• Of Meaning and Passion… and Potentially Some Audience Engagement

Of Meaning and Passion… and Potentially Some Audience Engagement

What does it mean to be passionate about games? What is the basic fuel that makes the esports world go round? If we briefly turn away from more obvious social and economic characteristics of gaming, what remains? What deeper characteristics of games need to be internalised by businesses – and maybe even the general public – before esports can be effectively utilised for business purposes?

B2C used to be mostly about physical products, after which came the slow shift towards service economy. Circular, knowledge and experience economies have all had their limelight, a progress which has finally resulted in moving towards something that can be called meaning economy. While still coexistent, every new wave seems to come about notably faster than the ones before. The relevanceof conveying meaning to the customer is forcibly reshaping current business models and yet again, we can soon expect this cycle to be overshadowed by an additional layer of business logics. With the rise of esports, perhaps we are witnessing some of the first steps towards passion economy.


The hype of global proportions regarding esports does not necessarily have to imply a bubble destined to burst, but untapped potential stemming from the passion of millions. The era of closet gaming has come to an end, the stigma is gone, the shame evaporated. Riding the exponentially developing information technology, esports is one of the few novel human activities that can come even close to producing comparable growth figures. The timing is not a coincidence – gaming feeds directly into the evolution of meaning economy. Homo ludens, the playing human, is making waves.


The prediction here is that B2C will revolve more and more strongly around meaning and passion, both of which can be easily traced back to the rise of esports. Typically for the former, a cause-effect chain following narrative logic is required; optimally for the latter, a source and a channel for sharing the experience. Games provide ample platforms for all of the above.


On the most basic level, when it comes to games, rules limit and limits rule. Rules and limitations create invisible boundaries that isolate actual gaming elements from those that can be ignored – those cause-effect chains that do not matter in terms of winning or losing – which in turn creates opportunity for strategical action. Consider an extremely simple example, a game of Hide-and-Seek. An armchair transforms into something to hide behind for one gamer, something to look behind for another. A parent watching in the next room becomes a potential liability or whistle-blower, depending on one’s point of view. For a brief time, these experiences and interpretations – a bit silly without a gaming context – take precedence for the three people involved. When the game is up, these features of the game world melt back to being what they are in the real world. And the result: a narrative, a story, that can be told from three different perspectives, each of which holding a piece of what really happened.


These stories are woven into the fabric of any game, the stories of gamers and the audience. Games cannot escape them, gamers and the audience even less. Even when we move away from ad hoc games-for-fun towards digital games specifically designed to have real-life implications, the precedence of this rule-based meaning holds. A topical example may be in order.


Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a game that is played both for fun and professionally under the umbrella of esports. The game is fast-paced and violent, featuring terrorists vs. counter-terrorists matches to the death. On first thought, the game is unthinkable as a sport even if it is virtual, but the framework of rules and limitations in GS:GO is such that the violence does not appear as meaningful for the gamers according to the same logic as for the audience. Especially professional gamers have to concern themselves overwhelmingly with cause-effect chains and strategies, not with the apparently violent acts. This “playful” attitude does not go hand-in-hand with alarming numbness to violence – its existence is more a prerequisite for the act of gaming.


Furthermore, those audience members intimately familiar with CS:GO as a game make entirely different interpretations of the narrative unfolding before them compared to those that only see characters suffering violent deaths on screen. Here, it is especially notable that the appreciation towards any traditional sport stems from understanding its framework of rules and limitations to the point that the narrative cause-effect chains within the game can be meaningfully reflected with gamer action. Hardly anyone appreciates Football – capitalized here to put emphasis on its gameness – without knowing what an offside is or without knowing which choices and qualities on the field make Messi, Modrić or Ronaldo the best in the world.


Boxing is another easy example here – somehow it is possible to have such physical (not virtual) violence performed under Olympic rings. Again, if we disregard the obvious social and economic reasons, we see that the sport offers a platform for deep enough meanings – both in terms of stories as well as strategies – in addition to providing a channel for passion for those sufficiently into it. Weighing down the scales in favour of sport over violence, this passion is generated by all the things that make any sport popular: systemic fairness, human error, pressure, success, failure, risks, commitment, focus. Here, we find a fundamental example of hybridicity relating to audiences between traditional sports and esports, which will become more and more apparent in time as the two approach each other.


So when it comes to a kind of sports finding their feet in the thousands of years of tradition, it is perhaps necessary to point out the seemingly clear: gaming transforms meaning and to understand gaming, one has to look beyond the surface at the experiences of gamers and audiences. To be a gamer is to knowingly comply with certain limits imposed by the game and to watch someone play is to fundamentally grasp the nature of that choice. For gamers, it is less about submission than submersion – a choice to go under and embrace the immersive qualities of gaming. The point of view of the audience cannot yet be fairly described in such terms, as current technology does not enable fully immersive experiences for sport enthusiasts. Be that as it may, somewhere between gamers’ choices and audiences’ interest in their actions lay the stories that are the primordial force of games and esports fandom, the passion surrounding the industry. In plain terms, it is mostly just about really getting into it. This is where the origin of the passion lies, very much like in traditional sports. And this is probably also one of the main reasons for the last six letters in the word esports.


Following that train of thought, looking at audience engagement through the lens of meaning and passion steers us towards the need for enhancing audience experience on the event level. For reaching the elusive core audience of esports the industry itself is the key, but making good use of the potential of the current developments in meaning economy presupposes a wider approach. With esports, the question is not whether the audiences will grow in size, but how. Understanding the nature of esports is not yet common knowledge, which also means small strategic actions may have significant effects down the road. In other words, new solutions concerning both content and technology available for the audience at esports events have massive potential while the industry is growing as it is right now.


Traditional sports typically feature traditional audience engagement methods. In this case, esports could actually benefit from its lack of tradition, which otherwise hinders its development for example in regard to organizational culture. What could be done with esports with its predominantly digital operational environment would be to tap straight into the meaning-making processes of gamers and make them transparent for audiences. This would merge the stories of gamers with those of the audience, adding to the experience of both parties. Solutions like this could include storifying team strategies through data analyses, allowing audience members to follow matches on their personified map application, tailor-made AR content based on indoor positioning within esports arenas, and countless others.


What is crystal clear, though, is that the current trend of casting and commentating on events online or in physical locations via headsets in multiple languages is not going to cut it for long. The threshold of following the strategies of pro teams and actions of pro individuals in esports is remarkable, when we talk about someone else besides the core audience. When it comes to something as complex as electronic games, there cannot be passion if there is no meaning and there cannot be meaning if there is no deep understanding. Anything to lower that threshold would surely be relevant.


Anttoni Lehto

Hankeasiantuntija
Turun AMK

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