Sometime in 2021, it seems likely that the repository of scholarly articles and books on competitive gaming maintained by the Esports Research Network will notch its thousandth entry.1 This archive, like all archives, is partial. It creates—rather than reflects—an idea of what esports research means. Even so, its growing size is a testament to the boom in scholarship on competitive gaming over the last decade. Many disciplines, many methods, and many theories now contribute to esports research, all of which are welcome developments. And yet, there remains a tendency for authors to suggest that their work is the “first to consider …” or to claim that esports research is in its infancy. But esports research has a history, one that has occasionally been sidelined in the rush of contemporary scholarship on competitive gaming.
Rather than offer a literature review, the editors of this issue (William Clyde Partin and Iris Bull) decided to approach scholars who were writing scholarship about professional gaming competition between 2000 and 2010 for a group interview. By and large, early work on esports was critical in disposition and qualitative in method (something the editors have tried to preserve in this special issue). Less an overview of their scholarship and more a historicization of it, this group interview is intended to provide thick context around the emergence of some of the earliest articles, books, and dissertations on competitive gaming. Our hope is that by paying attention to the conditions under which this research took place, current and future scholars will better understand how, why, and where esports scholarship emerged, in what forms, and for what audiences.
The scholars represented here are:
Florence Chee, associate professor in the School of Communication and director of the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy, Loyola University Chicago
Brett Hutchins, professor of media and communications and head of the School of Media, Film, & Journalism, Monash University
Nicholas Taylor, associate professor of digital media and director of the PhD program in communication, rhetoric, and digital media (CRDM), North Carolina State University
T. L. Taylor, professor of comparative media studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Emma Witkowski, senior lecturer, RMIT University, Melbourne
Henry Lowood, Hohbach Curator for history of science & technology collections and the curator for film & media collections in the Stanford University Libraries.
To be clear, the scholars represented here were not the only researchers interested in competitive gaming during the first decade of the 2000s, and there are surely other, equally valid ways the history of esports research could be written. Even so, the disciplinary diversity and career trajectories of the scholars we approached offer a useful sample of the kinds of scholarship on competitive gaming this issue is meant to pick up on.
This interview was conducted over email and Google Docs between April 15 and May 15, 2021. Each interviewee received the same sequence of five questions; though respondents could read each other’s questions, they did not directly respond to each other’s answers. Responses have been lightly edited for readability and to provide additional context on institutional affiliation and biographical information.
Why did you initially become interested in esports research? What career stage were you in? What were you working on at the time? What was the link between that and esports?
Florence Chee: It’s been a couple of decades [since I began working on this topic], but before esports research became de rigeur, pro gaming or pro gamers was how I was understanding the project of playing games like StarCraft as one’s livelihood. My interest was in seeing the media stories coming out of South Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As someone who grew up in Canada playing PC games, I was quite enamored with an increasingly global academic game research community that was interested in gamer stories.
At the time, I was doing research on the moral panic associated with addiction to online games. I was working on my honors thesis at Simon Fraser University in 2003 and trying to make sense of the rifts between the stories about gamers in the media versus the personal narratives and motivations of gamers themselves. It brought me to the work on community (including those on this interview!) and the work being done by those hailing from multiple disciplines, particularly T. L. Taylor, Edward Castronova, and Nick Yee.
The motivations of professional gamers, to me, were pretty clear and as I saw it, adequately sensationalized. What I did find troubling was how some very foundational activity in South Korea was largely underexamined from the humanistic standpoint.
For my master’s ethnographic fieldwork, I spent months in South Korea (late 2004, so in the era of StarCraft pro gaming) to investigate the interplay between gamers (professional and amateur), media, and their everyday lives. That work became the touchpoint to which I would keep returning as the conversations got more nuanced and global.
Brett Hutchins: In the mid-2000s [2005–7] I was wearing out an Xbox at night while teaching an undergraduate unit called New Media at Monash University during the day (back when that term still meant something, although even then it was problematic). I was also continuing my research on the interactions between sports, digital communications, and mobile media technologies, and the allied industries and markets that support these interactions. My discussions with students in the classroom and with industry informants began to increasingly feature talk of gaming and gamers. The popularity of so-called sports simulations such as FIFA Football and Madden NFL, and their seemingly endless annual iterations, drew attention to the oppressive features of both global media sports and the video games industries (e.g., the affinity for labor exploitation exhibited by corporate behemoths like EA Sports and a demonstrably corrupt organization such as FIFA).
During this period, the aesthetics of sports games were also starting to clearly impact the presentation formats of live professional sports on television, and the evolution of online fan cultures was complicating stereotypical distinctions between sports fans and gamers in the realm of popular culture. Adidas even coined an awkward neologism, jeeks (jocks/geeks), during this period to capture the rise of the male, computer literate sports fan as a target market. In the process, they unintentionally revealed a great deal about the gendered structural inequalities of both the sports and information technology industries.
The growth of professional competitive gaming, tournaments, and events, including the World Cyber Games (WCG) and Major League Gaming, was also occurring. I focused on the WCG in an article, “Signs of Meta-Change in Second Modernity: The Growth of E-Sport and the World Cyber Games,” published by New Media & Society in 2008. I examined it partly because the WCG emerged from South Korea (which I visited for a conference in 2007) and partly because it put an Olympic skin on an esports competition.2 I could see there was something important changing in how gaming, sports, media, competition, spectacle, business, and technology were intersecting. I’m surprised by the uptake of the New Media & Society piece because, at the time, I thought it would be regarded as a curiosity and sink without trace. Since that article, I’ve dipped in and out of teaching and writing about games and esports in books such as Sport Beyond Television.3 The audiences for this work are housed primarily in media studies and the sociology of sports.
Nicholas Taylor: My initial involvement with esports was very opportunistic; it literally started with “a guy walks into a bar.” The bar was the Gladstone Hotel in downtown Toronto, where this esports organization named Dork Army ran retro game nights on Saturdays after they wrapped up their Halo 2 / Halo 3 LANs. One night in fall 2007, I got to chatting with the organizers and learned that during the day on Saturdays, they ran competitive gaming boot camps for young adults interested in Halo. I had just finished my comprehensive exams, and I was working as a research assistant on a few projects related to gaming and gender (York University, 2005–7). While those projects weren’t really ones that I could (or wanted to) cultivate a dissertation project within, they had provided me with a firm foundation in video ethnographic and microethnographic methods (via the work of Sarah Pink and Seth Giddings) and feminist methodologies (particularly the institutional ethnography of Dorothy Smith and the decolonizing ethnographies of Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Kamala Visweswaran).
Dork Army was looking for a videographer, someone who could produce content for their YouTube channel and help their participants get a larger profile; this was in 2007 when Major League Gaming (MLG) had just done one event in Toronto, but the Halo scene had responded by getting more serious about training (which in practice meant less welcoming and less inclusive). I suppose the link to esports was this little community and its regular participants—who, through Dork Army and through the MLG’s professionalization of Halo 2 and then Halo 3, came to understand their activities as esports. This collaboration gave me the opportunity to attend Dork Army’s regular events and carry out my videographic/video ethnographic work.
In the summer of 2008, MLG returned to Toronto, and I attended it as a member of the press (still have the press pass), which was my first experience attending a professional esports event. Earlier that spring, I had attended the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and had sat in on a session in which representatives from DirecTV and Fox Sports gave a hard pitch for the Championship Gaming Series (CGS), the short-lived esports organization that had a city-based structure and competition in multiple games. That session opened my eyes to how media producers in North America were thinking about esports: as a stand-alone media industry rather than what Michael Borowy and Dal Yong Jin call “experience advertising” for the games industry.4 It was also my first encounter with T. L. Taylor (no relation), as we were both in the audience scratching our heads. That opportunistic encounter would prove foundational, for me, as she served as an external member on my dissertation committee.
In fall 2008, I had the chance to follow a team that had formed up through Dork Army events, as they went to Cologne to represent Canada in Halo 3 at the 2008 World Cyber Games tournament. This was the high-water mark for both this community and my own dissertation research; I went on to defend my dissertation in late 2008, and Dork Army dissolved the following spring. Of course, that was when the global economy blew up and the esports organizations that I had followed during my dissertation—specifically, MLG and CGS—folded and/or morphed into something else.
T. L. Taylor: My interest in esports really sprang from some prior work I’d done on MMOs [massively multiplayer online games]. One of the topics I covered in my early stuff on EverQuest (EQ) was an exploration of power gaming, a kind of intensely focused instrumental play that to outsiders often doesn’t look much like play at all but instead work. Just after moving to Denmark back in 2003 to join the faculty at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, I heard about an esports tournament taking place out in the town of Aarhus. Something about it caught my ear, I think because I was already primed for looking at play that was (at least at the time) a bit unconventional, even fairly serious. I was an assistant professor back then and my EQ book was still several years from being published, but it seemed like a great opportunity to not only check out something I was curious about but explore Denmark a bit. I recount the story in my esports book but the punch line is it was a pretty random opportunity and I went with very few expectations and little prior knowledge about esports. Given I hadn’t even gotten my first book out the door, it might’ve been an unwise move to start exploring another domain but I couldn’t resist. Curiosity often gets the better of me, and in this case it really paid off because that first event I attended opened up so many interesting lines to explore.
Emma Witkowski: A difficult pin-drop for me. I got my start with game studies under T. L.’s supervision back in 2004. Her course at IT University on game cultures itself was transformative for me, made me feel like a fish in water; it gave me a thinking space for much of my body practice in elite sports. Under T. L., my master’s research looked at women’s embodied and material access points to play Counter-Strike (CS). That research launched from my own experiences back in 1999 of playing CS 1.5 at the local net-cafes after practices with the men’s basketball team I was coaching ($4/hour!, $20/night-owl special!), and how, in that altered team context from hard court to digital, old tropes popped up online (“you got beaten by a girl”); the stares happened too as I walked into the space and past already-seated players—some strangers would walk over to challenge me to a game; these were familiar experiences from the pickup basketball court not the ongoing team I was with. That distinction in experience of moving with a team or without a team, and as a practiced competitor, was key, and we (coauthor Youi Hojrup) took that to the research table exploring how women from elite sports adopted Counter-Strike play fairly smoothly in the public sphere.
From there my research and industry practice rolled through intervention initiatives in 2005–7, opening up better public pipelines for play and play networks for young women (the LetzPlay Initiative—cocreated with Tina Lybaek—a Danish government- and industry-funded project using computer gameplay to empower young women to tinker their way toward STEM subject familiarity and broader digital leisure opportunities), then to high performance networked team play in Pro/Am World of Warcraft (Arena Tournament)—PhD scholarship under T. L.’s supervision. I was also still playing and coaching basketball professionally during this time (or semiprofessionally depending your definition—I was one of the few folks with a regular wage for my practice on the team). The tl;dr here is: the trifecta of elite sports practice, T. L., and team play.
Henry Lowood: I suppose the first impulse to look at esports seriously came when Dennis Fong (“Thresh”) came to my History of Digital Games course at Stanford as a guest lecturer. I knew about him, of course, but I honestly can’t recall how I initially was put in touch with him. What I do remember is that he was the first guest lecturer—at least in any of my courses—where students lined up after lecture to get his autograph. That was a clue that something was up. This would have been in 2001, I believe. So the link was instruction, with a course that was one of our first projects at the How They Got Game Project in the Stanford Humanities Lab (which I later codirected). I will also mention that I had been active in competitive gaming and sports when I was younger—though the competitive gaming side was not digital games, but board games.
How did your disciplinary background shape how you approached professional gaming in terms of the theories, methods, and empirical sites you saw as relevant?
Florence Chee: Games were always a layer of my life, beginning with the Commodore 64, to text-based BBS games, to the RTS games of WarCraft/StarCraft, and onward to MMORPGs [massively multiplayer online role-playing games] and mobile. Throughout high school, I was an honors student in both professional music and computer science, streaming accordingly into competitive postsecondary programs where Silicon Valley life was the dream. During my undergraduate studies, however, I found I was most interested in the ethnographic studies being done in and around technology and design research. Bonnie Nardi’s work inspired and encouraged me. So my disciplinary home became centered around communication and anthropology. I gravitated toward scholarship where I saw the voices of women of color amplified (bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Dorinne Kondo as early influences) but was ultimately driven to places and questions where I saw gaps to reconcile my learning and experiences of game worlds and their communities with the academic conversation occasionally intersecting.
Ahead of my work in South Korea, Kym Stewart, a fellow graduate student in communication at SFU, did her 2004 master’s thesis on the interplay between media and cultural policy in South Korea. She provided early insight into just how impossible it was to examine professional gaming in a vacuum. Her work with children in educational settings helped give me some early indicators of the social and cultural underpinnings of what would become an international fascination with South Korea’s burgeoning esports scene.
My ethnographic work largely focused on the everyday lives of amateur gamers, with the successes and failures of professional gamers, the industry, and policy providing a political and economic context. It acted as a counterpoint to the moral panic over addiction to online games, in particular. These polemics set the foundation for my work over the following decade(s)!
Brett Hutchins: I completed a PhD in sociology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, focusing on social theory, qualitative methods, and history. At the start of my doctoral studies in the late 1990s, my supervisor insisted I read C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination (1959) and Peter Berger’s Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (1963) from cover to cover.5 This seemed a notably uncool directive given that other students were engaging with the likes of Foucault, Butler, Jameson, Haraway, Bourdieu, Giddens, Bauman, and Lyotard. I found it an enlightening and confounding exercise in equal measure. But reading these books together also left an indelible mark on my thinking. Both Mills and Berger, in different ways, stressed the enduring importance of history in understanding contemporary social life. The stories we tell in the present to construct and make sense of the social world emerge from earlier stories we absorb about where we have come from and who we are individually and collectively, which, in turn, structure expectations about what the future should and will become. This process is fundamental to the exercise of social, economic, and political power given the selective nature of the truths and myths communicated by those privileged enough to define the reality of societies and cultures. Always contested and shifting, these truths determine who is able to speak, who is listened to and recognized, how issues are defined and understood, and who has the resources and right to enact change.
These lessons stayed with me as my thinking and disciplinary orientation shifted to communications and media studies over time, and I started reading James Carey on the rhetoric of the electrical sublime and Vincent Mosco on the digital sublime. Stories told throughout the history of media, consumer technology, and innovation witness powerful commercial and state interests repeatedly promising consumers and citizens that new technologies will realize a more exciting future and better world. (The Silicon Valley ethos or Californian ideology is arguably the apotheosis of this phenomenon in corporate years.) Underpinned by massive corporate, advertising, and public-relations resources and systems, the promise of a better future is hard to resist, not least because it appears somehow inevitable. Yet, this future is always just around the corner and never actually arrives.
When I started examining esports around 2005, I saw stories being told about the future of gaming, sports, and technology. These stories were seeking to make collective sense of esports, define and control the category, communicate its appeal, and grow the cultures and markets around it. The script for this future foretold of esports and cyberathletes forging a bright new future for both gaming and sports that had limitless potential. This story is still being told in different ways, with a current game-changing iteration involving global football clubs such as Real Madrid, Arsenal, and Paris Saint-Germain managing professional esports teams and signing strategic partnerships with the Amazon-owned Twitch. But, as might be guessed from a close reading of history, esports has still not achieved an entirely stable categorical, institutional, or commercial form. Indeed, despite an apparently bright future, the WCG ceased operation in 2013, before the trademark was resurrected by a new operator in 2019.
The institutional, categorical, social, and cultural complexity of esports is what makes it interesting as an object of research, and why I find Ulrich Beck’s theory of second modernity and/or concept of metamorphosis helpful in making sense of it. Sports, gaming, competitive gaming, esports, computing, streaming technologies, screen, and mobile media all continue to overlap, evolve, concretize, dissolve, and reassemble in fits and starts. In my mind, it is this enduring complexity that now needs to be investigated and analyzed if we are to come to grips with the significance of esports.
Nicholas Taylor: At the time of my first involvement in professional gaming, I was less committed to a set of theories than I was to a set of qualitative methodologies. I was an ethnographer looking for an ethnography. When I started, I think I was pretty firmly rooted in a kind of humanist understanding of what ethnography meant, and how video-recording tools could support it: that is to say, I was much more interested in what people were doing and saying in the meat space of my field site than what was unfolding onscreen.
Pretty early on in my dissertation fieldwork (in Toronto, early spring of 2008), a couple of things coalesced to alter my orientation. First, I started getting into science and technology studies (STS) scholarship, initially through the work of Bruno Latour and then branching out from there to feminist STS scholars like Anne Marie Mol, Lucy Suchman, Donna Haraway, and Susan Leigh Star. That work helped expand my understanding of who (and what) was acting in a given sociotechnical arrangement. Second, in a more immediate sense, the players I was videotaping straight up asked me why I was fixating the camera on them and not on the amazing things they were doing onscreen. I think at this point my relation to the community and the field site shifted from video ethnographer to videographer, concerned—as the participants were—with capturing and learning from the rich interplay between their embodied and onscreen actions. I’m not sure this made me a better ethnographer, but it certainly made me a more welcome presence at events. It also gave me a tacit and foundational understanding of how esports are constituted through apparatuses of spectatorship; I could see how my videographic work helped professionalize this community by, in effect, providing an audience for their practices.
T. L. Taylor: My training is in sociology (first as an undergrad at community college and UC Berkeley in the 1980s and then as a graduate student at Brandeis in the 1990s) and qualitative sociology in particular. Even as an undergraduate, we were encouraged to do primary research to try to understand the world. Ultimately, I was drawn to ethnography because it allowed me to get at the things I was most interested in—practices, meaning making, and social organization in everyday life. Qualitative work has always felt like it’s offered me the flexibility to go where participants and the field lead. And while you get a lot of social theory over the course of training in sociology, I was never taught to center a particular theory at the expense of whatever I was encountering in the field. I’ve long called myself theoretically promiscuous and probably low theory at best. When it came to esports, I looked for prior work that helped me better situate what I saw in the field. When my participants kept drawing on sports as a way of explaining esports, I turned to sports lit. When I saw intellectual property skirmishes, I turned to work that helped me think critically about not just IP, but cultural production broadly. Though there’s always a kind of critical red thread woven through my work, I tend to lean on whatever lit best helps me make sense of any given project’s data and puts me in conversation with other scholars in that space.
Emma Witkowski: My interest and approach to esports filters through twenty years in high-performance basketball across some distinct regional organizational sports practices (Australia, USA, Denmark). So that’s some several thousand days of embodied sporting experiences with close teammates whose independent treks through elite-level pipelines were quite dissimilar—even those in the same pipelines. Sports, it turns out, is not an even playing field. I had already dabbled with qualitative methods like home visits, walk-alongs, and cultural probes in an industry-embedded study in my design, communications, and media degree at the IT University of Copenhagen in 2004 (a codesign project with teens on digital interventions for issues on gender and ethically motivated harassment in schools) and quickly saw how ongoing, firsthand, and contextualized knowledge, while at times excruciatingly slow to develop and conduct, was the strongest suit to think with for the research I was interested in and perhaps best suited to do—phenomenologically informed, qualitative sociological research.
T. L. had introduced Iris Young’s “Throwing Like a Girl” piece in class early on, and this mess of sports, methods, and critical phenomenological analysis just knitted together so well.6 (I hope this is a reminder to both students and those teaching in a university how one person, one class, or one reading can matter.) High-performance play (sports and esports) is about a feel of practice for me—how we feel structures, how we feel pressure, how we feel a win, how we feel great opponents and find balance with those less-than-great teammates or coaches or adjudicators or onlookers, and that is an ongoing experience, with all the potential for change. Exploring that feeling of intense play and ongoing participation, from those in the mix, is the most electrifying stuff in esports. It can also be very ugly or messy, as it gets to the trace knowledge of failure, retirement, desire, injury, exhaustion, harassment, being a bit broken by and through play while still adoring it all and doing it again the next day, or being devastated by it and leaving it behind for good. Jaquelyn Allen-Collinson has been a go-to inspirational scholar for me from sports phenomenology, as have many sports scholars oriented toward the sensuousness of competition and collaboration in sports and games. From games and media studies, folks like T. L., Nick, Holin Lin, and Helen Kennedy, who were talking about embodiment, balance, gender, spectatorship, and the pleasures of making a good networked game moment before most. I turn to Ben Carrington and Kishonna Gray for critical thinking and ethnographies on media, race, and infrastructures of marginalization in games and sports. And it is STS scholars such as Lucy Suchman and Susan Leigh Star who flicked on a switch about where to look, for the important stuff was “in the boring bits,” and “plans versus actions” matter.7 (Both Suchman and Star could be useful for those writing esports marketing reports—there’s not too much so-called boring stuff in them, depending how you feel about infographics, and we rarely hear about the outcome of actions in these popular forms of spreadable data.)
It’s qualitative case studies and ethnographic research/approaches all the way down for me—perhaps Henry was a part of this turn, too. During our co-run event E-Sports and Cyberathleticism Workshop: European Edition in May 2010, I recall it as him closing a discussion on the complexities of esports practice with “more ethnographies please.”8 From this moment on, when flummoxed by respective research issue, myself and Douglas Wilson, a fellow PhD candidate at the time, would ask WWHLD (What Would Henry Lowood Do?). Ethnographic work in games, sports, and media was and remains the most critical work being produced for esports thinking; it is theory building, grounded in practice, and when ethically produced, gives voice to humans and nonhumans in play.
Henry Lowood: My disciplinary background is history of science and technology (HST), in which I received a PhD from UC Berkeley, and library and information studies, in which I have an MLIS, also from Berkeley. HST definitely shaped my approach to historical game studies. In fact, I have unashamedly referred to my strategy as simply recasting questions from HST in terms that match up with game studies, so users become players, etc. I am only half-joking (but yes, not entirely serious). I should also mention here that I have always taken sports studies quite seriously, even though I have no formal academic training in that discipline. Of course, there are always problems with porting over ideas, questions, and methods from one discipline to another, so I will put it this way: for me, it has always been more compelling to seek analogies between sports and games than, say, between literature or cinema and games, as happens more frequently in our field. With this perspective, I suppose it was not unexpected that I would find esports interesting!
In a nutshell, this all flows from the nature of sports as fundamentally performative, improvisational, and skills-based, but within a framework of authored rules. This tension between performance and authorship is summarized by a question I have often posed in classes or lectures: Is the creative act in games/sports exemplified by James Naismith or Michael Jordan in the case of basketball? We could just as well ask, John Carmack or Thresh?
Besides the performative nature of games generally, esports in particular emphasizes another connection between games and physical sports: spectatorship. The attention given to both the live and mediated spectator experiences has been a critical area for the development (and monetization) of esports. It also brings into sharp relief some topics that I explore historically. For example, the development of technologies and techniques of replay, or technologies of camera placement in games (which has been an issue for production teams involved with some of the team-based games).
What was it like to conduct this research at the time with respect to issues of access and funding?
Florence Chee: The early days were unreservedly harder than the later days—with respect to academic regard for game research (and related activity). For the intellectual community, I was fortunate enough to already be in a field with a growing community and newly formed associations (AoIR, DiGRA) around 2002–3, where there were folks already discussing how far game research had come since the days of “Hey cool, we’re actually studying games.”
At that time, I was extremely fortunate to be working in Canada with Richard Smith at SFU, then the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMIC), and the Centre for Policy Research on Science & Technology (CPROST) for over ten years (2001–12), who was working in innovation systems (and would become my mentor and champion for years to come), providing the scaffolding and scholarly community that incubated my research. I had the benefit of awareness of, interaction with, and access to formidable scholars who came together through various and similar interests (e.g., TerraNova blog, AoIR, and a lot of virtual communities; Andrew Feenberg, a Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology, who would also become part of my doctoral committee; collaborating with Larissa Hjorth, Dal Yong Jin, international scholars in education, business, and many more).
Sustained support and permission to fail is the common story behind almost everything good and there is no exception here. Having worked in European and Asian contexts in which there has been governmental investment in projects, research, and games, the common thread has been longer timelines and investment in people themselves (of which I am definitely a beneficiary!). So I definitely have a systems view of esports given its regional genesis and idiosyncrasies.
Brett Hutchins: I have been fortunate when it comes to funding and access because the former secures time and space for the latter. Australian universities still have a functioning system for the public funding of research despite repeated attacks on it by conservative federal governments and politicians, including one ministerial scandal where I was directly implicated.9 Australian Research Council schemes are incredibly competitive and far from perfect, but they nonetheless make it possible for pure research to be conducted in the humanities and social sciences. These schemes allowed me to develop three- and four-year projects with an esports and/or gaming component built into wider investigations of digital and mobile media sport.
An unspoken truth of many research projects is that scholars investigate areas and people they can access, which obviously works differently across different media and sporting cultures. For example, while I enjoy playing games, my teenage son will tell you I have zero credibility as a gamer, competitive, casual, or otherwise. Nonetheless, there can be distinct advantages to being an outsider. It allows insights that those buried deep inside a culture or subculture can sometimes miss, which is part of why I choose to ground esports both sociologically and historically in my work. My collaborators and I have also learned the value of simply asking people what they do and why it matters so much to them (i.e., take me for a tour of your world). Many people want to share their thoughts and motivations provided they are genuinely listened to and respected (which is not the same thing as being agreed with on all issues, especially in male-dominated subcultures like professional sport or esports). Something valuable can also be learned about insider-outsider group relations even when having a door slammed repeatedly in one’s face, despite the fact it is no fun. As any decent ethnographer will tell you, there are ways of developing knowledge and building analysis by reflecting on this variability and the intricacies of negotiating access.
Nicholas Taylor: As I mentioned above, this work was nothing if not opportunistic. I had inadvertently stumbled upon a local competitive gaming community as it started negotiating the very rocky and very tumultuous early professionalization of North American esports—pre-Twitch, pre-League [League of Legends]. Access to the community was negotiated through a kind of reciprocal arrangement where my video ethnographic work of documenting players’ interactions became more like videographic work, dramatizing and aestheticizing players’ abilities and personas. The key player in here—the video camera—was provided by the research group I was a part of at York University (and indirectly, by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), as was the funding that allowed me to attend GDC and WCG ʼ08. Without those trips, my work would not have connected so directly to the globalizing circuits of esports—already well-established in Europe and South Korea. I was able to negotiate access to the major tournaments at which I carried out video-based work (MLG Toronto and WCG) by obtaining a press pass; I did this just by asking for one, and I imagine this is impossible for someone as uncredentialed as I was then to do now.
T. L. Taylor: I count myself lucky on a few points: I lived in Europe during a very vibrant period for esports there and I got to work at a university that supported games research. Perhaps there is a third: I consider myself as a solo ethnographer a very cost-efficient research instrument! I didn’t require a massive budget to do my work, and I often piggybacked meet-ups on top of conference trips or other things. That said, there were interesting challenges. The volatility and ephemeral nature of so many esports ventures back then meant that tracking stuff over time was no small feat. And I’ve written about how my gender and age in particular shaped my access to the field in both ways that open and closed access. But, overall, I feel really fortunate that I spent some of the toughest years of an academic career—the pretenure period—outside of the US system and in a community that valued the kind of research I was doing.
Emma Witkowski: I’ll just address access here, as it slices into funding and mobility—the body is deeply in play as we do research, and very much so in esports. Nick Taylor and Shira Chess have this piece in Masculinities in Play that starts with a wild vignette from a LAN party that speaks to many things about game cultures, but also about access as a researcher and who gets in not because they asked, but because—body.10 Todd Harper has a great reflective take on the body in research through the lens of expertise (and how/why/when to hide it in esports research).11 And T. L. has also spoken about this in esports research. I recall us talking when Game Boys (Kane) came out, after reading that passage where Kane was casually invited for drinks by a team after a tournament, to which we both shared a familiar glance, that look of “nope, not for us.”12 Not getting invited to the bar to keep the esports talk going is not a big deal (trust can be built through other places, rituals, and relationships, though they may take more time to nurture than what happens when sharing a brew), but it does highlight some embodied troubles in access, and other high-stakes issues (including time and cost as always, issues surrounding trust and feeling represented, along with issues linked to expertise and access to it with a given game culture), which drives us all the way down to the question of who gets to participate in knowledge production itself and what experiences, whose experiences in this networked sports culture are effectively addressed. Access is one of those research nodes that looks basic (Are you in or out? Yes or no?), but carries with it so many sociopolitical layers surrounding knowledge production that it is essential to reflect on it when entering into a relationship with any piece of esports research.
Henry Lowood: If this question refers to the period around 2000 to 2008 or so, everything was pretty new, undiscovered, or random in terms of access to research materials. I should mention here that the Stephen F. Cabrinety Collection in the History of Microcomputing, which we brought in at Stanford in 1999–2000, was as far as I know the first historical software collection acquired by a museum, library, or archive. It consists to a large extent of game software. The same lack of accessibility was true of other sources—magazines, archives, etc. For my work, funding began to come in at first through internal (Stanford) grants, which was the purpose of the Stanford Humanities Lab, and then through game preservation activities, such as the Library of Congress and then the Institute for Museum and Library Services funding the Preserving Virtual Worlds project.
What kind of reception did your research receive, whether in your home field, game studies, or something else?
Florence Chee: To this day, I still embrace the project of creating an “island of misfit toys,” where I am able to talk with a multitude of disciplines (e.g., learning about gender in game development isn’t just about how short to make character hemlines!). Having done the gamut of research methods courses from a number of disciplines qualitative and quantitative, I was pretty confident that I knew how to do research. However, by the time I did my PhD comps, I was nonetheless blown away, surprised, and disappointed at how many adjacent fields talked about (and over one another about) the exact same things. I try to keep this in mind whenever I’m engaging with game studies, and multiply siloed perspectives in general.
It’s been too easy to erase entire histories in the interests of convenience, canon, or siloing in game studies. My North American training and exposure to gameworlds has vastly benefitted from international engagement with global contexts, so I feel the need to speak about this. Specifically, where there is a tendency to talk about esports as a monolith, Korea's role in forming the very politics, economics, platforms, structures and practices of the field has been more foundational than it’s been given credit for. There is still comparatively little representation in international academic discourse considering Korea’s disproportionately large influence in practice and industry.
I like the ability to center ongoing work in and around game studies that interfaces with critical race, gender, ethics, and justice writ large (Lisa Nakamura, André Brock, Kishonna Gray, Amanda Phillips, Tara Fickle, and Christopher Patterson and more).These scholars provide critical insights and tools for everyone to further examine, with surgical precision, what might have previously received more awkward treatments with blunter instruments.
Brett Hutchins: As I mentioned earlier, I am pleased with the reception to the article on esports and the WCG in New Media & Society, which continues to be read and cited. This response suggests I managed to ground esports and their Olympification both socially and historically for the reader. While not achieving the same recognition, my other pieces on sports and gaming appear to be used intermittently in teaching and research in media studies and the sociology of sports.
My engagement with game studies has involved a mixed set of responses, although this is to be expected given my disciplinary background and my polemicist tendencies. Emma, Marcus Carter, and I were on an esports roundtable together at an interactive entertainment and gaming conference in Melbourne in 2013 that proved an interesting experience (roundtable title: “E-Sports on the Rise? Critical Considerations on the Growth and Erosion of Organized Digital Gaming Competitions”). The silence from the audience after I finished speaking was something to behold. In asking whether competitive gaming wanted to be a sport (or at least something like it), I had offered a blunt critique of the excesses of hypercommodified professional sports and asked whether professional esports was at risk of repeating and intensifying these problems. The saving grace was that at least Emma agreed with me! The flip side of this silence was the openness and thoughtfulness of T. L. when she agreed to be interviewed in 2016 for my Media Sport Podcast Series (episode 22).13 We discussed esports, social inclusion, fandom, and live streaming. It’s one of the best interviews in the series and among the most downloaded. There is so much to be learned from dialogue across disciplinary and subdisciplinary boundaries, as our discussion shows.
Nicholas Taylor: I found incredibly supportive reception for this work through the Canadian Game Studies Association, which was—and remains—one of the most welcoming sites for graduate student games scholarship. It is multidisciplinary, inclusive, and eclectic, and prioritizes graduate student development. I also got a lot of support at DiGRA (especially the 2009 DiGRA conference in the UK). Both conferences allowed me to workshop presentations that eventually became dissertation chapters and journal articles. I think my ethnographic focus on grassroots competitive gaming found rich grounds in these communities because of the pioneering work of folks like Helen Kennedy, T. L. Taylor, and Holin Lin; that is, even as esports may’ve been somewhat of a novelty, these academic communities were very open to ethnographic work that took seriously the interplay between intensive gaming, identity formation, and specific contexts.
I will say that this work was more difficult to communicate for what was then my disciplinary home (education), though I am grateful to my dissertation advisor and committee (on which T. L. Taylor—no relation—served as an external member) that I was not made to frame my ethnography in explicitly educational terms and theories. I’d also point out that while I found myself as part of a pre-existing niche in places like CGSA and DiGRA, the bulk of scholarship in those humanities-focused communities was certainly more in the vein of representationalist and/or formal analyses of games.
T. L. Taylor: Interesting, and tough, question! Like many sociologists doing work on the internet or technology in the 1990s, we had to contend with a discipline largely out of step with what was happening in that domain (though there is now a section dedicated to communication, IT, and media sociology so that’s progress!). Though I attended the American Sociological Association all through grad school and endured their brutal job search system, I had no luck landing a job in the discipline. I’d also found an intellectual home in the 4S [Society for Social Studies of Science] back then, but even there often found myself on strange potluck panels (the one that plopped me into a group researching transhumanism was probably the most hilarious). So, like a number of fellow tech sociologists during that period, my first prof job was in a comm department where they didn’t always understand what I was up to but I think felt I added an important new-media angle and encouraged me. I was fortunate that the AoIR conference launched that same year and finding that community was fantastic. When I then moved to the ITU Copenhagen in 2003 to join one of the first formal centers for games research, I felt my interests being largely aligned and supported by the institution I was in and especially the department colleagues I had.
Even though esports research was still pretty fringe within game studies at that time (which was itself very fringe), those were fantastic years intellectually in so many ways. I connected up with the folks included in this roundtable for one! And some pretty important collaborations happened for me during that period—for example, the esports workshop history projects I did first with Henry and then the follow-up focusing on Europe with Emma, archives of which you can find online.14
Emma Witkowski: I remember having to pivot midtalk as the audience revealed deep confusion in their facial expressions while I was presenting at a Sociology of Sport conference in 2010. I ended up using all of my presentation time on explaining the basic gameplay of 3v3 Arena (World of Warcraft)—the talk was supposed to be on player physicality in esports, and my take was that the audience was not having any of that riffraff! Computer games and sports physicality—not on their watch! I give myself most of the blame here for not providing a better introduction to embodiment in digital play, but that was the toughest crowd I have run into. It was alien space talk. Brett was not in that audience, how I wish he was! (And I am looking forward to hearing about Brett’s various receptions and reviews to his early 2008 piece on esport.) Two years later, at another sports workshop, the engagement was completely different (albeit, different crowd), with common texts and concepts shared (on play and rules, like Caillois and Suits) and the feel of play energetically discussed from new circus to football—getting into the right room is everything, and these early discussions with established and emerging sports-studies folks was so generative for me as a scholar. One comment has always stuck out to me from this time, when David Carless (who was doing life-story research in sports) turned to me after a presentation and said (paraphrasing) “you know, you are probably the first person to ask them about their interests, listen to them, and take their passion seriously.” Sports-studies folks have been there all along in esports, from Brett’s early work, in adjacent spaces like media sports studies, and through the conversations that shaped my own early thinking surrounding organized high-performance play. (Aside: I did not get accepted into 2008 DiGRA for my first conference submission on esports research [but esports were present there with T. L. and perhaps someone else?]; I wish I could find that abstract to see what went wrong there.)
Henry Lowood: I suppose the surprising thing is that I never encountered an immediate negative reaction to working on games, although I know that there were instances of academic institutions rejecting efforts to establish game.
How would you say esports research has changed today, whether in terms of objects, methods, or theories?
Florence Chee: I’m seeing more robustness and nuance, which is great. More attention to diversity, acknowledgment of the attendant global labor forces that form how we play and perceive leisure. And with that, recognizing that theorycraft happens in a variety of places and multiple modes implicates a wide variety of literacies in which we could all do better and more of.
Brett Hutchins: The other participants in this survey are better qualified to answer these questions, and I’m not being falsely modest in saying this given their collective body of work and expertise. I approach esports indirectly through the lens of critical media studies, which means my engagement with media studies, the sociology of media, and the sociology of sports outpaces my reading in games studies.
An observation I will offer is about researchers working in areas such as sports media, media studies, and the sociology of sports. Speaking as an editorial board member and reviewer for several journals, it is striking how esports keeps being (re)discovered in these areas without properly engaging with the games studies literature and the historical materials that are available. The result is familiar tropes about esports as a growing industry, an opportunity for elite sports leagues and teams to engage younger fans, and an area that changes sports and how they are understood. All of these points have been made in one way or another since the turn of the millennium. As readers of this journal know, competitive computer gaming is far from new, and esports intersect through an array of established and emergent social practices, cultures, politics, technologies, and industries. Those of us who teach and research outside the boundaries of games studies need to respect this fact and understand the benefit of engaging with those who specialize in it.
Nicholas Taylor: There’s clearly been an explosion of scholarly interest from sports-management folks and from mass-comm folks, and the points of direct contact between this prolific and frequently highly cited work, and the early work on competitive gaming (frequently critical and/or ethnographic work) carried out by folks on this roundtable among others, are very few. We know that esports studies have been around longer than esports itself became a settled term, but in reading a lot of recent scholarship, you’d only think that folks started studying esports in 2017. We’ve seen the same thing happen in game studies more broadly, as well as internet studies—a papering over of much of the earlier, critical, and/or feminist, frequently qualitative work. To borrow a clichéd cultural studies phrase, esports scholarship seems to be “always already” new, which perhaps resonates with attempts on the part of the esports industry to position esports as perpetually on the cusp (financially, culturally, technologically, etc.). This is sort of a well-worn gripe. But it does flag the sense that certain kinds of esports research have become economically performative; as indicated by the aims and rhetoric around the UCI Esports Conference in 2018, much of what constitutes more recent waves of esports scholarship seems aimed at working with industry: categorizing and predicting audience behaviors, building analytics tools for esports organizations, and so on. It’s in this kind of framework that that enables Activision-Blizzard’s CEO investing millions into a big, public university esports program to be touted as a success.15 The money will support the school’s new esports minor, which includes “data analytics, user experience, design, game development, economics and sports management.”16 A great boon for folks in those areas, for sure, but perhaps we ought to be concerned about the ways this turns publicly funded education into an ancillary arm of the esports and gaming industry.
We also ought to pay attention to the material and economic conditions of university research itself. A few of us have pointed to the ongoing (and perhaps heightened) importance of critical, interpretive, and ethnographic work in esports. At the same time, we’re seeing heightened interest on multiple fronts (administrators, esports industry folks, research faculty, students) in university research that tangibly benefits—does work for—the esports industry. Everything from AI-based training models to performance analytics tools to software and hardware optimization. Under these conditions, in which these kinds of (industry-friendly) research gain heightened visibility and agency, it’s easy to see why and how the critical and ethnographic work that was foundational to early esports studies gets glossed over. It doesn’t fit the narrative of universities partnering up with an exciting, new, youth-focused pastime.
T. L. Taylor: Much like esports itself, it’s no longer niche. Lots of folks are doing esports research in a range of disciplines which is a pretty interesting development and has some fascinating potential. But several things currently concern me. I have a sense that prior work done is largely forgotten (welcome to internet and game studies eternal curse again!), and we risk recreating the wheel and in turn not building on/extending knowledge. We are also seeing esports hooked into ed tech or dreams of yet-another-STEM-pipeline (much like what happened with game design in the early 2000s as it got taken up in the university); yet there is far too little critical reflection happening with this move. Researchers are too often buying the hype of the industry outright or instrumentalizing for it. I’d love to see critical, cultural, historical, phenomenological, feminist, and sociotechnical approaches not get crushed with this shift. Esports research, and teaching on the subject, should not be framed as in the service of the industry (or any pipelines)—this would be an unambitious and unimaginative understanding of the work of scholarship and teaching.
Emma Witkowski: Decontextualizing, universalizing, hot take, and easy-to-spread data—or what I’ve started calling “stats magic” in some cases (with mystical powers to influence events through a poorly produced number) are real issues for the health of esports. As an academic who advises government branches on esports and as a frequent industry commentator on sociocultural matters in esports, these loose numbers haunt all of us in and around this sector, mostly in the format of the marketing report produced by the industry or association attempting to monetize esports locally and transnationally. The fuzzy data that can be found in many of these documents become the stuff of our everyday work life, in that these numbers have to be addressed, broken apart, and made real (often too late, when the ship has already sailed), which works to take away both time and energy from pressing concerns such as developing integrity structures or antidiscrimination codes in local esports and the critical networks to advance preventative interventions and evaluation. These are the not-so-quick-to-develop data I would like to see more of spread about in the everyday sphere, and if not leading the conversation, then at least with a look in at the decision-making table—research that is deeply attached to local practices and how to support and address the persistent issues therein, beyond economic growth, market potential, and the stats magic smeared onto the object of cord-cutting young men.
Nick’s work within the fast-paced growth of institutionalized esports in North American universities is vital here; his on-the-ground work with existing university game communities and teams sheds light on why and how the context matters for the development of a program and interests of everyday participants, and what is lost when local actors are removed from their own culture and decision-making processes. Sarah Pink has some excellent points here too on the value of data ethnography (qualitative data, or what Pink calls ethnographic awareness is required to contextualize big data; this is a responsibility required of those creating our technological futures), and key lessons can be learned from Tricia Wang’s time with Nokia (“Why Big Data Needs Thick Data”), and how her slow, low case numbers research was devalued at a time (The big stats produced at Nokia revealed none of Wang’s insights) where contextualized knowledge was the key to understanding how locals use and develop meaningful practices with networked technologies.17 For companies in charge of such critical communication and everyday technologies or involved in maintaining major sectors of youth leisure, entertainment, and organized sport (Nokia in the 1990s; Discord, Twitch and Riot in the 2020s), Wang makes it very clear that key decisions are being made off “incomplete data.” So WWHLD? More ethnographies please, and while we are here—these can be made by and with emerging researchers, from emerging esports regions in order that we capture how play and esports practices are achieved by the diverse public playing them daily.
Henry Lowood: From an academic perspective, I hope we will see more in-depth historical or ethnographic work of the sort that T. L. Taylor, Emma Witkowski, and others have delivered. No question, as far as I am concerned, that they are doing right by the need for more critical and historical studies. I do follow the sports management and business studies related to esports, but find the general drifts of the questions asked to be less compelling, though of course they are crucially important for organizers, sponsors, marketing, communication, and the like. A third area that has developed more recently, but is growing in intensity, is the development of critical and proactive approaches to diversity and inclusion in esports. This is an especially interesting area, because it has enormous potential for shining lights on issues from esports that carry over to all forms of games and play. In that sense, it is an especially exciting area because it represents a set of topics in which esports research can lead game studies to new areas of engagement.
1. ^ The Esports Research Network (https://esportsresearch.net/), founded in 2019 by Gamification Group at Tampere University, the Media, Management, and Transformation Centre at Jönköping University, and the Esports Lab at Siegen University, describes itself as “a collaboration of various researchers fostering interdisciplinary research on the emerging phenomenon of esports.”
2. ^ Brett Hutchins, “Signs of Meta-Change in Second Modernity: The Growth of E-Sport and the World Cyber Games,” New Media & Society 10, no. 6 (2008): 851–69.
3. ^ Brett Hutchins and David Rowe, Sport Beyond Television: The Internet, Digital Media and the Rise of Networked Media Sport (New York: Routledge, 2012).
4. ^ 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): 2254–75.
5. ^ C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (1959; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); and Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963).
6. ^ Iris Marion Young, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality,” Human Studies 3, no. 2 (1980): 137–56.
7. ^ Lucy Suchman, “Situated Actions,” in Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions, 2nd ed., Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 69–84, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511808418.008; and Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 377–91, https://doi.org/10.1177/00027649921955326.
8. ^ Esports and Cyberathleticism Workshop: European Edition (2010), IT University of Copenhagen. Archive of event available at https://archive.org/details/esports-workshop-europe-2010.
9. ^ Brett Hutchins and Libby Lester, “Some Questions for Simon Birmingham, from Two Researchers Whose ARC Grant He Quashed,” The Conversation, October 29, 2018, https://theconversation.com/some-questions-for-simon-birmingham-from-two-researchers-whose-arc-grant-he-quashed-105838.
10. ^ Nicholas Taylor and Shira Chess, “Not So Straight Shooters: Queering the Cyborg Body in Masculinized Gaming,” in Masculinities in Play, ed. Nicholas Taylor and Gerald Voorhees (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature, 2018), 263–79.
11. ^ Todd Harper, “The Art of War: Fighting Games, Performativity, and Social Game Play” (PhD diss., Ohio University, 2010).
12. ^ Michael Kane, Game Boys: Professional Videogaming’s Rise from the Basement to the Big Time (New York: Viking, 2008).
13. ^ Brett Hutchins, “Episode 22—T. L. Taylor: The Rise and Significance of eSports,” October 2016, in The Media Sport Podcast Series, podcast, 31:00, https://open.spotify.com/episode/4RBXKmuS4BgXRi06KboZ2a.
14. ^ Archive of the Esports and Cyberathleticism Workshop held at Stanford in 2009 is available at https://archive.org/details/esports-workshop-stanford-2009 and the follow-up 2010 event focusing on the European scene is available at https://archive.org/details/esports-workshop-europe-2010.
15. ^ Eben Novy-Williams and Scott Soshnick, “Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick Donates $4 Million to Michigan for Esports Program,” Sportico, April 20, 2021, https://www.sportico.com/personalities/executives/2021/activision-blizzard-ceo-bobby-kotick-donates-4-million-to-michigan-for-esports-program-1234627683/.
16. ^ Novy-Williams and Soshnick, “Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.”
17. ^ Tricia Wang, “Why Big Data Needs Thick Data,” Ethnography Matters (blog), January 20, 2016, https://medium.com/ethnography-matters/why-big-data-needs-thick-data-b4b3e75e3d7.