by: Rick Yun
The competitive gaming industry, also known as eSports has been on the rise; it is worth between one and a half billion dollars and the revenue is coming from both advertising, sale premium and subscription to broadcasting platforms such as Twitch.tv and MLG.tv (Taylor, 2015). In Korea, it is taken one step further, two cable television channels –Ongamenet and MBC Game— fully dedicate their channels to broadcasting competitive eSports games. eSports athletes in many parts of countries are seen as celebrities, heavily commodified, supported by major corporate sponsorship and with a loyal fan base as well (Jin, 2010); just like regular superstar athletes like Lebron James. eSports competitions have been hosted in plethora of stadiums, anywhere from Asia, Europe, North America, Australia, and South America. So, what does this mean for eSports in the future? We, as consumers of eSports have to start looking at things with a critical lens. In Korea, the Korea e-Sports Association also known as (KeSPA) is an association established to manage eSports in Korea, having complete control and is often tied closely towards the Korean government (Jin, 2010). There is a huge potential for soft power in the realm of eSports as well as a global power shifts; but why should the consumers care you may ask? Well it is no secret that traditional sport is political, and eSports is no different, and by looking at it with a critical lens, we, the consumers can finally see how political economy plays in the realm of eSports and perhaps even in traditional sports.
Dickens in “The Centre of Gravity Shifts: Transforming the Geographies of the Global Economy” asks the reader to understand the meaning of “always in the state of becoming,” which is understood as cogs constantly moving and the meaning of never rested, where workers are always working. Dickens states that at that time, China is what makes the cogs run, that they are the center, the gravitational center, comparable to the sun in the case of global economy, that they shape the world’s economy (Dickens, 2015).
Dickens traces the historical development of global capitalism through the eve of second world war, where a snapshot of economic situations are reveals a simplistic division of global labour between core sites of production and peripheral regions that act as source of raw materials and foodstuff — as well as the market for commodities exported from the core (Dickens 2015). Wallerstein in his world-systems theory proposes four different categories, core, semi-periphery, periphery, and external. Core refers to regions that benefited most from capitalist world economy. Politically, the states within this part of Europe developed strong central government, extensive bureaucracies, and large mercenary armies. The periphery are areas that lacked strong central governments or controlled by other states, exported raw materials to the core, and relied on coercive labour practices. The core expropriated much of the capital surplus generated by the periphery through unequal trade relations. The semi-periphery are areas represented by either core regions in decline or peripheries attempting to improve their relative position in the world economics. They also serve as buffers between core and peripheries. According to Wallerstein, they have been exploited by the core. Finally, the externals are areas that maintain their own economic system and, for the most part, managed to remain outside the modern world economy (Wallerstein, 1974).
So, what is soft power? Joseph Nye in his article, “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power” defines it as the ability to affect others to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than coercion or payment. Nye then further incorporates soft power into a country stating that a country’s soft power rests on its resources of cultures, values, and policies; that a smart power strategy combines hard and soft power to produce smart power; with hard power being defined as military power (Nye, 2008).
Nissim Otmazgin’s book “Geopolitics and Soft Power: Japan’s Cultural Policy and Cultural Diplomacy in Asia” retells the story of how Japan went through significant change from their empire-building period to its post-war cultural policy. Most importantly, how during the post-war and the 1990s the cultural policy changed into their favour (Otmazgin, 2012). Cultural policy which is defined as the government actions, laws and programs that regulate, protect, encourage and financially support activities. In this period, the 1990s, cultural policy became increasingly directed towards economic and diplomatic purposes under phrases such as “cool Japan” and “soft power” which was designed to produce more export-orientated cultural commodities such as anime, video games, and popular music across Japan. What does this mean in the realm of eSports?
Well, the Chinese government has spent billions in recent years to wield soft power beyond its borders and is on the verge of becoming one of the most valuable cultural exports (Minter, 2016). This is China’s attempt to broaden its geopolitics limits and spread itself towards the globe, making itself more attractive by using soft power. China and much like Korea, understands that eSports is going to be successful, which to them makes sense to invest heavily in. But why China? Well, ever since the Xi Jingping got elected into presidency, he has been trying to make, well, China great again. Like the “One Belt One Road Initiative”, China is trying to become a global powerhouse (Johnson, 2017). China is also by far the strongest country that can possibly bring a threat to the core countries (Dickens, 2015).
For core countries this might be a problem, currently, the reason why the core countries are at the core is because of the past wars or smart moves that they have made that lead up to it now. But since China is now taking the initiative to become a core this proses threats for others. Countries such as the United States have taken the initiative on the potential of soft power in eSports and now recognize eSport players as professional athletes (Tassi, 2013). The west is slow to react to these new phenomenas so in their perspective, they need to catch up to the eastern part of the world where there have been several tournaments and events that have already been happening. However, the one thing that the west has over the east is that the games that are currently popular amongst the eSports community is mostly made from western companies (Bradshaw, 2017). This means that they have the most control in terms of where they want to set the stadiums in, to make it accessible to whomever, and to have pretty much complete control of it. So what does this mean? This means that once the government puts a control on eSports it could even become political.
According to a report by Pietra Van Den Heuvel, 22% of young male adults –within the ages of 21-35— in the United States consume eSports, which is just as much as hockey and baseball. In the same report, Heuvel states that 76% of eSports enthusiasts say that their eSports viewership is taking away hours they used to spend watching sports and that there are six million eSports fans (of twenty million in total) in the United States that do not consume any sports at all (Heuvel, 2016). There are plenty of people, especially the younger generation to market from and eSports help reach that unreachable who currently do not consume traditional media. If China were to become the main cultural export of eSports, that would help china become a core country rather than a semi-periphery which is what all countries currently strive for.
There is not that much of a difference between eSports and traditional sports in terms of operations. As Corrigan would say, the spectacle is used as a way to cope with reality, escapism while building social capital (Corrigan, 2014). Corrigan debates in his paper as well that media companies and sports entities face a challenging dilemma, that in order to maximize profits, it requires a degree of corporate control and coordination in production, distribution, and consumption (Corrigan, 2014). However, the difference between eSports and sports is that eSports is further invested into the Internet than traditional sports. This is perhaps where we witness a digital divide between classes just like how there are clear distinction in class between people who attend traditional sports games and people who browse through a box. It is also no surprise that the Internet has already been heavily commodified, and this spectacle is no different as well, engulfed in a culture that encourages consumption (Friedman, 2011).
So, back to soft power, what does this have to do with eSports? Unlike the Olympics, every country would like to host a big eSports event because they are able to gain soft power, a form of power that attracts and by making each of their countries look more appealing, it generates not just more money, but their lifestyle, which is the most important factor.
The global powershifts theory and narrative explains how different countries in the world systems change their position in the hierarchy of the world system, and how that changes the entire geography of global productions and political power and influence of those countries in global policy and decision making. Soft power from Joseph Nye was able to explain the ability to attract through resources such as cultural and policies.
To people who are consuming eSports, it may seem like a hobby that is finally generating some sort of steam into mainstream media. However, eSports in a broader global scale, is a symbol, a symbol for clout. By being the central gravitational pull of the world economy, China has a lot of economic resources, so they are heavily investing into eSports because they want to obtain soft powers because it is something they lack. The power of soft power is explained and is also a key reason to why the United States was able to come out ahead during the Cold War according to Nye. China also have enough resources to take the gamble on eSports. However, this does not mean that it is not wrong to cheer on for a different region of team but, next time, think about how eSports is political. This is only one of the many ways that eSports is political.
Bradshaw, T. (2017). Esports: Is the Gaming Business Ready to Come of Age? Financial Times. Rerieved April 6, 2018 from: https://www.ft.com/content/ef8539b6-be2a-11e7-9836-b25f8adaa111
Corrigan, T. F. (2014). The Political Economy of Sports and New Media. In A.C. Billings & M. Hardin (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media (pp.43-54). New York: Routledge.
Dicken, P. (2015). The centre of gravity shifts: Transforming the geographies of the global economy. In Dicken, P., Global shift: Mapping the changing contours of the world economy (7th ed.). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.
Friedman, M.T. & Andrews, D.L. (2010). The built sport spectacle and the opacity of democracy. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 46(2), 181-204.
Heuvel, P. (2016). US male millennials view as much eSports as they do baseball or hockey (report). Newzoo. Retrieved April 5, 2018, from https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/why-brands-and-esports-are-entering-esports/
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Johnson, I. (2017). Xi Jingping and China’s New Era of Glory. The New York Times. Retrieved April 5, 2018 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/sunday-review/xi-jinping-china.html
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Tassi, P. (2013). The U.S Now Recognizes eSports Players As Professional Athletes. Forbes. Retrvied April 5, 2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2013/07/14/the-u-s-now-recognizes-esports-players-as-professional-athletes/#1a163f0c3ac9
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Wallerstein, I, (1974). The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Country. New York: Academic Press. Retrieved April 5, 2018 from http://www.sociosite.net/sociologists/texts/wallerstein_summary.php