Esports has emerged as a multibillion dollar industry, all within the past few decades. The global games industry is predicted to have produced $152.1 billion in 2019, with esports events in the last year handing out over $700 million in prize pools. As esports and video games have grown and evolved, becoming more mainstream, it has gained corporate interest. One of the main draws for many of the corporations is tapping into and leveraging diverse cultural spaces of gaming and esports communities. This growth in both awareness of esports and size of events precipitates the need for spaces and venues where events can happen. These two factors are where we find our respective lines of work- at the intersection of event experience and the built environment.
Our positions as anthropologists enables us to be culture brokers, infiltrators, and advocates; even occasionally participants. In the case of working in this space our perspective asks the question‘ for whom do we work?’ and ‘who stands to benefit?’. Within a cultural space that is becoming so fundamentally entangled with business interests, and monetization models, we are enlisted as translators and guides to those who seek to capitalize on the esports boom. Our job is sometimes to suss out the elusive concept of authenticity in sponsorship, help a team grasp at the reasons why their community like the content they produce, or build events that fit the local gaming culture of a given City. Even something as simple as understanding how people decide what team to follow when in many cases those teams aren’t tied to a city or location, though that fact is changing in some franchised leagues who are adopting legacy sports models for play.
Outside of business applications, there are plenty of topics warranting research across disciplines. Scholars and practitioners in the fields of sociology, human computer interaction, media and communication studies have all been tackling the complex issues entangled with understanding our existence within digital spaces. In the past few years we’ve seen the release of books like TL Taylor’s Watch me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming and Woke Gaming, both of which offer more in depth analyses of different aspects of not only the esports space but the greater gaming world. Where we stand at the intersection of doing business and doing research, we can help others navigate virtual frontiers or map the horizon between the digital and material places where communities assemble and culture manifests.
Our discussions of esports are more commonly contextualized within a larger gaming space or event, i.e., a conference and/or competition that includes any combination of elements related to the larger topic of gaming. With acknowledgement to the intimidating scope and complexity of understanding the intersections of digital realms and real people, let us explain what all of this actually means.
What are esports?
Esports at a very base level are professional competitive video games. For a more technical definition we can consider esports in this context to mean multi-participant competition in a video game that occurs in front of an audience, both digital via streaming and/or in-person at an event, with monetary stakes and prizes. For a more thorough taxonomy of the scope and variety of games in esports, see the following article by Nico Besombes. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, competition in virtual gaming began with Pong (circa 1972) and even arcade games long before that (1931) (see Laura June’s article for a deeper connection to arcades). Esports experienced an initial bubble in the early 2000s as the dawn of online games allowed competitions to free themselves from the stipulation of co-location between competitors. It was in that era, or rather in the aftermath that our core subject matter becomes relevant.
Events and Spaces
The first attempts to bring gaming competitions to television and to formalize league structures through organizations like Major League Gaming (as early as 2002) ended in the initial esports collapse of the late 2000s. Gaming communities took the lead when the money dried up from corporate sponsors. LANs (local area networks), events where multiple people brought their own computers, connected them on a local internet network and played games within that group, grew in popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This occurred alongside other convention styled events of hobbyists, comic book fans, and other enthusiasts. Since the internet started bringing together communities of people online, these events were now beginning to serve a more interesting purpose- as a sort of ephemeral meeting ground where digital communities could exist in “real” space. These events also became some of the main stages for esports competitions in the intervening years.
For most of esports’ history events and competitions have been retrofitting traditional sports stadiums, arenas, concert halls and the like, or shaping the blank canvas of a convention center to fit the needs of a given event. However, since the esports space has continued growing in the last two decades we have reached a point where specifically designed spaces for esports and gaming events are starting to become something that exist and with them comes a whole host of considerations about their end users, those who compete, run and attend events in these new spaces. These considerations also run in parallel to threads regarding standardization of events and meeting logistical needs of organizations and establishing more permanent real world locations for training, streaming, and day to day operations of teams and organizations.
What Makes a Venue?
As this industry becomes more formalized, the effort to create some kind of esports specific venue that supports current and future needs is highly likely. For now, the codification remains within the closely kept lessons learned and experience of event operators; both an insular sub community as well as one where applied knowledge is a competitive edge for employment. The challenge for the esports industry is that the games are dynamic, heavily controlled by the publishers (game developers) and continue to evolve both within the same game and with new games. In addition, team size and competition layout continue to shift, making any kind of formal space-making requirements all the more difficult to codify.
In this time of transition and experiment, it is an ideal opportunity to study how well space supports the functional needs of an event between both retrofitted and custom built venues. In the A&D (architecture and design) industry, we’re starting to see an inverted shift to esports specific venues that can then host secondary events like concerts. While there are fundamental concepts remain of venue-based experiences like tickets, concessions, controlled access, seating sections, branding, signage/wayfinding, merchandise, etc., esports specific venues are prioritizing new considerations. The challenge becomes from whose perspective do these factors benefit and are all perspectives being considered? Doing so would require a keen understanding of player/team needs, event coordinator concerns and fan/spectator interests to optimize experience; more than just maximizing capacity, merchandise sales and social media clout. The list of considerations includes:
- sightlines for player focus
- on-stage or backstage live broadcasting and commentary (known as casters and casting)
- simultaneous viewer focus on players/coaches as well as online/on-screen gameplay dedicated space for livestreamers/casters to provide personal commentary on event
- extensive secure internet and wifi connectivity
- simultaneous events
- equipment security
- multi-vendor merchandise sales
- dual use space for end-of-day concerts (during multi-day events)
The secondary interest is the need for training space, offices for administrative functions and medical/support staff, and the need for on-site broadcasting in active spaces. This is increasingly relevant as esports venues are becoming owned and operated by home teams hosting their own teams for multiple games, rather than using rented and temporarily spaces. The result is in branded, curated and mixed-use experiences. The first esports specific arena opened in Arlington, Texas in the fall of 2018. A joint venture between the city of Arlington and an esports subsidiary of the Texas Rangers, it is an example of how a traditional sports team might cross over into esports. The 100,000 square foot facility was designed to be the largest esports venue in North America and has capacity to hold 2,500 spectators. To-date it’s hosted championship events, awards ceremonies and access to practice/training space. Another example includes a esports specific headquarters; one such esports team, Team Vitality’s Paris headquarters is an administrative and training space to host watch parties, sponsors product launches, training sessions and general merchandise shoppers.
Both spaces represent a shift toward team and game-specific spaces that consider the more nuanced needs of esports. Traditionally it is the job of facilities management teams to assess and advise on operational efficiency. Our work provides further study into the competitor and attendee experience. It comes full circle to consider the larger themes of authenticity, engagement, kinship and identity that manifest themselves within these built environments.
Culture Brokers, Infiltrators, Advocates
The events for the various and sundry games, communities, and groups that make up the wider esports world are as complex as they are many. Each game has its own series of communities with nuanced differences. This prospect of a more unique group of people to interact with, of a non monolithic consumer, both confuses and frightens companies and corporations who enter into this world as sponsors, backers, or who buy their way into this space by way of acquiring teams or other media organizations. As such they look to insiders and experts to navigate these new fandoms. With a business case in place, there is a need for understanding, but arguments can and have been made that an understanding of these diverse groups can be reduced to Big Data metrics of behavior, location, view counts, and engagement. So what then, outside the obvious human element, is the need for anthropological research in this space?
Much like the games, the spaces where these events take place are experiential, interactive, and community-driven. It is this aspect that has allowed events to thrive and grow over the years, with events continuing to get bigger a lot of the knowledge of what it takes to run a good event as oral tradition. In light of these new esports specific venues, for event organizers, tournament administrators, and volunteers who run events learn by doing the conversation has recently shifted. Instead of ‘how do we adapt a venue like a convention center, concert hall, or arena to make an esports event work?’ to ‘what do we need in an esports venue that amplifies the experience for competitors, organizers and the spectator community alike?’
Contributing to an Emergent Field
Esports is a space that has risen to prominence because of its communities. Now, much like with everything else on the internet in the past decade, we are waist-deep in an era of corporatization which is evidenced by the sudden rush of funding, sponsorship interest, “audience monetization” and valuation models that often miss out on the amazing nuances of these communities. This blend of competitor, collaborator, spectator and coordinator generates a fascinating nexus that we’re coming to know as esports. It urges our attention sooner rather than later to offer intermediary guidance in its evolving state. As paradigms of business in this field currently bring models more focused on the needs of organizations and sponsors, we hope our work bridges interests to balance the need for authentic experience and community with functional affordances of environment and operations.
Amidst all the talk about sight lines, event type and community participation, esports is an interesting cultural touchpoint that is indicative of larger changes in the intersection of our digital and real world lives. Opportunities for paradigmatic shifts around the ways that we relate to events, spaces, and how we negotiate experiences around leisure and hobby activities are within our grasp. While we can learn a lot from existing models (operational and experiential) around sports and entertainment, esports challenges these assumptions to create opportunities for innovation and change. Synergies (yes, we said synergies) with business, data scientists, event planning, marketing, brand strategy, operational planning (the list goes on) to study this field builds on the work on those who paved the way (i.e., Bonnie Nardi with World of Warcraft and TL Taylor with virtual worlds). Great work is waiting to be done in this space as esports comes into its own and we’re eager to see where our work takes us next.
Many thanks to Molly Rempe and Shane Pahl for providing constructive edits to make this blog post even better.