If you ask esports fans where folks should go to learn about esports history, they are likely to mention Liquipedia as a rich resource of information about competitive teams and the games people organize around.1 It is a fan-run wiki site that derives a great deal of popularity from its association with Team Liquid, a competitive esports industry titan that originated from an English-language esports forum. Many people hoping to keep track of specific players or teams eventually find their way to Liquipedia because it hosts a unique database. Today, users can use the site to access a curated record of professional and semiprofessional competitions for close to twenty esports. Pages are indexed (mostly) to teams (which contain extensively cited organizational histories), individual players (which contain biographies and links to interviews), and tournaments (which often have or link out to granular in-game data about particular matches). However, the information collected is far from complete, and database entries can vary widely in terms of their comprehensiveness.
Liquipedia is notable because it represents a specific narrative template for historicizing esports. The site harbors an information-wealthy database of names, dates, and prize pools that dedicated fans maintain in order to preserve their favorite games’ histories. More than just a labor of love, Liquipedia represents and enables a familiar type of history to many esports fans. It is a database of wins and losses that appears to represent, at best, an amalgamation of facts—positivist, objective, and seemingly apolitical—about the upper echelons of competitive play.
But for every story it can and does tell, there are many more that Liquipedia can’t, doesn’t, and was never intended to. These limitations are familiar to many scholars, researchers, journalists, and enthusiasts who have dedicated themselves to expanding the scope of game history. Game history is never just about its most obvious traces and self-evident objects, whether they take the form of a rare cartridge, an interview with a famous designer, or the organizational history of a popular esports team. And above and beyond the objects of history themselves, written history and historical practice are reflexive practices, as much reflective of historians’ interests, archives, narrativizing, and knowledge-making practices as they are of the brute existence of the past.
When we launched the call for this special issue in early 2020, just as COVID-19 was escalating from speculative threat to global calamity, we posed the question: “what is esports history a history of?” In doing so, we wanted to open up alternative ways of contextualizing the phenomenon of professional video game competition. Doing so took on particular importance at the cusp of the 2020s, as the balance of esports scholarship has shifted rapidly away from the qualitative, critical studies that defined its early years.2
The first fifteen years of esports scholarship has proved foundational, but we contend that the methodological and epistemological trajectory of the field increasingly takes the existence of its research objects for granted. For example, there is a tendency—intentional or not—for esports scholarship to work in and reinforce the frame of sports proffered, among other places, by digital game publishing conglomerates such as Riot Games, Activision-Blizzard, and Valve. In such cases, the shifting technological and financial arrangements that enable esports in the first place often fall out of the problem space of esports research, and instead grapple with individual players’ or organizations’ experiences. At worst, this can amount to a form of boosterism for highly capitalized game publishers that papers over the less savory aspects of esports at all levels or succumbs to what Christo Sims calls “disruptive fixation,” the cycles of hype and disappointment that accompany the arrival of new technologies that promise to “fix” systemic problems, especially in educational settings.3
To be sure, there are scholars whose work helps push back against some of these tendencies. As an example, we point to Nicholas Taylor and Bryce Stout’s ethnography of how a collegiate esports club founded on “diversity” ended up reinforcing the very values it sought to disrupt,4 or Matt Knutson’s writing on media artifacts and the temporalities of “frame-perfect” play.5 We also want to nod to a large body of investigative journalism on esports that pushes back against narratives of endless growth and innovation.6 But as this issue attests, we also believe that historical scholarship offers another kind of antidote to the uncritical acceptance of what esports, and esports scholarship, is. That is, close attention to how esports emerges as an object of study denaturalizes what it means to study esports, laying bare that what counts as esports research today was neither necessary nor inevitable.
To our knowledge, this is the first special issue in the Anglo-academic world dedicated to esports history. And yet we are faced with a central contradiction: it contains no writing by scholars who are trained as or identify primarily as historians. Rather, the disciplines that are most represented in this issue—and esports research as a whole—are communication and media studies, fields that often (though certainly not always) address presentist concerns. This is not inherently a problem. For one, historical thinking is not opposed to the present. Moreover, research in these fields has often served as an important resource for later historians, who bring to bear historical methods that are less common in communication and media research.
Still, this presented us with an editorial challenge: ROMchip is—strictly speaking—a journal of game histories. It privileges historical methods and historical thinking and addresses, on the main, what we call “the past.” How do we square this mission with the disciplinary backgrounds of the authors represented in this issue? Our answer: we do not claim that this issue is doing capital-H History so much as it is pointing to the different ways that esports, as an object of research, historical or otherwise, might be constructed.
As this issue demonstrates, a history of esports can be an examination of many things: a history of work, of play, of data usage, of privacy, of money, of geopolitics, of race, of gender, of game publishing, of internet infrastructures, of internet celebrity, and more. With the work collected here, we open up spaces of empirical inquiry, new lenses on competitive gaming for all kinds of scholars.
This special issue consists of four peer-reviewed articles, two interviews, and one Materials piece. Taken together, they suggest a different, more expansive understanding of what kinds of topics may be included under the heading of esports research. Though each contribution shares a common interest in some aspect of competitive gaming, the varying ways our authors have constructed and situated their research objects speaks to the many possible histories that run through professional video game competition. These perspectives are not, of course, exhaustive. But it’s our hope that they may nonetheless inspire future researchers in esports to think more expansively about esports and its histories.
Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux’s article, “Golden Ticket: Money Games at The Dota 2 International Championship in China,” works by (rather literally) following the money—or, at least, what counts as money. Tracing the journey of a single ticket to The International—the annual championship for the popular esport Dota 2—Boluk and LeMieux map the various money games as the ticket is bought and sold and bought and sold, constantly being valued and revalued as it passes through different contexts. Those contexts, which range from platform economies of the Steam Marketplace to Chinese tech policy, don’t simply tell a fascinating story about the lifespan of a ticket, but highlight the many points of entry from which one might examine professional gaming.
In “Out of the Café and into the Arena: Esports Spaces and Neoliberalization in Turkey,” Onder Can and Maxwell Foxman examine what theories about social production of space can provide to the study of esports. Looking at three Turkish venues, a LAN café, a gaming house, and an esports arena, Can and Foxman point to how these spaces both produce, and are produced by, broader trends toward neoliberalization and authoritarianism in Turkey. Though many imagine competitive gaming as an escape from everyday life, Can and Foxman’s analysis of space reveals the role of competitive gaming in creating the very reality from which players yearn to escape.
Nick Taylor, for his part, traces the development of what he calls “kinesthetic masculinity” by looking at “a complex rearrangement of capital, new technologies, infrastructures of communication and transportation, and discourses around gender, class, race, and sport” over the last century. Doing so grounds contemporary debates about gaming and masculinity in a longer history of the coproduction of masculinity in esports. Departing from the quaint humanism that dominates much of sports studies, Taylor illustrates how media apparatuses have always played an important role in both creating and transforming hegemonic masculinities, from late nineteenth-century boxers to today’s celebrity gamers.
For Tara Fickle, this special issue presented an opportunity to revisit her theorization of “ludo-orientalism” in The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities and how it plays out in contemporary esports discourses.7 Fickle illustrates how racialization works to distinguish two kinds of value-producing activities—gold farming and esports—in order to legitimate the latter and denigrate the former within the broader discursive economies of racial capitalism. By analyzing a corpus of esports documentaries, Fickle demonstrates “how the Asian body ‘at work at play’ constitutes a challenging subject to the documentary form’s efforts at legitimating esports.”
The issue continues with two interviews. In the first, Iris Bull speaks with Gatumchun, a pseudonymous Twitter personality who grew to prominence for doing Korean-English translations of Overwatch League, opening a window into aspects of esports fandom that Anglocentric esports fans might otherwise never see. Though neither a trained journalist nor a historian, Gatumchun’s output—some tens of thousands of Tweets—constitutes an unusual, ephemeral kind of archive. In their wide-ranging interview, Bull and Gatumchun address what this kind of work means, what it offers to scholars interested in esports, the kinds of cross-cultural fandom it enables, and the politics of translation.
Next, Matt Jungsuk Howard and William Clyde Partin hosted a group interview with a sextet of scholars who were foundational to the kinds of approaches to esports that this issue both highlights and encourages more of. Instead of a traditional literature review, this group interview is intended to “provide thick context around the emergence of research on esports” in order to historicize that emergence. As Howard and Partin write, “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.”
Rounding out the issue is Materials, a section of ROMchip dedicated to close readings of individual artifacts. Javon Goard, Stephanie Jones, Jaymon Ortega, and Kishonna Gray produced a recorded panel discussion that addresses previously unaired footage of four Black NBA players playing StarCraft over LAN just prior to the 1999 NBA finals. After going viral on Twitter in 2019, the clip sparked discussion about Black gaming history, a “context underexplored in the cultural memory of competitive gaming.” The panelists revisit and extend this discussion, centering Black gamers and creators in order to highlight how (e)sports and gaming have factored into Black contributions to popular culture.
2. ^ For an excellent, fairly recent literature review, see: Jason G. Reitman, Maria J. Anderson-Coto, Minerva Wu, Je Seok Lee, and Constance Steinkuehler, “Esports Research: A Literature Review,” Games and Culture 15, no. 1 (2020): 32–50.
3. ^ Christo Sims, Disruptive Fixation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).
4. ^ Nicholas Taylor and Bryce Stout, “Gender and the Two-Tiered System of Collegiate Esports,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 37, no. 5 (2020): 451–65.
5. ^ Matt Knutson, “Frame-Perfect: Temporalities in Competitive Gaming” (PhD diss., University of California, Irvine, 2020).
6. ^ See, for example: Cecilia d’Anastasio, “Shady Numbers and Bad Business: Inside the Esports Bubble,” Kotaku, May 23, 2019, https://kotaku.com/as-esports-grows-experts-fear-its-a-bubble-ready-to-po-1834982843.
7. ^ Tara Fickle, The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities (New York: New York University Press, 2019).