Esports and the rise of competitive gaming in the mainstream

On November 11, hundreds of gaming fans packed into the giant Bell Centre in Montreal, QC for Northern Arena, a competitive gaming tournament whose main sponsors included Bell Media and ASUS Republic of Gamers. Northern Arena is arguably one of North America’s largest eSports competitions, rival to that of Dreamhack Montreal which was held just months earlier at the same venue. The tournament, only the second of its kind under the Northern Arena name and brand (the first being held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in September), hosted hundreds of players, fans, spectators and everyone in between, all gathered to watch and cheer on their favourite teams for Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), Clash Royale and Gears of War 4. Competitors were passionately driven, all with hopes of winning some of the $223,000 prize pool, the top prizes going to the winners of the final competitions for CS:GO and the Dota 2 Beat Invitational.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is undoubtedly one of the most heavily-followed games in eSports. According to SteamCharts.com, a website which tracks traffic in specific PC-based games using statistics from the Steam platform (the client on which users download and play all of the Counter-Strike games), in the last 30 days alone (October 28-November 28, 2016) the average number of players online at the same time in-game was 333,771. SteamSpy.com reports that 25,192,493 ± 126,256 worldwide have purchased the game, with players spanning across the globe. CS:GO (along with the other games in the Counter-Strike series) is arguably also one of the most accessible games to players who are interested in stepping into the world of PC gaming, or simply gaming in general and enjoy first-person shooter-based games. CS:GO retails on the Steam platform store for $16.99 CDN, often dropping in price during regular Steam sales, most recently in their Black Friday sale period at just $11.38.

Trieu Lai, a ‘caster’ (short for broadcaster, or someone who essentially provides commentary and analysis during games on live streams) in the Counter-Strike community, grew up doing what many gamers did during their own childhoods. He was introduced into the gaming world, and specifically the Counter-Strike community, as a child at the age of 8 or 9 watching his older brother play the game. “I grew up with the game, along with other titles like StarCraft and Rollercoaster Tycoon, but [Counter-Strike] stuck to me the most,” said Lai, also remembering console gaming fondly. “Before PC gaming [was popularized], I played Golden Eye on the Nintendo 64 religiously, sitting ‘criss-cross apple sauce’ and staring at my TV.”

Lai began as a competitive gamer in Counter-Strike: Source, an earlier game in the Counter-Strike series developed by Valve along with Counter-Strike 1.6 and other games under the Counter-Strike brand developed by Nexon. A large amount of his competitive gaming career he attributes to his former team, Cyber Athletic League (C.A.L. for short.)

“From there on I met friends that I would still have today in [Counter-Strike: Global Offensive]. I didn’t exactly go far competitively, but I still maintained the passion for the game,” said Lai. “I was more into the fun, comedic side of [Counter-Strike].”

In terms of casting itself and providing commentary during live LAN (Local Area Network) events and online matches, Lai was introduced into the hosting gig by a friend he had played with in the Counter-Strike community.

“Casting started out for fun with my friends. A friend I’ve had since [Counter-Strike: Source] named Jared Harphant, inspired me to cast for fun and I slowly took off with it,” said Lai. “During that time I was doing it for fun in casual games and matches.”

The community is, without a doubt, still in its development stages. With the rise of competitive gaming only truly taking shape within the last three to four years worldwide, we’re only just starting to see larger spectator-worthy events like Dreamhack, Starladder and eSports Championship Series (ECS.) It’s also worth noting that all three of the events just mentioned also originated solely in Europe, with offshoot events under the same brand/organization names of some being held in North America within only the past year or two. The North American eSports industry is rapidly on the rise, but there’s still quite a long way to go.

With a community that is still quite new and in development, there are bound to be controversies and issues to be worked on and discussed to improve the experience for all involved. Recently, the esports community has come under fire for their representation of female players and casters, as discussed in an episode of The BBC Victoria Derbyshire Show, a non-gaming specific talk show, released by the BBC on November 21, 2016 (with accompanying articles). In the episode, guests Melonie Mac (who although credited as a professional gamer is a game streamer, vastly different than the actual profession of an eSports competitor), Joshua Nino (founder of eSports publication Dexerto) and Charleyy Hodson (a retired professional gamer) accused the eSports Industry Awards of having a bias twoards male players, given that no professional female player had been nominated.

The awards, held in London, England, highlight the esports industry on a worldwide scale and gives out awards for categories such as “Best eSports Journalist of the Year” or “PC Player of the Year.” While it is definitely important to note that women were nominated for awards in journalism and photography in the eSports world, the guests on Derbyshire’s show had a remote amount of merit to the accusations made towards the awards show; there were no female players nominated… but potentially not out of discrimination.

It’s difficult to make generalized assumptions about the esports world as a whole because, let’s face it, outside of in-person LANs, it comes down to players facing off against online opponents who could be presenting any identity they want. The reason for women not being recognized more frequently in the community may simply come down to the fact that as of now, it’s very uncommon to see female players on the top professional teams or at competitive events. The problem however, can be said to lie in three different areas of the current setup of professional competitive gaming.

To start, much like traditionally-known, physical activity-heavy sports such as soccer, football, basketball, etc., teams with both male and female players are almost unheard of. In recent years, those kinds of sports have been letting females play on what have been deemed male-only teams. While strides are being made in that area, one could argue that a way to perhaps combat the issue of females not becoming more widely known in the esports scene is to promote co-ed teams, bringing female talent onto an all-male team. The tricky part, however, lies in the fact that females are currently so scarce in face-to-face tournaments that as soon as a female is brought onto a professional all-male team, she becomes singled out, highly scrutinized by commentators, and held to specific expectations by spectators (and due to the online nature of most esports, online viewers.)

Female casters are rare, at least in terms of the professional esports world. Froskurinn (real name Indiana Juniper Black) is a caster/colour commentator for League of Legends Pro League (a primarily Chinese-based championship and tournament stream, one of the highest world competitions for League of Legends). Prior to becoming one of LPL’s English casters, Froskurinn most notably played the support role for Team Dignitas EU, and coached teams Roar and RMU, also from China.

Athxna (real name Mirna Noureldin) is a caster and former professional player in the Counter-Strike scene. Athxna was born in Dubai, and was introduced to Counter-Strike 1.6, eventually becoming a professional player for that game and subsequent games in the series. She later worked as a caster and analyst after moving to Canada to pursue engineering at York University and Video Game Design and Development at the Toronto Film School. While rare in the community, Froskurinn and Athxna serve as potential role models for not only females looking to break into the industry, but for young casters seeing a new and diverse side to eSports and commentary. This benefits even those looking to simply stream for fun and not professionally on websites such as Twitch.

The issue of no diversity with female players and casters in the esports world, can be a vicious cycle. Females have little to no representation and thus intimidated to break into the scene in the first place. Once someone is brave enough to attempt to approach the male-dominated world of eSports and esports analysis/casting/commentary, they work their way to casting for large in-person LANs. Once at a LAN, female casters can be absolutely torn into by spectators verbally or scrutinized and stereotyped. For example, while watching the Northern Arena Call of the North qualifiers this past summer, Twitch viewers as well as the casters were subject to ridiculous amounts of discriminatory or lewd chat messages when female casters were on the screen. This, in turn, can scare off more female players from trying to enter the professional scene.

Some argue that major changes need to be made in the eSports community in order to be more accommodating or inclusive towards professional players or casters who are not male-identifying or of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds but, in reality, change may potentially come only from the eSports community developing in time. The industry is still relatively new, especially the North American scene, and in time, much like ‘traditional’ sports, eSports will become more inclusive and set new standards and expectations for how they want the scene to develop.

“With the eSports age group growing up, more and more competitors or spectators or simply esports fans will have more income to attend events. Whether its social or competitive, we’re seeing a lot more people come out and get involved,” said Trieu Lai on what he would like to see develop for North American competitive gaming,  “I would say the future of eSports is looking great and will continue to grow; you have events that fill NHL Arenas in 2016!”

Lai agrees that although we’ve begun with a strong foundation in eSports in present day, the competitive gaming industry is expanding rapidly and fans will be able to interact more than ever before with the community, including players and tournaments; competitive gaming events are becoming more inclusive and interactive for everyone involved, from casters to players to spectators.

“As more games take on a competitive aspect, allowing viewership/merchandise, branding of eSports teams, it will only continue to grow,” said Lai. “What I would like to see accomplished would be a more active eSports community. The bigger the community the bigger the events, and the more events that will be available to everyone to experience and enjoy.”

 

Special thanks to Trieu Lai (a.k.a. “TRIEUCHAINZ”/TDLTrieu) for the exclusive interview for this article. You can watch his live game streams at twitch.tv/tdltrieu, catch him on Twitter @tdltrieu, or casting LANWARX, a competitive LAN held November 25-27 at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Oshawa, ON.

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