullivan, as quoted in Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2010), 15.

12. ^ Robert, “Emperors of Masculinity,” 58.

13. ^ Michael A. Messner, “Sports and Male Domination: The Female Athlete as Contested Ideological Terrain,” Sociology of Sport Journal 5, no. 3 (1988): 197–211,

14. ^ This term was first used, to my knowledge, by Shacklock, to refer to televisual images of virile masculinity. Zoë Ruth Shacklock, “The Kinaesthetics of Serial Television” (PhD diss., University of Warwick, 2017).

15. ^ Melanie Swalwell, “Movement and Kinaesthetic Responsiveness: A Neglected Pleasure,” in The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory and Aesthetics, ed. Melanie Swalwell and Jason Wilson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008), 72–93. See also Bryan G. Behrenshausen, “Toward a (Kin)Aesthetic of Video Gaming: The Case of Dance Dance Revolution,” Games and Culture 2, no. 4 (October 1, 2007): 335–54; and Brendan Keogh, A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

16. ^ Michael Borowy and Dal Yong Jin, “Pioneering ESport: The Experience Economy and the Marketing of Early 1980s Arcade Gaming Contests,” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 21.

17. ^ This is not to deny the remarkable progress toward greater gender diversity in some areas of organized, spectator sport—such as tennis, basketball, and hockey—but rather it is to assert, as generations of feminist sports scholars have, that the professionalization of sports has served by design and in the initial configurations to (pre)serve patriarchy. See, for instance, Celia Brackenridge, “Men Loving Men Hating Women: The Crisis of Masculinity and Violence to Women in Sport,” in Gender and Sport: A Reader, ed. Anne Fintoff and Sheila Scraton (New York: Routledge, 2002), 255–68; and Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano, Playing with the Boys: Why Separate Is Not Equal in Sports (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

18. ^ Esports has multiple different histories, divided by region as much as anything else. Histories of esports in South Korea, for instance, take into account the widespread adoption of high-speed internet, the proliferation of PC Bangs, and a youth culture focused around intense pressures at home and school. Histories of esports in China look to the alignment of esports with national interests in technological superiority, and its deliberate distancing from other kinds of networked games and their associations with passivity and addiction. See Dal Yong Jin, Korea’s Online Gaming Empire (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010); and Marcella Szablewicz, “From Addicts to Athletes: Participation in the Discursive Construction of Digital Games in Urban China,” AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research 1 (October 2011),

19. ^ T. L. Taylor, Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015); Nicholas Taylor and Bryce Stout, “Gender and the Two-Tiered System of Collegiate Esports,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 37, no. 5 (October 19, 2020): 451–65; Morgan Romine and T. L. Taylor, “Women in Esports,” Whitepaper, AnyKey.Org Resources,, October 2015,

20. ^ For discrepancies in streaming, see Rebekah Valentine, “US Has the Largest Gender Pay Gap for Video Game Streamers,”, May 29, 2018,; and Emma Witkowski, “Doing/Undoing Gender with the Girl Gamer in High-Performance Play,” in Feminism in Play, ed. Kishonna Gray, Emma Vossen, and Gerald Voorhees, Palgrave Games in Context (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 185–203. For gendered access to leisure time and tools, see Sam Srauy and Valerie Palmer-Mehta, “Tools of the Game: The Gendered Discourses of Peripheral Advertising,” in Masculinities in Play, ed. Nicholas Taylor and Gerald Voorhees, Palgrave Games in Context (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 185–207; Nicholas Taylor, “Hardwired,” in MsUnderstanding Media, ed. Sarah Sharma and Rianka Singh (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022). For issues of misogyny in online gaming, see Megan Condis, Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018); and Amanda C. Cote, Gaming Sexism: Gender and Identity in the Era of Casual Video Games (New York: New York University Press, 2020).

21. ^ Kristine Ask and Stine H. Bang Svendsen, “Sexual Harassment in Online Games: Bug or Feature?,” AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research 4 (October 2014),

22. ^ Alexander Monea and Jeremy Packer, “Media Genealogy: Technological and Historical Engagements of Power—Introduction,” International Journal of Communication 10 (2016): 3144.

23. ^ Monea and Packer, “Media Genealogy,” 3145.

24. ^ Monea and Packer, 3145.

25. ^ Joe L. Dubbert, A Man’s Place: Masculinity in Transition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979), 178; and Messner, “Sports and Male Domination,” 200.

26. ^ Victoria Dawson, “Women and Rugby League: Gender, Class and Community in the North of England, 1880–1970” (PhD diss., De Montfort University, 2017), 4.

27. ^ Amateur and recreational sports clubs persisted, even flourished, during this time, as they were seen as indispensable sites for homosocial escape, and crucially, for socializing urban immigrants into Christian and American values.

28. ^ Robert W. McChesney, “Media Made Sport: A History of Coverage in the United States,” in Media, Sports, and Society, ed. Lawrence A. Wenner (London: Sage, 1989), 51.

29. ^ McChesney, “Media Made Sport,” 50.

30. ^ Much like the stock market; see James W. Carey, “Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph,” Prospects 8 (1983): 303–25,

31. ^ Ward, Unforgivable Blackness.

32. ^ Zach Pekale, “Army-Navy Football: Memorable Moments, All-Time History,”, December 12, 2020,

33. ^ Jeffrey Montez de Oca, Discipline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 66.

34. ^ Montez de Oca, Discipline and Indulgence, 67.

35. ^ The use of slow-motion (noninstant) replays was piloted by ABC two years earlier by Ron Arledge, a producer who had landed the position after attracting the attention of the network’s executives with his pilot of a show entitled “For Men Only,” “a mix of jazz and man-talk modeled after Playboy magazine.” In a memo he circulated shortly after ABC acquired the rights, in 1960, to air college football games on Saturdays, Arledge articulated (in all-caps) his approach to producing televised sports: “WE ARE GOING TO ADD SHOW BUSINESS TO SPORTS.” He had apparently learned of slow motion from watching Japanese samurai epics. Bill Carter, “Roone Arledge, 71, a Force in TV Sports and News, Dies,” New York Times, December 6, 2002,

36. ^ Gamache, A History of Sports Highlights.

37. ^ Messner, “Sports and Male Domination,” 201.

38. ^ Montez de Oca, Discipline and Indulgence, 61.

39. ^ Montez de Oca, 61.

40. ^ Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

41. ^ Keir Keightley, “‘Turn It Down!’ She Shrieked: Gender, Domestic Space, and High Fidelity, 1948–59,” Popular Music 15, no. 2 (1996): 149–77.

42. ^ McChesney, “Media Made Sport”; and David Rowe, “The Sport/Media Complex,” in A Companion to Sport, ed. David L. Andrews and Ben Carrington (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2013), 61–77,

43. ^ Sut Jhally, “The Spectacle of Accumulation: Material and Cultural Factors in the Evolution of the Sports/Media Complex,” Insurgent Sociologist 12, no. 3 (1984): 41–57,

44. ^ Montez de Oca, Discipline and Indulgence, 58.

45. ^ Here, the parallels to the contemporary games industry are hard to miss. See Alison Harvey and Tamara Shepherd, “When Passion Isn’t Enough: Gender, Affect and Credibility in Digital Games Design,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 5 (September 1, 2017): 492–508,; and Robin Johnson, “Technomasculinity and Its Influence in Video Game Production,” in Masculinity and Gaming: Mediated Masculinities in Play, ed. Nicholas Taylor and Gerald Voorhees (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

46. ^ Montez de Oca, Discipline and Indulgence, 68.

47. ^ Messner, “Sports and Male Domination,” 202.

48. ^ Messner, 202.

49. ^ Gamache, A History of Sports Highlights, 110–11.

50. ^ J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

51. ^ Gamache, A History of Sports Highlights, 125.

52. ^ Gamache, 121.

53. ^ Aaron Joseph Dial, “Vantage and Video: Dunk Highlights and the Technical Sublime of Hangtime” (unpublished manuscript, n.d.); Marc Ouellette and Steven Conway, “He Scores through a Screen: Mediating Masculinities through Hockey Video Games,” in Taylor and Voorhees, Masculinities in Play, 109–26,

54. ^ Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2019); and Tarleton Gillespie, “The Relevance of Algorithms,” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, ed. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 167–94.

55. ^ Gamache, A History of Sports Highlights, 120.

56. ^ Yago Colás, “The Culture of Moving Dots: Toward a History of Counting and of What Counts in Basketball,” Journal of Sport History 44, no. 2 (2017): 197–208,; Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978); and Roslyn Kerr, Christopher Rosin, and Mark Cooper, “The Agency of Numbers: The Role of Metrics in Influencing the Valuation of Athletes,” in Sports, Society, and Technology: Bodies, Practices, and Knowledge Production, ed. Jennifer J. Sterling and Mary G. McDonald (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 99–119,

57. ^ Nicholas Taylor, “The Numbers Game: Collegiate Esports and the Instrumentation of Movement Performance,” in Sterling and McDonald, Sports, Society, and Technology, 121–44,

58. ^ Stephanie Clifford, “A Drink Backed by a Sports Hero (Wielding a Mean Game Controller),” New York Times, November 19, 2008,

59. ^ No relation either to me or to T. L. Taylor.

60. ^ The timing was serendipitous for an additional reason: the day before, on November 18, 2008, the Championship Gaming Series—a high-profile league led by satellite TV company DirecTV, based out of California, and backed by an investment from News Corporation of over USD$50 million—announced it was immediately ceasing operations after only two years, eliminating one of MLG’s competitors in the precarious North American scene. Richard Lewis, “Echoes of Future Past: The Ghost of the CGS and What It Means for Counter-Strike,” Dot Esports (blog), April 16, 2015,

61. ^ Patrick Hruby, “Hruby: So You Wanna Be a Pro Video Game Player?—ESPN Page 2,”, October 11, 2007,

62. ^ Picture-in-picture broadcasts were introduced during the coverage of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal by ABC Sports—led by Ron Arledge, who had introduced football viewers to the first slow-motion replay in 1961. As I indicate above, televised sports viewers were already primed for the display of spatially and temporally fragmented content and attuned to the kind of distributed attention it compelled. Ernie Smith, “Double Vision,” March 5, 2020,

63. ^ Sky LaRell Anderson, “Watching People Is Not a Game: Interactive Online Corporeality, and Videogame Streams,” Game Studies 17, no. 1 (2017),; and Nicholas Taylor, “Play to the Camera: Video Ethnography, Spectatorship, and e-Sports,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 22, no. 2 (April 2016): 115–30,

64. ^ Gerald Voorhees and Alexandra Orlando, “Performing Neoliberal Masculinity: Reconfiguring Hegemonic Masculinity in Professional Gaming,” in Taylor and Voorhees, Masculinities in Play, 211–27,; and Emma Witkowski, “Eventful Masculinities: Negotiations of Hegemonic Sporting Masculinities at LANs,” in Sports Videogames, ed. Mia Consalvo, Konstantin Mitgutsch, and Abe Stein (New York: Routledge, 2013), 217–35,

65. ^ Michael Kane, Game Boys: Professional Videogaming’s Rise from the Basement to the Big Time (New York: Viking, 2008).

66. ^ The immense popularity of esports in South Korea and China means that esports have never been the exclusive domain of white men, in the way that many other sports were, at least in the earliest periods of their professionalization. At the same time, the involvement of Black players in North American esports has been overwhelmingly concentrated in fighting game communities—scenes which, for many reasons, maintain a tenuous connection to the more popular (and more widely spectated) esports.

67. ^ Voorhees and Orlando, “Performing Neoliberal Masculinity”; Lily Zhu, “Masculinity’s New Battle Arena in International e-Sports: The Games Begin,” in Taylor and Voorhees, Masculinities in Play, 229–47,; Elyse Janish, “The Abject Scapegoat: Boundary Erosion and Maintenance in League of Legends,” in Queerness in Play, ed. Todd Harper, Meghan Blythe Adams, and Nicholas Taylor, Palgrave Games in Context (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 243–60,; Maddy Myers, “I Took Gamer Drugs For a Week and This Is What They Did to My Body,” Compete, accessed December 18, 2020,; Emma Vossen, “Why the ‘Gamer Dress’ Is About So Much More Than Just a Dress,” Medium, March 26, 2019,; Brian Chan and Kishonna Gray, “Microstreaming, Microcelebrity, and Marginalized Masculinity: Pathways to Visibility and Self-Definition for Black Men in Gaming,” Women’s Studies in Communication 43, no. 4 (2020): 1–9,; and Amanda L. L. Cullen and Bonnie Ruberg, “Necklines and ‘Naughty Bits’: Constructing and Regulating Bodies in Live Streaming Community Guidelines,” in Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, FDG ʼ19 (New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2019), 1–8,

68. ^ Deborah Chambers, “‘Wii Play as a Family’: The Rise in Family-Centred Video Gaming,” Leisure Studies 31, no. 1 (2012): 69–82; Behrenshausen, “Toward a (Kin)Aesthetic of Video Gaming”; Samuel Tobin, Portable Play in Everyday Life: The Nintendo DS (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013),; Aubrey Anable, Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018); Emma Westecott, “Independent Game Development as Craft,” Loading ... 7, no. 11 (2013); and Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-Outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012).

69. ^ For a more thorough discussion of Gamergate, see Torill Mortenson, “Anger, Fear, and Games: The Long Event of #GamerGate,” Games and Culture 13, no. 8 (2018): 787–806; and Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw, “A Conspiracy of Fishes, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 59, no. 1 (2014): 208–20.

70. ^ Esports certainly has these, too. As one example, on a live event for the fighting game Street Fighter x Tekken in 2012, a male competitor sexually harassed and verbally abused his female teammate, egged on by members of the livestream’s chat. The male competitor defended his actions by insisting that sexual harassment is an inevitable part of gaming culture. See Kirk Hamilton, “Competitive Gamer's Inflammatory Comments Spark Sexual Harassment Debate,” Kotaku, February 28, 2012,

71. ^ Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013).

72. ^ Christopher A. Paul, The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture Is the Worst (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018); Taylor and Stout, “Gender and the Two-Tiered System of Collegiate Esports”; and Will Partin, “The Esports Pipeline Problem,” Polygon, July 11, 2019,

73. ^ As was made evident in a trove of email communications between Milo Yannapoulus, one of the early mouthpieces of Gamergate, and his then-employer at Breitbart, Steve Bannon, these connections were deliberately stoked and put in the service of campaigns centered around white male grievance that helped propel Trump to political ascendancy. Joseph Bernstein, “Here’s How Breitbart and Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas into the Mainstream,” BuzzFeed News, October 5, 2017,

74. ^ Debbie Ging, “Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorizing the Masculinities of the Manosphere,” Men and Masculinities, May 10, 2017,

75. ^ A. J. Engelsen, “Esports during a Pandemic,” Medium, June 5, 2020,

76. ^ Jeremy Packer, “What Is an Archive? An Apparatus Model for Communications and Media History,” Communication Review 13, no. 1 (2010): 102,

77. ^ Tyler Blevins, Ninja—Get Good: My Ultimate Guide to Gaming (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2019). The only woman depicted in the book is Ninja’s wife. This is perhaps not surprising, given Ninja’s claim, in 2018, that he would not partner up with a female streamer, out of respect for his relationship with his wife. We can draw a line between Ninja’s disenfranchisement of female streamers and Jack Sullivan’s refusal to defend his title against Black boxers. Both positions are defensible within the white supremacist and masculinist apparatus of kinaesthetic masculinity. Allegra Frank, “Ninja Explains His Choice Not to Stream with Female Gamers,” Polygon, August 11, 2018,

78. ^ Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

79. ^ Ergin Bulut, “Playboring in the Tester Pit: The Convergence of Precarity and the Degradation of Fun in Video Game Testing,” Television & New Media 16, no. 3 (2015): 240–58,; and Joshua Jackson, “Passion Traps,” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 22 (2020),

80. ^ Jack Z. Bratich, “Amassing the Multitude: Revisiting Early Audience Studies,” Communication Theory 15, no. 3 (2005): 242–65; Nicholas Thiel Taylor, “Now You’re Playing with Audience Power: The Work of Watching Games,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 33, no. 4 (2016): 293–307.

81. ^ Messner, “Sports and Male Domination.”

82. ^ Monea and Packer, “Media Genealogy,” 3145.