Pretty Boys and Muscle Shirts: The Group Dynamics of Professional Gaming Teams

First presented at CGSA 2016 Calgary on June 3rd 2016.

I’m going to be talking about the proliferation and boyband-ification of all-male professional gaming, or, esports teams. And in the sentiment of our keynote this week, I am not going to bother explaining why people who play video games professionally or the esports industry is worth studying.  I will be speaking not only from the research of esports scholars but also my own personal experience in the esports industry as a player.

Firstly, I’d like to make it clear that there is a huge challenge when discussing esports teams when thinking about what we consider to be an “average” or “textbook” example what an esports team looks or behaves like. While there can be some generalizations that can be made about particular scenes based on genre, teams and even more so, individual players are surprisingly diverse (minus gender of course).

And you can see with these select examples different teams from around the world are marketed different based not only on region but based on game played making it difficult  and indeed complicated when trying to talk about the industry in general. Consider the stark contrast between Cloud9’s Counter Strike: GO team on the top left and South Korea’s Air Force ACE Starcraft team, also the first military pro-gaming team.

But one of the major elements that remains consistent with these teams is the duality between professional gamer and entertainer and/or marketing. I’d like share a quote by Wouter Slejffers CEO of Fnatic one Europe’s most popular multi-game esport teams. He discussed in recent webinar about esport events and team marketing that, “There is this element of a boy band. They are more individuals. They work together, live together, travel together”. These are often the primary operations for major teams who operate within a gaming house and indeed in the boyband mindset of those who are creating a brand for their team.

intesports

The operations of the gaming house, along with streaming are often recorded for social media where fans can get a glimpse at how the players practice and how they interact with each other when they aren’t playing. In the case of the Fnatic game house pictured in the slide this is also means the house acts as a showcase for major sponsors and brands. The team’s makeup emulates that of a boy band because they have individually created a canon that makes them marketable on their own and as a group. Each member is set up as some form of young heterosexual male ideal, giving their fans an icon to aspire to not only with skill in the game but also in appearance.

Fan studies scholar V. Arrow describes boybands as “pre-fabricated, designed to align with certain archetypes” to tap into fans hearts and wallets. This is the case for pro gamers through in-game and out of game behavior. But yet, unlike musical boy groups, these teams do not have female fans as prime consideration and indeed may even alienate them.

The proliferation of esports across a wide-range of games and genre has changed how we talk about professional gamers. The scholarship of Taylor, Jensen and DeCastell make the connection between traditional sports athletes and professional gamers stating that “The performance of pro-gamer masculinity is premised on technological mastery and on an overt (often highly manufactured) connection of ‘pro-gaming’ to the male-dominated world of professional sports” (240). But what we are seeing now are teams that are actually more diverse than many traditional sports teams both in terms of race and physicality.

T.L Taylor in Raising the Stakes talks about geek masculinity being a fluid identity that is constantly being challenged, especially with the inclusion of more diverse esports teams which include a wide range of ethnicities and in same extremely rare cases, gender presentation. If we look for example, at teams such as CLG, we can see how this team is already more diverse than any team in the NHL for example.

I think it’s important that we don’t think of these characteristics in isolation and consider how professional gaming teams are not just comprised of geeks trying to be athletes but instead, looking more to the group dynamics and marking strategies which are employed by boy bands.

One case study for examining esport team player behaviors is looking at Cloud9’s CSGO team. Cloud9 is an eSports organization that sponsors groups of players across eight of the most popular competitive games. The most unique of all the teams of Cloud9 is their Counter-Strike: GO division. What makes Cloud9 such an exceptional team in not necessarily their tournament wins or innovative playstyles, but instead how their players are marketed. The members of Cloud9’s CS:GO team represent that of a traditional hegemonic masculinity and sports masculinity that is unlike that of  the stereotypical image of the progamer: Awkward, lanky bodies, shaggy unkempt hair and pimply faces. Cloud9’s CS:GO team displays eccentric and at times, toxic elements of sports masculinity such as the emphasis on going to the gym as part of a training routine, “your mom” jokes and giving problematic advice on dating “grills”. Promoting a healthy lifestyle with a gaming career including proper exercise and diet; Cloud9 shows that “every body” can be a successful gamer. However, reinforcing sports masculinity in these spaces also reinforces many of the problems and stereotypes in traditional sports that often disparage women and other minority groups from participating in the culture.

There are five current players on the CS:GO roster, each of them exudes a different archetype of masculinity. Tyler “Skadoodle” Latham is the strong silent type, often refusing to smile or give extensive answering in interviews. Ryan fREAKAZOiD Abadir represents the most hegemonic masculinity; he is a bodybuilder who leads the other team members in his gym routine. The team’s gym routine has been sited in an interview to be the key to the team’s success in gaming. Mike “shroud” Grzesiek is somewhat of an outsider being from Canada and having experience training overseas. He is the most personable, mainly because of his dedications and success as a Twitch streamer. If anyone on the team is a self-insert, it would be him. Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert the joker and resident “mother” of the team. He is particularly known for inventing his own hype dance, “the flashbang” which has become a spectacle for in game performances and out- of game personality traits. His motherliness comes from cooking meals to take care of the other boys in their gaming house. however due to him having been just signed during the writing of this chapter, we intend to focus on now retired, Sean “sgares” Gares who is the pretty boy of the group, particularly known for giving advice on how he does he hair. There is a new member to the team Jake “Stewie2k” Yip who has recently replaced Sean Gares has caused a disruption in the team dynamic for his controversial attitudes towards the game and his lack of finely gelled hair.

Some of the player’s in-game roles are reflected in their personalities as well. For example fREAKAZOiD is what is commonly referred to as an “entry fragger” which is typically the most aggressive role in the game and the first one into the battle. Skadoodle is the “AWPer”, the personal who stands farther back from the fight for longer distance kills and sgares was the team leader who calls the plays round-by round.

Although other eSports organizations have branding and marketing strategies, Cloud9 remains distinctive for having successful teams and players with strong personalities. The Cloud9 brand has begun to develop around the lifestyle of the members of the CS:GO team despite the fact that other Cloud9 teams do not share these behaviors. For example the Cloud9 League of Legends team is often contrasted against the CS:GO in discussions of team dynamics in leisure time. They are also the only eSports organization to have tank tops as team jerseys, the outfit of choice of the bulkiest member, fREAKAZOiD.

The Cloud9 brand also permeates in the other games which they sponsor gamers for. For example Smash Bros. Melee player Joseph “Mang0” Marquez also wears the tank top which shows off his tattoo sleeve. Mang0 has a reputation for being a partier, showing up to tournaments hungover.  The eSports fan community can be drawn to those players like Mang0 who excel at competing but have a laisser faire attitude to competition and/or their opponents.The Cloud9 brand exists in-game with stickers for guns in CS:GO which are branded with the Cloud9 logo. These decorative features are accessible to anyone who plays the game and audiences can align themselves with the brand and the players personalities..

T.L Taylor states that “e-sports players are typically piecing together their careers as best they can” (132). In some cases, individual players are stifled under the weight their place on a team holder over their individual identity. Teams such as Cloud9 lets their members speak for themselves as most of the official site is dedicated to selling merchandise, news and advertising the social media of their players. None of Cloud9’s social media accounts give any detailed statements about individual players outside of new signings. One of the ways in which players often find success in personal marketing is by streaming on Twitch.tv.

Streaming on Twitch is one of the most accessible ways for fans to interact the players who create an intimate atmosphere by showcasing gameplay with a webcam and mic hookup. Often the players stream in their bedroom and talk about their personal and professional lives while playing.  Sponsored video series such as the HyperX “20 Questions” features the team answering personal and gaming related questions along with at least several questions about team dynamics and relationships, often with homerotic overtones questions such as, “Who is your favourite teammate?” and “If you could go on a date with any teammate who would it be and why?”. During n0thing’s 20 questions video, sgares comes from off camera to kiss him on the cheek after responding to the question “Who on the team are you closest with?”. During the kiss a small heart animation was added, “We have a special relationship as you can see.” In group interviews it is not unusual to see team members putting their arm around each other, touching suggestively for the viewers. These questions, some which are selected from fan submissions encourage and normalize this kind of homosocial behavior even to the point of fan response in person. According to the team members, fans respond to the queerbaiting between teammates through real life interactions at tournaments. For example, fans have been noted to ask to have their nipples signed because “[they] seem like a cool team” or several instances in which fans have asked for them to take their shirts off and give them to them. Homoerotic behaviour becomes an accepted and normalized through the team’s actions in these type of promotional videos giving fans a perceived kind of consent when acting around the team in person.

Instead, pro gamers often position themselves as role models to their fans, instilling the belief that they are just like their fans and that their fame can be attained by simply being better in the videogames which they both play. It is with these notions that pro gamers are in service of their male fans. Who are often willing to play games with their fan and give advice both gaming and non-gaming related. In some cases, some players market themselves as both a master of their game but also fitness. While some players will provide coaching services on the side for their fans, Mani does it all. Fitness and gaming coaching for your games and your gains.

manny

With other teams, the bodybuilder member of the team is contrasted with the more stereotypical gamer type, which is played for laughs at many times. These group dynamics are from predominantly Western gaming teams, from either fighting games or first person shooters, two genres which have been historically guiltier of neoliberal masculinist tendencies with their players.

muscleforjokes

Both techno masculinity and hegemonic masculinity is being enforced with these lager, bodybuilder-type players and are perceived as the “ideal” gamer who is able to be relate-able in the games in which they succeed but also as a role model, perceived to succeed in heterosexual relationships.

My experience has given me the opportunity to understand the business of the industry from both sides of the screen, observing player behaviors and interactions that aren’t captured on screen for an audience. Players have to learn to manage their personas just as much as they have to manage their gameplay and sometimes without the assistance of a coach or manager. I have seen personality’s gone unmanaged and young men and women developing a niche for themselves in the vast range of games and players. If anything, I hope this presentation broadened your idea of what being and looking like a professional gamer is and that we strive to develop new ways of talking about them culturally. And of course due to limited time, I was only really able to touch on all-male Western esports teams with so much more to say about Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese industries.

 

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One thought on “Pretty Boys and Muscle Shirts: The Group Dynamics of Professional Gaming Teams

  1. I’ve never thought about the way pro gamers look/behave, but you are right. I have noticed though the overwhelmingly masculine style of the world of e-sports. Here in Sweden a lot of people are working hard to make e-sport more approachable and more welcoming to female gamers.

    Liked by 1 person

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