A young Asian man lies sleeping on his desk. Suddenly, a message appears on his second monitor. “Are you ready to prove yourself?” Woken by this alert, he raises his head and peers confusedly at the screen, which now displays the message “PICK UP YOUR WEAPON AND FACE IT” and two options: Accept and Decline. The man does neither of those, instead smashing Ctrl-Alt-Delete, causing the walls of his house to shake.

He sprints outside, only to see a large metal ring leading to a portal and a solar eclipse just reach totality. Suddenly, the metal ring-turned portal lights up with images of Asian men embracing each other and raising trophies. An elaborate battle ax forms in his hand, and the music swells as he thrusts it forward. The man runs forward, plants the ax in the ground, and somersaults towards the portal.

On the other side of the portal stands nearly 20,000 people in South Korea’s Gocheok Sky Dome, eagerly awaiting the finals of the League of Legends World Championship, between the dominant South Korean team T1 and the resurgent Chinese team Weibo Gaming.

What is Esports?

Competitive gaming, better known as “esports,” has been called the sport of the future for the past ten years. After countless attempts to penetrate the American sports world and the content creation scene, this time, esports may finally succeed. FaZe Clan, a major esports team, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June 2021, Doja Cat streams on Twitch, and League of Legends Worlds 2023 reached an audience of 6.4 million worldwide. Despite such ascendence, the world of esports remains impenetrable without clocking hundreds of hours on Twitch or League of Legends.

To reduce this knowledge barrier, the DSI invited Dr. Lindsay Migliore, an esports physician, to speak on the topic of esports. Migliore is the pioneer of esports medicine, a field dedicated to treating and preventing common gamer injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome, eye strain, and sleep deprivation. She has worked with top players such as SonicFox and served as the lead editor for the Handbook of Esports Medicine, which covers proper gamer nutrition, psychology, and hand and back stretches.

In her talk “Esports Unveiled: A Journey into the Light and Shadows of a Thriving Global Phenomenon,” Migliore discussed her experience as a queer woman in esports, as well as her taxonomy of esports. Migliore’s categorizations align more closely with that of the broader esports community, and as such has caught on unlike previously attempted taxonomies such as Cranmer et al.’s “esports matrix,” which was doomed to irrelevance due to its esoteric nature and failure to actually engage with the esports community.

Migliore’s taxonomy involves four types of esports: MOBAs, first-person shooter, strategy games, and fighting games. MOBAs, like League of Legends, are popular in East Asia; they are what you think of when you think of esports, most likely, given their centrality to the PC cafe culture in East Asia. First-person shooters, while popular in North America and Europe, tend not to get enthusiastic sponsorship funding because of their portrayals of terrorism and war. Though strategy games like Starcraft II were among the first to be esports, they are not as popular.

The fighting game community (FGC), which includes Street Fighter, Tekken, and Super Smash Bros., differentiates itself from other esports insofar as they are based around individual players and have a lower economic barrier to entry. They rely more on the individual contributions of players and community members rather than sponsors, allowing greater self-expression. This DIY ethos results in more democratic communities at the expense of funding and game stability.

That said, the broader FGC is trending toward top-down esports structures such as those of League of Legends, creating stability for the games’ communities at the expense of the independence and self-expression that etched it into esports history. For instance, Sony recently purchased the most prestigious fighting game tournament Evo, causing a milder-than-expected wave of hand-wringing over the FGC’s identity. Many in the FGC long for the DIY, grassroots ethos that drove the early FGC, the ethos that drove Evo in its early days, creating historic events like Evo Moment #37.

Evo Moment #37 happened in a cramped, poorly-lit college lecture hall, whereas Evo 2023 happened in the 2.1 million square foot Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Such a drastic change indicates the popularity of fighting games, as well as the monetization and professionalization of the FGC. Bringing Evo more in line with profitability is Sony’s goal, and much of the community tolerates this because they can’t ignore it.

Access and Identity

Dr. Kishonna Gray, Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies as well as of Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky is a leader in the field of Black gaming studies, and has consulted for companies such as Epic Games (they make Fortnite) to increase inclusivity and improve the experiences of Black gamers. In her Esports Symposium talk “#TechFail: From Intersectional (In)Accessibility to Inclusive Design,” Gray talked about the role of class and race in grassroots, not-for-profit esports, saying console-native games like sports and fighting games are easier to learn and more popular in the Black communities with which she works.

In conversation with DISCO postdoctoral fellow Dr. David Adelman, Gray also discussed the Xbox Kinect’s inability to detect darker skin tones upon launch, as well as its lack of consideration for disabled people. The Kinect, launched in response to the popularity of the Wii, used a camera to detect players’ body movements rather than a handheld remote. Given its promise that “YOU are the controller,” many of Gray’s students and community members were disappointed when the motion control device failed to detect their darker skin tones, paralleling similar racist technologies such as facial recognition and even automatic soap dispensers. (Xbox eventually solved this problem with a software update.)

Gray also discussed her difficulties in securing technology and space for her gaming initiatives, which intend to increase community engagement and provide productive pathways and entertainment for children of low-income families. Many of these events featured fighting games native to consoles, showing the grassroots origins of the FGC. During her time at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Gray had no consistent access to gaming PCs or even a computer lab, so she improvised and pivoted to largely console gaming events.

During her time in Chicago, the city hosted an official Pokémon Go Fest. However, the entry fee prohibited many of the children Gray worked with from participating. As such, Gray hosted her own Pokémon Go Fest on the South Side. When she began to organize it, she found surprisingly few PokéStops in the area, and the one that she did find was a Confederate memorial. Gray credited this to the lack of engagement with Black communities on the part of Nintendo, explaining that the company had copied anti-Black racism to the digital Pokémon sphere.

As Migliore reminded us, gender also plays a role in access to the gaming community.
Out of fears of being called sexist slurs and ostracization, many women in gaming hide their gender through voice-changing software, turning off voice chat, and sometimes quitting gaming as a whole. Migliore also detailed the women-and-non-binary-only esports leagues and competitions, saying these receive less attention and money and are often the first to go when esports organizations encounter financial trouble. No gamers in the top 500 esports earners are women, largely due to a lack of interest from the gaming community and just a lack of women in gaming.

Though she herself isn’t a professional esports gamer, Migliore has also experienced sexism from the professional esports community. Esports team management has often blamed her for low performance by her patients, not to mention the online harassment from fans along the same lines. She detailed her own experiences with her work being dismissed or others assuming she was an assistant or other low-level worker, rather than a medical doctor working directly with players.

This sexism—like racism and economic barriers—ultimately serves a self-defeating purpose, limiting esports long-term popularity among large swaths of the American population. Video games, particularly those with high skill ceilings and online engagement (i.e. esports), have become a symbol of male laziness, racism, and toxic behavior, further contributing to esports’ economic woes.

Esports’ attempts to become mainstream are doomed to fail without curbing sexism, racism, and financial barriers in the community. However, the current system offers little to no reward for doing that. By the time gamers reach the skill level of professional esports, structural barriers have already made the talent pool racially homogenous, affluent, and male. Game developers and esports broadcasts then cater to these groups, further perpetuating the cycle. And when esports is under threat from dwindling capital and deflated turnout, these problems fall to the wayside. Esports isn’t dead, but it might just be a dead man walking.