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Keith Strudler: The Reality of Esports

This is really a story within a story probably within another story. Which is not uncommon, even if it is hard to fit in the narrative of a relatively short broadcast, much less a news story. It’s also probably largely unfamiliar to most listeners, assuming most of you aren’t hard core video gamers. For the record, I’m not, and I’d still rather play pinball than on an Xbox.

So perhaps the unfortunate story about a shooting in Jacksonville last week at a video game tournament seemed a bit unfamiliar to a lot of you. And for those who haven’t heard the story, in brief, there was a large video game tournament in Jacksonville where competitors played a football simulation game called Madden NFL 19, the latest installment of the popular game where gamers play one another in video football that looks remarkably real. These tournaments are not insignificant and can bring hundreds of competitors from around to the world to compete for large sums of cash. And it might be watched by millions of people, especially on Twitch, a streaming platform for video game broadcasts, among other things. And yes, I know that sounds hard to believe – millions of people watching other people play video games for lots and lots of money. It’s called esports. And it’s how I know I’m getting old.

During the event, David Katz, a competitor who lost earlier in the tournament, came into the restaurant where the tournament was and began shooting a real gun. Nine were injured by gun shot, and three were killed, including Katz who took his own life. The two victims were accomplished gamers, one of whom had won nearly $100,000 in his gaming career, if you will. Katz himself was very good, having previously won a national Madden tournament. So whether this shooting was retribution or frustration from being eliminated in a qualifying event, I can’t say. But regardless, David Katz was not a stranger to the sport. In contrast, he was a kind of a star.

Now, there is a whole lot going on here, which makes explaining anything with any clarity nearly impossible. Of course, this shooting is yet another argument in the ongoing gun debate. Katz had a history of mental illness and still found a way to acquire deadly firearms. So before the smoke cleared, lobbyists and politicians had statements and soapboxes. And to be clear, this wasn’t even the only shooting last week at a Jacksonville sporting event, using the term loosely. On Friday, a high school football player was shot and killed outside the stadium, which authorities have linked to gang activity. So there’s that.

But there’s another story here. For many of us, this is an inaugural exposure to a world we know very little about. A world where scores of largely young folks sit in relatively solitary thought to play fake sports against someone else. There’s no physical interaction, limited human connection, and, unlike actual sports, impacts are entirely virtual. Meaning that when something happens on a screen, it’s simply a series of 1’s and 0’s, not a compost of blood, sweat, and tears – and excuse the cliché. A world where the line between what’s real and what’s not is seemingly up for debate, which I suppose is the case for all things virtual.

Obviously, there’s plenty of research on the effects of video games – particularly violent ones. But what’s the impact of trading sport as we used to know it for esport? What does it mean when kids trade soccer cleats and basketballs for joysticks and game controllers – and I know I’m dating myself. What might be the impact of creating competitions through an activity that by definition encourages anti-social behavior – and calling it sport, at least by the growing number of universities that are fielding varsity teams in the emerging activity? That, from my perspective and the perspective that still believes that sport is a valuable part of the human experience, that is the story within the story.

Did David Katz shoot and kill two people because he played video games? Not only does that seem naïve to suggest, but it’s also far beyond my area of expertise. But should we at least look at the massive enterprise of esports and what it might mean for human interaction – violent and otherwise? I think that’s worthwhile, especially considering most of the growth of this sport has come at the hands of industry, not coaches or educators.

Then again, I may not be the best authority on any of this. When it comes to video games and esports, I think I’ll stick to pinball.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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