Published in HuffingtonPost
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Since the dawn of man, we have valued the strong. Our hunter-gatherer ancestry cherished the capable, and those who were physically fit provided for the existing communities. The strong were a necessity then. In Ancient Greece, the Olympics were created as a celebration of the human body, and the strength of young men. Wars erupted and the form of a strong man became the ideal of society, as a necessary and respected role within society. That idea, has still not changed, and the hunter-warrior is, unfortunately in many cases, still revered today and has become a strong root for misogyny and other forms of sexism.
Today, the sportsman has replaced the warrior as the ideal strong man. Achilleus and Herakles were replaced by Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, and the athletic man is still respected for what they are capable of doing with the human body. These men are heroes, like the Greek ones before them, and we treat superstars like demigods. We feel so strongly for sports because they have roots from a survival instinct, and have a strong sense of masculinity associated with it (which is perhaps why female professional sports leagues struggle to gain traction).
Video games, and games in general, exist for an entirely different reason. They were found to pass time, not as a necessity for survival, but as a comfort in times of peace. As such, the archetype of a video gamer has more or less remained the same, a non-fit young male who is typically portrayed as a geek. Organized professional gaming, also known as electronic sports or eSports, don’t have the same reverence as their real-life counterparts have.
However, the times have changed with gaming, as the boundless nature of games are slowly being revealed, the average gamer is 30-years-old, and the average game purchaser is 35. The longevity of a video game hobby can last well into later life, but sports take a toll on the body. The sportsman is almost always a fit young person, the bodily ideal since antiquity because they need to be, but the gamer is slowly evolving to represent the norm today, an average person: someone like you or me, there is no outward showing of a skilled gamer. Fifty-eight percent of Americans play video games. Forty-five percent of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (19 percent). Fifty-one percent of U.S. households own a dedicated game console, and those that do own an average of two. Sports players are representative of a physical elite, the young and the strong, but video gamers are gaining mainstream action, and the typical gamer is as common as you or me.
Games that are popular, however, do tend to be the ones that represent masculinity, and pump they are designed to pump testosterone. First person shooters are by far the biggest releases today in mainstream game studios, for a masculine association with the military, but other genres, like the third person role playing games like The Last of Us or Mass Effect and racing games like Forza and Gran Turismo also represent the societal adoration of manliness. Main characters tend to be representative of a bodily ideal (first person shooters with soldiers, main characters typically in their prime), and we can see that with the popularity of Duke Nukem in the ’90s, an almost caricature of male tendencies. Females are largely portrayed as damsels in distress or weak; saving Princess Peach comes to mind.
Electronic sports don’t have a Michael Phelps. Watching a League of Legends tournament, most of the players are small young players who look like they can’t lift more than 20 pounds, and this is why eSports will fail to gain a mainstream following anytime soon. Professional gamers are not athletes. You can’t see the hard work these people put into their craft like you can on athletes; there aren’t any muscles. When I see Robert Griffin III, I can see that he’s strong, but this is not the case with professional gamers. You can’t see on the outside how good a video gamer is, or is perceived to be. Electronic sports have no heroes, no demigods.
Actually, I see eSports similarly to how I view professional poker. There are no young people who idolize professional poker players, every bar isn’t playing the World Series of Poker, and there isn’t a parade in the home town for the winner of the World Poker Tour. Professional poker players are largely out of shape: there’s nothing sexy about the players.
However, that discredits what professional poker has been able to achieve. Poker is vastly more popular now than it was before. Every Vegas casino has a poker room now with sit-n-go tournaments, and Texas Hold-em became extremely popular. Professional poker couldn’t get mainstream because their players weren’t sexy, but they were able to achieve something far different: the game itself is now sexy.
I can see electronic sports benefitting in the same way that professional poker did to amateur poker. The games that professionals play can be played by the layperson, much like how Texas Hold ’em is now the favourite poker game over five card stud because of the popularity of the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour. So maybe in gaming, we’ll see a rise of PC gamers over console gamers by those who want to emulate a professional experience. Yet I see more potential for eSports than I think poker ever had.
I look to Korea and East Asia, where professional gaming does seem to have gained traction. The games that are played aren’t Call of Duty or Need for Speed; it’s Starcraft, a strategy game. Perhaps, the success of eSports lies with a changing perception of a human ideal. We don’t see that professional video gamers are going to be good superficially based on height and weight, but we do see that they are very quick and smart in gameplay. Maybe the success of professional StarCraft in Korea is indicative of a larger movement in a changing of a human ideal: we are valuing intelligence more than physical strength now. Thomas Hobbes said in the Leviathan:
For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself. And as to the faculties of the mind, setting aside the arts grounded upon words, and especially that skill of proceeding upon general and infallible rules, called science, which very few have and but in few things, as being not a native faculty born with us, nor attained, as prudence, while we look after somewhat else, I find yet a greater equality amongst men than that of strength.
So maybe, we have come so far as a race to have changed the things we valued from the beginning of society. Perhaps we developed enough technology where physical strength is becoming irrelevant, and masculinity is thrown out for wit, and that’s how electronic sports can succeed. An entire overhaul of societal perception is being set by professional hobbyists. With a growing disdain for gender constructs and overt masculinity, perhaps a success in electronic sports will show that we, as a society, finally value brains over brawn.