From stream to mainstream: The growth of gaming from a niche culture to a centerpiece of popular entertainment

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On April 26, I turned on ESPN2, and like pretty much everyone on my Twitter feed, I had no idea what the hell was going on.

Heroes of the Dorm, they called it: a college team Heroes of the Storm tournament, right on The Worldwide Leader in Sports’ No. 2 channel, typically seen as a macho channel known for “real” sports. The reactions were a mix of mockery, sarcasm and, from some surprised sports fans, excitement. It was different, and it was fun.

The announcers shouted things about LiLi and occupying lanes and jungling and pushing toward the core. I couldn’t figure out what all the screaming actually meant, but the announcers hooked me.

Gaming culture has grown to the point where non-gamers have the chance to watch gamers play games and learn about gaming culture. Never mind that the block on ESPN2 only had a 0.1 Nielsen rating, which means about one percent of TV viewers at the time were watching the Heroes tourney. Just seven months prior, ESPN President John Skipper told reporters that eSports weren’t sports, and now, out of the blue, I was watching a match on my 40-inch Panasonic.

Sunday, in nearly 100 theaters across 26 states, Fathom Events aired the finals of a Counter-Strike: Global Offensive put on by ESL One in Cologne, Germany. It’ll be streamed on hundreds of thousands of other screens at least. The winning team splits a $250,000 prize pool, and that doesn’t even crack the top 25 winning pots among e-sports tournaments. The winners of The International 2015, a Dota 2 tournament, pocketed more than $6.5 million.

Image courtesy of ESL One Flickr Account

Image courtesy of ESL One Flickr Account

Slowly, gaming has built itself from a niche culture into a booming industry, profession and spectator sport. There have been growing pains along the way, most of them stemming from popularization of the medium. Games used to be tidy, with PCs, consoles and controllers. Now, as gaming becomes a full-fledged mainstream entity, that identity is in question.

How did gaming get to this juncture, and where will it go from here? The answer is trapped in another question.

What exactly is a game?

Cracking the code

In the past five years, League of Legends and other online multiplayer games have changed the way people interact with games. The rise of e-sports came at a crucial time, too: indie titles were beginning to grow in popularity thanks to cheap and easy-to-use game engines such as Unity. The West Coast-centric nature of game development companies and game design education began to make its way East.

Now, you’re hard-pressed to go a day without playing a game, even if you don’t think you’re a gamer. Angry Birds, Tinder, Words with Friends, fantasy sports — gaming tech permeates pop culture, and it’s why statistics about women comprising 44 percent of the world’s gamers shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Curiouser and Curiouser! is one example of an off the beaten path indie game that made its way to IndieCade in July. | Image courtesy of Martzi Campos

Curiouser and Curiouser! is one example of an off the beaten path indie game that made its way to IndieCade in July. | Image courtesy of Martzi Campos

Online distribution, portals such as Steam, a multitude of new gaming platforms and crowdfunding sites have removed almost every barrier between game developers and their would-be consumers. Celia Pearce, the co-founder of IndieCade and an expert in games and gender, recalls how different the scene was in 2008.

“At that point, it was pretty much inconceivable that a video game that was independently produce would end up on a console. That’s just something that would never happen,” says Pearce, whose E3 showcase had 97 submissions in 2008. This year, 1,300 people applied for a spot in Los Angeles with IndieCade, and at least 30 platforms were represented at the indie expo. Independent developers are still dwarfed by AAA developers, those that have the biggest budgets and largest promotion campaigns. Unlike in the mid-2000s, however, these small teams can now carve out a space in the market, and games such as Unravel and Beyond Eyes find their way to the stage at E3 after being picked up by big publishers such as Microsoft.

“People can actually make a living making indie games now,” Pearce says. “That was almost unheard of in 2008. You can actually get a job with an independent developer who’s Kickstarted their game.”

The accessibility of gaming has never been higher, and the medium is more fluid than ever before. The controversy begins there.

The eSports community surged around the same time as indie games. It makes sense; free, substantive online games turned into gateway drugs for newbies. From there, competitive play is a brief step away. And unlike other forms of media, games are interactive. An episode of a show, a movie, a song and a book don’t run on a dynamic system.

Music and other forms of popular culture went through similar struggles and to some extent still do. As genres expanded to meet mainstream interests, the unfettered definition of rap, rock ‘n’ roll and other types of music is strained. Gamers from the PC-only and first-gen console era developed a clear-cut idea of what it takes for a game to be a game, and publishers did them no favors by placing their titles tightly into those parameters. The Sims, despite its roaring success, was seen as a risk in its era because it wasn’t a known commodity at the time, Pearce says. A female lead in a game, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida said at E3, is also risky.

When norms are broken to fit broader interests, first consumers are often put off and feel as if their space is being attacked. While most gamers are excited by the growth of new platforms and getting more people onboard with gaming, others struggle with inclusion. Pearce says she sees the word “game” as a gatekeeping tactic. If you want to illegitimize a new piece of gaming culture, the quickest way to do it is to say “that isn’t a game.”

A player navigates a virtual reality game by Paper Crane Games. Titles at IndieCade crossed multiple platforms and genres, including a special eSports section. | Photo by Sean Morrison

A player navigates a virtual reality game by Paper Crane Games. Titles at IndieCade crossed multiple platforms and genres, including a special eSports section. | Photo by Sean Morrison

“If you have a hegemonic dictate about what defines a game, you can’t innovate,” Pearce says. “This is causing a lot of friction right now because people who are used to the mainstream definition of a game, and they’re chafing at this new definition.”

Back to Angry Birds. At its peak, Pearce says, her flights were filled with people old and young staring at their phone screens. Whether people realized they were playing a videogame or not, and whether they would consent that Angry Birds is a game, made no difference.

The fact was, people were playing.

“This is a mainstream medium now. It’s not a niche anymore. It’s not just for your nephew,” Pearce says. “We need to get away from this idea that games are only for certain people.”

A thinking sport

Soe Gschwind-Penski, the host of ESL One Cologne’s Counter-Strike event Sunday, didn’t understand a word of what the Dota 2 announcers said while she watched. The passion is what drew her in, and it made her want to learn more.

She tells similar stories about strangers who come to her events. People will ask questions, get drawn in by the crowd and the commentating, and suddenly they’ll find themselves on a game forum.

“The bigger it gets, the more it will be received as something that’s OK,” Gschwind-Penski says of eSports. “Once you have had such a positive experience at an event … you really want to dive deeper into it and learn more about it.”

The eSports community surged around the same time as indie games. It makes sense; free, substantive online games turned into gateway drugs for newbies. From there, competitive play is a brief step away. And unlike other forms of media, games are interactive. An episode of a show, a movie, a song and a book don’t run on a dynamic system.

The finals on Sunday in Cologne featured a $250,000 prize pot. Another ESL One event will come to New York in October. | Image courtesy of ESL One

“There isn’t the sense of ownership or surprise in those kinds of things, and what makes a game attractive to certain people in certain parts of their lives is that it lets you say, ‘I own this narrative,’” says Edward Castronova, the Program Director of Indiana University’s game design major. His program will be introduced at the start of the fall semester. “When most of the rules are handled by computers, suddenly anyone can do it.”

His is another arm of the growth of gaming. UCLA and USC, along with other West coast colleges, used to be the only stomping grounds for students who wanted to get into game design. Now, it’s entered the Midwest at public universities such as Indiana, and there are scholarships for competitive gamers at Robert Morris University in Illinois. University of Pikeville in Kentucky plans to launch its own varsity eSports team this fall as well.

The bigger it gets, the more (gaming) will be received as something that’s OK. Once you have had such a positive experience at an event … you really want to dive deeper into it and learn more about it.” — Soe Gschwind-Penski, game commentator

It makes sense that as games become relevant to mainstream culture that a market would exist for watching people who are really, really good at them. Depending on the game, being among the best means knowing every choke point on every map, memorizing how much damage attacks can do. Then, you throw another player in with similar preparation and skill level, and things get fun.

“It’s nothing different from watching a chess game,” Gschwind-Penski says, though the rapid-fire gunfights might feel a bit different. Counter-Strike, she says, is a little more self-explanatory than League of Legends.

Castronova isn’t sure if the eSports growth is a trend or a fad, particularly because it hasn’t caught on as quickly in the States. However, it is another step in a process he calls “immediation” — being surrounded by media. Games, whether you’re playing watching, play an increasingly large role in how immediated we are.

“This is kind of like standing around in 1948 and saying, ‘Oh, this TV thing, I don’t really care about it.’ Whether you find it compelling is not the issue. It’s clear that this is compelling to a lot of people,” Castronova says. “You’ve got to pay attention to this because we all need to be interested in the map of social activity, and that’s definitely part of it.”

Virtual reality, and with it the brief absence of outside reality, seems like the nearest step in our immediation. Pearce says she’d be interested in seeing people playing games in movie theaters instead of just watching them. That could be in the future as well. But as Castronova says, “The way technology works is when it actually does happen, nobody notices.” The next big thing is probably outside the current realm of expectation and will come on slowly.

This is kind of like standing around in 1948 and saying, ‘Oh, this TV thing, I don’t really care about it.’ Whether you find it compelling is not the issue. It’s clear that this is compelling to a lot of people. You’ve got to pay attention to this because we all need to be interested in the map of social activity, and that’s definitely part of it.” — Edward Castronova, Program Director of Indiana University’s game design major

“In terms of the scale of events, I don’t think we can get any bigger than that,” Gschwind-Penski says. “But right now it’s getting bigger and more mainstream. In some countries, it’s on TV.

“I’m just happy it goes the way it goes because it’s not too long ago that terrible things were being connected to gaming.”

Now, gaming is normal — and worth watching.

Now in theaters

Gscwind-Penski was right. Counter-Strike was much easier to keep track of.

The theater in Columbia, Missouri, wasn’t packed, but it wasn’t empty either. Baby steps, I guess. ESL One’s coming to New York in October as well, so there’s a big chance for a boost in American interest.

The tactical feints, shootouts and bomb plants were easy to keep track of. Fnatic, the team that won the previous year, got the victory this time around, too, but not without some tense moments in the semis and finals. It was captivating, even without the commentary and analysis.

There’s no knowing how successful this promotion was nationwide, but a couple hours later, more than 75,000 people watched the replay on ESL One Cologne’s website. There’s some traction here.

It might be coming to a theater near you again soon.

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