On November 10, 2019, after a dizzying, month-long journey across five continents, thousands of competitors and their fans converged in Paris for a sporting event quite unlike any other. This tournament, featuring playing video games competitively for a prize pool of $1.1 million, was the 2019 League of Legends World Championship.
The League of Legends championship is one example of competitive video gaming, or “Esports.” It represents a form of entertainment in which players train year-round to qualify for major tournaments around the world. Prizes are lucrative—as high as $24 million—and highly coveted sponsorships are also in play. For many, the thought of competitive gaming may be strange and even laughable. After all, it was not so long ago that video games consisted of a ball being batted between paddles in the classic game Pong, or in the barely sophisticated platform jumping featured in Nintendo’s original blockbuster title, Super Mario Bros.
Yet, to casually dismiss modern games as mere amusement or as a passing fad is a mistake. If we do so, we risk overlooking contemporary dangers against which the church must speak as well as possible new ways that God may be at work in the world.
For those unfamiliar with Esports in general, competitive gaming represents a fast-growing entertainment industry. In 2019 alone, it generated nearly $1 billion in revenue1 and handed out almost $211 million in prize money.2 It represents a growing and influential sector within the larger $120 billion video game industry that serves 2.6 billion players.3 Recently, as the popularity of Esports has grown among the 25 to 34-year-old demographic, viewership for top events has begun to draw upwards of 100 million viewers.4 This places it behind global powerhouses such as NFL Football or Euro Soccer but also in front of longtime sport stalwarts such as the MLB or the NBA.5
Historically speaking, the topic of video games has elicited a wide spectrum of responses from the Christian community. On one hand, many Christians view video games as sources of unquestionable goods: community, compelling play, and digital spaces that subvert unjust structures and narratives. On the other hand, the lingering image of the lazy gamer on the couch as well as the persistent links between video games, delinquency, and youth violence understandably gives many Christians pause.
The divergence in attitude towards video games raises an important question: how ought we practically examine and discuss video games in general, or Esports in particular, in a way that takes them seriously on their own terms but also examines them in the light of Christ?
As a scholar in search of tools for understanding games and gamers, I have found the voice of Al Wolters to be extremely helpful. In his book, Creation Regained, Wolters asserts that every created thing, including cultural goods, operate under the curse of sin, and that they all long for redemption through Christ.6 Through this lens of creation, fall, and redemption, Wolters notes that human activities possess a fundamentally good structure or creational design that makes them what they are, and a direction or spiritual orientation that is either turned towards God or away from him. Our responsibility as Christians is to examine cultural activities such as video gaming in order to: 1) clearly understand each activity on its own terms and be able to articulate what it is; and 2) submit that activity to Christ’s lordship.
Applying this to Esports, we can understand it as a unique unfolding of the cultural mandate that includes multiple aspects which support human flourishing: creativity, digital and technological innovation, coding, problem solving, community, and healthy competition. Indeed, one aspect that we should applaud is the way that these games have provided entry points for players with disabilities.
Take, for example, one particularly inspiring story involving a man named Mike “Brolylegs” Begum. Begum was born with Arthrogryposis and Scoliosis, degenerative diseases that severely stunted the growth of his limbs. However, over time and with his brother’s help, Begum learned to play video games using his wrist to hold the controller and his face and mouth to press buttons. Using this unique method of play, Begum has become a master of a combat game called Street Fighter V and placed well at the largest fighting tournament in the world,EVO 2017.
When asked about his disabilities, Begum responded by saying “Esports has given me the opportunity to be a competitor; something I enjoy watching others be.” He added “I wake up with a smile every day because of where my video game career has taken me and the journey I have been on.” For many players with disabilities, the chance to participate in competition and to participate with other contestants is genuinely meaningful and allows them to flourish in a way that traditional sports and activities sometimes cannot.
And yet, we must also acknowledge that Esports—like other sports—often exhibits behaviors and perpetuates structures that actively rebel against God’s reign. For example, corporations responsible for creating games used for Esports and team sponsors often create professional policies that dangerously monetize players in such a way that completely ignores concerns for their overall well-being.
One example of this is South Korea. As an influential center of Esports, South Korean Esports has earned a reputation for pressuring pro players to practice up to 80 hours per week, spend significant time promoting themselves and their teams via social media, and allow themselves to be subjected to rigorous and harmful forms of enforced isolation. Due to such extreme conditions, professional careers rarely exceed three years. Burnout and other forms of mental and physical health issues, such as carpal tunnel and arthritis, are also common among players.
Therefore, in light of what has been said, it is important to consider what it looks like to pursue Esports in a distinctively Christian way. An impressive example of this is Mark Stockhoff and his non-profit organization eConnXn. EConnXn seeks to provide safe spaces for gamers. It is intensely focused on “loving the gamer” as well as bringing elements of sportsmanship and kindness to the online gaming and streaming community at large based on the example of Jesus’ love.
Stockholm has recently opened his organization as a full-fledged ministry network with streaming, podcasts, and other content. He and his business partner, Peter Zinn, work closely with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and have even had youth groups use some of their servers to game and hold youth group meetings.
Examples such as eConnXn, Mike Begum, and the often troubling features of professional play remind us of Wolters’ insistence that any created good, including Esports, is still very much God’s space, and that it currently lies heavily under the curse of sin. However, despite its complicated nature, it is a place that can be redeemed and made to shine with its own inner beauty and as a testament to God’s glory and grace.
Russ, H. “Global Esports Revenues to Top $1 Billion in 2019: Report,” February 12, 2019. Accessed September 11, 2020. ↩
Webb, K. “The $120 billion Gaming Industry is Going Through More Change Than it Ever Has Before, and Everyone is Trying to Cash In,” October 1, 20119. Accessed September 11, 2020. ↩
Webb, K. “More Than 100 Million People Watched the ‘League of Legends’ World Championship, Cementing its Place as the Most Popular Esport,” December 18, 2019. Accessed September 11, 2020. ↩
Syracuse University. “With Viewership and Revenue Booming, Esports Set to Compete with Traditional Sports.” Accessed September 11, 2020. ↩
Wolters, A. (2005). Creation Regained. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 87. ↩