What do you envision when thinking about esports? Maybe it’s the signature gamer chair: the DXRacer. This chair resembles the throne of a king, with shiny leather that feels as though you’re sitting on a cloud while holding great power. Its sharp, ergonomic design makes a gamer believe they are in the captain’s seat of a futuristic spaceship, anxiously awaiting liftoff. But who do you see sitting in the chair?

In her DSI Esports Symposium talk, “Playing Like An Asian: Race, Gender & Athleticism in esports,” Tara Fickle, Associate Professor at Northwestern University, discussed racialized stereotypes about esports gamers. Bringing in popular media representations of esports, Fickle’s talk illustrated how notions of race, gender, and athleticism in esports work together in replicating common stereotypes about esports players and Asian Americans.

Fickle introduced esports to the audience through a Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit from 2019 featuring Chance the Rapper acting as NBA reporter “Lazlo Holmes.” The skit takes place at a League of Legends esports tournament where Holmes has to cover the event despite being unfamiliar with esports. The competitors all sit in their spaceship-like DXRacer gaming chairs with their eyes glued to the computer screens on a stage with a massive screen displaying the League of Legends match they’re in. The crowd is on their feet, cheering for the competitors while Holmes stands on stage in a state of confusion, seemingly unable to understand how he—a NBA reporter, a “real” sports reporter—ended up in a room full of nerds. Though much of the comedy comes from Holmes’ confusion and the aesthetic absurdity of gaming chairs, Holmes also quips about how surely these esports fans don’t know what basketballs are and refers to the competitors—who are predominantly Asian—as “10 nerdy dudes.” Holmes remarks that if anyone understood what was going on in the competition, they might need to “get out of the house more.”

Telling fans that they need to “get out of the house more” implies that these people are too invested in video games and therefore missing out on “real” sports and, by extension, “real” life. Joking about a fan or player never having seen a basketball before reinforces the belief of esports being lesser than other sports like basketball or football, meaning that because athleticism isn’t as involved, the sport is necessarily less masculine, and by extension, nerdier. All of these are stereotypical jokes made about people who are chronically online, not unlike the “touch grass” meme that went viral in 2019. But as Fickle points out, these assumptions about nerdiness are also assumptions about race and racialization: the only esport athlete with lines in this skit is an Asian man. As such, this SNL skit seems to collapse “nerd” and “Asian,” perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

Like in “regular” sports coverage, Holmes interviews one of the competitors after his game. The gamer had stereotypically nerdy features: small square glasses, an awkward slouch, giving the 1000-yard stare with his mouth half-open. The gamer was also Asian. Fickle explains that such features are the “epitomization of the racial form in the gamer nerd.” Analyzing the clip, Fickle considered both the positive and negative impacts of the skit. On one hand, this media reflects a “social evolution” in esports: the millions of viewers SNL consistently pulls in creates a new, much wider audience for esports which could expand people’s understanding and overall interest in it. However, the portrayal of the esports on SNL both reinforces stereotypes about Asian men as “nerds” and about esports as “nerdy.”

Fickle’s talk ended with a Q&A session led by Huan He, Assistant Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and former DISCO Network Fellow. He was particularly interested in the element of humor in the clips Fickle analyzed (she also analyzed a promotional video for the 2022 League of Legends World Championship featuring Lil Nas X). Using the terminology of “In-Crowds” and “Out-Crowds,” He interrogated the ways in which skits like the SNL one create a dynamic between people who understand esports and people who are confused as to what they are.

“There is a way in which we can use humor to deal with uncomfortable situations,” explained Fickle, “[however], the attempt to diminish the seriousness of bodies by emphasizing nerdiness is a part of the humor.” In other words, we can use humor to deal with these harmful stereotypes, but using humor to simply label esports athletes as nerds and to racialize the category of “nerd” suggests that mainstreaming something without relying on stereotypes is difficult for writers. From my own experiences playing video games, I can recognize the amount of time, effort, and overall hard work these athletes have put into their video game skills. I’ve played Rocket League, a video game that combines flying cars and soccer, for years and I have nowhere near the amount of skills of these esports athletes. For the time and dedication that it takes to level up in the esports rankings, these athletes deserve the same respect and recognition of professionals in other sports. In thinking through the dichotomy between “athlete” and “nerd” and the racialized image of “nerdiness,” Fickle’s talk invites us to challenge these categories and stereotypes and think differently about humor and who gets to “touch grass.”