Esports Is Making Progress in Changing Its Culture. Don’t Let the Jacksonville Shooting Overshadow It.

The Indonesian team competes in the eSports Round 6 Match 1 as an exhibition sport at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on Tuesday.
The Indonesian team competes in the eSports Round 6 Match 1 as an exhibition sport at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on Tuesday. Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, a 24-year-old man named David Katz opened fire on a Madden NFL 19 video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida. He killed two people and injured 11 before taking his own life. Though Madden is hardly the most violent video game franchise, critics have long accused video games of promoting aggressive behavior and antisocial tendencies. Some in the gaming community have worried that the shooting will bolster this theory, which they maintain is baseless.

For a better understanding of what this tragedy means for the esports community, Slate spoke with Nick Taylor, an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Taylor has been studying digital gaming for a decade, particularly examining its relationship with masculinity, ethnicity, and professionalism. He’s conducted research at internet cafes, fan conventions, and tournaments, and is a faculty supervisor for esports clubs.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Aaron Mak: What were your immediate reactions to the news of the shooting?

Nick Taylor: It was visceral, because as a qualitative researcher and ethnographer, my mode of studying these communities and cultures is to go to events. I felt this visceral connection and empathy and, frankly, terror for the people who were there.

Part of me was really surprised that this happened in an esports tournament. And then another, more cynical side of me said, Well, it happens in schools and churches and malls. Eventually with this wave of violence caused by easy access to guns, rash of mental illness, and ongoing associations between masculinity and violence—of course it could happen in an esports tournament. But that’s not because of anything germane and inherent to esports events themselves.

So the culture of the esports community didn’t lead to this shooting, right?

There’s nothing that inherent in an esports tournament that’s going to lead to a mass shooting, any more so that there’s something that inherent in a church or a school or any of these other places of tragic violence. You just get the feeling that with this really unfortunate and fairly preventable set of connections between masculinity and aggression and easy access to guns and untreated mental illness, that of course this is going to happen at an esports tournament, because it’s already happened in so many other places.

You study masculinity and its relationship to esports. How does masculinity manifest itself at esports events?

That’s a complex question. We like to speak of “masculinities,” plural, because any individual articulation or performance or masculine identity is going to be shot through with where that person is located in terms of class, race, sexuality, ability, age, nationality, so on and so forth. It certainly is the case that there’s a different kind of enactment, or articulation, of masculinity that accompanies Xbox gamers than there is for PC gamers in the esports scene.

I remember 10 years ago in my research, all the Xbox Halo 3 gamers describing themselves as “athletes” and “jocks,” very much dressing the part, and referring to PC gamers in a very derogatory fashion as “geeks” and “nerds.” They said [PC gamers’] skills were only as good as the computers, whereas the Halo guys thought the skill was in their bodies.

This builds on long-standing associations between masculine prowess as rooted in the body versus masculine prowess as rooted in association with technologies. A real shorthand for this is “jock vs. geek,” which I think is getting really complicated and confusing in esports. There’s also definitely competitive games like Overwatch or League of Legends that have different connotations of masculinity than Madden or fighting games.

What sort of rituals and protocols have formed around trash talking?

It really depends on the event, the platform, the game, the culture and community, and on the venue. It’s funny now to see contemporary esports matches, for instance in CS:GO [Counter-Strike: Global Offensive] or League of Legends, where the physical interaction between opponents is so minimal that it’s really reduced to shaking hands after a match in front of a crowd. So there’s really no opportunity. You might type trash talk, but that’s going to take away from the ability of your hands to do other things. So in some instances, with the rarified professional world of esports, opportunities for direct contact—even if it’s verbal contact—between competitors is minimized now.

But at the other end of the spectrum is the localized amateur esports tournaments that you saw in Jacksonville, that you see all over North America, Europe, South Korea, China, Brazil. These are just local organizations, maybe as part of a national infrastructure, hosting video game tournaments and getting a bunch of guys out and throwing it on Twitch. There, the rules are a little more open. I do know in terms of trash talking specifically, in some esports organizations and esports tournaments it’s outright banned.

Are there any theories explaining why esports communities have traditionally been so male-dominated?

There are multiple histories, one of which is athletics, which esports borrows from pretty deliberately. Competitive professional athletics arguably started off as a re-entrenchment of male privilege back in the mid-19th century. To this day, we know that any kind of realm of professional athletics, particularly those that attract the big bucks, are conventionally male-dominated—with some really important caveats.

The long-standing cultural, technological association between boys and young men and games is another reason. We expect boys becoming men to engage in some kind of competitive and occasionally antagonistic pursuit.

I still remember a line from my dissertation. When I asked a young man about why there were not a lot of women in the Halo 3 scene, he said that women lack the testosterone to compete in esports. I thought, “Wow, that’s a doozy!” It couldn’t be because when you attended their practices, every five minutes someone was yelling “rape.” Or because the two or three women who did try to go repeatedly were constantly hit on. It was because “they lacked the testosterone.” At the same time that the guys in the scene were performing these exclusionary tactics to make sure that women were not welcome, they then turn around and say that it was because of biological reasons. It’s a classic move.

Has the growing popularity of esports and the larger amounts of money involved in winning tournaments affected how this aggression and masculinity plays out?

Absolutely. I want to mention the AnyKey initiative. As esports has gained visibility and popularity, AnyKey is one of these organizations that’s really plugging for greater attention to issues of equity, issues of inclusivity, and along with that shining a light on some of the more toxic practices that are associated with a lot of grass-roots esports communities, the kinds described earlier where women and sexual minorities and other minorities are very deliberately kept out through all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle forms of othering and harassment.

And generally from within esports, we’re seeing more and more emphasis on competitors presenting a professional look. However honed and marketed that is, there is an element there that professionalism carries with it a responsibility to act tactfully or in a vestige of good sportsmanship toward your competitors and teammates. If you can think of the aspiring esports player as a kind of athlete who is also an entrepreneur: Cultivating a good image is part of that. No one wants to bring a toxic person onto their team unless they’re incredibly good. And even then, their behavior is going to be highly visible and problematized.

Can esports be an outlet to sort out some of this aggression?

I want to be careful not to posit that aggression is a natural part of the male psyche or anything, rather than to say that a lot of us have aggression that we need to work out, whether it’s going to yoga or going to CrossFit or playing a game. For a lot of esports athletes, it fills that bubble. In some rare instances, like in the notoriously-salty League of Legends community, you can have spikes in aggression following a match because the player base can be really toxic. But I think for the majority of players, particularly at higher levels, esports is a way of working through aggression and turning it into something productive for a critical competitive edge.

That’s certainly the case for all the players I’ve spent time with as a faculty supervisor [for an esports team]. Esports is not only helping them channel their aggression, but also helping them become better communicators, become better team players, become more organized in their lives—because in order to be a collegiate esports player, you have to be hyper-organized with your time. It’s helped boost their self-esteem because now the thing they’re good at has cultural status and legitimacy associated with it.

My worry is that the automatic response that we get from some media outlets is that of course this [shooting] is going to happen because games are violent. I hope that doesn’t diminish the good that accompanies esports, like camaraderie and a sense of belonging.