game over?

the plight of esports at brown

Did you ever play Super Smash Bros. Melee as a kid? You know, that game where you controlled Nintendo’s most iconic characters (and a couple random ones—“Who the heck is Marth?” my prepubescent self often wondered) in a brutal battle to the death. It was that game where Princess Peach could smack Kirby with a frying pan, that game where Yoshi could excrete an eggified Link off of Pokémon Stadium, that game where your friend annoyed everyone by spamming Pikachu’s Down-B. Nostalgia warning: That game came out 14 years ago, centuries in video game time. Two sequels have been made since, for the Wii and for the Wii U/3DS. Melee was released for the Gamecube, arguably Nintendo’s least lucrative console, and the game’s long been out of print. Discontinued and replaced, despite being beloved by many people, Melee has become a relic of the past.

Except not really. Despite the odds, Melee has remained popular over the decade, and the game has even seen a recent surge in popularity. This is due completely to its presence in the esports community, as Melee tournaments are constantly growing in numbers of attendees and in prize money. At the Evo Championship Series just this year in Las Vegas, Adam “Armada” Lindgren beat out 3,283 other players to win first place, taking home a clean $11,214.

That’s miniscule compared to other tournaments, however. At The International, a tournament held in Seattle this summer, 10 professional teams of video game players competed for six whole days. The game was Dota (Defense of the Ancients) 2, a free-to-play computer game with millions of active players. And the prize for first place? Over $6 million out of an $18 million prize pool, an unprecedented amount in esports history.

I say history facetiously, because the esports industry remains in its infant stage. But based on the numbers, the beast is still gargantuan. League of Legends, for instance, boasts 27 million daily players and 67 million monthly, according to a Forbes article from last year. Other games, such as Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, and Smite, are popular amongst casual and competitive minds alike, and multi-million dollar tournaments have been carried out for all of them.

You would be forgiven for not noticing the cataclysmic rise of esports, because the scene here at Brown is virtually nonexistent. This is unusual. Most colleges have an established video game club, and indeed quick Google searches reveal esports clubs for every other Ivy League school. Many even have multiple groups for multiple games—a Dota club, a Smash Bros. club, a League of Legends club, so on and so forth. But not Brown. This is puzzling—after all, people do play video games here, and many do so with competitive aspirations.

Our lack of an esports scene is not because of an uninterested student body, but rather of an administration strangely resistant to the idea of an official video game club. Last semester, a group of students attempted to start a Dota club. They were rejected, and the committee suggested they reach out to the Fantasy Gaming Society club to join forces. This sounds fine and lovely, except that the Society focuses on board and card games, not video games, and is largely geared towards casual gatherings, not competitive. The Society also appears to be inactive.

The Dota club’s subsequent appeal was also rejected. “What annoyed me is that when we explained the differences, and how the differences mean a lot to people, we were treated dismissively,” said Nicholas Quah ‘18, who has been playing Dota since 2004. “I felt like there was no attempt to logically understand what it’s really about.” He listed several reasons why having an official club would aid the scene, such as through benefits in recruitment and event coordination. His final point was more symbolic: Quah and others plan to participate in an intercollegiate Dota tournament, CSL, to represent Brown, and he said they would appreciate official recognition from the University. “It’s odd to compete in Brown’s name while being completely ignored by Brown,” he said.

Other esports-based club applications were submitted last year, all meeting the same fate. Will Dawson ‘18 was rejected from starting a Super Smash Bros. Melee club on campus twice. “They seemed very reluctant to allow a video game club to be created,” he said. “After we answered all of their questions, they said they didn’t see why this club needed to exist, and they said to find other ways to meet up and group.” Dawson’s reasons for starting a club echo Quah’s, including the final one: Dawson and others represented Brown in an intercollegiate tournament last year, The Melee Games, and will do so again despite still lacking official recognition. “When we competed, the other college teams all came from official clubs,” he added.

The plight of esports at Brown is unfortunate but not wholly surprising, because despite the community’s exponential growth over recent years, video games remain stigmatized and viewed as meant solely for fun and not serious exertion. Even the term “esports” sounds silly to some; traditional sports typically entail physical activity, and while there have been many frightening cases of serious hand and wrist injuries, you don’t lose quite as many calories by clicking a mouse or controller.

But movement has never been the sole determining factor in defining a sport—professional darts and billiards players exist. Cultural similarities are more important and much more common, however. Both traditional sports and esports can be played for fun or for glory, with local, regional, national, and international tournaments. There are coaches, referees, commentators, and sponsors. The US even grants athlete visas for professional gamers (Key word: athlete).

There’s no reason why Brown should not take esports seriously iif the national government does. Hopefully this mode of thinking changes soon; both Quah and Dawson have expressed interest in starting a general esports club, designed to accommodate anyone wishing to pursue competitive gaming, and they hope they’ll be passed this time. We’ll have to wait to see whether Brown gamers will be allowed to officially make their mark on the ever-growing esports community. But in the meantime, I’m done writing. Is anyone down to play some Melee?