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Sportsmanship in eSports

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This week I wanted to talk about a topic that is close to my heart, sportsmanship in eSports. Everybody is familiar with EG Idra, the famous Starcraft 2 zerg player who pays respect to opponents who beat him, but sometimes not those that he feels he lost too. Recently in League of Legends there was controversy during a Moscow 5 (M5) versus MonoeSports (MM) match when an M5 member snapped at an opponent in game chat. These events always give rise to various discussions about sportsmanlike conduct, and aside from throwing out my opinion on the subject I also want to point out some surprising connections that character development has to performance!

On after the M5 game I took part in a discussion about the meaning of “GG” and “BG” at the end of a League of Legends game. During the discussion Synthets commented that “good game” and “bad game” are simply evaluations of the game. In this context the comment “bad game, well played” could mean ones teammates played a bad game, while ones opponents played fine. His arguments caused me to reflect on the origin of my preconception that good game refers to a sportsmanlike ideal, similar to a handshake at the end of the game, that is said to respect ones opponent regardless of how the match actually went.

The spectrum of sportsmanship versus entertainment

As a former athlete, I believe my perception of GG comes from the perspective of being interested primarily in gaming as a competitive endeavor. I see the games I play solely in a competitive aspect, and therefore treat the language exchanged within to reflect the nature of the competition. However, I think the opposing point of view originates more from the ideal of games as entertainment. Therefore, the language that is used within the game is more a narrative of the value and purpose of the time spent seeking enjoyment from the game. Seen in that view, I can easily understand Synthets claim that, for him, an opponent saying ‘gg’ at the end of a game with an afk/leaver/feeder is an discourtesy.

Synthets and myself then went on to agree that perhaps solo queue (the unorganized, ranked ladder in League of Legends) is qualitatively different from organized tournament play. Perhaps in those games the practical use of “bad game” as an evaluation wanes and the sportsmanlike quality of language waxes strongly. Therefore while the casual game may have two conflicting viewpoints about the use of language to convey meaning, high level competitive play probably falls under the typical understanding of gamesmanship in sports.

Regardless of how you view the meaning of end-game language, I think there are some interesting findings about how sportsmanlike conduct is linked to character development, which in turn has strong connections to performance in competitive sport. Those connections should extend well into competitive eSport, since it is my opinion that they are the same thing.

Responsibility and Independence

The development of independence and responsibility have an impact on sport performance. Athletes who can coach themselves profit more from practice time than those who rely on getting all their feedback from an authority figure. Likewise responsibility leads to athletes who better understand how their behavior is linked to results, and are more likely to make stronger strategy decisions during competitions. In most eSports players have to make myriad tactical decisions on the fly and be responsible for the outcome of those actions. The ability to cope with the process of decision-making, analysis of the result, and dealing with bad outcomes impacts both practice and matches.

Sport is often cited as being a character building activity that teaches sportsmanship. The characteristics said to be built are often independence and responsibility. Yet there are many examples of badly behaved pro-athletes, as well as lots of research results that clearly show sports do not inherently build character. Some studies on college basketball teams have shown lower levels of social responsibility than in the general population, with similar results for independence on American football teams. So instead of providing automatic development, the rigid authority structures and sports cultures sometimes inhibit or regress character.

Nowhere is this more clear than in competitive video games, where there is a dearth of role models that emphasize sportsmanship and individual responsibility. The anonymity of the internet enhances the lack of responsibility for one’s actions. There are also fewer teachable moments in eSport, as there is no way to ‘break the rules’ usually so ‘fair play’ is not a concept that is part of the competition. However, eSport, just as traditional sport, provides an excellent opportunity to teach character and sportsmanship. Although many professionals do their best to use sportsmanlike conduct, often it is up to the communities of fans themselves to enforce sportsmanship and character on those that fall short.

Developing character

How does one begin to work with their team on character, responsibility and independence? There is a model of responsibility that includes four levels of development. The first level is respect for others. Basically that means having a high regard for ones opponents and themselves. The second level is participation and effort. The opposite of level one, which tries to reduce negative and destructive behaviors, the second level encourages positive and productive behaviors. Level three is independence: the encouragement of self-directed improvement during practice and individual leadership during competition. The fourth level is caring and helping others. Teaching is one of the best methods of learning. Additionally, people who understand and appreciate how they arrived at their success, and appreciate those who helped them get there, are more liable to be able to repeat that success in themselves and in others.

If you are a notable player, coach, or somebody trying to make a difference in your scene, you can encourage development along these paths. These are some simple behaviors that model character development for those who look up to you:

  • Be a model of sportsmanship when you play.
  • Keep emotional control in tough situations.
  • Discourage profanity and harassment.

If you are a player who approaches the game competitively and wants to encourage the development of character and appreciation for competition in your scene, you can do the same by modeling character developing behaviors and counseling those who may need to reflect on their behavior.

  • Say GG to your opponents at the end of a game. Congratulate him if you lost, and praise his effort if you won. Avoid being a sore winner or sore loser.
  • Recognize your own emotional toughness and be proud of it. Engage in games with emotional control.
  • Losing is a learning experience and not a reflection of your personal worth or worth as a team player.
  • Respect opponents and avoid trash talking them.
  • Explore methods to politely accept constructive feedback from people of higher or lower skill level than yourself.
  • Keep your motivation focused on the task-at-hand when you are facing adversity.
  • Do not throw matches.
  • Support your teammates with encouragement, rather than constructive feedback. With encouragement players tend to be more comfortable with their mistakes, and focus on decreasing their errors, thus learning more via reflection than if they had received criticism.

Good luck and good gaming! Discussion below in the comments or on Reddit here.