When ELEAGUE, the Turner Sports/WME|IMG collaboration to produce live esports events, was announced, I was wary. Crossover attempts had happened before between esports and the mainstream, but none of them had succeeded. Famously, CGS killed Counter-Strike: Source and put the entire Counter-Strike scene years behind. I wasn’t around for any of that, but my own experiences with these large events always left me cold.
As a hardcore watcher of StarCraft 2, I felt left behind whenever a BlizzCon event occurred. It felt as if they had swayed too much toward the casual audience in hopes of attracting more viewers. When I watched FGC become more “esports” over the years, it felt as if the casting had been watered down. The analysis was still there — as much as you could expect catering to both hardcore and casual audiences — but for a lack of a better word, the identity of what I had come to expect from the scene was not.
So I was impressed when the first words I heard from ELEAGUE were that they wanted to keep the authenticity of the scene intact while bringing the professionalism and production value of Turner to the table. So the question became authentic to what? What are we as a scene and as individuals?
Esports is a global phenomenon. It spans multiple cultures and games, and each game has its own unique subculture. No one except Kanye West could claim to be the voice of this generation. So, then, what are we?
We are the generation that grew up within the information age, where the means of communicating around the world exponentially increased year by year. With that came more information than any one person could process. Global warming, trolls, corruption, memes, misinformation and everything that the human mind could fathom. We are a generation that has more access to information than any before us. Because of that, we feel more impotent and cynical than previous eras.
The stakes of identity become all the more palpable when there are infinite sources of influence pulling on us from all sides. Perhaps that is why the early generation of gamers grew up during a time when the mainstream media and news outlets called us psychopaths, deviants and murderers. We were creating a new identity, one that was outside their norm. Even within gaming culture, the competitive community was looked down upon as social pariahs. Just look at the thousands of derogatory comments about esports pros when Gamespot took up esports coverage.
We are a subculture within a subculture, a niche within a niche. Thus it became all the more serious for us when we ran these tournaments. From the bedrooms to the arcades. From online to the LAN parties, we understood that what we were doing was both deadly serious and seriously comic.
Nothing else in the world mattered more than proving who was the best among us. We praised Olof “olofmeister” Kajbjer for being the best Counter-Strike player in 2016. Then we hailed olofmeister absentmindedly high-fiving a black dildo as one of the best moments of 2016. We love the dizzying heights of skill that competition brings us, but we also embrace the novel, absurd, and bizarre things that crop up in association. No one takes the accusations of Dan M seriously, but we can’t help but spam “Crisp clean lock.”
We are a group who simultaneously takes competition seriously and pokes fun at the fact we take this all so seriously. We will make a frag video highlighting a player’s best moments; we’ll also spam memes, make jokes, create elaborate fictional stories, and post copypastas regarding the very same player. Sometimes we combine both aspects: the Fate of IBP manages to be a serious and tragic primer of one of CS:GO’s most scandalous events.
If that is who we are, ELEAGUE succeeded in bringing that to the mainstage in leaps and bounds. Regardless of circumstance, Richard Lewis is unabashedly himself and has proven the perfect host because he understands the need for authenticity for every game ELEAGUE covers. The first ELEAGUE broadcast had Richard Lewis and Duncan “Thorin” Shields roasting Shaquille O’Neal in a moment that symbolized the tournament’s commitment to the authentic. We were going to let these guys be who they always were and show the world that this is us. ELEAGUE then went out and produced two CS:GO seasons and January’s ELEAGUE Major.
The trend continued when ELEAGUE took up broadcasting Street Fighter V. That was an altogether different kind of beast as the FGC community has a semi-antagonistic nature against the very idea of esports. That’s because its primary source of seeing esports was League of Legends, a game that famously fined a player (Hai “Hai” Du Lam) for putting up the middle finger on camera. In the FGC, that’s just another Tuesday.
The FGC is a bit more wild, a bit closer to the grassroots style tournaments that are still run to this day. The egalitarian attitude means nobody gets special treatment. Even the best players are treated the same as any random player off the street. They also understand the dynamic of holding paradoxical views on their scene. They can go from spamming jokes about Justin Wong’s bad performances to calling him a God in a day. They mock the strange sort of obsessions anime players can have, but they can’t help but get hyped when they see Woshige stand up.
When it comes to the mainstream, the FGC has always tried to represent its “best” face, which personally always felt like a watered down version of what makes it compelling and unique. A regular cast varies wildly on different topics, ranging from co-casters blowing each other up to adulation for an incredible play they had witnessed. They are not above being blatantly biased toward their favorite players, and they are comfortable wisecracking about a competitor’s life or habits. In many ways, I consider Zhi to be the best amalgamation of these aspects, but he rarely got to cast on the big stage; his style of casting felt too edgy for even FGC tournaments to regularly employ.
When ELEAGUE tabbed him as one of its main commentators, I was once again impressed. But my doubts still persisted as some in the community put it, “I want FGC Zhi, not esports Zhi.” The few times Zhi had been put on, it felt like he was shackled from going too far.
That was never the case on the ELEAGUE broadcasts as Zhi was allowed to express his full absurdist glory. At the same time, all of the casters (Tasty Steve, Sajam, rip) ELEAGUE hired had great chemistry with each other and Lewis. ELEAGUE made it one of the best products that the FGC has ever seen and one that stayed true to the community’s spirit.
When all of this started, ELEAGUE said it wanted to bring esports to the main stage without compromising its unique features. One and a half years later, I can say they’ve succeeded far beyond expectations. They have taken esports to the main stage without sacrificing its authenticity. They have moved the game from the bedrooms, the arcades, and the LAN parties to a mainstream broadcast while preserving the spirit, competitive drive, and self-directed mockery. ELEAGUE has succeeded where many others have failed and combined noteworthy professionalism and production with competitive spirit and fun. In short, they have created the best esports product out there right now.