League of Legends and Philosophy
Can a Videogame Be a Sport?
Ever since the day when Plato was a wrestler (for realz!) people of philosophical persuasion have been thinking about what counts as a “sport.” The underlying assumption is that a sport requires a kind of physical exertion, tempered by moderation, aimed at developing a sound body (ideally in which one houses a sound mind). This sentiment is prevalent in our contemporary culture, and it has certainly been capitalized upon by professional athletic associations, recreational exercise facilities, and late night television programming featuring the illustrious Chuck Norris. We contemporary folk have also added several other criteria including competition, sportsmanship, and expertise to the definition of sport. With the advent of the internet and a highly motivated video game culture, though, the definition of sport as requiring physical activity has come under attack.
Philosophers debating the meaning of sport come from two angles. The first side argues that we need an analytical definition of sport. They attempt to define the necessary and sufficient conditions for some activity to be a sport, and then examine an activity to determine if it meets the criteria. The other side, following insights from the late writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, argues that definitions in and of themselves are inherently vacuous. So, instead of matching an activity to a definition, they promote developing a method for examining a particular activity, then making a judgment based on the results.
Despite these opposing angles, there are some basic concepts that will no doubt either be part of a definition or a method.
First, sports are basically games. Following Bernard Suits (1978), we can understand games as at least consisting of a set of rules accepted among the participants. These rules serve to restrict the possible paths toward some goal, figuratively and literally. For example, soccer rules stipulate that you can’t go outside the lines or use your hands as you try to put the ball in the net.
Second, it seems difficult to remove sport from its cultural context (Coakley, 2001). That is, when we think of sport, we tend to think of something that people care about, invest in, and revere. Thus, we might only consider those activities that serve a credible function. Consider tag, for example. There are definitely rules for tag that everyone follows (ideally), but tag is not cared about by society as a whole. We don’t invest in tag, meaning that we don’t pay pros to play nor do we organize structured tag leagues or tournaments.
Lastly, and this is a concept that poses a problem for esports, there seems to be something inherently physical about sport (McCutcheon, 2007). We revere our athletes because they demonstrate a superior physical ability. This is a sticking point for most people. Take chess for instance. It clearly has rules and serves a cultural function, but it lacks physical activity, except for moving the pieces. Thus, many people won’t consider it a sport. Or take darts and pool. They have rules, serve a cultural function, albeit a much smaller one than say American football but there is league play, investment, and reverence for the experts, but most people do not think these are sports. On the other end take Vince McMahon’s professional wrestling league. It’s clearly physical, but seems to lacks real rules, not only because the wrestlers often break what rules there are, but because the league lacks the kind of competitive environment the rules are designed to create (the matches are essentially fixed beforehand to promote drama for entertainment value).
Between these extremes lie often debated activities like golf, curling, men’s recreational softball leagues, and many more. We may ask: how much physical activity is enough to call something a sport? On a weak hypothesis we might say that as long as the result of the match is influenced by physical activity, then it’s a sport. This leaves out chess, since physical technique in moving the pieces is irrelevant to the outcome. But it would include darts since technique definitely affects the outcome. A more restrictive physical hypothesis might say that a sport requires intense, rigorous physical activity. This leaves out darts, but what about golf and curling, or even men’s softball in some cases? What exactly we mean by physical is further complicated by the use of technology in sports. Cycling certainly is rigorous, but much of the success of riders depends on their equipment. Even the strict nutritional regiments of athletes involve some kind of technological intervention: what exactly is in those little packets tennis players suckle on during breaks? Ultimately, the physical criterion seems to be the most important, and we certainly know it when we see it, but it’s also the most difficult to parse, and may lead one to the Wittgensteinian side of the argument.
Applying all of this to esports, we’ll see that they certainly have rules. In fact, these rules are computer controlled, so to break them one would need a highly sophisticated form of computer hacking (which would be obvious to spot). We’ll also see that esports have a cultural context worthy of sport. The controversial part is the physical criterion. Video games are definitely not physical in the restrictive sense of being rigorous, but the physical activity of clicking the mouse and using specific keystrokes definitely affects the outcome. In the end, most people may not agree that esports are sports, but they probably come closer than most people would think. So this is the start of a conversation. As we think more about physicality and what it means to be physical, we may one day consider esports to be genuine sports.
Let’s consider the case of the world’s hottest e-sport: League of Legends. If you haven’t heard, LoL (as it is endearingly called) is a video game played on line by 300 million users throughout the world. Upwards of 27 million people log on each day. What kind of anything, especially a game, could generate such global interest?
Not only is LoL a video game, it is also a catalyst for the explosion of esports. Weekly stream-casts, or telecasts distributed via the internet, feature ESPN quality commentary, analysis, and play by play casting of professional events to well over 200,000 viewers a day. Leagues have developed at the high school and college level, with national winners earnings hundreds of thousands of dollars in college scholarships and prizes. Last summer’s world championship attracted teams from China, Southeast Asia, Korea, the US, EU, South America, and Australia to compete for a whopping $3 million in prize money in front of 2 million online viewers at a sold out Staples Center in LA. Teams are composed of professionals who practice all day, and hire analysts, trainers, and coaches to manage their daily lives. HBO featured these teams on Real Sports with Bryant Gumble, and the US has issued visas to foreign players hoping to join American based teams, much the way Major League Baseball imports talent from Cuba and Japan. There is also a secondary market of streamers who show off their skills online training newer players, offering events, and other entertainment, commanding almost 500,000 viewers at any one time.
Beyond the professional scene, LoL has many interesting dimensions. It is a team game, so the creators make a strong plea for teamwork, and feature particularly effective plays (or “Ohhhhhh the plays!!”) in monthly YouTube videos. As one might expect with people congregating from all parts of the internet and competing in teams, tempers tend to run hot. To dissuade “flaming” or “raging,” the creators set up a system of justice where players in good standing review player reports and determine whether or not the account of the accused should be banned for a period of time. There is also an extensive back story or lore, which has no bearing on the mechanics of the game, but which many players read and contribute to for enjoyment.
Many of these aspects are discussed in depth across the web, so I’d like to focus some attention on the philosophical aspects both in game and in relation to the world. I think LoL presents a compelling world-view for the future of humanity and the structure of society. Players experience different modes of being, perhaps otherwise inaccessible in the real world for any number of reasons. That is, contrary to many worries about the insulation created by video games, LoL offers its players an experience of the world inaccessible to those who remain with their noses in textbooks, marauding on athletic fields, or listening to lectures. Exactly what that experience is requires much more research.
League of Legends is a video game played on a computer, rather than a game console such as Xbox or Playstation. It is free to download and use, but does require an internet connection. In terms of genre, such as racing games, puzzle games, or fighting games, it falls under a category, perhaps unfamiliar to the uninitiated, called MOBA, or multiplayer online battle arena. Rather than having players solve puzzles, complete a course, or defeat enemies, LoL pits teams of human players against each other. There are several game modes, but the most popular, and the one used in professional settings is 5v5 and the goal is to destroy the other team’s Nexus, or main structure. A slew of turrets guard the nexus, so teams must work together strategically to destroy the turrets to access the Nexus. I like to think of the game as like basketball, which asks players to work together strategically to put the ball through the hoop. Teams devise a variety of strategies and require extensive real time communication and decision making to set up favorable mismatches and achieve objectives. The first team to destroy the Nexus wins, and in many cases no matter how one sided the match is, either team could win or lose (called a “throw”) with a single brilliant or devastatingly bad decision, much like allowing LeBron to hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Just as basketball teams try to create different compositions of players, some fast and small others tall and strong, some who specialize at rebounding, and others at hitting 3s, LoL teams are composed from a pool of over 100 different champions, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. Generally, there are tank champions, who can take a lot of damage, but do little damage; carry champions who do lots of damage, but are “squishy” or are easily killed; and support champions who offer a variety of utility features such as speed boosts, healing abilities, or crowd control spells which slow or stun the opposing team. There are many ways to combine these kinds of champions, and teams are constantly working to develop more powerful, or “OP” compositions that exploit the weaknesses of the other team’s ideas. Now, throughout the game players earn gold based on how many objectives they complete, and they can use that gold to buy items that enhance the champions’ abilities. Interestingly, the developers of LoL have taken special care to design champions and items so that any champion could play any of these roles, which adds an even deeper level of complexity to the game and provides countless opportunities for creative teams to develop new and perhaps idiosyncratic OP compositions.
All of this happens, of course, before a match even begins! Matches themselves take about 30-40 minutes, about as long as a pick up basketball game. While the goal is to destroy the Nexus, teams need to gain experience by completing objectives such as destroying turrets. The more experience a team earns, the faster they can buy items, and “out scale” the other team in terms of damage and tankiness. Players can log in together as a team on the 5v5 team queue and wait to be matched up against another 5v5 team of comparable quality (which is determined by the same algorithm to rank chess players, commonly referred to as ELO), or they can play solo queue and be paired with 4 random players of equal ability to compete against 5 other players, again according to ELO. Rising to the top of the solo queue ELO is quite an accomplishment, as it means you are able to successfully win matches with any group of teammates, not only those whose playing style you’re familiar with.
The actual mechanics of playing the game are fairly basic. Right click to move and select an enemy to attack, and QWER on the keyboard to activate abilities. With enough practice individual gamers can develop extensive expertise at using abilities and moving the champion around the map with astounding efficiency and accuracy. Especially chaotic and difficult are team fights, where all ten players group in a small area and attack each other. Only the most accomplished players are able to cause significant damage, survive, and control the flow of the fight. As you may imagine, teams try to prioritize killing the squishy damage dealers before the low damage tanks, just as any basketball team would prioritize shutting down LeBron James.
The unbelievable success of this medium has the potential to change the way we think about sports, competition, talent, video games, youth development, and much more. There is no question, however, that competitive video gaming is here. It’s growing rapidly, and will affect the world in one way or another. Our job is to ensure that impact is positive, and I think the best way we can do that is to learn as much as we can about this movement. We need to understand that kids will play these technologically, financially, and intellectually accessible games one way or another.
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Coakley, J. (2001). Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies. New York: McGraw Hill.
McCutcheon, C. (2007) “Sport Philosophy: An Introduction”, presentation cited from https://www.academia.edu/1671839/Sport_Philosophy_An_Introduction
Suits, B. (1978). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. London: University of Toronto Press.