By Charles Stephenson, Columnist
When you hear the word “sports,” what is it that comes to mind? Big arenas with tens of thousands of screaming fans? Athletes performing at their peak for a championship?
If the arena is big enough, no doubt it will feature a jumbo videoboard showing the action, posting stats and giving fans in the nosebleeds a chance to follow the game.
To refer to these big screens is to refer to sport as “spectacle,” and to acknowledge the ubiquity of screens in our lives is to recognize that we live in a “spectacular” society, or one that generates a continual stream of images to be consumed by “spectators.” By being rapturously entertained and dazzled, spectators become vulnerable to commodification, which is the transformation of things and even events into objects of commerce.
Nothing exemplifies spectacle more so than do eSports.
Some do not recognize eSports as sports, because gaming doesn’t seem to require the same level of physical exertion and fitness that most traditional sports do. But, in terms of spectacle, eSports are absolutely legitimate as sports.
Consider: Arenas for eSports events are often packed out. “Athletes” have to perform at their peak, and they are paid handsomely for it. They have team uniforms, and many have endorsements and sponsors. ESports athletes are interviewed after games and asked to comment on their performances.
And the main event is projected on a giant screen, providing spectators with images from the simulation game that is going on in the athletes’ computers. Screens of screens, and images of images.
This general description is reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave, a story that follows people who are shown “shadows” of objects, or images, every day. They have never been outside, and all they know are the shadows they are fed.
One day, a person frees himself from the cave and determines to discover the truth. He struggles up the cave’s stairs with atrophied legs. He fights the blindness of the light. His whole worldview changes. When he returns to the cave to tell his cellmates what lies “out there,” they think he is lying. They want to kill him, and he then knows that he can never go back to the cave again.
Everything about eSports is simulation. Event organizers can manipulate everything shown on the big screen. They can choose which player’s perspective to take, and they can display any ad that they want, not to mention all of the things that people can code into the games themselves.
Fortnite has been the subject of many virtual events during its long reign, and the number of things that can be done within it is seemingly limitless. Fortnight furnishes an abundance of storylines or frames that can generate even more spectacle for eSports. This is the advantage that eSports has over other sports.
And commercial interests have caught on. The videogame industry is a juggernaut in terms of sales. In 2021, the U.S video game industry raked in over $85 billion. Videogame companies can offer downloadable content on top of the initial sale to gain even more profit. ESports alone pulled down over one billion dollars in total revenue.
In terms of revenues, the eSports industry rivals that of the most popular sports in the world. And since almost anyone can play a videogame, the potential audience is massive. In fact, the most viewed eSports event rivaled even the Super Bowl. In 2018, the League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational had only 7,000 people in attendance but over 133 million tuned in to watch it. For comparison, the Super Bowl averages over 100 million households.
One of the biggest reasons that eSports are so popular is the versatility in the platforms and equipment that are used. There are multiple consoles that can be used to play video games. There are so many brands of keyboards, gaming chairs and monitors. Everything about the sport can be monetized.
The number of brand deals or sponsorships that eSports can get does not compare to other sports. It is on a whole different level. The media can use this diversity to add even more to the spectacle. There is so much product placement that can be used, and it can appear as part of the narrative.
With virtual reality and artificial intelligence becoming even bigger, more and more people are becoming accustomed to this kind of spectacle. And, since teens and young adults make up a large portion of the eSports audience, more people will be introduced to the sport in the future. This young audience is what most sports would love to have.
Now, whether yet more “Spectacle” is good or bad for society as a whole is not for me to say. But to the extent we choose simulation over authentically lived experiences, we have to wonder where Spectacle is taking us. And we have to wonder whether watching via a screen another human watching a screen is the best use of anyone’s time, or if its like watching shadows in a cave.