Iremember, back at the start of lockdown, trying to draw up a rough mental ledger of things I would miss. The idea was to try and anticipate difficulties so as not to be blindsided by them. My list was heartfelt but unoriginal and consisted mainly, now I look back at it, of various blessings of city life that I had come to take almost entirely for granted. Seeing friends. Going for a walk round the block or across the common or through the middle of town whenever I felt like it. Buying any foodstuff known to man at more or less any time of the day or night. Shops selling everything in the world, visitable at one’s convenience. Going to the movies whenever. Eating out whenever/wherever. Espresso machine coffee. Bookshops. What it all boiled down to: close to complete freedom of movement and choice.
I missed all those people, activities and things more or less exactly as much as I thought I was going to. And perhaps the underlying thing I missed most was the sheer lightness of pre-Covid choice: the airiness, the impermanence, the lack of consequence of opting for a coffee at this café rather than that, lamb for dinner because we had chicken yesterday, getting the new Ian Rankin because I saw it in the window of the local bookshop as I walked past. Life as a permanent breakfast buffet, where you can have whatever you want at any time, and the only risks are those of excessive indulgence or missing out.
What I didn’t see coming, and feel slightly embarrassed to admit, is that one of the things I missed most was live sport. I was horrified by the realisation that the absence of sport created a hole in my life, a gap in time, especially at weekends, which had, I now saw, been structured around sport. Not every weekend, because a game you care about doesn’t come around every weekend; it would be too regular, too boring, if it did. They come around often enough, though: enough to be a structuring habit, part of life’s rhythm of anticipation and expectation. Watching people running around a field doing things to a ball (all my sports are ball sports, it turns out) has a significant place in my life. It’s mortifying.
‘Live’, it turns out, is an important word. At the start of lockdown there were loads of highlights programmes: classic moments from vintage contests. Over the weeks the broadcasters got better at this, or more desperate, so what at the beginning were straightforward repeats then became repeats with added ‘watchalong’ commentary by people who had been significantly involved. I’ve always quite liked watching great old matches, particularly when the original was so stressful from the point of view of fan involvement that it teetered on the edge of not being enjoyable. There were whole categories of things I absolutely loved revisiting: in rugby, Lions matches from the successful tours of 1997, 2013 and 2017; in cricket, England’s great Ashes victories of 1981, 2005 and 2010-11; in football, World Cup matches and round-ups. I dabbled with great occasions in golf – the Miracle of Medinah from the 2012 Ryder Cup – and women’s sport: go, England’s World Cup winning cricketers from 2017! Steffi Graf against Martina Navratilova, Wimbledon 1988? Don’t mind if I do! But all this was still no substitute for live sport at the weekend.
It may be that the featurelessness of lockdown time put more pressure on this weak spot or spot in the week. If the days are hard to tell apart, you’re more likely to feel the absence of something that used to differentiate week and weekend. But this can’t fully explain the lack, because my favourite long-form sport, Test cricket, takes place over five days and overlaps with the weekend only partly. It’s the semi-transgressive aspect of watching it when you’re supposed to be working that’s arguably part of the appeal, and certainly part of the reality. A lot of Test cricket is incredibly boring, of course. But by putting in the boring time you get to appreciate the moments of drama fully. One of the highlights programmes I watched during lockdown focused on a single day of cricket, England v. West Indies at Lord’s, 30 June 2000, when 21 wickets fell, and for the first time in the 143-year history of Test cricket parts of all four innings were played on the same day. I remember it well: I was there. A great day. I appreciated it all the more because over the years I’d watched a very great deal of stupefyingly eventless cricket. I had to kiss a lot of frogs before one turned into a prince. I’ve kissed a lot subsequently too.
Why is this embarrassing to admit? I suppose because there were so many better things I could have done with the time, but also because there’s something slightly shameful about a compulsion you can’t control and can’t explain. I know many people for whom watching sport is collective, ritualised, self-transcending. They go to watch the same team in the same seats with the same friends, week after week and year after year. My sport watching isn’t like that. It isn’t primarily social. It’s more like reading: private, solitary, concentrated. Now that live sport is returning, people are complaining about the lack of fans and crowd noise. The broadcasters are playing fake crowd sounds, dialling the volume up and down as the action ebbs and flows. It is an uncanny effect, and I’d prefer the game without. But maybe that’s because, that way, it would be even more like reading. Except that, unlike reading, there is no benefit, no takeaway. I don’t know anything at the end of the game I didn’t know at the start, except what happened in the game. Why am I doing it? What’s the point?
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at missing sport so much. A few years ago I had the notion of writing a short book, addressing the question of why I’ve spent such a large chunk of my life watching sport. What’s the point of all this sport-watching? What is it for? I even had a title, drawn from a remark David Sexton, the literary editor of the Evening Standard, once made to me. ‘I’m not interested in sport,’ he said, ‘but I often wish I were, given that the mind is always in pain.’ The mind is always in pain … Yes, given that, you can easily see why we want to spend time in the structured, ordered, sense-making world of sport, which for all its lack of relevance to most areas of life, has the colossal advantage of definitely and unmistakably being outside our heads rather than inside them.
The trouble was, once I’d opened a file on the computer called ‘The mind is always in pain’ and sat down to face the blinking cursor, my mind wasn’t so much in pain as entirely and completely blank. I just couldn’t think of anything to say. The mind is always in pain and I like watching sport because … the mind is always in pain. Even with a brief book, I was coming up about 40,000 words short.
I asked to review Paul Chaloner’s lively and informative This Is Esports because I’d been brooding on these questions during lockdown.My idea was that by thinking about the emerging field of digital sports, I’d find an interesting story and also clarify my thinking about what sport means to me and why I have spent, or wasted, so much time watching it. The new would unveil the meaning of the old. So here we go! Esports is the umbrella term for paid competitive video gaming, and it is an ecology rather than a single thing. Chaloner is a professional commentator on esports – a ‘caster’ – or at least he was, until he abruptly and dramatically resigned from all involvement with esports on 27 June, following allegations about bullying on Twitter. He was present all through the growth of the field, and is well placed to describe its development right from the moment in 1982 when esports ‘emerges from the primordial ooze, staggers onto two legs, tells its parents it hates them and pops its first energy drink’.
The simplest categories of esport for an outsider to understand are fighting games, where people beat each other up one-on-one in a tournament format, and sports games, which are video-game versions of real sports. In the depths of lockdown, broadcasters became so desperate for content that they experimented with videogame football, which doesn’t look at all like the real thing, and video-game Formula One, which is disconcertingly, eerily, like real Formula One. Like the real thing, it is also disconcertingly, eerily, almost mystically boring. One afternoon I watched twenty minutes or so of esports car racing, fell asleep, and then wandered off to do something else. I came back a couple of hours later and turned the telly back on to see if the race had finished. That’s interesting, I thought, the graphics have improved – not exponentially, but enough to notice if you’re paying attention. Then I realised that I was now watching a replay of an actual car race. I managed to hit the off button before falling asleep again.
In the world of esports, virtual sports and fighting games aren’t really where the action is. The area with the excitement, energy and growth is the MOBA: massive online battle arena. This is the most popular form of esports: the games with the largest number of players, the highest-paid professional players, the biggest prize money and the most prominent global tournaments. The MOBA world is dominated by two almost identical games, League of Legends and Defence of the Ancients, in both of which teams of five players fight to destroy an opponent’s base. If I was trying to upset a fan of MOBAs, I might compare them to an electronic form of Capture the Flag. But I won’t upset them, because they’ve already stopped reading this piece, because I said that League and DotA (now, Dota 2) are similar, which they are, even if fans of the two games make the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets seem lightly held and insincere. Nobody plays both League and Dota 2. It would be like supporting both Liverpool and Manchester United.
The growth of MOBAs is one of the most interesting parts of Chaloner’s story. The stage for the games’ success was set by a different kind of game, StarCraft 2, a real-time strategy game set in space. In this genre ‘you’re a god/general with a bird’s-eye view of the theatre of war, and can summon units (which all have a rock-paper-scissors-style strength/weakness) with the press of a button.’ Real-time is the opposite of turn-based games such as chess and backgammon: there’s no need to wait for the other players. StarCraft 2’s three ‘races’ invite different playing styles, with finely calibrated advantages and disadvantages; players tend to choose a race and stick to it. The game is complicated, so much so that the artificial intelligence company Deep Mind, after surpassing human intelligence at the game of Go (itself several orders of magnitude more complicated than chess), moved on to StarCraft as the next, bigger challenge. The thing that makes StarCraft so difficult for AIs is the use of deception, and the need to understand an opponent’s intention – very different from chess and Go, games of perfect information, in which what you see on the board is all you need to know. StarCraft was and is hugely popular in Korea, and one of my favourite facts about esports is that in 2002, when the South Korean football team were having an exciting run at the World Cup, they were as a special motivating treat taken to meet the top StarCraft players. The jocks’ reward was to meet the nerds. Korea, country of the future.
The success of StarCraft 2, launched in 2010, helped esports recover from the financial crash. A crucial aspect of the new boom was the popularity of streaming games on the platform Twitch, which I’d heard a lot about but hadn’t fully understood until reading Chaloner’s book. Twitch allows anyone to broadcast what they are doing live, to anyone who is willing to watch: in essence, anyone can be their own TV station. The new service quickly became popular with gamers, which in turn gave esports new momentum, not just as something to play but as something to watch. StarCraft 2 became huge on Twitch.
I had thought that esports would be running fairly normally during lockdown, since the games are played sitting in front of a computer, which is where all the action was happening in every other area of lockdown life. That assumption was wrong. Although esports are by definition digital, the biggest esports tournaments are very much real-world events, taking place in stadiums in front of audiences that run into the tens of thousands. The esports crowds at Madison Square Garden, the Staples arena or the Spodek stadium in Katowice are as big and as vocal as the crowds at basketball or concerts. Obviously, none of this has been happening during lockdown. The online audiences are huge too, with tens of millions of additional viewers following the contests online, both in real time, mainly on Twitch, and in catch-up, mainly on YouTube. The most-viewed event in the history of esports, the League mid-season invitational from 2018, attracted 60 million viewers on those platforms over the course of its run.
The new momentum in esports was carried forward by the big new MOBAs, League and Dota 2. These grew out of the original DotA, which was created in the early noughties as a ‘mod’ – software modified by fans, making use of an open platform created by a developer. In this case the underlying intellectual property was a map editor attached to a StarCraft variant called StarCraft: Brood War.
Mods are central to the history of esports. Although the field as a whole is now rife with sponsorships and logos and the paraphernalia of modern capitalism, it emerged from games created by and for enthusiasts, refined and elaborated over time and for free. Counter-Strike, the biggest of the shooting games (now in a later evolution as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive), was based on Half-Life, made by the developer Valve, and opened up for fans to improve and amend. You would expect capitalism to move in on this system, and indeed it has. Although Dota 2, League and CS:GO were all derived from fan mods, they are all now highly controlled games with heavily involved owners. Dota 2 and CS:GO are owned by Valve, and League by Riot, which is itself owned by the Chinese technology giant Tencent. (Valve is famous/notorious for having no managers and no hierarchy: employees decide for themselves what they want to do and who they want to work with. It sounds pretty cool, but cynics observe that the company increasingly seems not to make any new products. Fun fact: in 2012 Valve advertised for an economist to study the trading economy that had evolved inside its games. The person who got the job was Yanis Varoufakis. Another fun fact: the in-game economy inside Valve’s game Team Fortress 2 is based on hats.)
A genre closely adjacent to MOBA is the battle royale, which is derived from shooters – games where you run around with a gun shooting people and blowing things up. The name ‘battle royale’ comes from the eponymous Japanese film in which some teenagers are dumped on an island and kill each other until only one is left alive. The games start with a fixed number of players and randomly distributed equipment and weapons. As the players kill each other, the game ‘map’ – playing arena – shrinks and clashes become more frequent. The sole survivor is the winner. The best-known battle royale is the most widely played of all esports games, Fortnite. The game launched in 2017 and the speed of its uptake led to one of those moral panics about gaming that come around as reliably as leap years. (Daily Mail headlines from 2018. 14 June: ‘Is YOUR child addicted to Fortnite? Experts warn of impending crisis as more and more children become obsessed with hit game.’ 19 June: ‘Creators of video game Fortnite hit back at Prince Harry after he branded it addictive and “irresponsible”.’)
Fortnite is owned by a private company, Epic, based in North Carolina. That is less cool than the West Coast bases of League and Dota 2, and the game is less cool too – which is part of its appeal. The big thing about Fortnite is that unlike all the other games I’ve mentioned so far, which are usually played on personal computers, the more powerful the better, you can play it on anything: PCs, any of the consoles from Microsoft or Sony or Nintendo, or mobile phones. That last is the kicker: it means anyone in the world can play Fortnite anywhere, on any gadget, at any time. Add to this the fact that there is a global tournament, open to all, with a total cash prize of $30 million, and you can start to see why the game has caught on so hard so quickly. It has 350 million players – 4.5 per cent of the world’s population. Serious gamers shake their heads over Fortnite, which for them involves too much luck and not enough skill. To them, it is telling that the winner of that first world championship, Kyle Giersdorf of Pennsylvania, was the same age as the median competitor: 16. Professional gamers play every form of esports, but the best-remunerated players in general concentrate on the MOBAs. The money comes from prizes and team sponsorships. According to Chaloner, in 2017 Riot specified that League players in its professional US league earned a minimum of $75,000, and the average earnings were $300,000 – which, as he points out, means some top players were earning much more.
To the non-gamer, one of the brain-breaking things about all these hugely successful games – Fortnite, League and Dota 2 – is that they are free. You download them gratis, and the games are not supported by targeted advertising. As for in-game ads, forget it: the fans wouldn’t wear them for a millisecond. Once you realise that literally millions of people are playing them simultaneously, and think of the load on servers, and the software and hardware maintenance and development costs, and the costs of keeping ahead of the competition and coming up with the new new thing and keeping the demanding, critical and vocal fanbase engaged with new content, you start to wonder – how on earth can all this be free?
The answer is in the stuff that is not free, which involves ‘microtransactions’, in-game purchases which allow you to alter the way your character looks and is accessorised. These features are called ‘skins’. Skins don’t make your character play any differently, or give him/her/it extra powers; that would destroy the ethos of the game. But they do make your character look different. And that completely trivial, definitively silly business model is, it turns out, worth billions of dollars. You could argue that MOBAs and battle royales aren’t in the video-game business so much as the fashion business. It’s just that the fashion is all virtual and in-game. Fashion companies – the old-fashioned real-world kind which make, you know, clothes – haven’t been slow to notice. Last year Louis Vuitton launched a collection of clothes (real) and skins (virtual) to accompany the League of Legends World Championship, and Moschino launched a virtual ‘capsule collection’ of its hideous clothes inside Sims 4. Those are tiny signs of the importance of this strange new fashion enterprise.
To sum up, the field of esports, especially MOBAs and battle royales – battles royale? battles royales? – is interesting, no question. I should definitely be interested. I have informed guides to hand in the shape of Chaloner’s book and my sons, one of whom is a MOBA person and one a battle royaler. I even know a professional League player, a family friend who now lives in Hamburg as a star athlete with the team Unicorns of Love Sexy Edition. I can go online and in a matter of seconds see famous moments from the history of gaming, such as the one with which This Is Esports opens, when xPeke pulled off a dazzlingly innovative move to win the 2013 Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice for his League team, Fnatic; or the time the fighting game legend Daigo ‘The Beast’ Umehara pulled off 15 consecutive blocks in a row to defeat Justin Wong in the semi-final of a 2004 Street Fighter 3 tournament. That, incidentally, settles any question about the levels of skill and co-ordination and reflex necessary in esports: those blocks involved timing parries to within four frames in a game running at 60 frames per second, 15 times in a row. That’s not athletic, perhaps, but it’s as much of a physical feat as anything in traditional sports.
My problem, though, is that I just don’t get it. By that I mean that a lot of the time I simply don’t understand what I’m watching, even when I’m doing so with someone who explains it as we go along. Esports are complicated, especially MOBAs. I’ve watched xPeke’s famous move – which really is famous, pretty much any League player, and there are currently 115 million of them, knows about it – with someone talking me through what’s happening, and the first moment in the YouTube clip where I understand what I’m seeing is the ending, where his opponent puts his head in his hands and bursts into tears.
I find, as I study esports – this multi-billion dollar industry, a subject of close interest to my sons and their generation, a rapidly growing, highly globalised, intensely competitive field, of interest to students of economics, the internet and sport, and the only one in which I personally know a professional athlete – that I don’t care. I read about the heroic achievement of xPeke and The Beast, which are indeed superfamous feats – any esports fan can recount them in detail. But I just don’t get it. I suddenly see what the sports I watch seem like to people who don’t watch them.
What this has made me realise is the other, bigger reason I don’t get it: this version of the sporting ‘it’ doesn’t connect with any other memories and experiences. I’m new to esports; I’m an outsider; I’m trying to work up an interest from scratch. But with all the sports I watch I’ve spent thousands of hours accumulating memories. When I’m sitting in front of England v. West Indies, which I’ve been doing a fair bit of since Test cricket mercifully resumed in July, I’m reconnecting with the thousands of hours I’ve already spent doing something very similar. Not just that great day at Lords in 2000, but the time in 1976 I saw the England captain Tony Greig go down on his knees and crawl, a form of apology for having said he would make the West Indies ‘grovel’; from the same year I vividly remember the 45-year-old Brian Close, without a helmet or chest protection, being repeatedly hit by terrifyingly fast bowling in fading light on an erratic pitch; I was actually in the Caribbean watching the cricket in 1995 when the Australian team led by Mark Taylor beat the West Indies at home and established a new era in the game with a revived Australia at the top. The star bowler of that Australian side, Glenn McGrath, was the best in the world for a long time, but has now been retired for 13 years. Sport, for spectators, is one of the least painful ways to feel the passage of time and the succession of generations – though the opposite is true for players.
If you’re not interested in cricket, there’s no reason any of that should mean anything to you. It does have meaning for me, though, and one reason is that it adds up to a story, or a connected series of stories. That, I think, is what sport is all about. If you follow a sport it becomes a thread which runs through your life and provides memories and narrative and meaning and context. Sport becomes a kind of companion, part of the richness and texture of lived experience. At the same time, you could argue that sport is the only thing on television that is real. The things you are watching happen are actually happening right now, as you watch. So much modern reality is mediated, packaged, predigested. This is obviously true for all forms of drama, but it is more subtly true of news and current affairs, where the effects can be more pernicious, because we’re seeing an image of the world which makes claim to be the real world. Sport isn’t like that. It is clearly artificial: it happens within a determined frame and a clear set of rules and in that sense is as mediated as human experience can be. But within that frame, when you’re watching live sport, you are watching reality as it really happens. It is perhaps the only completely, inarguably true thing you can see on TV. These events, which define the lives of the athletes taking part, are taking place while you watch.
You can have intense moments of feeling watching sport, just as you can have through reading or through drama or through art. The meanings it gives are both individual, because nobody else has seen exactly the things you’ve seen, and collective, because anyone with an interest in the sport has similar experiences, similar memories, and is connected to them, and to you, as a result. Esports give me none of that, which is the reason they can mean so much to people who play them, but nothing at all to me. And so although thinking about esports hasn’t made me get into esports – to be honest, if anything it has put me off – at least it’s made me realise where those thousands of hours have gone, and why. So thank you, esports. But also, respectfully, no thanks. I’m dancing with the one what brung me.