By Dr Stuart Murray and Dr James Birt
Bond University – Australia
Have you heard about the big sports competition taking place in Melbourne, culminating in the final on Sunday evening? No, we’re not talking about the Australian Open (Mens) Final, but the Fortnite Summer Smash, a competition bringing 500 eSports aces from sports, entertainment and video gaming together to battle it out for AU$500,000 in prize money. Whether or not you know about eSports you’ve probably heard about Fortnite.
Fortnite is the world’s most profitable game, with a record US$3 billion profit in 2018, an indicative of the mass stampede towards eSports, a form of sports where the primary aspects of the sport are facilitated by electronic systems. The term describes a rapidly evolving area of media, competition and industry disruption formed around video games played competitively for spectators.
Within the Australian context eSports has seen nearly 50% growth in the past two years specifically amongst males and 18-34 year olds. eSporting tournament viewership has already surpassed that of traditional sports broadcasting. This represents a significant market opportunity for not only broadcast companies but also governments, companies and individuals to engage, inform and create a favourable image among younger demographics connected to eSports.
Not without its controversy, Fortnite is now taking centre court just before the men’s tennis final at the Australian Open, shifting the focus of Australian sporting passion from physical on court to screen based battle royal.
Fortnite to land at Australian Open 2019 – Kathleen “Loserfruit” Belsten
Such an event is not unique. Rather the partnership between Epic Games and the Australian Open is symbolic of many other traditional sports teaming up with eSports providers, players, and fans. Including Formula One and the F1 eSports Series, FIFA and the FIFA eWorld Cup 2019 and NBA and the NBA2K League.
From a traditional sporting perspective, opening up once hallowed sporting arenas to eSports is about creating new markets, reaching out to the younger demographic, and trying to stay relevant in an era where stadia are emptying, participation in real sports is declining and Australia’s once mighty international sporting footprint is diminishing. For the eSports crowd, such partnerships generate legitimacy and are aimed at winning over the puritans and their traditional arguments: this isn’t real sport! Surely people should be playing games outside, not inside! What’s wrong with the real world (versus the virtual)?!
These, and other trends, stand to stymie any positive developments from the inexorable rise of eSports. Moreover, such partnerships have, so far, been almost exclusively governed by commerce, dollars, market share, ‘eyeballs’ (audience), and fragmented leagues. Like the uber-game, Red Dead Redemption 2, it all has the feel of an unsustainable, Wild West gold rush. In such a rapacious, confusing and polemic environment, many of the potential benefits from using eSports as a means to positive outcomes are lost, or being ignored or, as we contend, have simply not been contemplated and this is where diplomacy comes in.
Yes, diplomacy. At the very mention of the word stereotypes flood the mind, of debonair diplomats operating in secret, cloistered embassies, gorging on canapes and pink champagne, and cutting ill-founded, anachronistic deals that would make Machiavelli turn in his Florentine grave. Such images are, of course, nonsensical (and only partly true!). In addition, they describe a job, not the word. The state, we must remember, does not have a monopoly on diplomacy, particularly, in the plural, twenty-first century.
At its very simplest, the word diplomacy describes a series of processes: the proverbial means to an end, or ends. It is an ancient, civil and – ideally – peaceful institution that tries to promote comity over estrangement, peace over conflict, and mutually reciprocal, win-win outcomes over their antecedents. Diplomacy also bears remarkable similarity to another ancient device aimed at bringing strangers closer together: sport. Such synergies and innovative ideas helped form the young but growing field of studies know as Sports Diplomacy, the strategic, networked use of sport to build relationships between people, nations and sporting organisations in the pursuit of enhanced, mutually reciprocal trade, tourism, education, participation, development, and foreign policy outcomes. It’s not just theory: the Australian, Japanese, and French Governments have all recently developed Sports Diplomacy strategies, as has the European Commission.
But what’s all this got to do with playing Fortnite outside Margaret Court Arena? Quite simply, the concept of sports diplomacy can be applied, or extended, to eSports, ushering in a new term: eSports diplomacy. In other words, it is time to ask how eSports can be strategically used as means to a series of positive social and diplomatic outcomes (not just dollars, markets and eyeballs)?
Thinking about eSports diplomacy creates immediate benefit. For sporting puritans, and hard as it may be to believe, eSports diplomacy can be used to increase participation in traditional physical sports (the long, storied and continuously painful love of real golf for one of the authors began with a university addiction to PGA Golf on the Sega Megadrive). Indeed, eSports should be integral to the sort of future envisaged in Sports 2030, a document created by Sport Australia (formerly the AIS) which “provides a roadmap for future success for sport in this country.” Remarkably, eSports doesn’t get one mention in this visionary but slightly dated eighty-page document (sorry, folks, but we have to move on from Cathy Freeman, Sydney and 2000). Federal and state governments need to realise sport and eSports can co-exist amicably, symbiotically even.
For the eSports mob, thinking diplomatically would give them greater strategic direction, common goals to pursue, capacity to negotiate with established players, as well as order, and unity. Clearly, the positive messages about eSports are not getting through, or, more accurately, are being delivered and embodied by gamers, entrepreneurs and fans. For many, eSports continue to be a threat, not an opportunity. The trials and tribulations of trying to get eSports into the 2024 Paris Olympics are a case in point. What, or whom, does eSports actually represent? An industry? A sport? What key messages are they communicating? How do they gather and disseminate information? Are they any good at negotiation? And can eSports bring people closer together, and minimize friction between increasingly estranged people, communities and nations? These are all core diplomatic functions, according to the great Australian diplomacy scholar Hedley Bull, and can be applied to the sort of old and new actors that now constitute our political, social and sporting systems.
The Fortnite Summer Smash, alongside many other examples, confirms that eSports is here to stay. Thinking ahead, the questions for theorists and practitioners are simple: how can eSports transform its image from that of threat to opportunity? And, working in tandem with traditional codes, attitudes, and policies, how can eSports be used as a means to positive, social outcomes in health, inclusivity, sport and general physical and mental wellbeing? In an era of “less social cohesion”, as Hugh MacKay stated in his Australia Day Address, such questions now take on urgent importance.
As was the case with the real gold rushes it pays to remember that only a few prospectors struck it rich. The folks that sold the shovels, picks and pack animals were the ones who made the real money. As such, and tapping into the so-called egalitarian nature of the digital era, the challenge is to turn the eSports rush into something sustainable, positive and meaningful; something that adds value to our society, relationships, bodies, minds and souls.