With all of us in self-isolation and sports events around the world cancelled or postponed, it's logical to assume that esports is the one sport that will see a surge in popularity. But according to League of Legends broadcaster Indiana ‘Froskurinn’ Black, coronavirus could have a lasting negative impact on the sport too.
The reason? Because League of Legends' live tournaments have gone online at a time when Black says: "It felt like all of this steam was cascading to be this amazing showdown of finally having a really competitive game."
The background to this is that Black believes the game has never been so popular with rivalries forming between teams from North America to Europe, to China and Korea: "We were coming to our tenth anniversary, League of Legends was probably at the height of its popularity like it was going through another renaissance that hadn't seen since like 2014."
She adds: "Unfortunately, with corona, a lot of that has been wiped away. I think people will look back on this year, and the competitive integrity of the fact that dates like [The Mid-Season Invitational] have been moved, and tournaments or leagues are being played online where teams can't travel, so you lose a lot of that impact. I think in the history books, it's really unfortunate to lose it at this timeline, at this moment."
While the health of everyone must come first, it is interesting to hear about the impact of the pandemic from one of the sport's leading shoutcasters and broadcasters. After all, it is a sport that is played by millions worldwide. In September 2019, Riot Games, the game's creators, said that nearly eight million players are logged on playing League of Legends at peak times.
This month it was the most-watched game on Twitch with 111,233,389 hours viewed at the time of writing. Over 100 million people watched the League of Legends World Championships in 2019.
Forging her career in League of Legends
Black plays an important role commentating on and covering some of the sport's major competitions and her passion for League of Legends dates back to her university days. It was her first experience with a computer game as even though she had been gaming from a very young age, before then she was more into console games.
As a student she heard about the game through word of mouth – in fact, even now she says the game is badly marketed – and played with roommates and university friends.
Black recalls: "It was through them that I got into League of Legends and then just fell in love with the game partly because all my friends were playing it and probably because it scratched that competitive itch that I'd been missing for a long time."
Since then, League of Legends has taken her around the world, covering the Chinese League of Legends Pro League, the League of Legends World Championships Finals and most recently moving to cover the League of Legends European Championship.
The reason and way that Black pursued a career in esports "was just the grind of throwing myself into an activity that I wanted to do," she says. "Esports seemed like the clearest trajectory of what I had always been doing, not just as a hobby, it's an obsession."
What she loves about the game and her job are the stories that you see unfold. Having worked in the sport for nearly seven years, Black's career has grown alongside many of the acts that she is commentating on. She explains: "I've watched some of these young men grow up on stage."
Black reflects that it is both rewarding and sentimental "helping the audience when they see a particular moment, understand the gravity of that moment and all of the different decisions and timelines that led to why this is important, even if it seems very small to them".
On the other hand, Black says: "I hate the fame and the front-facing responsibilities that come with this job.
"To be honest, if I could quit tomorrow, I would. But I feel like I'm in a situation where this is just my skill set and this is currently what I can offer and make a living off of."
In fact, she says for a while this led to her taking time off from playing the game: "I felt like my relationship with the game had become pretty unhealthy and when it's something that you do as a job, especially as a front-facing analyst position, you're often critiqued or measured for your work in your industry, by your expertise with the game and so it became conflated with self-worth."
Black adds: "I had to take a step back and stop playing it and just go back to basics to build up my self-worth and my confidence in my craft and my product from there. I've gone back into playing it and I think I have like a healthier balance.
"I really do enjoy the game, but it's a very different relationship. I can't remember the last time that I got to watch a League of Legends match for fun, or was as passionate about playing it as I was back in my university days."
When I ask Black what the community online is like, she laughs and says: "We laugh because we know the answer, the community is toxic." She describes a situation where people are calling for certain public figures to be more like role models but doing so in a way that creates further toxicity.
She says: "The power dynamic needs to be re-evaluated and how it's feeding into itself. The community wants to point fingers and say that they deserve a higher standard. And they also need to take a look at themselves in the mirror and see that change happens at a much smaller micro level."
On a personal level, Black won't check social media if it is an important show day. She explains: "I don't trust myself not to get tilted or have it impact my performance.
"But ultimately with esports and how it works, you can't disengage from social media and I don't even think it's just for esports. The internet is an extension of how we communicate in general. The reality is that this is our business and our livelihood and any disengagement that you have with social media automatically impacts my bottom line in terms of revenue because fandom equals revenue."
Being a woman in esport
Like so many sports, gaming has a history of being a male-dominated space. For Black, she reflects that her experience is "probably aligned with a lot of marginalized voices in heavily male-dominated spaces".
Even now she says that if you look at a lot of esport broadcast announcements "you'll be fortunate if you see a single woman on the graphic and you'll almost never see more than one woman. It will be a wash of let's say, pale males if you will".
Black laughs at that description before adding how difficult it is for women to succeed in the space: "Unless you're extraordinary, you don't rise to the top. And it's unfortunate the system believes that it's living by a meritocracy because the reality is that there's a bunch of mediocre people who are filling up esports that are only allowing extraordinary women to thrive when I think that we have room for not just the extraordinary but the powerful and the needed that are pushed down."
This doesn't mean that Black doesn't have ideas about how to tackle systemic inequalities. In particular, she says that if you encourage clubs to welcome more diverse players at grassroots, then the diversity could trickle up.
It's not simple, though and Black concedes that "maybe that's my bias lens and that I came in through esports at a grassroots level."
Ultimately, Black says that not enough is being done: "There are 20 million different ways to skin a cat. I think the issue is that no one's trying to skin the cat. It's only when you have things like International Women's Day that everyone wants to pinkwash and suit up and pretend that they care about fixing this problem when they've done nothing to try to change the needle."
"I know that in five to ten years a lot of people in esports at every entry point will look back on their stances, behaviours, and talking points and feel ashamed. Time will reveal which side of history esports and gaming dragged its feet on."
It is a rallying yet damning cry from Black and something the industry needs to hear. At this point, it is impossible to say how the coronavirus pandemic will impact League of Legends, but maybe if there is a grassroots uptick while we are all confined to our homes, we may see more diversity in the sport in the years to come.
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