Often far removed from their humble origins, competitive, corporate-sponsored esports events represent an alluring spectacle of razzle-dazzle. Sorting through artifacts and experiences that distinguish them from other social gatherings is certainly a daunting task. Given the geographic reach of broadcast events, historians and ethnographers are under unique pressure to account for the particularities of esports experienced in a particular region and at a certain time. Organizing research around these staged programs can follow from inquiry into various roles and subject positions, technologies, and infrastructures that experts identify as integral to their practice.
Following from the insights and opinions of industry workers is one tried and tested method to identify and organize specific constituents and complex systems that make broadcast esports possible. T. L. Taylor’s recent ethnographic exploration into the production of esports broadcast content exemplifies this strategy.1 As a metagenre of analysis, the structural features of self-reflexive industry narratives provide both historians and ethnographers with a sketch of an animated political geography that responds to specific concerns and problems with particular devices. The obvious benefit is of course offset somewhat by some perception of trustworthiness in the relationship between researcher and respondent, but more subtly, respondent’s perspectives are limited by the totality of their awareness to industrial practices they are less familiar with. As a consequence, researchers relying on expert testimony of industry practices are more vulnerable to an amplification bias in their own reporting of industry expertise. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it is not an original observation that such experts can only ever offer partial, distorted perspectives of industry practice.
Historians and ethnographers will likely spend the better part of this coming decade distinguishing esports as a media production context with as much detail as possible. Some may choose to employ Caldwell’s theorization of industrial reflexivity to locate moments in narrative where worker’s imaginaries of their trade practice contribute to the materialization of social order unique to working in an esports context. However, doing so will require careful attention to the differences in technical production, economic monetization, and social stratification that separate esports from other entertainment media. Scholars must attend to the function of differently aggregated infrastructures and technologies, multilinguistic platformed experiences, and varied synchronicities that make the FIFAe Club World Cup, the Rocket League Championship Series, the King Pro League, and many more esports events ready for international broadcast. Industry experts will be essential guides, but they will not be the only experts scholars should document and study.
Many scholars have noted the unique, co-constituative relationship between esports events and participant-fans, but few have attended to the unique expertise of certain participant-fans who meaningfully contribute to the production of esports at the industrial scale of distribution. One such example of the participant-fan is someone who translates forum posts, social-media content, player interviews, archived streams, memes, and news articles for specific digital locales. Henry Jenkins and others have argued that such acts are constitutive of participatory cultures, and that as such represent instances of an engaged consumerism which animates a learning process for people who play the games that mediate esports competition.2 As a model for understanding the economic relationship of fans and fandoms, participatory cultures index cultural meaning and social significance to the process of digital content production and distribution. To some degree, the term has been used to rationalize audience behaviors, but it is also employed to stratify different participant-fans according to imagined economic functions. Streamers and casters, for example, harbor some form of production-related expertise, but the user on Twitter who translates and redistributes esports player-specific content in an unsolicited fashion is not conventionally imagined as part of the industrialized process. Such stratification is sometimes apparent closer to the imagined center of industrial production as well. Shoutcasters with multilingual abilities foreground translation as an essential performance-related skill, but American companies producing esports broadcast media have historically subcontracted this task to localization specialists with generalized trade experience. Unlike camera technicians who have necessarily specialized in navigating game environments before working behind the scenes of a broadcast tournament, translators are not always held to similar standards.
The stratification of trade work and participant-fans are related, even if it may not be appropriate to describe people who translate memes for a specific fandom as craft or trade workers. To evidence and provide insight to the complexity of translating in an esports context, ROMchip solicited an interview with someone who has worked for several years as both a fan-participant and contracted translator for international competitive esports leagues. On Twitter, they go by “Gatamchun.” We solicited the interview on the basis of their expertise, as they are widely read and known for translating Korean to English-speaking audiences. To protect the anonymity of our interviewee, portions of the transcript have been revised to obscure information that may enable the nonconsensual release of personal information about themselves online. As will hopefully become clear from the discussion, the option to participate within an esports industrial context is not without personal risk and liability for certain people.
Iris Bull: Can you tell me a little bit about who you are on the internet?
Gatamchun: My internet handle is Gatamchun [phonetic spelling: Ka-Tum-Chun], which people mispronounce in a variety of ways. I don’t really care, though; it is just a handle to be a handle. I am not particularly concerned with how people refer to me.
In terms of who I am on the internet, I did a lot of broadcast translation between 2017 and 2020 for what is broadly referred to as content. I would watch esports competitive matches, and I usually watched the Korean broadcast and translated things casters would say when it was live. I found that there were interesting moments when players would communicate in Korean and the translation of those moments would lose important meaning. Sometimes people might miss something that I thought was funny, and that was really at the heart of why I started participating in broadcast translation. It was just sort of a fun way to engage with friends on Twitter. I would want them to see this fun thing and laugh at it, and we would both laugh together. That was my main motivation. Obviously, as Overwatch Esports took off in 2017, and then much more so in 2018, I started acquiring more followers on Twitter. I became more involved as an interpreter when unpleasant, sometimes criminal, incidents occurred and became newsworthy. I felt that these incidents, scandals, and controversies were a lot more complicated than a literal translation of words could communicate.
I really wish that Twitter had some kind of footnotes function! For translators, there’s this concern: how much do I contextualize? How much do I literally translate? Which is opposed to a desire to find an appropriate, corresponding example and target language to help people appropriately interpret what is going on.
By 2018 and 2019, I realized that, unfortunately, by virtue of translating certain things related to unpleasant news and scandals, people had acquired this impression of me as a journalist. Which, obviously, I am not trained to do. I never intended to be perceived this way; but, it was a consequence of presenting myself as a translator and contextualizing my interpretations of speech as a Korean woman. Contextualizing my translations from a specific point of view looked like something a journalist would do, in terms of being open about which information I thought was relevant and how it should be broadly understood.
I have a lot of respect for esports journalists, but from my experience working with them they did not seem equipped to cover very complex, tricky, and linguistically fraught stories. So, if you ask me why I felt compelled to do this work alongside them, I have a hard time explaining why. The situation is not unlike that experience of staying up until 3:00 a.m. because you have been incensed by someone who is wrong on the internet. I was born out of a genuine concern, at times, about how something might be construed.
Sometimes the situation involved a player or caster that I care about or support, but more often I was aware of the way certain communities were painted in certain ways. In esports discourses, for example, there are very broad characterizations of groups of people, say, “the Chinese community is like this,” or “the Korean community is like that.” Even when these characterizations reflected something truthful, they were often used inappropriately to characterize group behavior.
Oftentimes I felt very protective of the Twitter community that I was in conversation with, which was a community mostly comprised of Korean-language-speaking esports fans. These were women who experienced hostile and aggressively misogynistic conduct from users in other popular online web forums, like Inven [Inven Global] and DC [DC Inside], used to talk about esports. They felt effectively barred or discouraged from participating in those places, and so they turned to Twitter to indulge in their fandoms. They would share artwork, fan art, photos, and other media, and on Twitter they could do this without being constantly bombarded with MRA [men’s rights activism] propaganda. My awareness, as a member, of the reasons why Korean women were part of esports fandoms and of the circumstances that shaped their use of social media, definitely shaped my protective attitude towards the community.
Iris: Can you talk a little bit about what esports journalism is to you?
Gatamchun: You know, in many ways, it’s even more difficult to answer that question now than it was in 2017 or 2018. ESPN Esports completely folded only a few months ago, and if someone had asked me, “what’s a good example of esports journalism?” I would have pointed to ESPN Esports. They had pre-existing infrastructure and standardized guidelines to structure a journalistic sports story. They had people who were well versed in esports, who knew how to cover events. So, it was a shock to the community, and other esports journalists now working there, to see that happen. Now, we’re kind of more than ever at a loss for a good model of how this should be done. I think Dot Esports is where Jacob Wolf landed, but I also know people who have left Dot Esports. As a publication, Polygon is more focused on game content discussions and game reviews than esports. I have written feature articles for Polygon, but those have focused on unique observations or concepts within esports. They prefer to publish a form of coverage that straddles commitments between journalism and entertainment. It is distinctly different from media coverage around the NBA or MLB in which journalists focus on stories and speculation based on some sort of quantitative analysis or press event.
The circumstances of covering an esports league are also challenging. Information about teams in the Overwatch League, for example, is limited to leaks or scoops that happen without apparent justification. Information isn’t cited in a traditional sense; people simply work with particular sources. This obviously raises questions about the integrity of journalism in this context. Is it journalism to simply tweet, per one’s sources, that a player is moving to a specific team?
I don’t feel equipped to answer this question.
Iris: What you’re describing, though, makes sense. This situation and our evaluation of esports journalism appears to be predicated on the structural features and codes of conduct we attribute to an imagined, older model of journalism. In a way, the knowledge inherent to that work does not exist to others before it’s published.
The new model that we’re currently living through inverts the old one. The place which was once enrolled in policing how information moves has been reimagined. The information available to the press is now accessible to everyone, and you don’t need a gumshoe to figure out what people are saying on the court. There are very limited opportunities for exclusive access, for example, that traditional sports journalism has relied on for the purposes of soliciting viewership. These days, players stream aspects of their performance practice on platforms like Twitch and YouTube, and they solicit monetary donations for individual attention from fans. Consequently, there is more back-end work required—simply in terms of curating and collecting information—to tell stories about esports. In addition, there appear to be competing beliefs about how journalists or player organizations should represent information in a narrative and where that narrative should play out. Why use Twitter to leak information? What you’re describing reminds me of Ilana Gershon’s work on media ideologies, which suggests that people have beliefs about how a specific platform should be used for specific modes of communication.
Gatamchun: A couple years ago I was randomly tagged by someone who was musing on this. I think he worked in the League of Legends esports scene. He was talking about how individual content creators, writers, journalists, reviewers, critics—these types of people who cultivate a brand around an individual perspective on Twitter—do appear to have more interactions and better metrics than official institutional accounts, like the ESPN account, for example. And he attacked me as one of those examples of individual brands, and I had to step in and say, “I’m not!”
Iris: Can we talk about that? This notion of the individual brand seems to reflect a structural manufacturing of celebrity.
Can you talk a little bit about how you perceive the relevance of personal brands to your activities online, as a person who relies on people not knowing your government-issued name?
Gatamchun: This is something I wrestle with.
I have talked to friends who work and write in esports about revealing who I am, specifically about the idea of setting up a professional Twitter account; about whether or not I make another account or simply commit, reveal who I am, and transition my existing account to reflect my name. I have a following on this anonymized account, so my friend said, “Well, you could do the classic esports thing of writing a Twit Longer about everything?” And that’s so … I hate that sort of thing. So, for a few couple of reasons I decided to keep these identities separate.
Later on, I learned that people were trying to figure out my real name through the intermittent interview translation work I was doing—for the Overwatch League, and individual esports journalists, for example. Someone who had a beef with me, and in this instance I think they were homophobic (I have also had beefs with racists), based on our interactions. They poked around to figure out who I was by speaking with someone I had worked with, which I obviously didn’t like, at all. I don’t want any of this getting back to potential employers. I just feel better to have been safe rather than sorry, in terms of navigating what I’m doing.
In 2018, I decided to draw a hard line and refuse payment for things I post on Twitter. I would work with individual journalists, and I would accept contracts from Blizzard for Overwatch League–related work, but I would not try to do this as esports journalism.
I know that esports journalism does not pay well because I have written a few features and I have done contract work. Some people think I should start a Kofi and accept tips or something like that, which is a terribly sweet suggestion, but ultimately I have to refuse money because this is the line that separates me from being a fan and being something else. If I want to continue maintaining any appearance of authenticity—whatever that means in an online context—I know that I cannot get paid for any of this.
Gatamchun: The minute I start thinking about this work as a career path, I lose the ability to call people out the way that I do. You have to make difference choices.
Some of the people that I have called out and criticized are huge names in CS:GO [Counter-Strike: Global Offensive], for example.
Believe me, with my industry job market being what it is, there were a number of times when I questioned whether or not to respond to postings for teams that were hiring translators. I would have this genuine moment of considering it, but the work is so volatile. I have heard too many stories …
Iris: I mean, you are talking to someone who worked in television—I get it.
How do you try to situate yourself within this imagined ecosphere with journalists, fans, and spectators, as well as the corporate-column shills who don’t really necessarily seem to care about certain aspects of community building? Can you talk about how you move through that space politically? Who do you choose to listen to?
Gatamchun: Well, right now it is a little quiet on my TL [Twitter Timeline] because it is the off-season for the Overwatch League, but I have to admit that I do not know how many of my Korean mutuals [mutually following Twitter accounts] are coming back. After everything that the Overwatch League has gone through over the past two to three years, their participation has been slowly dwindling.
Iris: It has been rough.
Gatamchun: It has been rough! So, I have been watching my timeline and wondering, “Well, it’s the off-season, and who knows what is going to happen,” but I am really asking myself, “Are my mutuals coming back?” These are the people who have served as a base to the work I do and others do. And, really, it is this dynamic that underscores my reasoning behind compensation. I cannot monetize what I am doing because these women are actually putting in the time and legwork to clip streams, to aggregate fun moments where, you know, a caster screams or something. These women are the ones working in Photoshop and making fan art. I am simply a translator for English-speaking fans who want to read or watch what we enjoy.
This work started out as a simple gesture between me and my English-speaking friends, and it was premised around, “Hey, I would like you to see this fun thing so that we can laugh about it together.” It was ultimately about trying to level a playing field, of sorts.
I have done translation work both ways; from English into Korean, and, I have learned that not all Korean fans are super sanguine about my work. Some people do not want their tweets quoted, and they consider that act to be rude. I have to navigate the fact that the work I am doing intrudes and amplifies a person’s cute little fan post to a larger, multilingual community, and some people are not comfortable with that. For the most part, folks are fine with what I am doing, but I have received messages that clarify a person’s discomfort and so deleted tweets as a consequence.
I have also had to navigate using and appropriating journalistic content because I have gotten into some trouble with a couple of friends who are working as esports journalists. They are less than happy with my choice to use screenshots of their Korean-language articles for my English translations, but I have tried to limit this practice to instances in which source coverage does not exist in other languages. That just isn’t always possible.
My work has tended to support, for example, my friends who are playing League of Legends and who want to understand why a certain team is imploding. Sometimes this information is only available from one source, and it is written in a language they do not understand. My friends aren’t able to figure out what was going on, so I go out and find information to translate across contexts and languages for them. I have since developed relationships with a few journalists to help author-specific, in-depth interviews with players who have large followings of English-language fans, and I received formal permission to translate for those players.
I am navigating how to be respectful toward people who create and curate content, while also democratizing fan experiences, if that sentiment makes sense. I am trying to make sure people are having the same experience because one of the biggest concerns I have about the future of esports, in general, and the Overwatch League, in particular, is that language barriers block audience experiences of players. People don’t have a chance to learn about players—through their streams, or through their jokes—when someone doesn’t facilitate translation. This affects which players audiences can support and how players feel supported by fans.
The Overwatch League was, in its design and development, trying to foster these relationships between players and audiences. They wanted fans—they needed fans—to become an economic base for professional teams. But from my point of view, they didn’t appear to understand that individual players played an essential role in activating fanbases effectively.
Iris: Can you elaborate a little more on an example of what you’re talking about?
Gatamchun: From the very beginning, the Overwatch League production team made an overt effort to emulate the aesthetics of ESPN-style sports content. While I don’t have any insight into what the on-set production circumstances were for Overwatch League employees, it was clear from an audience member’s point of view that the production team relied on translators working for each League team to perform on-camera translation work. If the Overwatch League had an independent, in-house translator on staff, that was not obvious. In any case, a dynamic formed onscreen in which players on specific teams who did not speak English relied on their translators to humanize them to English-speaking audiences. When a team did not have a translator on staff, a lot of players tended to look stilted and unnatural on camera. They took on a robotic appearance, which further distanced them from English-speaking audiences. It was hard to watch! In Korean esports, broadcasters and MCs are experienced enough to know in the moment when players are nervous, and they find a way to play off the tension by gently poking fun at a player. They might exaggerate details about how a player is appearing on camera for the first time, or they might prioritize friendly banter that helps the player represent their personality to audiences. It was clear from the beginning of Overwatch League broadcasts that they did not have someone on staff who had experience coaching and working with nineteen-year-old Korean boys who had never been on camera before.
Iris: This reminds me of the contractual obligations that were unique for Korean players. They had to relocate, and they were often contractually obligated to learn English. The Overwatch League and Overwatch League teams also redefined how players could control their online personality.
Gatamchun: Right. Early on in the formation of the League, I felt as though these players were quickly thrust into a Disneyfied version of competitive gaming life. The Overwatch League, for example, hosted Media Day events for players before formal matches between teams had begun. Players were lectured on how to act as mediatized figures—as Overwatch League representatives—in terms of what to say in streams and how to act on social media.
I have not been able to learn, though, whether Korean players were provided with adequate translations of those events. As far as I could see from the promotional footage provided online, the event was conducted in English.
Iris: I hope someone eventually historicizes how esports leagues coordinate and organize their events for players—especially on-boarding procedures—because I can imagine that the experience was not the same for Korean players. I can imagine that the event was proctored in English and that people who required a translation were presented with paper documents instead.
I also wonder what it was like for players to become this type of person who is very skilled as a player in a specific context, and then to have to become a completely different person for the purposes of performing for a family-friendly brand. I think about this because there were players, like XQC, who simply could not, or would not, perform appropriately under the Overwatch League’s player conduct contract. In his case, it was like watching someone struggle with a physiological inability to adhere to a specific conduct norm. He also happened to be bilingual, and so I am also wondering about players’ varied experiences of moving into an alien environment to simply exist. Even without thinking about the unique stress of maintaining some level of performance in a new context, I can imagine that it would have been challenging for players to quickly migrate into this loosely defined competitive environment and learn how to interact with people who you don’t know how to trust. I can imagine that the experience might have been uniquely scary, but that the struggle itself would not have been obvious in the same terms to single-language-speaking people.
Gatamchun: To their credit, I do believe that Overwatch League viewers, and maybe esports viewers more broadly, are aware of how significant and impactful the experience of translation is for players. League of Legends, for example, operates with in-house translators to support international events and manage popular media in Europe, China, and Korea—where the game is popular. The outsized importance of translation is simply a fact of esports competition.
When translation is a hassle for players, you can see patterns develop in the production of player interviews. One of the most dominant teams in the Overwatch League, the San Francisco Shock, is predominantly Korean, but for a long time the team seemed to rely on two or three American players to conduct interviews for the team. This is not necessarily the case right now, but I remember watching interviews with Shock players and drawing this conclusion as a viewer. I assume that the underlying issue was more complicated; like, I can imagine that Korean players themselves did not want to participate in interviews. But, I can also imagine that such disinterest could have come about because players knew they needed to maintain the San Francisco Shock brand image as an American team and the practical work of translating was too much of a hassle. Keep in mind: this occurred during a period of time in which a lot of people wanted to talk about the significance of “mixed teams” and “All-Korean teams.”
Iris: Yes, I remember. That distinction was important.
Gatamchun: Right, it was a big deal that the Shock decided to compile a mixed team and that they were winning against All-Korean teams. Based on how much esports commentators debated the relevance of Koreanness, it is reasonable to assume that the Shock made choices on the basis of nationhood when positioning players for interviews. If the Overwatch League teams took the socioeconomic relationships between Korean players, translation, and fandoms for granted, then the Shock’s choice to overrepresent American players as team representatives makes some sense. These moments represented layers of decision-making that did not reflect experience and preparation in working with Korean players and audiences.
Iris: As a consequence, perhaps, the Overwatch League did not appear particularly agile and responsive to specific player-centric needs shaped and dictated by culture. It was almost like the interpersonal needs of players took a backseat to the physical demands of architecting a Disneyfied lifestyle. Teams needed to find, renovate, and maintain team houses, and to feed and care for a nontrivial number of teenage boys who had never lived away from their parents before. These must have been perceived as very vital aspects to a team’s brand image because I remember seeing every team in the Overwatch League post a “house tour” video. Everyone needed to know about the house experience. What does it look like? What do people do every day? Who works out, and what do people eat? Who are the personal chefs and how can someone follow them on Instagram? I can remember watching the Seoul Dynasty house tour, for example, because it was so uncomfortable to watch! Someone had put the players through an elaborate, choreographed performance, and it seemed like people in the video were simply following directions.
The house tour videos contrast to the work you do with your network—the women, as you say, going out and gathering clips, taking snapshots, and otherwise engaged in archival work.
From our discussion, I realize now that I have personally perceived all of these people, who are contributing to your work, as being behind you. Obviously, you are translating the work of others, but compared to my knowledge of video production work, it is difficult for me to imagine how many hours someone spent watching a stream before deciding to clip one thirty-second portion. I don’t think that the translation overshadows the archive work, but I do think that my awareness of the costs associated with these efforts is overdetermined by the way Twitter, as a platform, organizes information and attribution. I only see the product through a Twitter feed, and my assumptions about Twitter feeds obscure the significance of the people represented with your profile avatar. Do you feel as though this dynamic between you and the folks you translate for, as well as the wider audience of esports fans and content creators, relies on the handiwork of invisible people, who are likely women?
Gatamchun: It’s funny when you say invisible labor because I strongly feel like it doesn’t have to be invisible and, in fact, COVID has thrown a lot of things awry. I am a little upset that the Overwatch League didn’t really get to do what it set out to do. The exact year that they were set to do home stands, to really test the model and see how it goes, for better or for worse—maybe it’ll crash and burn, who knows! Even without COVID, maybe none of this would have worked out. But the point is: OWL never did get to do it.
I was really excited about the home stands, especially the ones that were going to be held in Seoul, because the home stands are where labor is made visible. That’s where you see the attendees, you know, schlepping over to the arena where these events were going to be held.
Not all fans live in Seoul—and Seoul is a gigantic city! It can take two hours to traverse that place. I had to book Airbnbs sometimes to go see a match because it was on the other side of town and the cab ride was going to be too expensive at the end of the night.
Fans show up to the arena, they have their fan art, they bring presents for players—it’s not just labor they invest, it’s a hobby that they spend money on. Those are the people that I’m interacting with on Twitter; those are the people I met up with at some of these matches. When I’ve been in disagreements about translating content, I’ve definitely been that person who’s been flippant about, “If I put it on the internet then you know you put it on the internet!” But, it’s a lot harder to have that attitude when you know some of these people.
Iris: Right. There’s this aspect of what you’re doing that I don’t want to call work because I feel like that violates the sanctity of what it means to simply build community. But work, investment, labor—are those useful terms for talking about what you’re doing when you translate text or memes?
Gatamchun: I’ve gone both ways on it. In many ways, my account is a bag of contradictions.
One of the things I underscore is that translation is labor. And also, depending on the quality of the translation, it is very creative. You have to think about what word you’re choosing here and you have to think about the historical context that informs certain vocabulary.
There was a national assemblyman—a Korean congressman—who basically used the word slave contract to describe an esports contract last year over a labor dispute. Obviously, in an English-language context, the term slave contract could have a dramatic tone. In Korea, though, the term has been invoked historically in relation to idol contracts. So, to communicate the tone of that specific term in the Korean language, I had to add two or three tweets explaining, “Okay, this is a very loaded term. I am translating literally, but this is more what he is referencing by using it.” Certainly, Korea has its own history of slavery, but the relevant part here is the idol contracts.
I’ve also done subtitle translating, and every medium has its own medium-specific translating issues. Subtitle translating, for example, doesn’t have to fit into two lines for a video frame.
So, I have reasons for adamantly saying that translation is labor, but at the same time I’m very much offering it for free. Not just by tweeting, but also with individual journalists who will ask if they can pay me for translation work. I refuse to accept payment from them because I know how much they get paid.
At the same time, I vehemently reject the title of journalist. I have become aware of the idea that there’s a journalistic quality to my translations, but I’ve couched a lot of them as more subjective products—that is, by me, a Korean woman born and raised in Korea. No translation is objective and I’m not a neutral medium in any way—in the way that journalists should at least attempt to be. I’m not going to be that.
I’ve emphasized this to the point that it has sometimes undermined my own translations. I was once challenged about one of my translations by a Korean dude who thought I was being a radical feminist. And I had to say, “This is actually the most literal translation I’ve ever done. He said these words! I can’t make up words that weren’t there.” And [the Korean dude] was like, “But that’s not what [the streamer I was translating] meant.” And I’m like “Well, this is what he said.” He might have meant something else, but his fans took it another way and that’s the way I’m translating it because I’m on their side.
Iris: There’s this tension I’m hearing between what you’re describing as translation as something universal, indisputable, and objective, and creative—literally the opposite. Subjective, artistic, for a particular group, contextualized. Part of this contradiction is that this is just a tension. Translation seems to describe “you put this thing in and you get it out”—it’s a black box. But when you open it, there are all these contradictions we weren’t aware of, things we have to accept in order to treat translation as a black box. The fact that someone would call you a radical feminist over a literal translation speaks to how people think differently about that black box—some are more aware of the subjective nature of translation than others.
Gatamchun: One thing I’ve constantly tried to do is undermine any idea of me as a community figure. First of all, being a community figure makes this a lot less fun for me. I enjoy live tweeting during a match—that’s how I got started! I would type in all caps, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” So, I still want to have fun, but it is also a form of insurance for when I make a mistake. I’m only human! I think serving as a community figure is dangerous, and it wouldn’t be a good development for both the community itself and for me. It sets up expectations. At one point, for example, when I had become a figure, I received DMs [direct messages] asking, “Why are you translating this?” and “Why aren’t you doing this?” And well, I’m like, because it’s not my job!
If I got paid for it maybe I would. But, this is also about claiming my own Twitter for what it is, which is my own damn Twitter. I get to say what I want on my social-media account. This is how it works. We’re all here talking, saying what we want to say.
Iris: Another contradiction—this idea that you’re just speaking to your friends but obviously thousands and thousands of people are listening. Also, the idea that many people are benefiting, but only the loudest seem to complain in your DMs—more invisibility. There appears to be a double-edged sword even in trying to own certain aspects of identity—the right to say “I’m a Korean woman,” for example, knowing that there’s nothing very simple about that. The identity categories don’t necessarily mean very much. But they still operate as a sword in one certain way: they work to shut certain people up so you can move on and to talk about other things with this particular assertion of authority. Of course, that can then be turned back on you because obviously the sexists and the homophobes and the racists show up.
I am reminded of the way certain rhetoric was used to talk about Korean teams in the first year or two of the Overwatch League. It was all very racist; people were wanting to make claims about how the Korean body was somehow prepared for the unique struggle of sitting in a chair and clicking on a mouse.
Gatamchun: This is one of those myths that has feet. A lot of Koreans drink that Kool-Aid as well, this idea of a certain Koreanness playing a part. When I explain it to other people, I like to use the example of the Bolshoi Ballet because the Bolshoi Ballet academy is accessible and free to all Russian citizens and that effectively means that, if you have the talent—though I guess ballet dancers have to be born with a certain physique—then money is actually not an issue. They only charge if you’re not a Russian citizen. That’s why the Russian ballet is still considered the world’s premiere. There’s something to be said about that sort of accessibility. All Korean teens, as long as they live in or near urban areas, will have access to game-capable computers, servers, and the fastest internet in the world for a very cheap price. There are entire continents that don’t have servers for certain games. So the fact that people veer toward a biological or cultural explanation—which often is a veiled biological explanation—I think says a lot. I’ve seen articles about Confucianism, I’ve seen articles about specific Korean cultural aspects having a hand in any of this. But these very easily accessible figures about the number of PC cafes in Korea and how cheap they are don’t often make it into those articles about Koreans being good at esports.
Iris: What are some of the changes that you’ve perceived in this ecosystem we’ve been talking about that have had the biggest impact on either your experience of translation or your experience as a spectator?
Gatamchun: It’s difficult to pin something down. One of the issues I’ve had with Overwatch League specifically—which is its own train wreck compared to other esports in my opinion. I say this as someone who thinks very highly of the game, but the way that they’ve run the esports division …
One major shift I don’t think the Overwatch League thought through at all is the switch from Twitch to YouTube. First of all, that got rid of clipping and sharing on Twitter. That impacted how fans shared moments, which is what I translated occasionally. They also lost fans when the League switched platforms. I was talking to another esports industry professional about this, and he couldn’t believe that Blizzard chose to make that switch. He was like, “You lose viewers if you switch a channel, so what were you thinking switching a platform?” I don’t know if I’ve seen anything that compares to this switch in terms of an impact on what I translate or how I translate. I’ve noticed the dwindling engagement.
Iris: Can we dwell for a moment on what it is that we imagine is so reality breaking about switching to a different platform? Because I think that it doesn’t make sense to a person who doesn’t live on the internet—why that in particular would fundamentally, radically shape a person’s behavior?
Gatamchun: One very simple fact is that people are creatures of habit and when you switch from one entrenched home for broadcasting to another, some people are going to get lost. You’re going to lose viewers who aren’t paying as much attention. I also think for anyone who has been paying attention to esports and Twitch, Twitch is revered (and by some reviled) for the implementation of emotes in chat. I once wrote about where esports happens, and, for me, the screen is just a part of it. For me, esports happens in chat and on Twitter. It’s nothing like being at a stadium or an arena, but that’s where the community is. That’s where everyone who is watching is. And there’s the sudden rush of emotes or screams or expletives going in to the chat when a big moment happens in-game. That’s where esports happens.
Iris: Here’s another contradiction, right? This notion that that’s where the community appears. The moment when we perceive “the community,” it happens with specific timing as a homogenized blur; no one’s paying attention to usernames. So, the older model of community doesn’t necessarily hold in terms of making sense of what you’re calling community. It’s almost like you’re describing this perceived intimate relationship with people that isn’t legible through the platform necessarily, but that is premised on a historical relationship to the platform and its norms and conventions and then whatever is happening on the screen. Everyone clearly has their own view of what’s happening, whether it’s good or bad. To me it is very chaotic and people perceive the chat very differently depending on their familiarity with it.
Gatamchun: I think of it a little bit like being in the stands at a game. You don’t have an individual relationship with all the people screaming around you, but the thing is we’re all screaming. I have many opinions about Twitch chat but that is something that Twitch chat sometimes gives you—the sense that we’re all screaming together in a bar. Whereas you only follow specific people on Twitter so you get more of “Oh, I see who is saying what.” I’m not trained to parse all the different reasons why switching platforms is a colossally bad idea, but someone I know—someone at a company who does have access to certain metrics and data about what switching a platform, a channel, does—they were flabbergasted.
Iris: Can you go back to something you said earlier about how certain forums are inaccessible but Twitter is somehow more accessible? How have certain platforms responded to an influx or decrease in terms of participation and engagement?
Gatamchun: In my experience, female fans tend to be on Twitter. I think it’s more than accessible because it’s curate-able.
Iris: That seems to support the act of translation in the context of community building because the group is building an archive of things. I can imagine that individuals participate by clipping video or images, but I’m also assuming that you and others use hashtags and mentions to tag and create metadata around specific artifacts.
Gatamchun: The pitfall and the attraction of Twitter is how transient it is and that’s also the attraction for the fans that I described earlier. It’s possible for you to develop a somewhat loose community of people. Many people have fandom-specific accounts so that their clipped content will come up on an esports-specific account. Many Korean fans also routinely erase tweets. They’re not interested in building an archive; they are just interested in having a place to talk to friends and complain about a match—having the space period. Twitter is also attractive because you get to curate who you follow and who can’t follow you. You get to control how much you will be bothered by anything, which is obviously the polar opposite of how a male-dominated, Korean esports forum tends to operate.
Iris: How is a Korean forum different from an American one? I just assume that what we’re talking about is a wall of threads. Anyone can make a thread. Everyone has a user account. Every account is clickable to a profile, so everyone theoretically sees your profile. I imagine lots of windows everywhere and no place to hide and if you say anything, anyone can participate in that conversation.
Gatumchum: It’s not really about any technical or feature-based differences between Korean and English language forums. The difference—and not to pretend for a second that English-language esports forums are immune to any of the bigotry—has to do with the virulence and the frequency of certain types of forum content. I can spend time on the Overwatch esports Reddit, for example. I am OK, I am not mentally harmed by spending time on it. It’s fine. There are times when there are back-and-forth discussions that give me a headache, but that sort of thing is trivial. By comparison, I have not been on an Inven forum in a while. Sometimes I’ll just go there to find info. Just info. And the top two hot posts made in the last hour are MRA [men’s rights activism] stuff.
This is not to assume women don’t spend time on that forum—I’m sure some do—but the discourse is very chauvinistic.
Iris: We’re talking about entrenched social norms that the platform makes legible in certain ways, and some platforms do give you control of your relationship to those norms while others do not. In some places, you can’t say “if the post includes x word, then hide the post no matter how popular it is.”
Before we break, would you like to comment openly on anything we have talked about or something we haven’t yet discussed?
Gatamchun: Esports represents a very literal intersection of play and labor, and, in a way, I don’t think that it neatly fits into a lot of the pre-existing literature on invisible labor and digital labor and labor that’s not compensated. Esports doesn’t neatly fit into those scholarly literatures, even though corporations are trying to model it after a traditional sports media industry. Esports has a very distinct and different audience from traditional sports, and this contributes to an inferiority complex when it comes to traditional sports. The particularities of Korean esports present important and pressing questions about nationally branded labor forces. You know how certain fields of labor are marked? Like how big swaths of nursing labor are Filipina? I think of esports like that.
Iris: Are you talking about a specific, racialized, and/or nationalized labor force that is supported by multiple institutions?
Gatamchun: Yes, and that is specifically working outside of its own country, as a labor export. I don’t see enough people discussing this in the context of esports, but I have observed it because Koreans have certain infrastructures that are designed to train a group, a certain demographic, to be very good at something so that they can make money from it, but then the domestic market is too small to support their efforts.
Iris: Are there specific objects or artifacts that you feel underwrite these esports labor conditions? Is there something that should go in a museum? I have a really hard time thinking about this. Is it the ring light? The green screen?
Gatamchun: The Logitech logo on like the esports jerseys? The jersey itself? Why do esports jerseys have numbers? The esports jersey is such a fun bag of contradictions and oxymorons.
The esports promo videos! Those are also a good candidate because they’re very corny in a way that I personally enjoy. They also represent an aspect of esports which is technically challenging; they have to market players that are rarely seen during a match. All of the action happens on the game screen. So, the players themselves—the actual human beings playing the game—are either relegated to tiny thumbnails or they aren’t seen at all. They might appear for a few seconds during the break or when someone dies and production needs a reaction shot. This is distinctly not like soccer where you’re watching twenty or more bodies running up and down the field.
Iris: They’re differentiated very carefully.
Gatamchun: So the promo videos are burdened with the task of marketing players within a minute because there’s no other time that they can personalize players. This means that promo videos very rarely feature gameplay. They are players-centric; it’s all about showing player faces and posing them for the camera. More contradictions, right? Because why would that be the thing you’d want to promote? It’s not like they’re actually models or people who are used to being in front of a camera, who know how to work their angles or whatever. They’re awkward. And predictably the music is like [dubstep noises]. It’s like watching a FIFA World Cup trailer that doesn’t feature a single soccer ball. It’s very weird but I think it works.
There’s a media scholar called Linda Williams who I love and she wrote a lot about porn and melodrama and all these different body genres. She talks about how, the thing about porn is it’s showing it’s trying to show something that is inherently invisible, which is pleasure and it has all these visual markers for what indicates pleasure. I feel like there’s something similar going on with esports. With these promo videos, they’re trying to show something that is inherently invisible, which is skill. Like, you see it on the game screen with how quickly someone reacts to something but even then you don’t see the exact clicks and we don’t see the keyboard. Visually speaking, that’s not attractive, that’s not like arresting or fun to watch someone doing this.
Iris: Even when streamers have their mouse, I question why the mouse is there. I don’t give a shit about the mouse! But that’s often working as insurance against people who want to accuse players of cheating. They don’t necessarily want to set up that camera either.
Gatamchun: I think Williams’s thesis offers a useful framework to think about the invisibility of skill and how we try to make it visible. It’s funny that you bring up the mouse hand thing because there’s a famous Overwatch player called Nico whose full tag is “NiCOgdh,” and for a long time I didn’t know what the “gdh” meant. Then I realized he was one of the very few Team Fortress 2 players who was able to pull off a certain move on the keyboard. People didn’t believe he could actually do it so he filmed himself doing it. His nickname then became “god hand,” a.k.a. GDH.
Iris: It suggests the hands might be another artifact when they become visible. To bring it back to translation then, I wonder if there’s some artifact quality to the ephemera on Twitter that gets shared? Are your tweets the object that someone should study? Or, should people focus on the other constitutive parts, the threads leading into your tapestry that other people spin from their raw materials?
Gatamchun: Yes to everything. There’s a reason I’m very reluctant to ever delete Tweets. There’s something about it that feels dishonest, but largely I don’t because I’m very acutely aware of how my account, whether I intended or not, is now a form of archive. Less now in the past year because I’ve been doing it less, but 2017 to 2019, now that’s an archive.
1. ^ T. L. Taylor, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018). These constituents help clarify who and what should receive credit within narratives of successful production, as their experience in the field informs their opinion about how an industry reproduces itself. John T. Caldwell has demonstrated as much in his analysis of trade workers in the Hollywood film industry. See John Thornton Caldwell, Production Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
2. ^ Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016); Vera Carrillo, José Agustín, and Juan Miguel Aguado Terrón, “The eSports Ecosystem: Stakeholders and Trends in a New Show Business,” Catalan Journal of Communication & Cultural Studies 11, no. 1 (2019): 3–22; Mark R. Johnson and Jamie Woodcock, “‘It’s Like the Gold Rush’: The Lives and Careers of Professional Video Game Streamers on Twitch.tv,” Information, Communication & Society 22, no. 3 (2019): 336–51; Chris Georgen, “Well Played & Well Watched: Dota 2, Spectatorship, and eSports,” Well Played: A Journal on Video Games, Values, and Meaning 4, no. 1 (2015): 179–91; and William A. Hamilton, Oliver Garretson, and Andruid Kerne, “Streaming on Twitch: Fostering Participatory Communities of Play within Live Mixed Media,” in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2014), 1315–24.