Politics, Sports, and the 'League of Legends' World Championship
The closer eSports comes to mirroring real world sports, the more we’ll see the truly political components of eSports.
At the League of Legends World Championship group stages event in San Francisco last weekend, I worried a staff member with my sign. On a white board in bright pink and red marker, I had written the phrase “WAKE UP EU!” The person managing the sign-desk asked if “EU” stood for “European Union”, which it did -- in a sense. “There are no political signs allowed,” she told me.
Of course it wasn’t a politically charged message, even though I love the idea of using a competitive eSports event as a venue for sending out a hilarious vague treatise on Brexit. It was meant, instead, as a rallying cry for the European teams competing in the event. The three teams from the region (H2K, G2, and Splyce) have lost seven of their eight collective games so far. Worlds matches have nothing to do with politics... mostly. Well, at least not explicitly.
The closer eSports comes to mirroring real world sports, the more we’ll see the truly political components of eSports. Traditional sports have long and complex ties with politics of all sorts, and you can already see these strands in their digital counterparts.
Baseball, perhaps the most American sport, traces close connections to the US military -- at least going back as far as World War II. The home plate has also been the home of culture wars. If you’ve been to any baseball games that sung “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch (most common on Sundays and during Yankee’s games), you experienced the lingering cultural repercussions of post-9/11 America. After the attacks, baseball as an American pastime became a cultural representation of our nation in relation to global terrorism.
This isn’t an attack on the expression of national pride and honor at sporting events, but it’s silly to think that sports (and by extension eSports) can ever be politics free. Even the very makeup of our “American” baseball teams are political in nature. It’s always deliciously ironic when you hear the national anthem at baseball games when well over a quarter of athletes are foreign born (27.5 percent in 2016).
The presence of foreign talent in America is more than some “American Dream” narrative about perfect immigrants. Much of foreign-born baseball talent comes from Latin America and the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic led this year’s roster, followed by Venezuela and Cuba. These countries have excellent baseball players, yes. They also have lax regulations for player recruitment. The reason that you see so many Hispanic-sounding names in baseball is partially because it has been cheap to develop, recruit, and yes, exploit, Latin American talent. Yep, baseball truly is as American as predatory labor practices.
We can see some mirrors in the way that Korean eSports athletes are over represented in North American and European professional teams. As a result, Riot Games has created an “Interregional Movement Policy”. This rule requires all teams competing in the World Championship to be composed of a majority of members who meet a local residency requirement. Foreign talent are not exploited to the same degree that we find in, say, shady baseball recruitment practices, but League of Legends has seen a number of controversies, such as LMQ's ownership debacle.
Regardless, eSports fandom certainly has its fair share of somewhat harmless fan-inspired nationalism. At the live event that I attended, one North American fan walked around in a massive American flag top hat, long American flag hanging from his back like a cloak.
League of Legends fandom has its own strange relationships with the regions and countries that players are from. This is why Albus NoX Luna’s recent victories are so significant. The entirely Russian team doesn’t fit into the current regional structure in the same way as the rest of the teams. They have no imported talent, and as support player Likkrit described in a recent interview, the team is far more poor than their competitors. Their victories add an economic narrative to the eSports events, something not discussed nearly enough among the fans.
I’m inclined to agree with Riot’s ban on political signs at Worlds. eSports is political enough as it is. Still, how would they react if eSports had its very own Colin Kaepernick? Really, it's only a matter of time. While I enjoy the nascent charge of political energy in eSports, I’ll hold up the only sign that I can: "WAKE UP EU!" Seriously G2, get out of that slump.