The question of whether or not to stratify different groups of competitors occurs in any competitive setting, but it tends to be ground zero for debate in gaming even more than in traditional sports or fields such as Chess. For this reason, a recent tweet by veteran League of Legends and Overwatch commentator MonteCristo lamenting the lack of “pros-only” tournaments for fighting games garnered a significant backlash.
There’s one core reason for the negative response to MonteCristo: those who consider themselves part of the fighting game community tend to consider the ability for “gods” and “mortals” to meet in open competition—and for god slayers to emerge at any moment—as one of the strengths of fighting games. In particular, people latched onto the use of the word “flukes” as evidence of the esports works being afraid of “true competition.” If esports could be compared to tennis, then to the FGC a world of invitationals (and nothing else) would be akin to the pre-open era of tennis—when pros and amateurs were not allowed to compete against each other at major tournaments.
However, having followed esports for over ten years now, I’ve noticed that this seeming incongruity in values stems from a difference in what aspects of competitive gaming are prioritized. Is it about competition and camaraderie, or competition and sustainability? While the two are not wholly incompatible, the esports side has long expressed a desire for recognition, expansion into the mainstream, and eventually a reverence similar (but not necessarily identical) to traditional sports. With respect to this, figures in esports have emphasized the importance of “narratives,” and seeing how big a deal they are is very telling as to how esports tends to try and achieve sustainability.
In 2010, StarCraft II ushered in a new era in esports, and tournament circuits such as GOM Starcraft League in Korea and the US-based Major League Gaming were established to give players a chance at competition. While there were many differences in their formats—GSL participants played only a handful of matches per day over the course of weeks and months, while MLG pitted hundreds of players against each over a single weekend—both came to the table early on with a certain goal in mind: to create stars.
GSL created a distinction between the cream of the crop (Code S) and the almost-greats (Code A), where players from the latter could earn the right to be promoted to the former. However, in the first few incarnations of the GSL, it was purposely made difficult for players to fall out of Code S. Essentially, the players who performed the worst in Code S had to compete against the best of Code A in a potential changing of the guard. The number of players who dropped down to these “Up and Down Matches” was restricted, and the Code S players could still end up defeating the hopefuls from Code A and send them back down. The reason? To make sure that recognizable faces remained on camera so they could establish fanbases, and by extension garner a sense of celebrity—to be people that fans and players could remember and look up to.
This was also the reasoning behind MLG‘s seeding system for its multi-tournament season, which saw players who did well at earlier tournaments get byes into much, much later stages of later league tournaments. Going on a tear in your first tournament could pay off down the line. If a player earned a top-32 spot in one tournament, they could keep getting place into a high spot for the next, and then play just well enough to not tank out, it meant a stable spot for increased visibility.
Eventually, both GSL and MLG revised their formats to encourage less ossification of brackets and more chances for rising stars to make a name, but that still doesn’t erase the fact that their initial versions tried to create a delineation between the “Pros” and the “Joes.” Central to all of this was the idea that “good narratives draw viewers in.” What better way to encourage a good narrative than to have a consistent cast of “characters” for the audience to know and root for?
Examples of the benefits that heroes and heroic narratives provide to competition are numerous, but one that stands out in particular is the story of basketball legend Larry Bird. At the time, basketball was seen in the US as largely a “black sport,” and thus had a relatively small white audience. Larry Bird helped to change that, as could be seen from one nickname of his: the Great White Hope. Was this racist? Yes, to a degree. Did it also help pull basketball into the mainstream? Yes it did.
(Is there a comparison to be made between this example and the fact that esports vs. FGC exists along something of a similar divide in terms of racial demographics? Also yes, but that discussion will be for another time.)
Narratives do not have to be manufactured whole-cloth. Seeing an underdog defeat a champion, or watching a winner cement his place with an undefeated streak happens just from competition existing. However, in a world where visual presentation can often be confusing to those unfamiliar, presenting these bouts as being between humans with wants and desires and emotions (especially simple ones like anger) can bridge that gap. So it’s no wonder why esports organizations frequently try to control it through player perception, delineations between pros and amateurs, and so on. But one question that arises is, does setting things up so conveniently end up compromising the integrity of competition? The answer is that it can, but it largely depends on severity.
Take professional wrestling, which has been predetermined for many decades precisely because the promoters understood that most audience members cared more when the wrestlers had charisma. Famously, when a bland 1940s wrestler named George Wagner dyed his hair blond and became the arrogant and effete “Gorgeous George,” his antagonistic demeanor drew audiences in droves to see him in the hopes that they’d get to witness George getting destroyed. Pro wrestling isn’t a true athletic competition precisely because it becomes easier to control the narrative and get viewers invested.
But even in a legitimate sport like mixed martial arts, the desire for narrative can influence decisions. While the results of matches aren’t fixed, the media and advertising machine surrounding MMA are there to try and produce the best narratives they can, either by using what’s there or cooking up some controversy. That’s because they know that narratives make people care. Athletes will be brought out to drum up a sense of animosity between the two. Is it real? Is it fake? Does it matter if it sells tickets? A guy like Conor McGregor, who’s naturally antagonistic but also an amazing fighter, puts butts in seats. People are eager to see him be on either the giving or receiving end of an ass-kicking.
At the same time, leaving things to chance can be scary for those who have substantial amounts of money riding on the success of their investment. Conor McGregor is in some ways the ideal, but he also has a tendency to get himself in trouble and make the UFC look bad in the process. One can even compare those blunders to the number of players caught blurting out racial slurs onstream. Just because someone’s a winner doesn’t mean they’re a good spokesperson, especially if they have no media training and are just kids plucked out of online lobbies and given an environment to train in. When there are so many variables at play where something can go wrong—quality of the game itself, image of competitive gaming to the outside world, the perception of “nerds”—it’s understandable (though not immune to criticism) why teams, tournaments, and organizations would want to control what they can.
The divide between FGC and esports, or the perception of it, has largely to do with community vs. respectability. The former looks inwards, and believes that having a solid core, a group of passionate players who can weather any storm together through a love of competition, is paramount. The latter looks outwards, and aims to establish itself as a permanent fixture in the world, something that cannot die because it has the size and backing to keep it going forever. The two are not irreconcilable, but finding a balance (if a balance is desired at all) requires parties that can trust each other to not abandon the other side’s principles.