Raising the Stakes - Review - a research perspective on esports

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Lately, I've been really interested in exploring games in academia. Games as media and culture has been growing as a field of research as games become more pervasive in mainstream culture. So when someone told me that there was a research book on esports, I had to check it out. Many esports and gaming fans have had the experience of reading a news article, book, or online write-up about their community and culture that just misses the mark. Gaming, as a culture and community that is becoming more mainstream, is still sometimes misrepresented in media. Thankfully, this book was not one of those cases, and I would argue that this is the comprehensive book on esports.

Book Chapters
1) Playing for Keeps
2) Computer Games as a Professional Sport
3) Professionalizing Players
4) Growing an Industry
5) Spectatorship and Fandom6) Conclusion

The researcher

TL Taylor’s book, Raising the Stakes, is one of the few books out there that "gets it”. It may be the best esports book to date that truly captures what happens in the community as a whole, and reflects on the effect of the emergence and vast growth esports on both the industry and the individual. While she may outline the behavior and actions of players that may seem “obvious” to the common esports fan, she delivers deeper insight into the behaviors of players and the community that can bring new perspective to even the most diehard esports fan. It makes you think why some behaviors are more ‘obvious’ to esports fans, and not so obvious to the general public, or even the gaming mainstream.

Taylor is a sociologist and the book is published in MIT Press, so do not be caught off guard if you run into a few paragraphs with academic rhetoric. However, for esports fans – the grounding of social theories within the context of esports gives allows for the reader to find the theories more relatable. Taylor’s past research work in MUDs, MMO’s, and virtual worlds gives her a perspective that is relatable for the common gamer. Her insight is augmented by her extensive academic background, giving fresh perspectives on how gaming communities exist as a culture, and where esports fits into the picture.

Esports from an alternative perspective

I am a bit hesitant to say that the book captures all of esports, but that may be the only way to describe the depth of topics she pursues. From the first events where ‘people playing video games for (recognition and) money’, to exploring if esports can be traditional sports, and going over the experiences of players, teams, and multi-million dollar leagues – the book is both an excellent primer and rich collection of how esports exists today and where it has been in the past. 

Her perspective as a researcher is invaluable in Chapter 2, “ Computer Games as a Professional Sport” – in which she tackles a debate that has plagued the community since its inception – “Is eSports really a sport?” Taylor brings in a comprehensive academic arsenal to attack the question – including sports theorists, game design, social theory, and writes in a way that someone with no background in social theory will still have a fairly easy time framing these ideas within the realm of gaming.
In one of my particularly favorite parts of the book, Taylor touches on how players, admins, and the community mediate league rules and play when technology breaks down, and how this negotiation between people and the game occurs in traditional sports as well. The chapter speaks about how the physical body situates itself with respect to a variety of games, and how there is an idea of ‘finesse’ with how a player acts through their mouse/keyboard or controller. Overall, she explores the similarities and differences between traditional sports and esports in how their players and community work with technology, and definitely was one of the most insightful parts of the book for someone who has read repetitive arguments within the forums within the ‘esports vs sports’ debate.There’s a lot of ground covered in the book, and the details are not harmed by the book’s broad scope. From gamer identity, ‘is esports a sport’, to the trials of the industry and players, every topic is treated with thorough investigation and respect. For StarCraft fans, the conflict between Blizzard and KeSPA during the Brood War era is covered in great detail as well.

A look into an esports world without streaming

The landscape of esports changes at an extremely rapid pace. She states that the first draft of the book was done in 2009, before the release of StarCraft 2 and more importantly, the boom of live streaming within the esports space. For the modern reader, the absence of live streaming in the book may be the biggest element missing from what is otherwise a fantastic investigation into the realm of esports However, Taylor is currently researching the proliferation of live streaming in her current work.

Still, how well the book still reads and captures the essence of the esports community without the live streaming perspective is a testament to how well researched, and how well thought out, Raising the Stakes really is. I have yet to encounter another written piece that has reflected my experience with the community in an accurate and personable way. For anyone interested in esports culture, esports history, and how the concept of competitive games affects the culture around gaming as a whole, this book is definitely worth checking out. Esports is a fascinating collision of new technology and culture with traditional sports structure, and is a phenomenon that could only happen in the present. There is a growing body of research around the growing esports phenomenon, and this book provides a great primer into the academic perspective on the emerging culture. In my opinion, this is the book to refer anyone to who is interested in understanding esports – for both newcomers and veterans.