“eSports consumers can concurrently play, watch and participate in institutional governance, such that these activities are dynamically intertwined within the broader social performances of eSports consumption. This phenomenon highlights an increasing need to revisit our understanding of how contemporary computer games are consumed, moving beyond the player interactions with the game interface alone.”
Sports fandom and media cultures are inherently linked; an increased involvement of big business, mass media, and advancements in media technologies have contributed to many sports becoming global phenomena. From the early days of radio and newspaper columns, to satellite and cable television, and even now with the internet (Crawford, 2004, pp. 12, 130). Sports fandom is an example of a participatory media culture, in which members of an informal community surrounding their favourite sports, teams, or players are allowed to contribute to a shared identity through media technologies. They can do this through affiliations in online communities, creating media content as a form of expression, collaborating as teams to develop common knowledge, and controlling the circulation of media flows with actions like blogging, retweeting or sharing (Jenkins, 2006). These practices expand into the realm of esports, an industry of organised competitive gaming. This emergent field of formalised competition blends together the digital world with sports fandom culture even further than previously before. Consumers can celebrate high-skilled players and competitive gaming by authenticating their fandom practices in the real world, beyond the boundaries between the ‘online’ and ‘offline’ dichotomy of gaming and the physical space (Seo and Jung, 2016). Just like traditional sports, a degree of understanding the competitive gameplay is required to fully participate in the consumption of esports media. There is unique language, symbols, and shared cultures surrounding consumption to be learnt. (Seo, 2016). The shared consumption practices of esports are spread through the use of digital technologies, such as social media, content-creation websites, blogs and the computer games themselves. This peer-to-peer teaching, an informal way of learning through digital cultures and spaces, exemplifies the informal mentorship experienced in participatory media cultures (Jenkins, 2006).
In observing the way that esports are engaged with outside of the self-contained digital space, there exist many similarities to traditional sports. The footage above shows a group of esports fans gathering together for a viewing party of the League of Legends 2019 Championship Series’ semifinals game, between two of the most acclaimed teams from their respective regions. The group of friends sit around the couch together, order in fast-food, drink beers, and share each other’s thoughts as the match progresses. There are also moments where the friends cheer and yell, or cry out in amazement. Overall, their consumption practices show evidence of a shared understanding and enjoyment for competitive gaming outside of just the digital confines of League of Legends user interface. It is known that with this shared knowledge learnt through participatory media engagement, consumers will find pleasure in watching others play their beloved sports at an exceptionally skilled level (Seo and Jung, 2016). However, there are other factors that contribute to an individual’s investment in esports fandom. When asking professional League of Legends player from Melbourne, Jackson “Pabu” Pavone, why he supports his favourite esports teams, he responded;
“I like the players on these teams and the players are fun to watch either for their personality or for their interesting gameplay.”
This aspect of esports fandom encompasses player celebrity and the concept of ‘sports personalities’. Social networking plays a key role in esports fandom culture in more ways than one. While it does allow for the circulation and expression of sports fan content, it also acts as a tool of self-promotion and representation for athletes. Even in the case of traditional sports, Twitter and its ‘telegram-like’ platform has accommodated a shift in sports public relations and journalism by accelerating information flows and the spread of digital media productions (Hutchins, 2011).
As for the ways in which esports fans express their fandom, there are a few unique ways to show off their team colours in digital media spaces;
“I watch streams of players I like sometimes but mostly just wearing icon / tweets in support.”
Game and social media profiles allow users to show support by uploading their team’s logo and colours as their personal icon, and the Twitter platform’s use of hashtags facilitates a ‘live-tweeting’ culture that is commonly practiced by esports fans. During or leading up to the broadcast of a big game, users can share their thoughts and digital creations under hashtags, creating a specialised live-feed of activity (Hutchins, 2011). This is an example of a digital space for participatory media culture, whereas activities like viewing parties, stadium tickets, merchandise and other physical consumption practices authenticate these digital experiences in the real world (Seo and Jung, 2016). The internet also allows for high levels of fan participation compared to legacy media outlets like television and radio, such as in newsgroups, bulletins, fan sites, social networking and online gambling (Crawford, 2004, p. 141).
Although esports does have presence in the physical space, it also transcends the limitations of geographical proximity. Often sports teams and fandom identity are brought together by geographic location (Crawford, 2004, p. 53), but in the case of esports the existence of widespread online broadcasts through platforms like Twitch and YouTube breaks down this cultural trend in traditional sports fandom;
“The main [aspect of esports] that is interesting to me is due to a lack of geographical bounds teams are often not arbitrarily assigned to you based on where you live and thus they need to show what makes them worth it.”
Although it is still an emergent media sphere, esports encapsulates the convergence of the real spaces with the digital spaces of fan consumption and play. Much like traditional sports, it allows for participatory cultures enacted through digital media to form shared communities and identities through the consumption of esports mass media. By ethnographically observing the media culture of esports the similarities with traditional sports, as well as the differences that set it apart, are evident through the behaviours and practices of esports fans in relation to new media technologies and platforms.
(Special thanks to Pabu for taking time to answer some questions!)