I’ve been an Esports follower for years. Not quite as hardcore as some, the old Quake and broodwar hardcases, but I organised barcraft style events before barcraft was even a word, before Starcraft 2 even came out in fact. Before all that, I’ve been a gamer since I was old enough to be allowed, heart and soul. So I know that being a gamer isn’t just about playing videogames, it’s much much more.
Being a gamer has always meant being a part of a community of similar people and, like all communities, that means sharing certain properties. Perhaps not universally, but there are tendencies that gamers share. We are clever, or at least think we are. We are passionate, passionate enough to love what we love even if the whole world thinks we’re strange and frankly not worth dating. We are loyal to other gamers and fiercely critical of those who would exploit or oppress our little communities for what we love. We think the best rights are the ones we earn ourselves. We value creativity, cunning and flair. We respect honesty and honour, we delight in the success of our fellows, we prosecute those who lack integrity without mercy. We love Coyote stories.
Now Esports, Esports is a thing. Too often I hear it called ‘competitive gaming by professionals’, that is not Esports. That is competitive gaming by professionals. Esports is videogames made spectacle, just as body sports have for millennia ritualised and rarefied the values of societies the world over- courage, determination, skill and strength- so does Esports ritualise and rarefy the values of the gamer into a spectacle that both determines those of greatest standing among us and celebrates what makes us who we are in a way we can show to others to say- you see, this is why we love what we love and we are who we are.
In that light, I watch the development of western Esports with trepidation. In the last couple of years it has exploded across many games, but none so much as League of Legends. The beginning of the LCS has been a time of contrasts. On the one hand I am delighted to see such a league established, but I am disappointed in the rhetoric that is being employed. What the hell am I talking about? Coyote stories.
In folklore the world over, two figures duel, the Trickster and the Prince. Raven and Eagle, Waa and Bunjil, Anansi and Tiger, Coyote and… well, everyone who ain’t Coyote. The Prince represents upfront masculine values- physical power, endurance, dominating will and courage. The Trickster represents all the things we gamers respect. Cunning, flair, getting one’s just desserts, the little man who dances around like a fool and still somehow wins the day. So in that context, let’s look at the first LCS trailer
Hmmm… Coyote story or not? Nope. This is clearly based off body sports promotions, whose rhetoric aligns with straightlaced values of strength. If this was an american football competition, or athletics or soccer, sure, but no, this is Esports. If this seems pedantic to you, let me assure you that rhetoric is important, particularly here. Riot is in a powerful position, where it can shape what it wants the ‘theme’ of their competition to be. If it wants the LCS to be a story about manly men sweatily pounding each other into the dust, it can subtly direct things that way without even realising it is just by brainlessly copying the promotion style of competitions that do, rightly, use that rhetoric. Or it can celebrate and emphasise that Esports has its own unique community, heritage and values. If it chooses the former, I have no doubt that it will lose a lot of what we love the scene for. Maybe it will be worth it to try and sell it to the world, but I don’t think so. The best chance Esports has of making it truly big is to show off the best of us as who we are, and we are the children of Coyote.
That rhetoric is not served by photos of teams standing with manly scowls and crossed arms, or by speaking about jokes, pranks and moments of the Wiley Coyote variety as if they were a little embarrassing to mention on air. Coyote stories are full of braggadocio, individual personality and resistance to the idea that you have to beat a problem by scowling at it and talking down to it. It’s embarrassing when some bit of media gets played where one of the players talks shit with a serious face on and then the commentators have to be like ‘ok guys, like, they’re best friends, just so you know, it was just shit-talk’ because the media crew haven’t imbued that rhetoric into the overall narrative of the tournament. The commentators should be free to be going “OH SNAP IT’S ON NOW” and fistbumping, not trying to re-align the tone of the show to what they, as gamers themselves, know it should be. There is dissonance there that does not serve the best interests of the LCS, League of Legends or Esports in general.
So why this, why now? This week we had perhaps the most perfect, crystallised demonstration of what makes Esports great I have yet seen. It wasn’t in a game, because for rhetoric it’s not what happens in game that is most important. Befores and Afters are where most of the tone is set. And boy did we have some Afters this week
After an intense, down to the wire game between two teams, immediately upon losing the game, EG, to whom the defeat was crushing in terms of their chances overall, immediately pile over to their victorious opponents. They hug, they grin, they chat excitedly. In what body sport, in competition at the most prestigious level with significant results on the line, would you see this after a tight game?
Then later, after the end of a day of matches coming towards the critical end of a season, in the dying moments of the tournament we see the players mingled on stage, lines of team affiliation and ‘professionalism’ forgotten. Three of the team captains vying for first place in the competition hang out together. One gives another a piggyback. Jokes, laughs, pranks. Again. Any other sport?
The captain of the team who lost all their matches prances about the stage carrying a stuffed pig’s head and then body-surfs on a huge and rambunctious crowd with the world’s biggest grin on his face, a rockstar in defeat. Again. Where else but Esports?
It is very important this is recognised. This is our strength, this is the powerful rhetoric we possess. We don’t need to compete with the combative, sweat and tears, glory or death rhetorics of football, athletics or boxing. This can be the message to the world: You want to understand what it means to be a gamer? All you need to do is remember this:
The trickster falls with a grin on his face and his last words are ‘well played’