Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Science | Sports

September 5, 2008

Friday Night 1337s

Michael Kane spins a sports narrative out of competitive videogaming.

Craig Fehrman

I'm not sure what's more perplexing—that people still talk about Chuck Klosterman's "The Lester Bangs of Video Games," or that they still get it wrong. Since Esquire published the piece in 2006, videogame journalists have continued to take umbrage at Klosterman's opening question: "Why are there no videogame critics?" But their reactions miss Klosterman's thesis: "There is no major critic who specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like" and "what specific games mean in any context outside the game itself." He's not criticizing an existing entity; he's pointing to a deficiency.

"You might see a William Hung-type make it big before any crafty and talented Counter-Strike players do."—Michael Kane

To be fair, Klosterman could have been more gracious in acknowledging previous efforts. There are a handful of books of videogame journalism, and they tend to fall into two categories. On one hand, there are Livy-like histories such as Steve Kent's Ultimate History of Videogames, a book that stretches all the way back to the 19th-century origins of pinball.

On the other hand, there are books that focus on specific games or genres, such as David Kushner's Masters of Doom. But these books never quite reach the level of "criticism." Gaming may have solidified its place in pop culture—we've got Call of Duty in the office and on The Office—but most writers still struggle to connect hardcore gaming to broader questions and concerns.

In this environment, Michael Kane's work stands apart. An entertainment features writer for the New York Post, Kane has recently written Game Boys: Professional Videogaming's Rise from the Basement to the Big Time, a new book that tackles the "wacky subculture" of competitive gaming. The world of pro-gaming (or, if you prefer, e-sports) is not a stable one —two of the leagues Kane discusses have already folded, though some of the teams and players have moved on to new organizations—but Kane isn't writing a history. Game Boys is a character-driven book. It follows the star players, known by gaming aliases like fRoD and Rambo, of two competing Counter-Strike teams. At the same time, it also explains the unique appeal of intricate, team-based games—and how they resemble more traditional sports.

Game Boys isn’t written for an audience of hardcore gamers—as Kane notes, they don't read all that much. Instead, the former Denver Post sportswriter set out to write what he calls "Friday Night Lights for video games," illuminating the dark corners of the professional gaming circuit for the casual reader. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity and concision, he shares his thoughts on the state of videogame writing, the relationship between cyberathletes and traditional ones, and the problem with casual games like Guitar Hero and Wii Sports.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the oft-repeated stat that consumers spend more on videogames than on movies?

Michael Kane: That number doesn't include overseas sales or DVD sales, which are massive now. So it's also a bit overstated, but it's certainly not an insignificant statistic.

GM: While videogames may equal movies in sales, they lag far behind movies in the number of books and magazine features. Why do you suppose that is?

MK: We've been glacially slow to appreciate these games as mainstream entertainment. And I think the key issue is that, in videogames, there's no human being. The human factor is why people pay more attention to actors than musicians, and more attention to singers than the rest of the band. When you try to write about videogames, you often find there's no person to hang your story around. People are starting to figure out that videogamers aren't the stigmatized nerd in the basement, but the majority of books on videogames still offer an analysis of the industry rather than a story of the people who play them.

GM: But even if we focus solely on the people buying and playing games, that's still a large market. Why aren't there more books on videogames?

MK: The first thing I did for this book was show up to Team 3D's boot camp in Dallas. My book focuses on Team 3D and CompLexity, who are sort of the Yankees and Red Sox of Counter-Strike. Anyway, when my plane landed in Dallas, I went to a Barnes & Noble and bought five copies of Friday Night Lights . I walked in and gave each Team 3D player a copy and said that my idea was to write something similar on competitive videogames. I know for a fact not one of them read it. They held it like it was an artifact, an indecipherable hieroglyphic or something. I asked them a year and a half later, and none of them had even made it through the intro.

GM: Bissinger will blame that on blogs, I suppose.

MK: And Will Leitch, who blurbed my book. Seriously, though, it's not like Team 3D would be reading the great Russian writers if they weren't getting paid to game. These kids are very intelligent and information-driven, and I think videogames offer a more intellectually stimulating medium than TV. But professional gamers sit in front of the computer—not for eight or ten hours a day, which is hyperbole—but for around six hours a day. They seem to have a novel need for interactivity that reading, or at least reading a book, can't fulfill.

GM: Why did you focus so much on the managers of CompLexity and Team 3D instead of the players?

MK: That was opportunity born of necessity. Gamers are actually extroverted, social, and quick to open up. They don't fit dated stereotypes. But, again, they still turn around and put on headphones and stare at a screen for five hours.

GM: Well, that's their job, right?

MK: Yes, that's their job, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it makes my job more difficult, so I turned to the managers. Not only did they avoid staring at screens for hours at a time, they were more interesting as people. There can be plenty of interesting things about a 20-year-old, but that's not always true of a 20-year-old who, like most pro gamers, hasn't been to college, hasn't had another job, and might not have dated a lot. Where's the drama? Where's the risk? The managers had something invested and thus had something to lose. They were backing this as a sport of the future.

GM: You mention how these cyberathletes play videogames with a singular intensity, maybe at the expense of a well-rounded life. How does this compare to interviewing athletes in more-traditional sports?

MK: I got tired of sportswriting after about four years. I had found that the stars of the team were the most boring people. Not to name names, but I think he can handle it: Tiger Woods is probably the worst interview in sports, and that's probably because he's so dedicated to his craft. The most interesting interviews in sports are the benchwarmers, the punters, the backup catchers, the relief pitchers. I didn't find a lot of benchwarmers in videogames, and most of what I did find didn't make the final version of the book. Within the narrative of the top two teams, which were very ego-driven, there weren't a lot of interesting personalities.

"I gave each player a copy of Friday Night Lights and said that my idea was to write something similar on competitive videogames. I know for a fact not one of them read it."
GM: I feel obligated to point out the exception to the dull athlete interview, Gilbert Arenas, if for no other reason than that he sponsors his own pro gaming team. But let's talk a bit about narrative. Your book demonstrates that one can write about videogames in a way that appeals to non-gamers. Would you attribute the book's engaging nature to the dynamic between the players and the teams?

MK: Yeah, I wrote a sports book. That was the idea. I didn't spend a lot of time ruminating on the sociological meaning of kids sitting in front of a screen all day. The novelty comes from the sport being a virtual one, but I still hear from readers that they held a rooting interest by the end.

GM: So how can TV tap into that appeal? What can it learn from your book?

MK: I'll speak about the Championship Game Series because I'm more in the loop with them. They're owned and operated by DirecTV, and they've got their hardcore fans. But to reach a broader audience, they need to improve the link, in the mind of the viewer, between the character on screen and the kid in the chair. They need the "why." A book like mine has the luxury of explaining why one team is better at defense or on a certain map, or why a certain match is such a big upset. TV still doesn't provide this context on the players or, especially, the teams.

GM: It seems you're describing the stuff viewers take for granted when watching a sport like basketball, or even poker.

MK: We've all tried baseball, in the backyard at the very least. Do we understand the properties of altitude and its effect on a spinning orb? Not really, but we get that pitchers struggle at Coors Field. With most sports on TV, we know the context, and we also know that we can't do what professionals do. You'd be surprised how even some of the organizers miss the disparity in talent between pro gamers and the Average Joes. Most gamers go to a competitive tournament and lose 16-0 or 16-1. I've seen it happen countless times. Pro gamers have advanced to the point where there's a range of ability within the competitive class, and also a variety in skill-types. That's where the team element and strategy in a game like Counter-Strike comes in.

GM: Were you trying to write a sports book that captures that context?

MK: Right. It's not just the teams, but the fans, too. Websites like GotFrag carry tons of statistics, and people argue passionately about the various teams and players—"Dallas lost because they need a better AWPer [i.e. sniper]," etc. It's armchair quarterbacking.

GM: Do you think more casual games, like Wii Sports and Guitar Hero, will help competitive videogaming reach a larger audience? These games enjoy a broader user base, but hardcore gamers could be turned off by this.

MK: Those are simplified, reflex-based games. There's no strategy, no scouting. It isn't sports-like and there's no confrontation or team conflict. That said, if the goal is to connect the physical gamer and the game character, these games might break out before or instead of competitive gaming. You might see a William Hung-type make it big before any crafty and talented Counter-Strike players do. In fact, it probably will be, and these Counter-Strike kids will continue to be underappreciated.

GM: As your author bio points out, you were the first to dub Arnold Schwarzenegger "The Governator," so I think it's only fair to end by giving you a chance to create your own videogame alias. If you were a world-class Counter-Strike player, what would your alias be?

MK: Hmm. I don't want to run the batteries down on your recorder. What the hell—when I occasionally posted on GotFrag, I used the login "bookGuy." It's not very menacing.

Related in Gelf

Videogame columnist David Downs watches gamers compete for an endurance record and marvels at how videogames reflect the worst aspects of our society.

Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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Article by Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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