Prior to its demise in 2016, StarCraft: ProLeague was arguably the most prestigious tournament for Blizzard’s legendary real-time strategy franchise, regularly attracting, as it did on August 9, 2008, tens of thousands of in-person spectators to its grand finals. That evening, the tournament concluded on a steamy beach outside of Seoul, where Lee “firebathero” Sung Eun defeated Kim “go.go” Chang Hee, in a humiliating rout. At the time, firebathero was a kind of Terrell Owens figure; someone StarCraft fans loved to hate (unless he was on your team, in which case he was someone you just loved to love) on account of his prodigious skill with an ego to match. Winning on StarCraft’s biggest stage meant a post-game celebration like no other, and everyone in attendance or watching at home knew it. As the shoutcaster put it, “It was indeed a good game. What will he show us now?”
It is fair, I think, to say that, in traditional sports, ceremonies capture the essence of why we watch. The celebrations players undertake in the moments after making a great play suspend, in performance and spectacle, the pride, beneficence, rage, and triumph that construct (among other affects) the edifice of fandom. Ceremonies, even and especially when they’re not all that sportsmanlike, help legitimize sporting (and its witnessing) as a worthy cultural pursuit. Ceremonies in esports serve all these functions, plus one more. They remind us that the voguish phrase “digital physical culture” is redundant. Esports, especially when it’s called cybersports, often courts the fantasy of being purely digital, the last bastion of that long-discredited 90s vision of the internet as a frontier where we might make and remake our identities in a plane untainted by the drag of earthly politics. And while it is tempting to imagine that the esports ceremony – which necessarily takes place at the end of a match, when a broadcast switches from an in-game feed to a “live action” one – marks a “return” to physical space and out of the magic circle of play, instead it should remind us that we never truly left.
firebathero’s gloriously excessive celebration over poor go.go (linked above) is a masterclass on that point, a performance that insists upon the Being of esports alongside and within that which is material. Over six (!) minutes, firebathero adapts an array of object and environments to his needs, a non-comprehensive list includes: tossing a bowl of white rice (delivered by a somber stagehand) across the stage, receiving the adulation of the gathered crowd, stripping off and casting aside his uniform, whirling erratically to some truly dreadful royalty-free EDM, and, finally, launching himself, baptismally, into the rising surf (“On a hot day like this, his fans must have been relieved to see his cool style of gaming," the shoutcaster narrates). I could go on, and so could he, but the point is this: The assemblage of play is always also already a tangible (gaming) space.