Serious Play: From eSports to Digital Transformation

It used to be that too much video gaming and not enough studying would get you into trouble. Now it gets you into college.

One of those colleges is called the Tricked eSport Academy (TEA), located about two hours outside of Copenhagen. The curriculum is focused on developing the next generation of Danish eSports stars, and it specializes in two games: League of Legends (LoL) and Counterstrike: Global Offensive (CS:GO).

Play School

Wait – a “college” for eSports? Really? Why would there be a post-secondary academy for video gaming? Partly because of the steep learning curve. Like learning to play a musical instrument, for many games, it takes thousands of hours of play to reach mastery. At Ahyeon Polytechnic School, a high school in South Korea, for instance, students practice at least 10 hours a day. Unlike the TEA, however, Ahyeon is not strictly focused on the development of gaming skills. It was founded as a place that took in kids who were having trouble in the mainstream education system. However, the school soon discovered that if you gave these students gaming time, they began to take their traditional studies more seriously. The school has already churned out seven or eight professional- level players. TEA, on the other hand, churns out about 25 pro-level grads a year. They scout them young – starting in middle school, following them through high school, and finally recruiting them for TEA once they’re old enough.

Concomitant with the rise of competitive gaming is the emergence of a global institutional infrastructure, with both national and global organizations forming around this surge of interest. In Denmark’s case, there’s eSport Denmark, a member of the Danish Athletics Federation. In South Korea, the birthplace of eSports, there is the Korea eSports Association, and in the UK, the British Esports Association. Then there are the global outfits – the International e-Sports Federation and the World eSports Association. ESPN officially began regular eSports coverage in 2017. In the same way they cover football and basketball, they now track important video game tournaments and teams, showing highlights of big plays and important games. Playing video games has definitely gone pro – and global.

Globalization Live

The money associated with eSports still doesn’t compare to the amounts thrown around in more mature pro sports, like football, hockey, and baseball, but the online nature of video games means that players can utilize streaming channels like Twitch and YouTube to build their individual brands, nurture a following, and attract sponsorship and advertising revenue of their own. The top Korean eSports league player and biggest star in LoL, who goes by the name “Faker,” supposedly earns $2.5M USD a year, according to several industry news sites. And that doesn’t include his sponsorship deals.

Gaming fans may only dream of attaining such status, but that doesn’t stop them from spending 6-10 hours a day playing the games their heroes get paid for. It’s gotten to the point where video game addiction has become a very serious issue, especially in South Korea. According to Dr. Kim Hyun-soo of the National Center for Mental Health in Seoul, the leading addiction among young people is gaming – and 90% of those addicts are male teenagers.

The problem typically starts at age 11. Children lose interest in schoolwork, family, and friends, and they even stop eating and sleeping. There are stories of teenage addicts wearing diapers so that they don’t have to get up from the computer to go to the toilet. There have even been fatalities recorded – several people have actually died from too much play and not enough rest or food, and one young South Korean game addict killed his mother and then himself. In response to this growing problem, the South Korean government passed a law in 2011 forbidding children under 16 from playing computer games between midnight and 6 a.m.

Ironically, it was that same government that unleashed eSports on the world after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. At that time, the South Korean government’s massive investment in internet infrastructure made it the most connected nation on earth. This was followed by the appearance of 24-hour internet gaming cafes called PC bangs, many of them owned and operated by people who had lost their jobs during the crisis, and patronized by students and unemployed youth. Then came tournaments and TV coverage, which in turn unlocked further government funding for game development and competition.

The idea of government support is not isolated to South Korea. Denmark – which has over 500,000 gamers who play more than twice a week, according to Thomas Koed, head of eSport Denmark – enjoys a similar technological infrastructure, with 97% broadband penetration. The government is actively supporting the development of eSport clubs, leagues, and associations. For a growing number of countries, eSports are now officially recognized as part of the national cultural and commercial agenda. To watch the lightning speed with which this phenomenon has evolved and spread itself around the world is to witness globalization in real time.

The Borgmann Question

The emergence and rapid growth of competitive video gaming provides a live opportunity to examine what Charles Ess, while studying philosopher Albert Borgmann, refers to as our “uncritical cultural enthusiasm” for technology and its devices.

In his 1999 book Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, he speculated on the power of information technology to cut us off from reality. According to Borgmann, technology is not capable of engaging humans with reality because it does not contain any tie to actual things. He claimed that, rather than provide access to reality, it replaces reality. But with what?

While one could argue that Borgmann built his arguments on the rather outmoded ontology of substance metaphysics – which views reality as mere bits of matter – his point about the virtual reality of cyberspace not being as “real” as the physical, tangible world of objects can’t be ignored.

On the other hand, looking through the lens of process metaphysics, which posits that reality consists not of objects but of physical, organic, social, and cognitive processes interacting dynamically, the emergence of competitive gaming makes total sense. Financial instability + realpolitik + large numbers of underemployed males + broadband = BOOYAH! The birth of a new global industry.

Nineteen years on from Borgmann’s text, his reactionary observation that technology is not simply a means, but also an environment and a way of life, has most definitely proved true. Competitive gaming is just an extreme example – there are many more. Just look at the people around you the next time you are on public transit. You will be the only one not looking at a screen.

Borgmann’s fears were presaged by Martin Heidegger in his 1977 book The Question Concerning Technology, in which the latter observed that technology has engaged us in nothing less than the transformation of the entire world, ourselves included, into raw materials to be mobilized in technical processes.

Heidegger’s dystopian thesis may just be a highbrow version of the robot apocalypse narrative, but our cultural obsession with that vision is not entirely misplaced. Think about how much memory and mental capacity you have surrendered to your devices. There is mounting evidence of how our obsession with digital technology is literally shrinking our brains. Internet and gaming addiction have been shown to produce shrinkage of tissue volume in parts of the brain where processing occurs. Affected functions include planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control. There is also evidence of reduced cortical thickness, less efficient information processing, reduced impulse inhibition, increased sensitivity to rewards, insensitivity to loss, and abnormal brain activity associated with poor task performance. Of particular concern is damage to the insula, which affects our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion. These skills dictate the depth and quality of personal relationships.

As Professor and Baroness Susan Greenfield, Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University, states in her book Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains: “If we’re going to be living in a world where face-to-face interaction is less practiced and is thereby uncomfortable, then the ‘push’ of such an aversion to messy real-life, three-dimensional communication, combined with the ‘pull’ of the appeal of a more collective identity of external reassurance and approval, may be transforming the very nature of personal relationships. The knee-jerk speed required for reaction and the reduced time for reflection might mean that those reactions and evaluations themselves are becoming increasingly superficial.”

This all sounds like the new reality that Borgmann and Heidegger foresaw in their respective observations on the effects of technology and its seductive devices. So, where does that leave us?

The Next Black Hole

The questions posed by Borgmann and Heidegger seem ever more prescient now that we are in the midst of wholesale “digital transformation.” The rise of eSports provides us with a convenient proxy for how technological change exerts the pull of a black hole, whereby every bit of matter within its gravitational field is sucked into the virtual vortex and transformed by it – whether you are talking about teenage males in diapers, post-secondary gaming academies, or former sports stadia turned into giant display screens for LoL tournaments.

Is digital transformation the next black hole? And what does it mean, exactly? We are at the stage where it has a different meaning depending on who is defining it – or, more accurately, what they are selling.

Online business publisher i-SCOOP defines it as “the profound transformation of business and organizational activities, processes, competencies, and models to fully leverage the changes and opportunities of a mix of digital technologies and their accelerating impact across society in a strategic and prioritized way, with present and future shifts in mind.” That’s a big mouthful of a definition, clearly designed to capture readers from as many different quarters of commerce as possible. Publishing is, after all, a volume-driven business.

Digital and customer experience speaker and blogger Brian Solis has a slightly more human take on it. He defines it as “the realignment of, or new investment in technology, business models, and processes to create new value for customers and employees and more effectively compete in an ever-changing digital economy.” Notice how this definition has a sense of purpose to it, and that the purpose is human-centered.

If you agree with Heidegger that technology is relentlessly overtaking us, you may cleave more hopefully to Solis’s definition, because it places technology into a context that considers this transformation to be in service of human needs. But look at what large organizations are expecting of digital transformation today, and the obsession seems very much more rooted in the technology itself and its promise of optimizing operational efficiency. Once again, what could be a platform for human-centered innovation becomes yet another way for companies to recover some of the control technology has ceded to their customers since the emergence of the internet.

As with all technological change, we have rushed headlong into eSports before we had any idea of their effects on us. Who knew internet gaming would become a medically recognized form of addiction? Who knew climate change would be the result of fossil fuel technology? Who knew that social media would monetize your personal privacy? Who knew that the presence of an Amazon distribution center in your town would eviscerate the tax base and turn workers into automata racing against the dictates of operational efficiency to earn a minimum wage?

In the case of eSports, what started out as “play” has rapidly evolved into something far more serious – a global business in the making, with a burgeoning infrastructure and a whole new layer of players. Likewise, there’s not much room for play in the breathless race to full-on digital transformation. As with all such things, once the money sees the opportunity to leverage an obsession, the gold rush begins – and playtime is over.

Competitive Video Gaming by the Numbers
  • The estimated yearly revenue for the global eSport economy in 2017 was $696M USD (Newzoo 2017 Global eSports Market Report)
  • The estimated global viewership for eSports events in 2017 was 385 million people (Newzoo 2017 Global eSports Market Report)
  • The unique viewer count for the 2015 LoL World Championships Final was 36 million (LoLesports.com); comparatively, the final game of the 2015 NBA Finals had a peak of only 28.7 million viewers and an average audience of 23.5 million (Forbes)
  • The prize pool for the 2014 Dota 2 Tournament was $10.9M USD (thenextdigit.com), bigger than that of the Masters Golf Tournament, which distributed prizes totaling approximately $9M (Augusta National Golf Club)
  • LoL alone is evolving 12 times as fast as American football did: It has 2700 pro players, 1260 tournaments, and has awarded a cumulative $19M USD in prize money since its inception (The Huffington Post)

the author

Will Novosedlik

Will Novosedlik is the former Head of Growth Partnerships at Idea Couture. He is currently a strategist and storyteller at large.