OPINION: The pitfalls to avoid in eSports documentaries

With the rising cultural phenomenon eSports has become, it’s no wonder there is a rush to explain its many (many) facets to the confused uninitiated.

The complex world of competitive gaming is hard enough to keep track of when already inside its mile-high walls, so the intention to produce documentaries peeking over the barricades is a noble one. Valve’s effort last year – Free To Play – to accompany their record-holding Dota 2 championship The International 4, was a glimpse into the human side of an industry dominated by huge numbers and massive online personalities.

ESL’s upcoming documentary, "ALL WORK ALL PLAY" from acclaimed film-maker Patrick Creadon, claims to investigate the planning and production behind major eSports tournaments.The most recent release, VICE’s simply-titled eSPORTS, focuses more on the spectacle of the show.

Spectacle is another fundamental aspect of eSports, and the most apparent one to outsiders, but serves as a distraction to the underlying stories of the industry. The size of the stadiums, the amount of money, the side-attractions common at eSports events (cosplay competitions, swag, etc) are all given their screen time, but at the cost of a deeper insight.

Some of which, itself, says a good deal about the industry as a whole. VICE host, Matt Shea, spoke before a Shoreditch screening of the documentary last night of the difficulties in contacting eSports players.

"Penetrating eSports is as difficult as getting through to Obama or ISIS," he said. While empathising with his plight, getting camera time with players like Cloud9’s League of Legends captain, Hai Lam, is always going to require more than saying hey to him in a crowd. By Shea’s own admittance, these people are superstars, and Lady Gaga doesn’t do interviews in her seat at the Grammies. Press access is tightly controlled in eSports.

It’s not unheard of for VICE to deliver the sort of alternative coverage outside of official channels that provides invaluable knowledge in complex areas. Simon Ostrovsky’s dispatches from the Crimean conflict in Ukraine’s contested Donetsk region are some of the finest video journalism of our age. Admittedly, the circumstances of negotiating a nebulous warzone are difficult to reconcile with the challenges of untangling the sometimes bureaucratic nature of eSports, but there’s an in-house precedent for good reportage.

That said, eSPORTS is a very VICE affair. A dig into the 24-hour PC Bang (PC Cafe) culture of South Korea gives some interesting insights into how young Koreans are initiated into eSports, how it achieved its status in society and the ways college students are getting involved in the industry outside of playing.

But it is all too quickly sidelined in favour of that VICE tradition of drink-fuelled club montages. The doc might have found a more natural title in the classic house style of "We Got Some Korean eSports Nerds Drunk And Took Them To A Nightclub". Which genuinely happens on-screen.

Outside of the tangential forays into cosplay and talking toOlajide "KSI" Olatunji – presumably because he has a lot of money and plays FIFA – there are hints of stories worth introducing eSports newbies to. A heartfelt interview with Cheon "Promise" Min Ki on his attempted suicide last year following a LoL matchfixing scandal highlights the extreme pressures players are under, and the need for support from their managers or fellow players to avoid being exploited.

As a beginner’s guide, the demographic VICE was presumably aiming for, pointing at the lows of eSports is just as important as championing the highs. That the fireworks of the League of Legends World Championships should feature in the same act as the testimony from a suicidal ex-player is meritorious.

But to gloss over the role of women in eSports and continue to refer to gamers as teens in bedrooms, along with almost every other stereotype you can imagine for nerd culture, is disingenuous. Especially given the doc’s closing statements of eSports as mainstream entertainment and current, outstanding VICE UK output, such as an in-depth feature by Julia Hardy on the issues facing women in the industry.

For documentarians looking to cover eSports (or any subject matter at all) an appreciation for the culture, if not an understanding of the subject matter, is a solid base to work from. Too often, mainstream media coverage of the industry defaults to the incredulous "gamers can earn money?!" narrative and then struggles to flip-flop between this and an unshakeable feeling that they may be missing something big.

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