The 1989 film “The Wizard” ends with a huge video game tournament. Giant TV screens are revealed in smoke-filled introductions, and three preteens line up to compete in a “Super Mario Bros. 3” speed challenge in front of a huge, cheering crowd. The room is decked out in cyber-punk decals and moving metal walls. But this scene was completely staged — a fictional ’80s spectacle that presented a vision of what competitive gaming might look like in the future. “The Wizard” was Hollywood conjecture of the possibilities of a still-nascent video game industry.
Today, thousands of people watch competitive gaming on a daily basis. Unlike the ridiculous scenes in “The Wizard,” eSports are for real, and eSports culture remains one of the most important rising trends in gaming today.
One of the most popular ways to spectate competitive gaming is to watch it using online video services. Head over to Twitch and you’ll experience one of the most fascinating embodiments of modern competitive gaming culture. Every day, hundreds of Internet broadcasters (called “streamers”) provide live streaming video of themselves playing and talking about video games to huge audiences, often reaching tens of thousands of viewers at once. You can stream any sort of gameplay on Twitch, but the most popular games by far are the competitive multiplayer games: “League of Legends,” “DotA 2,” “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Hearthstone,” just to name a few.
A month after launch, Twitch opened up its Partner Program, giving popular streamers the opportunity to earn ad revenue from their broadcasts. For some, like “TrumpSC,” a Hearthstone streamer featured in an April 2014 Forbes article, Twitch streaming is a six-figure paid career.
Twitch was launched in 2011 as a spin-off of Justin.tv, a popular video streaming site. Justin shut down in August 2014 to focus resources entirely on Twitch. The magnitude of Twitch’s continuing success cannot be ignored. In August 2014, Amazon bought Twitch for $970 million.
Amazon’s investment shows the far-reaching potential for online competitive gaming, and it’s only getting bigger. Of course, online streaming isn’t the only way people watch. In-person tournaments are huge, with some high-level professional tourneys approaching the grandeur fantasized about in “The Wizard.”
At the collegiate level, tournaments have never been bigger.
In September 2014, “League of Legends” developer, Riot Games, announced that their 2014-2015 NACC (North American Collegiate Championship) would give out over $360,000 in scholarships. Each member of the first place team will win a $30,000 scholarship.
Most teams that compete won’t be successful. In general, making eSports a career or even making money at all through gaming is still quite difficult.
There are two main ways of pursuing a career in eSports: competing and streaming. Making it as a competitor requires a rigorous practice schedule and considerable skill, while making a living as a streamer requires a large, dedicated fan base. Success as a streamer or competitive gamer could be equated to success as a movie star: a few will find fame and success, but the majority of those who try won’t. However, “making it” is certainly not the end-all be-all goal for these gamers. For most, competitive gaming isn’t about financial success. It’s a hobby and a passion.
This is quite evident at The University of Michigan, which is now a thriving epicenter of competitive gaming culture, with numerous student groups cropping up across all kinds of games.
While an enormous variety of games are played competitively on campus, two monolithic student organizations stand out: Michigan League of Legends (MLOL) and the Super Smash Brothers Club, also known as “Michigan Melee.”
Super Smash Bros. is a 2D fighting game series featuring a range of Nintendo characters. League of Legends is a MOBA, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. MOBAs originated with “DotA,” a popular multiplayer mod for “Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos.”
Engineering junior Patrick Huang, president of Michigan League of Legends and one of the most influential competitive gaming aficionados on campus, has been a part of their competitive team for two years. That’s not an easy feat. The MLOL Facebook group has more than 600 members, and its competitive team consists of only the best of the best.
“MOBAs are really unique compared to other games because you’re forced to work as a team. There are a lot of other games that do that, but I think it’s magnified in MOBAs,” Huang said. “Jeremy Lin, the famous NBA basketball player, is a big fan of DotA 2 and he likes to make the comparison between DotA 2 and basketball… You know, you have a five player team, everyone’s got their own special role that they have to fill and you have to trust your teammates a lot in order to succeed.”
Even under all that pressure, Huang believes that the competitive team is less about cutthroat dramatics and more about community.
“There are kind of two groups. The entire club as a whole — we’re not the closest of groups but we’re all friends with each other. But there’s also the competitive team,” he said.
“The people that have been on my team have been some of my best friends in college so far. One of them, we first got to know each other playing on the same team freshman year, and now we’re rooming together this year. (League) is a great way to build bonds, and build relationships with other people.”
Huang and the Michigan League of Legends board members organize numerous events for the club, including tournaments, meet-ups and viewing parties for big eSports events.
“It’s the community aspect. League is an online game, and it’s very easy to just never really know who you’re playing with, so the goal of MLOL is to create a community where people can meet up and become friends with people they have common interests with. It’s also very nice for new students who come here, and maybe they don’t have any friends and see the League of Legends club and say, ‘Oh, that’s something I like to do, that’s familiar to me,’ so… they’ll come here and build friendships that will last for the rest of college.”
With Riot Games now investing tons of money into prize pools for collegiate tournaments like the NACC’s and professional circuits like the League of Legends World Championship (the 2014 prize pool is $2,130,000), you’d think ambitious college League players would be singularly focused on big-time eSports success. However, Huang maintained that MLOL players don’t have their heads in the clouds.
“I know there are many people who — for League specifically — have dropped out of school and moved to California where all the professional players are just to pursue this lifestyle, and for a lot of people it’s very unsuccessful. I’d say for the majority of MLOL players, they don’t have these kinds of high expectations.”
So what is it, then, that draws students to the college League scene? Huang said it’s a legitimate love for the game.
“I think it’s definitely a passion. For a lot of people, it’s a big part of their lives, myself included. It’s really something that you can bond with people over, it’s something you can play when you have free time or even when you maybe don’t have much free time,” he said, laughing. “But whenever you play, you’re enjoying it, and maybe it’s as much of a hobby as playing sports would be.”
League is no doubt one of the biggest games on campus, but Michigan’s Super Smash Bros. community is known as one of the biggest collegiate scenes in the world, with hundreds of active players, biweekly tournaments, and a welcoming weekly venue: the Duderstadt center. The group is mainly organized through its Facebook group, “Michigan Melee,” coordinated by Michigan alum Robin Harn.
Harn graduated from Michigan in 2013, but he’s still the University’s Smash ringleader. Today, he’s organizing “The Big House 4,” a national Super Smash Bros. tournament taking place in Romulus, MI, with over 500 attendees. One of the world’s top five Melee players, Adam “Armada” Lindgren, is flying in to Detroit from his native Sweden to compete. Harn reckons the success of the group’s events is due to the friendliness of the group to new players.
“When people without experience go to tournaments, they’re usually afraid of a few things, like the social stigma of tournaments. It’s like, am I gonna get beat down so hard that it’s going to be humiliating?” he said.
“But people understand that there are going to be new players, and that it doesn’t matter if people don’t know how to do advanced techniques; they’re just another part of a big family.”
Super Smash Bros. Melee, by far the most popular Smash game to play competitively, is now 13 years old. For many players, it’s getting tougher to organize events and tournaments because competitive Melee play requires old-school CRT televisions, a rare find now that HD televisions have completely overtaken the market. Melee also lacks online play, meaning players must seek out real-life interaction in order to play competitively. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though — Harn credits the lack of online play as a highly positive benefit to the Smash scene.
“If you look at other games like ‘League of Legends’ and ‘Starcraft,’ their online communities can be toxic sometimes. And if you look at Melee, there’s none of that because you can’t hide behind a computer screen. You have to go to the tournaments and meet people… Smash is by far the most friendly for new players,” Harn said.
Additionally, Harn noted that the Smash community is so friendly that he can reach out to players across the nation. Through his presence in both Michigan Melee and Smashboards.com, an international Super Smash Bros. message board, Harn feels as though he’s a part of a great social understanding with the Smash community — he calls this the “Smash network.”
“If I need graphic design done, I know a guy. If I need a bouncer for an event, I know a guy. If I need housing, I’m never going to pay for housing on a random trip, anywhere in the United States ever again. I’m going to hit up the Smash network.”
The social appeal of collegiate eSports is clear. Both Huang and Harn attested to the positive community and the rewarding networking that comes with it. However, there is one noticeable caveat that comes with the accepting nature of these communities — the hardcore gaming scene is overwhelmingly male. At a Friday night Smash event, only one girl was in attendance. Yet, Lisa Nakamura, University Screen Arts and Cultures professor, says that this disparity is slowly changing.
“I’ve never taught a video game class that had very many women at all. But as time has gone on, I’ve gotten more,” she said.
Professor Nakamura researches Digital Game Studies, as well as Asian American studies, Digital Media Theory, and Race and Gender in New Media.
She addressed the gendered differences in different categories of video games, including First-Person Shooter games, and Role-Playing Games.
“It’s interesting, I ask people, ‘Are you a gamer?’ and most of the men say yes; almost all of the women say no. And then I ask, ‘Well, how many of you play ‘Candy Crush?’ … and that’s everyone,” Nakamura said. “So women tend to view themselves not as gamers unless they’re playing FPS games, or even RPGs… The disparity really is a gendered one,” she said.
So what’s the problem? Why aren’t more women involved in “hardcore” gaming and eSports? Nakamura says it’s due to the fact that the majority of game developers are male.
“Not very many women make games. When you make video game storylines or animations, what people tend to do is copy things they admire; they copy things that impress them or move them in some way,” Nakamura said. “Because the developer culture is so male, you get these same images over and over again, because people can’t really think outside what their canon is. The indie canon is different, because there are more women in it.”
The gender disparity in the hardcore gaming scene is changing. One thing still isn’t clear, though: why is competitive gaming so big in college? Why now? Why not in high school, when gamers have less responsibilities?
“Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you’re no longer living with your parents,” guesses Julia G. Raz, a Rackham student. Raz is a Communications graduate student who has been studying games academically since 2008.
“Your parents might have given you a hard time about spending so much time playing video games and not focusing on your schoolwork, and now you have the opportunity to spend just as much of your free time as you want playing these games. You no longer have anyone looking over you and telling you what to do,” Raz said.
Raz’s dissertation examines casual gaming, in particular exergames, widely-marketed fitness games designed to appeal to a very different audience than competitive games like League and Smash. She said that despite the growing influence of eSports, there’s little chance of the eSports scene penetrating the mainstream audience that exergames appeal to.
“I think they’ve already tried (marketing competitive gaming to the mainstream) and they’re not doing it with much success. The PlayStation Move is a great example of this. They’ve tried doing things like a Star Wars game, nobody’s going to buy that. Last year (at E3) they had something like a UFC game for Kinect, and I don’t think these attempts, Wii, Move, Kinect, are working. Those core gamers are not interested in playing their core game while holding a wand.”
Harn disagrees: “The future is pretty promising for the competitive scene. I could see it becoming as big as Netflix or ESPN in the coming years, I really do.”
Whether eSports stays a niche market or explodes into the mainstream, the University will remain a hotspot for this hardcore gaming culture. Campus groups like Michigan Smash and MLOL are making it clear that gamers aren’t the basement-dwelling weirdos the mainstream media often depicts them as. Raz agreed with this sentiment.
“I hate the stereotype that gamers are antisocial … the reason people want to take part in these communal experiences is so they feel like they have other people who are their friends that get them. It’s like a sorority or fraternity of its own,” Raz said.
“It’s this sense of community that people want to have. When you first join college you want to have that sense of belonging, and what better way if you love those games than to spend time with others who love them too.”