REVIEW | The Future of Esports Symposium

Fast Web Media

What’s the future of esports? How can those looking to create a career in the sector get ahead of the game? Can the industry do more to encourage women and minorities to get involved? These questions – and many more – were posed at the one-day symposium ‘The Future of Esports: Challenging Work and Gender Issues in Pro Gaming’, which took place in Manchester on 16th August.

Organised by Tom Brock of Manchester Metropolitan University and Jamie Woodcock of the London School of Economics and Political Science, the event featured nine speakers covering issues such as player contracts, the difficulties academics face in researching esports, female esports players and the role of Twitch and streaming in the industry. It was a fascinating day, and here are some of the highlights of what we learned.

From Above and From Below

Change is always the result of a key force, but where does that force come from? Jamie Woodcock outlined the concept of ‘From Above and From Below’: what they are and how much of an influence they’ll have on shaping esports. From Above includes corporate/industry forces, such as publishers, teams, leagues, platforms and brands. From Below is the grassroots, such as players and fans.

Jamie argued that for esports to develop effectively, From Above must engage well with From Below. However, there’s tension between the two, a sort of meta-competition that’s being played out in the wider development of the sport. There’s also difficulty for the From Below section as they turn their hobby into their job: how do you strike a work-life balance when your life becomes your work?

As esports continues to mature, From Above and From Below will need to work together to work out how to move the industry forward for the mutual benefit of all.

The Power of the Player

Christopher Paget from media law experts Sheridans Solicitors spoke about player contracts. This is a thorny issue for the esports industry, but one that needs to be tackled soon. Players are their own brand and, as Paget notes, they can be more powerful than the brands and the teams they play for.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a symptom of the industry’s fragmentation. With so many stakeholders vying for control, esports isn’t centralised, so there’s no regulated transfer market and contracts are inconsistent. This ultimately harms everyone, including the players, who are paid vastly different sums of money: only 196 players earned more than £100,000 in 2016.

What’s more, there’s a lack of infrastructure that makes it very difficult for teams to get established. Without venues, for example, teams can’t charge for tickets and therefore find it difficult to make money in the way that teams can in traditional sports. Team houses and innovations such as the Fnatic Bunkr can help, but only time will tell.

The Struggle for Research

Next up was Mark Johnson from Goldsmith University in London. As the event was set up by academics, there was a strong focus on that side of esports, and Mark spoke about how difficult it is for academics to gain the access necessary to perform incisive and insightful research.

One of the reasons for this is that so much significant activity in esports takes place behind closed doors. The sport’s newness, and the focus on its strangeness that’s emerged from that, doesn’t help either, and on top of that players’ hesitance to offer time to academics for interviews that could be spent practicing, or with the press and/or fans, means there’s precious little real research to be found.

The net result is damaging for players and the sport as a whole. Without this critical insight, there’s no understanding of what success means. Actions per minute (APM), for example, is seen as an important player metric, but does that work across all games? And what of failure? We focus so much on success that we neglect those who don’t make it, and even what happens to those who do after their career is over.

By opening up access to esports for academics, the industry as a whole can benefit and evolve.

League of Legends and Fans

Josh Jarrett from the University of the West of England, Bristol, has written his PhD about League of Legends, player discontent within it, and the discontent that can be felt across esports as a whole. He spoke of the From Below moments that have shaped LoL, citing The xPeke as an incident in which a player created a moment that fundamentally shifted how the game is played.

He also mentioned moments when From Above forces have negatively impacted From Below groups. One of the most significant examples came in 2016, when League of Legends creators Riot implemented a major patch, which meant players had to significantly change their approach. Andy ‘Reginald’ Dinh, owner of Team SoloMid, discusses the issue in the video below.

The Struggles Faced by Women

The final portion of the day was dedicated to four presentations about the way women are treated in gaming, and how misogyny can often be coded into its very structure. For example, Carleigh Morgan spoke about Twitch and how language on the platform (such as the popular catchphrase ‘Let’s go boys!”) is gendered male. This, in turn, helps perpetuate the idea that gaming and esports are primarily ‘for’ men.

Meanwhile, PhD candidate Ying Ying Law spoke about women in esports and how the prejudices begin at home: the assumption is that the majority of technology in a family is owned by men. This then creates an environment where women are portrayed through the male gaze (as sexualised objects) or games featuring women in lead roles struggle to find a publisher. This happened with Mirror’s Edge, a popular game that was originally rejected because of its female lead.

Conclusions

‘The Future of Esports’ was an insightful and important event that we took a lot from. Academic insight is critical in helping the industry evolve: both from a business and sociological perspective. It’s therefore imperative to build the bridges and ensure that the weaknesses and pressure points identified in this symposium are resolved.

Where do you think esports will go in the future and do you think the sector could do more to encourage women? Tweet us @FastWebMedia.

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