Raising the Stakes: E-sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming

July 26, 2012

Raising the Stakes reports on a cultural phenomenon that few of us are familiar with. While computer games have become part of our mainstream culture, the professional e-sport arena is a place for the dedicated few. Although I have conducted research on hardcore game players, even I find e-athletes and TV-distributed game tournaments to be quite out of the ordinary.

T.L. Taylor has previously conducted ethnographic studies on computer game culture; here, she broadens the picture and engages with a cultural phenomenon that comprises much more than just players and developers. She covers a terrain where the interest between technological, economical, cultural and political actors is being negotiated, and where the future of e-sport is shaping up. In the process, she also investigates the relationship between play and work and how issues such as gender and masculinity are influencing this field.

Using a qualitative approach, Taylor takes us to e-sport venues on different continents, reporting from computer game tournaments of all sizes and from meetings with organisers of e-sport events. She takes us to the promised e-land, South Korea, arguably the epicentre of e-sports; we meet organisers in Scandinavia and follow her to the slick office buildings of large e-sport promoters in California. She has an eye for detail that lets us understand how the physical organisation of an event, or the awkward mixture of roles (from fanboy through to coach and organiser) bear witness to a field in the making.

What quickly becomes clear is that this is a volatile area, where world-leading player teams and international actors may suddenly disappear from the scene entirely (and be replaced just as swiftly). For anyone of a deterministic bent, this book is a sobering account of a technology that - despite its strong cultural impact owing to its inherently competitive nature and its being widely seen as hugely engaging - has pronounced difficulties in being moulded into the cultural logic of professional sports and spectatorship. In this respect, Taylor also gives an interesting analysis of why computer gaming struggles to become good TV.

One of the book's strengths is that Taylor does not gloss over the ephemeral nature of her research object, but thoroughly describes the different stakeholders in the field, unpacking the mechanisms and conflict lines that are at play between them. She demonstrates convincingly how difficult it is to predict in what form, and on what scale, the future of e-sport may lie. The large number of actors she gives voice to, and her historical documentation of the early period of the field, is a valuable contribution to game studies.

Taylor's close readings of actors in the field provide a broad and complex picture. But this closeness to the research object and the attention to detail can also be quite disorientating. What I miss here is a bird's-eye view of the landscape, and some quantitative information to supplement the excellent qualitative descriptions. It would have helped in sorting the information if, for instance, Taylor had provided a rough estimate of the number of professional gamers or organisations in different countries. Although such tables and overviews might not capture the dynamic fluctuation of the field very well, they might make it easier to navigate detailed descriptions of the terrain. Perhaps this will be the task of another scholar in the field. As it is, Taylor has given us a great account of an exciting part of gaming culture.

Raising the Stakes: E-sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming

By T.L. Taylor MIT Press, 304pp, £20.95 ISBN 9780262017374 Published 11 May 2012

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