Why watch other people play video games?
On the weird world of Esports
All Esports is recursion. A human sits and looks at a screen at another human sitting and looking at a screen. What could possibly be interesting about that?
So asks an entire genre of articles, tacked up on the internet like missing person reports for their child’s hours. For anyone past the age of 30, like myself, Esports are perplexing, for video games are meant to be played, not watched. And yet, Esports now occupies roughly ~10% of all “sports” viewing.
For Gen Z, professional gamers are just as well-followed as professional athletes, and, if more niche, only in the way that they are more culturally relevant. One reason is simply the decline of regular sports—baseball is not in a great place, and while football and basketball seem much healthier, they are, you know, not online.
I came of age at the same time computer games did, and played my share of role-playing games when I was a teenager, games like Diablo, Baldur’s Gate, and Planescape: Torment (and I recently wrote about the new golden age of RPGs like Disco Elysium). But originally such entertainments were, to me, effectively big fantasy novels, enjoyed for precisely the same reason I enjoyed reading Tolkien—the world-building, the immersion, the lore. And during college and graduate school I didn’t pay much attention to gaming as a whole.
Then a few years ago I got an Xbox, the first dedicated gaming platform I’d owned since the 1994 Nintendo 64. The reason was I wanted to keep in long-distance touch with my friends, some of whom I’ve known since elementary school. So we established a game night, attended sporadically but often enough to matter. And we stumbled across Apex Legends, a free-to-play first-person shooter that was based on teams of three, perfect for our trio.
During game nights playing Apex Legends our modus operandi is to chit-chat over headphones about life updates while going around collecting loot like guns and armor, followed by brief interregnums of fighting other teams to a vicious death while screaming things like “HE DOESN’T HAVE SHIELDS” or “ROOF ROOF ROOF!” The last team standing wins.
I’ve gotten pretty good, especially during Covid, as it made staying in touch much easier. I’m too old to have the sort of aim the pros do, who can land distant headshots via the tiny reticules using micromuscles my thumb just doesn’t have. But my game sense is extremely good—I almost always know how players will move and what they’ll do, so I lean heavily on ambushing, like popping in and out of buildings and behind doors, and mind games, like appearing to retreat only to bait the other team into a trap. Real ghost and the darkness type stuff. Yes, I intellectualize even gunplay.
My ranking is “diamond,” putting me in the top 2-5% of those who play on the harder ranked servers (as your rank increases, you play against harder opponents of a similar rank). Of course, it’s a bit ridiculous for a grown man with a PhD to be mowing down targets, but at my level it’s probably not little kids I’m shotgunning ruthlessly—mostly, I suppose, college students, maybe some dads.
And then last year an interesting thing happened. YouTube, having been sold the information by Microsoft (who owns Xbox) that I was playing Apex Legends, started showing me Apex Legends videos. And I started watching them in the background while I exercised or did the dishes—particularly the ones of an Apex “pro-league” wherein professional players duke it out.
Discovering the development of Esports, their level of professionalization, was shocking. There are casters. Players get “signed” to teams. There are in-game listen-ins as they fight. And there are, of course, regular livestreamed tournaments—all this, again, just for the free-to-play game my friends and I found. There’s also the prize money: this year alone, the Apex Legends Global Series is giving out over five million dollars in prize money. While this lump sum doesn’t compare to some individual baseball player’s annual contracts, the money from tournaments is merely a supplement to their true income, which is boosted by streaming, for almost all the pros also stream on Twitch for thousands of viewers as they play. I saw someone donate $10,000 to ImperialHal, one of the best players, while he was streaming.
In Apex (and often other Esports) there is an “in-game leader” (IGL) to the team. They are the ones who make the snap decisions that the other players on their team need to obey without hesitation—they are basically the quarterbacks, and have a similar prestige. Hal is an IGL, and, according to statistics leaked online, he’s probably made a million from Twitch payouts alone in the past two years, a number that doesn’t include direct donations over his stream. Which makes the additional ~$250,000 he’s made from Apex Legends tournaments in the past two years seem like peanuts, and of course there’s no way to track the extra income from branding, advertising, and sponsorships, nor team payouts from being signed by a big organization. Kid’s a millionaire, is what I’m saying. At only 22, he’s well on the way toward the stupid rich that used to accompany only young athletes of IRL sports. And he’s definitely taken less blows to the head.
So yes, Esports are thriving, viable ecosystems. And as someone who, not even a year ago now, moved my writing from professional outlets entirely to Substack, I’ve found myself taking their gaming more seriously—taking as it as a career—as there are actually a lot of similarities between Esports players and online writers. Mutual sympathy has made me a fan. And there’s a host of content beyond Apex Legends that also have millions in prize pool and the competitive infrastructure that goes along with that, from first-person shooters like Fortnite, to fantasy battle arena games like DOTA 2, to sci-fi strategy games like Starcraft 2. So here’s why you should consider watching Esports.
First, it’s astounding how many of the same reasons for watching regular sports carry over. Like moments of transcendence where players pull off things you could never imagine. Sports at the highest level are humans competing not against each other, but against physics itself. And there is no difference, scientific materialism tells us, between real physics and simulated physics—when an Esports player pulls off something unimaginable for a casual player in-game, there is the same sense of transcendence.
Then there is sports gossip. Is Tom Brady the greatest of all time, or is he a manufactured product of Bill Belichick? Similarly, Apex Legends has its own debates: who is better, the professional European League or the North American League? Are the team leaders who take the tough-love screaming approach to their squadmates, like ImperialHal, pushing them on to new heights, or an example of toxic gamer culture? He is willing, after all, to call his teammates “dipshits” on air. At the same time, his visceral hype, emotionality, and game sense, can spur his squad to victory in the most unlikely of circumstances.
For players aren’t all the same—someone like ImperialHal will sometimes underperform during a regular game, yet has that unearthly clutch factor the best athletes (again, like Tom Brady) have when big titles are on the line. Even in the cold computational logic of a computer game, there are things that go beyond just the numbers. Between players there are bodily differentiations in their avatars, as strange as that sounds, of the exact same kind in physical sports—some players excel at movement, some at aim, some at taking surprising angles to shoot from, some are more intellectual and rely on timing. Some players come across as dextrous and fast, others as solid and tanky, some as fragile but potent (ImperialHal comes across like baleful liquid smoke). Exactly how such digital “physicality” stems from wrist movements and thumb twiddling is one of the higher mysteries, but come across these properties do, exactly as IRL sports.
It’s the reliance on wrist movements and thumb twiddling wherein the paradoxical strangeness of Esports lies—it speaks to some sort of deep plasticity that underlies all human achievement; a football player climbs roughly the same steep learning curve as an Esports player, and those at the top of both are just as peerless. Humans, whether by entire body or by a single thumb, scale into hierarchies of ability just the same.
While the zone of physical performance shrinks to the almost comical in Esports, other aspects expand. Indeed, there are unique advantages, things inaccessible to regular sports. One might even say superiorities. First, there are some small logistical things: the ease of tournaments, and the technology of it all—like how you can actually watch, in live action, a player compete in a tournament, as if you were inside the helmet of an athlete. Another advantage: in Esports, the culture is to refer to players via their gamer-tags, the names of their in-game characters. This makes for weird and wacky calls, as announcers are forced to say the most ridiculous names (one of the most deadly Apex Legends stars is called “Skittlecakes”). But at the same time, gamer tags lend the whole affair a tinge of superheroes and secret identities, an aura of the mythic, as the normal players don the masks of names like Sweetdreams or Snip3down or Monsoon—and donning this nominal superhero mask does seem to impact them psychologically, for when the game starts you notice a shift in their personality, as if they are leaving behind being an “Evan” or a “Philip” and becoming something more.
It’s a transformation noticeable only because of what differentiates Esports the most from its IRL counterpart, which is how the viewer-player relationship is infinitely more personal than with regular sports. As they play or stream on Twitch you can hear their jokes, their moans of frustration, their commentary (often about the game, sometimes not), their team banter, their perspective on everything that’s happening. And it’s this extremely personal relationship that makes the players the most money, that fuels the Esports economy.
As an example: if you are a fan, you might think you know Tom Brady. But you don’t. None of us really know Tom Brady, unless you’ve played with him. We know only the politically-correct boring construct that speaks after games. That’s not Tom Brady. The real Tom Brady is someone with a sense of humor and strong political opinions. He’s also an absolute maniac, a macho-warrior who chews his team out at the slightest hesitation. If you met the real Tom Brady while he’s playing football you’d be shocked beyond belief that what he’s saying is even legal. His spittle in your face would be a level of aggression basically outlawed in modern society. It would be traumatic.
Which brings me to the common accusation that Esports players are unnecessarily toxic—players yell at one another, swear, diss other teams, make dirty jokes, and sometimes say politically-incorrect things. It doesn’t help that they are almost all young men between 18 and 26, their veins coursing with hormones. Yet, again, this is foregrounded in Esports only because we can actually listen to players as they practice and compete. The terrible truth is that all sports are toxic in this manner, probably because almost everything, at the very highest levels of competition, from sports to business to, yes, often academia, can be toxic in a similar manner. And the very same people yelling in private are then out in public, preaching about the importance of “workplace culture” and “work/life balance” after their weekend grinds, or preaching about speech laws after making their own suspect jokes over expensive dinners.
I prefer honesty. Yes, Esports players are not fit like Greek gods, and instead of running on fields made artificially verdant green they are hunched over amid recording equipment in the dim light of their screens. But you can see their faces, and hear them speak, and they come to us, in their cries of joy and their cursing and humor, as totally and unabashedly human.