*Author’s Note: For those of you wondering what has had me dormant for the past couple of months, here it is. Athletic Gamer is a short documentary film that serves as an expansion of the feature I wrote a while back asking whether pro gamers were athletes? The bulk of the project was the film but I also wrote this complimentary article that explains the project in more depth. This article is a little different from what I usually write. It was written in the style of a scholarly journal and is on the long side, but I do provide tons of information and evidence to back up my claim. Anyway, enjoy the film and/or article.
Darrel Lewis, travels the world engaging in combat with men of all nationalities. He trains rigorously, perfecting his skills and strategies for competition. He competes in tournaments where the competition field is in the thousands. Each battle he engages in is a showcase of rapid reflexes, cognitive reaction and immaculate movement. Daniel Cormier, is also a world-class competitor. He honed his skills in school where he dominated the competition. From there, he moved to a mixed discipline where he battles opponents in grueling contests of power and endurance. He is currently the world champion of his division.
These two men are both world class competitors. They both perfect their crafts through intense training. They both face off against the highest level of competition. They are both incredibly passionate and dedicated to their pursuit for greatness. However, one is a well-known professional who is admired for his physical prowess and athletic talent while the other is little-known outside a niche circle and his profession is often viewed with skepticism. Daniel Cormier tests his skills in the arena of mixed martial arts. Darrel Lewis, better known by his alias Snake Eyez, dominates the competition in Street Fighter.
Now that I have revealed that Cormier is a professional athlete and Lewis is a professional video game player, the differences seem obvious. But are they really all that different? Is it not safe to say that the two descriptions presented earlier were very similar, if not almost identical? I would argue that they are more alike than dissimilar. In fact, the only real major difference between the two competitors are the games they play. Yet, there is certainly a socially constructed distinction between them. Cormier is seen as a legitimate professional while Lewis is more likely to be seen as a glorified hobbyist.
This is the case for many professional gamers. Many are hesitant to refer to pro gamers as athletes, even when the word is prefixed with “cyber” or “digital” (Witkowski, 2009). This reluctance to refer to gamers as athletes is often grounded in a definition of the term “sport” rooted in physical activity. Likewise, athletes are seen as individuals who possess physical strength, agility and stamina. Pro gamers are thus not athletes because they do not possess the physical abilities of a Kobe Bryant. This distinction between professional gamers and athletes, however, is reductive, narrowing the definition of sports and athlete. What separates pro gamers from athletes is not a question of physical ability, training or skill but rather socially constructed ideas about the separation between the mental and physical, what constitutes a body and arbitrary language. When we strip away these artificial distinctions, we find that the skills, practices, tactics, strategies and bodies these competitors engage in are the same. From a rhetorical standpoint, there is no difference between the cyber and traditional athlete.
To understand the nature of the professional video game player one must first understand the nature of the profession that is competitive video gaming. Competitive video gaming, more commonly known as eSports, is defined by Michael Wagner (2006) as “an area of sport activities in which people develop and train mental or physical abilities in the use of information and communication technology.” Just like traditional sports, what separates eSports from everyday play of video games is the competitive and the institutionalized nature of the profession (Wagner, 2006; Witkowski, 2009; Jakobsson et al, 2007). The enterprise that is eSports has seen significant growth as a sub-industry of commercial video games. Tournaments have over a million dollars in prize pools. Events are streamed live on the Internet and watched by thousands of simultaneous viewers. Professional players receive legitimate sponsorships from recognizable companies such as Red Bull and Samsung. Cable television networks such as ESPN and TBS are now starting to televise events on a regular basis. Even universities such as Robert Morris offer athletic scholarships to professional gamers. Yet, despite this growth and move towards mainstream entertainment, eSports struggles to obtain legitimacy as a profession.
What ultimately separates eSports from traditional sports are socially constructed impressions about the physical nature of sports. Sport as a competitive game involving physical activity is a more recent social development. The word sport originates from the old French word desport which simply referred to a pastime, particularly for pleasure or amusement (Barnhart & Steinmetz, 1988). Sport as “physical, competitive and organized play” emerged during the industrial revolution and athletics has been associated with physical ability ever since (Jonasson, 2010). By contrast, video gaming is perceived as a mental activity that involves little physical skill or talent. In fact, gaming is perceived as anti-physical, contributing to a lack of physical fitness (Jonasson, 2010). This perception extends to eSports, despite competitive gaming being more vigorous and intense than casual gameplay.
In my short documentary film The Athletic Gamer, I attempt to show how the dichotomy between athletes and professional gamers, sports and eSports is not about physicality but more about society’s perception of physicality. I illustrate this by showing how the training regimens, activities, skills and bodily interactions competitive gamers and athletes engage in are essentially the same. In Athletic Gamer I analyze the competitive practices of two subjects: Steven and Daniel. Steven is a PhD student in mechanical engineering who likes to spend his free time playing Call of Duty competitively. Daniel is a community college student who keeps his body in peak physical condition and practices Martial Arts. These two, though not necessarily professionals in their respective competitive disciplines, are ideal subjects to represent the dichotomy between gamer and athlete, mental and physical. Steven is the gamer who develops his mind while Daniel is the athlete who exercises his body.
On the surface, Steven and Daniel could not be more different. However, their practices and interactions in their respective game spaces (Call of Duty and Martial Arts respectively) are very similar. To hone his skills and develop strategies in Call of Duty, Steven plays the game for multi-hour sessions several days a week. When playing, Steven not only tries to analyze and learn new tactics and strategies but also works at perfecting his reaction time and aim, a skill that requires precise hand-eye coordination. To aid him in perfecting these physical skills, Steven makes use of extensions he places on his controller’s thumb sticks which allow him to move the sticks more easily and precisely. Steven also incorporates resources outside the game into his training regimen, particularly Call of Duty gameplay video streamed online by top Call of Duty players in which they showcase new tactics and strategies.
Daniel also dedicates his personal time to training. He consistently practices his martial arts techniques and maneuvers on a wooden practice dummy. The dummy’s training utility is two-fold: it is a stationary target Daniel can repeatedly attack which allows him to perfect his technique and, by striking the dummy’s hard wooden body, Daniel is strengthening his bones through calluses training (purposefully causing micro-fractures in the bone so it heals and becomes thicker). He engages in a variety of physical exercises including running and resistance training regularly throughout the week. He consumes vitamins and supplements that contribute to his physical health. Resources such as Martial Arts books, films and training videos also help Daniel expand his knowledge and learn new techniques.
It is fairly easy to see how Steven and Daniel’s regimens are different. However, In Athletic Gamer, I focus on how their activities are similar. Both engage in activities of repetitive motion designed to perfect their technique. Both use technology and other resources to improve their skills or learn new strategies. Both are training their bodies and minds. The specifics of these activities and how they are performed certainly vary significantly, but ultimately they serve the same purpose — to improve one’s ability at their respective discipline. These similarities in regimens are not limited to preparation. Steven and Daniel also employ similar strategies and tactics in active competition, too numerous and intricate to describe in detail here. The competitive practices and activities engaged by gamers and athletes are both mental and physical and they serve the same purpose of improving skill and ability.
Deborah Hawhee makes similar observations about mental and physical practices in athletics and rhetoric in ancient Greece. According to Hawhee (2004), the ancient Greeks made no distinction between the mind and the body. The mind and body were one in the same and, as a result, so were rhetoric and athletics. The two disciplines were “bound together” in that they made use of the same training practices and employed the same strategies with the same level of detail in similar applications. This harmony between the mind and body among the ancient Greeks is best exemplified in Hawhee’s discussion of the “three Rs” pedagogy. The three Rs refer to rhythm, repetition and response. Athletes and sophists engaged in cyclical movement (rhythm) repeatedly over a sustained period of time (repetition) in order to form habits that would aid them when reacting (response) to their opponents or, in the sophists’ case, their audience. The three Rs developed the mind and the body together. Also important to the concept of the three Rs is that the subject matter (i.e. discipline) that is being trained or learned was not as important as the material act of the training and learning itself (Hawhee, 2004). Thus, the Sophists (practitioners of rhetoric) were viewed as “athletes in the contest of words.”
Hawhee’s analysis of the relationship between rhetoric and athletics in ancient Greece mirrors the relationship between eSports and traditional sports. One is seen as a mental exercise or battle of wits (eSports) while the other is a showcase of physical fitness and ability (sports). However, as Hawhee has demonstrated, the division between the mind and the body is not clean cut. When we look at the action of playing video games, especially in a competitive context, very closely, we see that it is as much a physical activity as it is a mental one (Wagner, 2006; Witkowski, 2009; Jakobsson et al, 2007). Competitive gamers have to develop masterful hand-eye coordination, incredible dexterity of the fingers and split-second reaction times, and they often must sustain these physical interactions for the duration of an entire multiday tournament. Yes, pro gamers develop and utilize different physical skills than athletes, but they are physical skills none-the-less. Yes, pro gamers play games that are vastly different from the games athletes play, but they are games and they are played competitively. It is worth considering that the competitive activities pro gamers and athletes engage in are as important, if not more important, than the games they play and the context in which they are played.
Indeed, this is the argument I try to illustrate in Athletic Gamer, and I do those by having Steven and Daniel do what they do best – compete. I proposed that Daniel play Steven in a game of Call of Duty and that Steven engage in a Martial Arts sparring match with Daniel. Both men, being the competitors they are, accepted the challenge without question and both men felt confident in their abilities to win at both games. The outcome of this challenge is predictable to say the least. One does not need magical foresight to predict that Steven will slay Daniel in Call of Duty and that Daniel will best Steven in Martial Arts. Despite each man’s confidence, their level of skill at their respective games is disproportionate. However, the results of the challenge may still yield surprises.
Before I reveal the result of the challenge, I want to address the elephant in the room concerning the physical nature of eSports and traditional sports. While both activities require skilled physical activity and movement, the intensity of the physical activity is in question. As many in the mainstream media point out so readily, pushing buttons on a control is not comparable to running a marathon. This is certainly true, but, again, I am trying to point out how the physical and mental practices, the learning, training and application of these skills themselves, regardless of how intense they are, define the competitor. Yet, the question of bodily engagement remains. This question brings to light another social construction that contributes to the dichotomy between pro gamers and athletes – the concept of the body.
When one thinks of the body, what usually comes to mind is the biological body, the vessel made of limbs, organs and flesh. However, the body is much more than that. A quick look in Merriam-Webster dictionary (2016) reveals no less than six different definitions of body. The question of what constitutes a body has been a central point of discussion in philosophy for quite some time. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze has been particularly influential to this discussion. Deleuze (1988) defines a body as anything that possesses affective capacity. Essentially, anything that has the capacity to affect or be affected can be a body. This a very broad definition that greatly expands the concept of the body. He further explains that the “plane of immanence” (the context in which the body and mind are situated) does not distinguish between the natural and artificial (Deleuze, 1988). Unsurprisingly, this statement further complicates the concept of the body.
Deleuze’s concept of the body is important in my attempt to breakdown the dichotomy between gamers and athletes. If we expand our concept of the body, we see that pro gamers do indeed engage in intense bodily engagements – they are simply engagements of a different kind of body. Often when playing video games, competitors assume control of some kind of avatar, a virtual representation of a body. These avatars range from a single digitally constructed character, vehicle or machine to groups of characters and almost everything in between. Avatars, when viewed from a Deleuzian perception, are bodies as they most certainly have affective capacity. They are being directly affected by the actions of the players controlling them and they affect the players in return with the actions they perform. Avatars may not be physical biological bodies, but they are bodies none-the-less.
Admittedly, this concept of avatars as virtual bodies is overly convenient and has many limitations. However, I am not arguing that avatars are bodies in of themselves but bodies specifically in relation to the player controlling them. As Ella Brians (2011) points out, Deleuze’s concept of the body does not neatly align with the concept of the virtual body, mainly because the Deleuzian body is very much rooted in materiality. This is problematic for the concepts of the virtual body and virtual reality as what makes them “virtual” is their transcendence of the material world. However, Brians argues that computer and information technology in its current state do not produce a virtual reality but rather a “mixed reality,” a reality that is both virtual and material (2011). The concept of a mixed reality perfectly illustrates the relationship between the video game player and the avatar. The player and the avatar are not independent of one another. The player needs the avatar to play the game and the avatar needs the player to control its actions. The player and avatar form a technologically mediated body, one situated in both flesh and code, the virtual and material.
So, my argument posits that professional gamers do engage in intense bodily function, it is simply technologically mediated. Now, one could still argue the physical activity gamers engage in is still less intense precisely because of the fact that it is technologically mediated. However, I will suggest that traditional sports are also technologically mediated activities. It is very rare to find a sport that is purely an engagement of biological bodies. Athletes often wear or use external equipment and mediate their play with material objects (i.e. a ball) or chemical substances and performance enhancers. The best illustration of mediation is found in the branch of sports known as motorsports. In motorsports, athletes are not simply engaging their biological bodies but motorized vehicles. In fact, one could argue that the vehicles are the bodies doing most of the work, the drivers are simply controlling them. Yet the “sportiness” of NASCAR and Motocross is rarely debated. This is precisely why it is problematic to define sports by physical intensity or technological mediation.
It was my hope that through Athletic Gamer, I could illustrate how these distinctions between the gamer and athlete are problematic and how it is the practices and activities of the two that really define them as competitors. The outcome of the challenge I issued to Steven and Daniel seemed to support my argument, but it could just as easily support the distinctions as well. As expected, Steven soundly defeated Daniel in Call of Duty and Daniel made quick work of Steven in their Martial Arts sparring match. We can attribute the outcome to the competitors’ superior skills in their respective games, but we could also attribute it to Steven’s superior mental cognition and Daniel’s physical fitness. However, there was an interesting observation made from the outcome of the challenge. Steven and Daniel seemed to believe the outcome of the challenge was the result of how familiar or unfamiliar they were with the respective games as much as it was a result of their physical and mental abilities. I asked the two if they felt they could have performed better if they spent more time practicing and training in the opposing game and both answered yes. When I asked if they would be willing to learn and train in their opponent’s game, both said no citing their unwillingness or inability to spend the amount of time and resources needed to improve their skills in the opposing party’s game. I believe this is a testament to the amount of dedication required to become skilled in a competitive activity, whether it be a video game or traditional sport.
To better support my claim, I proposed a new challenge to Steven and Daniel. They would play each other in a video game and sport they were both unfamiliar with. The video game and sport in question were Street Fighter and Basketball. This challenge would serve the same purpose as the previous challenge, to show it was primarily skill and training that earned the players their victories, but with decidedly less time and effort required from the subjects. In the same manner as the first challenge, Steven and Daniel played each other in several sets for both games. Steven’s and Daniel’s unfamiliarity with both games, I hoped, would result in more competitive games this time around.
The lack of familiarity with the games was evident from the start. Steven and Daniel were significantly clumsier and less coordinated in both Street Fighter and Basketball. Neither exhibited any kind of planned strategy. Instead they focused on winning any way they could. As unrefined as their gameplay was, the sets were significantly more competitive. The two went back and forth and alternated winning games. The two were nearly dead even in Street Fighter, though Daniel narrowly won the final game. Also ironically, Steven came out on top in Basketball, scoring the last basket. In both cases, their supposed inherent skills failed to earn them victories. Steven’s mental ability did not seem to give him the advantage in Street Fighter and Daniel’s physical fitness did not provide him an edge in Basketball. The outcome of the second challenge better supported my claim that there is little difference between the professional gamer and athlete and that what ultimately defines the two are the competitive practices they engage in.
I suppose the large looming question hanging over this argument and The Athletic Gamer is why this discussion is important? Why does it matter how we define eSports and sports? Is it really detrimental to make a distinction between pro gamers and athletes? These are fair questions. However, I will suggest that the reason why these issues are important is a question of legitimacy. Despite the growth of eSports in size, income and popularity, it struggles to be viewed legitimately as a profession. According to Kalle Jonasson (2010), this has to do with the distinctions in physical activity between traditional sports and eSports, but more specifically how physical activity and sports are valued in western society. Modern sports are perceived as a virtue – sports promote physical health and societal integration both of which are highly valued. By contrast, video games are seen as a vice, something that distracts from societal values. Particularly, video gaming is seen as anti-physical and anti-social. These negative perceptions are particularly directed at gaming as a pastime, but the stigma transfers to those who play competitively. As Jonasson says, “the legitimacy of sport is strong” while eSports remain illegitimate (2010).
This is why it is problematic to distinguish eSports from traditional sports based on the physical attributes of each. Because western society values physical fitness so much, by placing this distinction we are inherently saying eSports are less valuable. However, as I have argued, this is not a fair perception. The competitive practices of both professional gamers and athletes are essentially the same and are ultimately what define these competitors. The particulars of these activities vary, as does the level of physicality. However, the practices of these competitors are still both mental and physical bodily engagements. I suggest we change our perceptions of eSports and professional gamers and value them for the skill, talent and dedication they exhibit in their profession. It is my hope that The Athletic Gamer challenges these perceptions and shows us that the mental and physical activities gamers engage in are just as valuable as those of athletes.
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