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Esports is a real. But what is “real”?

You’re going to sit on your couch and cheer someone playing a video game? And maybe you don’t even see the player; you only see the gameplay? You’re going to watch that? Really?

Yes, really. Esports is a real thing. And there is an esports bandwagon a lot of companies are jumping on. They see big money being spent and huge audiences watching both online and in big, new, well-lit venues. There’s a pie there that people want a slice of. But the real truth is that a lot of those investors, participants, partners have no idea what all the excitement is about.

“The digital world has finally called our bluff.”

Getting Hip

I like to imagine the hype around esports as being like rock and roll in the late 1950s – something that was clearly going to be huge, epoch-making and tremendously lucrative, but which the incumbent business and cultural infrastructure was absolutely unable to get their heads around.

But esports goes even further. It’s not just a new genre of content. It is, in some ways, a new way of thinking about media.

My first experience with esports was seeing my daughter, at about age six, watch Super Mario playthroughs on YouTube. She absolutely loved them. At first, I was confused – I was one of those music execs from 1959. My daughter had never played the game before. We didn’t even own a game console. But she was fascinated. She understood that there was a contest under way with stakes and obstacles and a goal. There were characters moving through this constructed landscape and they were obviously moving with autonomy, making decisions on a moment by moment basis according to a set of rules.

It occurred to me that this was high octane sports for little kids. Getting a 21st century six year old to watch a football game all the way through might be a challenge, but turn those players into animated rocket cars and turn the field into a fantastic obstacle course, and you won’t be able to drag them away.

Esports is sports by just about every definition of the word. The one thing that separates it from traditional sports, and the thing that some of us find so baffling – and the thing that is the major turning point in our tech culture – is that it does not take place in the physical world.

Can sports take place in a non-physical space?

It can now.

“I don’t hold with the doctrine that technology inevitably advances along its positive own path, like some force of nature.”

What Team Are You On?

The digital world has finally called our bluff. We’ve spent billions on research, infrastructure, content, technology to enable ever more realistic and involving experiences. Our media creation and distribution tools, whether via an instagram photo or a cinema event or a deep VR experience – or a tweet – are all aiming to enhance, inform or allow us to escape from our three dimensional reality. And it’s likely that most of us – certainly the younger generation – are past a tipping point where we live most of our mental lives attached to some non-physical space, where physical reality is just a means by which we move from one digital space to the other.

Esports is real sports for an increasingly unreal culture. 

I don’t hold with the doctrine that technology inevitably advances along its own positive path, like some force of nature, and there’s nothing for us to do but surf the wave. Our present technological and cultural state of play is always the result of deliberate decisions.

For a long time, our global media tech business plan has included words like “realistic” “immersive”, “ubiquitous”, “connected” and “interactive”. Esports and the confusion between the physical and digital worlds is the inevitable, predictable – and, if we intend to put our money where our mouth is, desirable – result.

This issue’s piece on Deep Fakes strongly underlines the uncanny collapse of the wall between the real and the digital. Most of what we profess to know – the content of our daily chit-chat – comes out of the digital realm, whether it’s the news, a weather report, a lecture on YouTube or pictures of our sister’s new baby. But we all take it as an article of faith that what we’re ingesting must have at least some connection with the physical world.

Some of us who had a largely physical world childhood may still find it absurd, but there are lots of people – not all of them known for their selflessness – who see the digital media space as one big esports contest, where there is no obligation to represent the real world at all, where the most colourful characters get the most attention, and where algorithms keep us watching, hypnotised by the whole spectacle. If I was a supervillain in a Marvel film, I would take control of the media space over taking over planet Earth any day of the week. On Earth, you have to play by the rules of the physical world. In the media space, you play by whatever the rules you want.

Esports is great. It’s fun. The more I watch it, the more I like it. And one day the prefix “e” will be dropped from the name altogether – it will just be sports. But there are parts of lives that are not a game – not yet anyway – and even if we prefer living in the digital world to living in the physical one, it’s imperative that we understand the difference and know which one we’re inhabiting at any given moment.

This article originally appeared in the August 2018 Issue of FEED magazine.