Esports and learning to play

Esports and learning to play

Ben Egliston

Electronic sport (esports), or professional videogaming, is a global media phenomenon, consumed by audiences of millions. Viewers attend e-sports tournaments at packed out sports stadiums to cheer on their favourite teams, while the majority of viewers) watch online, over ‘livestreaming’ websites like or Douyu—displaying their support or vitriol for teams and players through Twitch’s live-chat channel. The rhythm of each game is punctuated by sports-like, play-by-play commentary. Games are bookended by analysis segments, recaps, replays and interviews with players. Top prizes for teams can run into the millions of dollars— the winning 5-player team of the largest 2018 tournament in the game Dota 2, on which I focus, was $US11m (of the total $US25m prize pool).

To be sure, esports is an incredibly important global media spectacle that has changed how we think about and play videogames. While we’ve always watched other people play videogames—such as in the arcade—esports has massively popularised spectatorship as a modality associated with gaming (rather than directly playing). Additionally, while watching high-level players compete has been a practice that can be traced back to events in the early 1970s (such as the Intergalactic SpaceWar Olympics), the massive commercialisation of esports over the last decade has legitimised professional gaming as an activity, galvanising its presence within games culture.

Yet an under-examined area concerns the impacts that these now mundane displays of virtuosity have on the everyday viewer. Esports are a taken-for-granted part of many videogames today. Games like Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Dota 2 feature advertisements about, and links to watch, esports matches in the game interface itself. Opening up my Dota 2 client, I see a notification telling me that a semi-finals match between two rival teams is airing, which I can watch via a video feed embedded into the game’s main interface. Because esports are so visible within games culture, and now within the user interfaces of game software, they have become a central part of how people think, feel, and engage with games.

While research exists on the consumption of e-sports, my work has sought to address the impact of esports on the gameplay activity of everyday players. From 2014-2018 I conducted a study examining the impacts of broadcasts of esports tournaments on the skills of players. I focused particularly on the popular multiplayer videogame Dota 2—a competitive game influenced by genres like Role Playing Games (e.g. Warcraft) and Real Time Strategy (e.g. Starcraft). The gameplay involves combat between two teams of five player ‘heroes’ (players’ in-game characters) which have their own unique play styles and abilities, with the end goal being to destroy the other team’s heavily guarded ‘base.

According to the 2018 ‘Digital Australia’ report, a large-scale survey of videogame consumption habits in, 52% of esports viewers were reported to have watched to learn strategies to improve their own gameplay performance (strategies here taken to denote gameplay techniques ranging from character selection to micro level aspects of gameplay, such as how pros press buttons on their keyboard). To better understand how the popularity of esports might impact people’s relationship to their own videogame play, part of this study included interviewing Dota 2 players and viewers of esports, asking them about their relationship between watching and playing.

The relationship between gameplay habits and popular forms of out-of-game media has been studied by sociologist Graeme Kirkpatrick. Following Pierre Bourdieu, Kirkpatrick has written about how individual and collective attitudes towards videogames (a gamer ‘habitus’) are shaped in relation to discursive framings of videogaming as an activity by gaming magazines. My study highlighted how habits of the individual and collective emerged in relation to esports broadcasts, which make incredibly complex and often temporally fine-grained techniques visible and legible through the real-time capture, relay, replay and analysis of the esports spectacle. The implication I argue, inspired by the philosopher Bernard Stiegler (who writes of the relationship between individual, society and technology), is that how we remember things in our head does not come solely from any specific gameplay activity that we have ‘lived’ ourselves. Rather, how some users perceive each ongoing moment of a Dota 2 game is conditioned by both players’ game knowledge and knowledge of esports ‘best practice’.

Broadly, I found that everyday players of Dota 2 were influenced considerably by broadcasts of esports content. This included people who regularly watched specifically for this purpose, and others who watched in a less committed capacity (e.g. casual viewers, people who saw content displayed on the game’s main interface). Across the study I found that people’s experiences of playing around what the professionals were doing could be characterised as positive or negative, in terms of their impacts on gameplay performance.

The positive outcomes identified by my study participants were numerous. Firstly, participants pointed out that watching esports broadcasts was useful in presenting them with new ways to play the game. A popular example here was how many of the players I interviewed closely followed the playstyle of popular and dominant teams. For some participants, this involved studying not only the individual heroes selected by pro players, but examining much more granular aspects of play—such as the way that pro players moved their mice, or ingame camera. Additionally, I found that participants saw significant benefit in esports as a site of constant strategic innovation, which could be emulated in their own matches.

Beyond simply exposing players to new ways to play the game, I found that viewers saw esports as useful in familiarising themselves with the way that high-level techniques operated. For instance, some of my participants suggested that esport was useful in breaking down high-level techniques, making them adoptable. One example was of post-game analysis segments  where an esports analyst would run through, in step-by-step detail, the manoeuvring of a particular team or player. For instance, one segment after a major 2016 tournament saw an analyst standing in front of a large touch screen interface, zooming in and out on key moments in the video demonstrating how the pros determined its outcome. Interviewees suggested that these kinds of features allowed them to study the ingame movements of pros, and appropriate these techniques in their own games. My interviewees also spoke to the way that esports’ popularity gave many everyday players access to viewing strategies.

But not all outcomes were positive. Some players pointed out how the popularity of esports stagnated individual strategic creativity and innovation—with many players tending to draw exclusively from strategies displayed in professional games. In this way, for many, what the pros were able to do effectively within the esports arena often overdetermined what players did in everyday contexts. As such, it was common for participants to remark upon conflicts between those who followed these strategies and those who did not. One participant gives the illustrative example of being threatened with being reported (and potentially reprimanded by the game) for refusing to play according to strategies vetted as ‘effective’ by the pros. And, of course, seeing isn’t always necessarily doing.

Others suggested that there were often gaps between their own abilities and what they were watching in esports matches. One example was of techniques that required significant manual dexterity (such as controlling several in-game units simultaneously) or techniques that require acting within very small windows of time.  While esports broadcasts use various techniques to make the complex happenings in the esports arena legible to everyday players, there are clear dissonances between the capacities of the esport player and everyday viewer. Beyond this expected tension, a striking finding was how players described feelings of anxiety or panic that sets in when trying to perform these strategies in their own games. Describing a feeling of pressure to skilfully pull off these strategies, one player mentioned this anxiety was so acute that they would sweat, their hands unable to properly grip his mouse. What this highlights is that skilful videogame play is more than about ‘theoretical’ knowledge, or even rote ‘somatic’ knowledge. It is, as Emma Witkowski puts it, about cultivating a ‘balanced body’. It is about understanding not only what you will do to the game, but what the game will do to you.

Through this case study of how people experience a difficult, competitive videogame, what became very clear is that media outside games are central components to how we think about and engage videogames, enculturating ways of doing and being. Despite esports being ‘beyond’ the game itself, for my participants it was a central part of playing Dota 2.

Ben Egliston is a sessional lecturer at the University of Sydney in the Department of Media and Communications, where he recently completed his doctorate. He researches and teaches about games and new media. His current research is focused on user experience in games. He has published on topics such as e-sports, data analytics, and livestreaming for a range of academic and general interest publications