an ethnographic study of esports fandom

“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.”

Seo, Y. and Jung, S., 2016. Beyond solitary play in computer games: The social practices of eSports. Journal of Consumer Culture, 16(3), pp.635-655.

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.”

– Pabu

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.”

– Pabu

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.”

– Pabu

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.

References

Crawford, G., 2004. Consuming sport. London: Routledge.

Hutchins, B., 2011. THE ACCELERATION OF MEDIA SPORT CULTURE. Information, Communication & Society, 14(2), pp.237-257.

Jenkins, H., 2006. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part One). [online] Henry Jenkins.

Seo, Y. and Jung, S., 2016. Beyond solitary play in computer games: The social practices of eSports. Journal of Consumer Culture, 16(3), pp.635-655.

Seo, Y., 2016. Professionalized consumption and identity transformations in the field of eSports. Journal of Business Research, 69(1), pp.264-272.

 

(Special thanks to Pabu for taking time to answer some questions!)

research project pitch [part 2]; qualitative research methods and planned format

I’ve decided to focus my research project on the fandom cultures and customs surrounding the live-viewing of sporting events. My chosen medium of presentation for the ethnographic observation is inspired by the television program Gogglebox Australia and the general reaction video format that has been popularised on the internet. Currently, both the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2019 League of Legends World Championship are broadcasting live to select platforms. Being a fan of both Rugby and League of Legends, I plan to film myself and family or friends watching and reacting to games from each of the tournaments, and later cut together the footage to compare the practices of each subculture. I’ll be looking for common or contrasting behaviours, objects, and practices (food and drinks, cheering and talking, physical interaction, pets, viewing space etc.)

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This video will be accompanied by a written report that summarises the observations made from the captured footage, and supplements the ethnographic study with qualitative data gathered in one-on-one interviews with sports and esports fans. I also aim to support my work with the work of media theorist Henry Jenkins, focusing on participatory media cultures and fandom.

In accordance with the principles of visual ethnography as proposed by Sarah Pink, I will strive for reflexivity and ethical practice in conducting my research. This includes being aware of my own social context and possible bias, while also ensuring my research participants are comfortable, consenting, and fully informed of their role in my final presentation. My footage aims to embody an experience within a particular subculture, and will hopefully succeed in documenting the practices of sports and esports fans when consuming the relevant media. In order to do so effectively, I must find participants who will consent fully to appearing on camera and having their experiences shared in public online spaces.

“Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.”

“Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.”

MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics

research project pitch [part 1]; sports fandom and participatory cultures

In my high school ‘Society and Culture’ class I submitted an extensive research report about the global esports phenomenon. At this time, the industry had only just started formalising and regulating the structure of competitive gaming after the last decade saw tremendous growth worldwide. Esports is a subculture of competitive sports involving video games. Like traditional sports, there are many different types of esports; big titles like League of Legends, Overwatchand Dota 2 all have corresponding, organised competition platforms that feature professional players, teams, and coaches. Although the formalisation of competitive gaming has existed since the early days of video games, the esports industry has seen its most significant growth and legitimisation in recent years with the capability of live-streamed events, sponsorship, player salaries, and large sums of prize money.

My research focused on comparing esports with traditional sports, and the process of legitimising the esports subculture on a macro scale. Although it was only three years ago, so much has changed for esports in the short period between now and when I wrote that report. In observing the phenomenon now, I see a subculture with firmly placed roots worldwide that continues to grow. Esports has experienced its ‘adolescent’ phase, finding its place in our global media sphere, and now continues forward into ‘adulthood’ with a clearly defined structure and aggregated audience.

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Sports fandom encompasses communities that form around the shared enjoyment and support of particular sports, sporting teams, or professional players. These groups of fans engage in participatory media cultures; they do not act exclusively as passive consumers, instead they are also interacting with the media they consume. This can occur through creation of media para-texts (memes, tweets, forums, blogs etc.) or by enforcing customs and traditions associated with the media consumption (posters, pom-poms, instruments, jerseys, viewing parties etc.)

Jenkins et al. (2009) define a participatory culture more specifically as one that consists of:

  1. Relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
  2. Strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others 
  3. Some type of informal mentorship in which the most experienced members pass along their knowledge to novices
  4. Members who believe their contributions matter
  5. Members who feel some degree of social connection with one another and care about other members’ opinions about their contribution

Anon, 2019. Fandom and Participatory Culture – Subcultures and Sociology. Grinnell College.

Your typical viewing party for a sports match, especially grand finals and championships, is accompanied by countless fandom traditions and behaviours. I’d like to ethnographically research these customs, and also explore the psychology of sports fandom; why do you support these teams, why do you enjoy watching these competitions? I will support my primary research with the work of media theorists like Henry Jenkins, specifically relating to participatory cultures in media consumption. In my next blog post, I plan to discuss my ethnographic research methods in more detail and outline the format I would like to use when presenting my research.

 

References

Anon, 2019. Fandom and Participatory Culture – Subcultures and Sociology. Grinnell College. 

Larch, F., 2019. The History of the Origin of eSports. ISPO.

Miller, P., 2019. 2011: The Year of eSports. PCWorld.

Popper, B., 2013. Field of streams: how Twitch made video games a spectator sport. The Verge.