Art by: Frankie Hossack
‘eSports’ is a weird word. It’s literally a contraction of the words ‘electronic sports’, though most people wouldn’t know how to define it, and there are others who staunchly refuse to acknowledge eSports as sports. If you want to get technical, eSports refers to all sports played through electronic human interface devices. However, if you were to ask the average eSports player what eSports is, the answer they would most likely give you is “competitive video gaming”.
Super Smash Bros. or ‘Smash’ is a fighting game series, published by Nintendo, spanning four entries over 15 years. Super Smash Bros. Melee, the second instalment in the Smash series was released for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2003. It was a very popular game, which garnered a remarkable competitive following over the years, built a community and rose through the ranks to become a bona fide eSport, which continues to enjoy popularity today.
Despite its popularity and success, competitive Melee has been a grassroots endeavour for much of its lifetime. Even today, the competitive scenes for Melee and other Smash titles are built and maintained entirely by groups of dedicated players. Chris Phibbs is a tournament organiser for the Sydney Smash scene and has been involved with the Australian Smash community for a little over two years. The very first Smash tournament he attended took place in an old church building in Wollongong almost three years ago. “There was at least 20 or so people there,” he says. “Pretty small by today’s standards, but by those standards that was a pretty good turnout.” Sydney’s scene has grown heavily in the past two years: “Back then it was very informal. Not as organised as you see today.”
Phibbs began organising tournaments when he started a Smash society at UNSW. Later, when the Sydney scene started growing, the only TO (Tournament Organiser) in the area had to take on a much larger load of work. “He couldn’t really run it all himself, so I just put my hand up”, Phibbs tells me. In Smash communities around the world, this is the case – players taking on different roles within the community to ensure its continued existence. These roles include organising tournaments, setting up streams, commentary and statistics. Across most eSports, these supporting roles are becoming prevalent and much more vital. Previously, there were concerns that the people filling them were not being reimbursed properly. That has been changing slowly, however Phibbs believes this is an area where Smash is “probably lagging behind a bit”.
So is playing eSports a viable career option?
This is not even a question for players at what is currently the peak of professional competitive video gaming. Only a couple of years ago, the prospect of earning a six-figure salary playing video games would be considered laughable. Today, it is a reality for a rapidly increasing number of people. According to the website ‘eSports Earnings’, in 2014, 54 people earned over $100,000 through eSports. In 2015, that number almost doubled to 104. Phibbs explains that in addition to tournament earnings, professional eSports players get a lot of mileage out of sponsorships, which cover transport costs among other things.
While these players don’t have to worry about financial troubles, there is the gnawing concern of both physical and mental health issues for eSports players. Hand injuries are frequent, and in some cases debilitating. In addition, the pressure to compete, along with the very high stakes atmosphere, can be very daunting, even for the most experienced of players. However, Phibbs explains that now that eSports is taking off, competitions are able to provide players with support services such as physiotherapists and sports psychiatrists. These support services, he believes, are essential going forward: “If people are gonna be playing for a long time, like you’ve gotta take care of yourself. Just like with anything in life.”
Currently a petition with over 60,000 votes is being circulated in the U.S. to recognise eSports players as legitimate athletes. Another challenge is posed by those within the eSports community who don’t consider Smash to be an eSport, because it is a very unconventional game. This perception of Smash relates to the fact that Nintendo has ignored and even actively tried to alienate it’s competitive fanbase at times. Phibbs acknowledges that the relationship between Nintendo and the competitive community has improved, but a marked lack of support from Nintendo has had implications. “You look at DOTA, and [Gabe Newell is] backing them, you look at [League of Legends] with [Riot Gaming] and stuff, you know, you can’t really compare to that if you don’t have the big organisations that made the game in the first place.”
This does not deter Phibbs, however, or the thousands of people who flock to play and watch this game, and every other game in the ever-increasing eSports pantheon. “People do, like, crazy things for the game. That’s what you’ve always got to remember. From an outsider’s perspective, you’ll be like ‘Aw man, all these TO’s are giving up their time and effort and stuff’ … but it’s literally, we do it, because we love doing what we do. For me, it doesn’t feel like a job. I would go to tournaments anyway. The fact that I’m helping run them, it’s just another way for me to have fun really.”
While eSports is primarily a form of entertainment, it is developing a huge participative following. Events like the Dota 2 International, which pulled in 4.5 million viewers, are proof of that. I asked Phibbs if he believed Smash was heading on the same trajectory. “I’m not sure if we’ve reached Dota levels … But that being said, it seems like it’s growing. Every time it keeps growing, it’s kind of unbelievable. But they seem to be getting there. It seems to be featured at bigger and better events every year. So I mean, the sky’s the limit I guess. I just think it’ll take time, it’ll depend on whether people still wanna play the game, that’s the real test.”
This is something that is true of all eSports. But considering the huge amount of time, work and money people put towards these games and their competitive communities, it would be a huge shame if they were to die out simply because people didn’t want to play the games anymore. That being said, in the last decade, many of these games haven’t been merely surviving, they’ve been growing larger and larger. And I think that speaks for itself.