You might call me the Jon Snow of esports. I gaze upon the events that draw in hundreds of thousands of fans—sometimes even more than the goddamn Super Bowl—frowning, knowing nothing, and wishing I understood even a little bit. I want to understand. As a lone lover of videogames, I’ve watched events like the International like the loser kid who didn’t get invited to a big party. I long to find a community in games that’s so visible and sizable that the rest of the world simply cannot deny them.
So I chatted with Ethan Gach, an esports fan and one of Kill Screen’s freelance writers, to try and become cool enough to get invited to the big party this weekend.
KS: Let’s just start off with how you were first introduced to esports.
I actually don’t really remember how I got into it. I started playing Dota as a joke with some friends, and they all stopped playing pretty much immediately just because nobody had any idea what we were doing. I only really started paying attention to the International in 2014 because I was playing so much that it became interesting to watch. I mean, I’ve played a bunch of Smash Bros and I’ve played some Street Fighter, but I never had any interest in watching those. But I don’t know. I can’t really tell you why I watch matches.
Do you think not having played the game is a barrier to watching? Or do you know people who watch without playing?
You always hear a few anecdotal cases, like on Twitter—someone who’s like, “My girlfriend loves watching it.” Valve released this promotional documentary for the International 3 devoted to introducing people to Dota and past competitions. I think it’s similar in that I don’t really enjoy watching football because I’ve never played it. All I can really appreciate is when someone makes a great tackle or a great pass or a great run. But I don’t necessarily understand anything beyond that level. I think with Dota especially—and a lot of esport games—if you’ve never really played the game you just wont understand the feeling of pressing a bunch of buttons and then seeing what happens on-screen. With Dota, there’s so much information and the screen is so small, it’s not like you can recognize people. Everything is a blend of colors and it’s not really clear what’s important and what’s not important. Visually, there’s a vocabulary that is hard to get if you’ve never experienced it for yourself.
Do different esport games have different kinds of cultures?
With a lot of fighting games, they’ve been around longer and a lot of people have played them in arcades and stuff so there’s a longer tradition of that in the States. But so much more of it is if you don’t know the real meta of Street Fighter it just looks like a bunch of guys crouching constantly. You’re thinking, “Why did they only just decide to start attacking each other now?”
Are there any stereotypes? Like, you know, how a soccer fan is thought of to be different from a basketball fan.
There’s definitely stereotypes. The fighting game community has gotten a really bad rap. There’s a lot of smack talk in fighting games that doesn’t really happen in Dota or other esports. The competitors and spectators don’t really sit next to each other. There’s so much more to be cognizant of and it’s so much more team-oriented that people don’t chat during games with each other—they barely even interact, other than by watching the game together. So there’s definitely a sense that fighting fans are more intense and rowdy, maybe equivalent to how people think of soccer hooligans. While with something like Starcraft, where someone’s clicking through different builds and strategies over the course of an hour against another person, I think it’s much more comparable to chess even, where there’s not the same sense of athleticism. But when you’re watching Street Fighter, it’s kind of like watching a boxing match to a degree; there’s a narrative people can impose because they can understand what it’s like to fight to a degree. Whereas, in a lot of other more abstract games, there’s no one-to-one mapping of someone beating or dominating someone else in that kind of way.
So, another thing I don’t understand is the live vs. non-live element. Do you go to any games or is it mostly just online?
I haven’t actually flown out to any of the big events. But after reading a bunch of coverage on this past EVO, though, I’ll definitely want to go next year. With something like the International, it’s much more of a spectator event where you need to watch so many games since they all factor into the larger tournament. Whereas with EVO, I definitely get the feeling it’s much more about meeting people and then mini-tournaments.
Have you ever had to explain this hobby to someone who doesn’t understand games—let alone competitive esports?
Every once in awhile I’ll have someone ask, “Hey what are you doing?” And there’s always that dread of… I don’t even know where to start. With something like soccer, you can say, “Well, there’s a ball and there are two teams and they have people trying to kick it into each other’s nets.” Similarly, with Dota you can explain that there’s two monuments and each team is trying to destroy the other’s monument. But there are so many important wrinkles you have to understand beyond that to enjoy it, which something like soccer just doesn’t have. In terms of understanding high-level play in soccer, it’s much easier to grasp when you can visually see the steps that need to happen for a team to win. It’s easy to go from playing a pickup game to watching Manchester United. Whereas with Dota, someone can’t just give you the ball to kick it. You’re just there and it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do at all.
We keep making these comparisons to sports. And I see that a lot from people trying to monetize esports. But do you think that comparison is kinda bullshit? Where is it helpful and unhelpful?
I think about this a lot because I played soccer and I love watching it on TV. But it’s such a different experience from watching and playing videogames competitively. There’s tons of people who don’t play poker, and tons of people who don’t race cars, or even go play golf, and still watch them on TV. Because they’re used to watching sports or competitions in that way. The Olympics is another great example. People who never participate in any of those kinds of events themselves and would never go to a track meet just see it on TV and get invested anyway. So I can understand why people want to make comparisons. A lot of the commentary tries to open it up to that casual audience. They’ll try to draw comparisons to the kinds of moments in football or soccer where momentum shifts where someone makes a mistake and the kind of mental games you have to play in order to power through that. So from a mechanic point of view, there’s definitely parallels. But I think it’s probably misguided to try to broaden the appeal to an audience that isn’t interested in videogames at all as opposed to an audience that is interested in videogames but hasn’t necessarily played any of those games.
Do you think esports will ever get as popular in the United States as it is in South Korea, or is that a culture-specific phenomenon?
There was a great New York Times piece published last October when a League of Legends tournament was going on in South Korea which posited a couple theories as to why it’s so big there. Mostly, it has to do with how quickly the country implement broadband internet connection and just how prolific computer cafes are. There are social places where people can go to play and watch other people play in the same way you would with basketball courts or soccer fields. People go to hang out and get to know these sports from an early age. SumaiL, one of the star players on one of the American Dota teams, started playing Dota at the age of seven or eight in internet cafes in Pakistan. That’s just not something we do in the U.S. It’s like the same as not having any soccer fields in cities, but tons of basketball courts. You’re more likely to find people who excel at that sport because that’s what they have and that’s what they can go play on weekends. If something is not accessible to you at a young age it’s not something you’re going to get exposed to or be interested in.
Why do you think the International is so big in the US?
There’s definitely something interesting to be investigated into why it’s so big here. Obviously, in part, the International is this big because Valve puts so much money into it. They put millions of dollars into prize pools, then people who play Dota donate even more. That’s how it gets to 15, 16, even 17 million dollars. Also, Steam helps a lot. Steam is so huge in the US gaming community, and Dota is a Steam game. So if you open up Steam this weekend, you’re going to see stuff about Dota, whereas for League of Legends you have to go through a specific client.
Okay, last question, and it’s a stupid one (on purpose): help me understand why esports is fun. Why do people care so much and with such fervor?
Well, it’s just fun to watch people compete. I don’t watch many sports. But if I’m over a friends house and they’re watching hockey and it’s in the play-offs or in the semi-finals, I can get into watching it because the stakes are higher relative to any other match knowing that, “Okay, one of these two teams is going to win the championship.” Part of why I think The International is so important is because the tournament structure helps people focus on this huge prize at the end. There’s all these people competing to get it, and if they do, they could stop playing the game if they wanted and be totally set, financially. It changes so much of their lives. It’s unlike regular sports, where they have to play next season or sign million-dollar contracts ahead of time. In that situation, it’s more like, well, hopefully you win and play well enough, but you already have the money regardless. The structure of esports lends itself to drama.
They just finished the speedrun challenge, Games Done Quick, on Twitch. Tons of people were watching it. And in a similar way to how football fans can’t understand soccer fans, I think people who are into esports look at speedruns and ask “Why do people even care about this?” I think if anything why it matters is that it helps broaden the spectrum in terms of seeing gaming as a wider culture. It helps people get used to the idea of being invested and being super passionate about something that might seem absurd to others. So football fans think soccer fans are dumb. Then when you tell them how many people tune in to watch the World Cup, you have to admit that if so many people love it, there must be something to it. They become willing to accept it as a viable sport and form of entertainment.
People tend to think of videogames as anti-social or something people do alone in their basements. But I think you hear a lot of stories of parents of players that go on to compete in these huge tournaments, and they just never realized there was an entire subculture around it. They didn’t realize how social their kids were actually being, and how the social aspect is a part of the game. This isn’t just something someone does alone. And maybe that’ll help videogames as a whole be seen as more social and inclusive.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.