Once Again The Mainstream Misses The Point @ Spotlights channel
The thing that people existing within the niche of entertainment we call e-sports, be it the people working in the industry right through to the fans, want the most is quite simple. Ask them and the majority will intone in dull voices “mainstream” attention. They don’t expect it for obvious reasons. Ignored, for the most part, the mainstream only comes calling when it has an agenda.
This column is the sole opinion of the author and does not represent the opinion of Heaven Media Ltd or the opinion of any affiliates.
Because the mainstream press caters to the mainstream it needs to write about whatever it can outside of that universe. Any country that hasn’t been bastardised and turned into a tourist shit-hole, the parts of the world that have been mostly untouched by capitalist imperative, food so obscure and decadent we will never taste it, Art so inaccessible that it only serves to let the vacuous feel intellectual for liking it…
The offending article and tagline
Sub-cultures are always popular and that is what we are, whether we like it or not. Gaming is becoming more widely accepted and those who indulge in it can feel free to come out the closet for the most part these days. Advertisements for consoles show families making fools of themselves running down virtual tracks, or loveable grandparents staying sharp as the proverbial tack thanks to some glorified Sodoku. It is accepted now as an extension of the entertainment industry and, as long as you never take it seriously, then you’re allowed to partake of it, free from judgement, free from ridicule, free from unfounded psychological diagnoses.
However e-sports isn’t for those people. It is for those who believe that a game can be more than a frivolous method of killing time, a way to enjoy a night in for a few hours before electing to do something more worthwhile. It is, at its core, the belief that excellence in the field of gaming, against like-minded individuals, is worth pursuing and that such dedication – as well as the sacrifices that go with it – are worthy of some reward.
I wrote something similar after the BBC’s documentary series Panorama plunged to new depths with its brutally one-sided and extreme focused attempts at “journalism”. And those quotation marks were wholly justified because the writer had the sort of training that would make even the average e-sports journalist blush. They used quotes from people who even said they had no idea the context they would be used in, that the BBC eschewed large parts of what they said either side of their comments to contort their meaning in such a way it fitted in with an anti-gaming agenda. And, of course, they felt comfortable applying a liberal helping of psychobabble that makes “broscience” seem truly academic in comparison – namely the perils of gaming addiction.
The CNN piece was far more insidious than this. It used unprecedented access to a player in order to take his story and turn it into some sort of cautionary tale against the perils of “gaming addiction”. Every few paragraphs CNN placed links to stories related to this, such as “5 warning signs of gaming addiction”. It avoided the clear and obvious comparisons to be made with mainstream sports because to do so would be to show similarity between “normality” and what is deemed weird. Given that every single person with a Reddit account could make the connections the “journalist” missed, one would have to conclude that it was skewed on purpose. But that shouldn’t surprise you because this poisonous portrayal of what we all do, of what we all care about, is what happens when we allow the mainstream in to what we’ve built for ourselves. It would be akin to National Geographic photographers taking indigenous tribespeople with no conventional concept of Western “shame” and making them undertake provocative poses and then selling the finished article to a pornographic magazine called “Tribal Titties”.
Our very own interview with MKP back in 2011
The objection I have with the article isn’t that I disbelieve the existence of gaming addiction, even though every fibre in my body tells that gaming would be no more addictive than anything that can stimulate the brain in a way to make you feel as if you have achieved something.,, And before I even end that sentence I want you to draw the similarity between the people who do things that, to me, are not only inexplicable but life threatening. Why do mountain climbers climb mountains. The generic answer from those in that fraternity is “because they are there” and that is laughed off as some form of conventional wisdom. We celebrate their achievements, even though many die in the frozen wastes, extremities dropping from their carcass, blackened by frostbite. Keep this in mind before we continue…
The article was so intent on proving the player to be abnormal it overlooks so many aspects that prove that not only is MKP an example of someone dedicated to sports, that their struggle and story is so typical to those who achieve great things, that it even sets up those parts of the story without proceeding to the natural conclusion any writer would make. See for yourself:
The scrappy, frustrated underdog cared more about proving to his parents, and to himself, that he was not addicted to the video game that had come to dominate his personal and professional life -- that he's a pro, something his mom and dad should be proud of.
"I am very desperate," he told me through a Korean translator. "I really want to win.”
To impress his father, he wanted to be the world's best.
And at the World Cyber Games, his dad would be watching.
There is no indication here in the above quote that the player wants to prove he is not addicted to the game. He simple wants to be the best. Who doesn’t want to impress their family and loved ones through their achievements? Who doesn’t find it painful when they don’t understand. These are human traits. Yet, the article immediately sets the tone – this is three paragraphs in – – that the true struggle is the player versus the game, not the player versus acceptance. Even when the player expresses in no uncertain terms it is acceptance and understanding he craves in line with winning, the writer chooses to add his own dark sub-plot.
It doesn’t end there. Taking, again, a totally typical snapshot of youth the writer somehow tries to inject the history of the player with some sort of abnormal overtones:
In real life, he was shy and bright, but not all that interested in schoolwork.
He started skipping after-school classes to go to a PC bang -- Korean for "PC room" -- in Changwon, his hometown, where he played "StarCraft" for hours on end.
In the game, he belonged. He was a conqueror -- a general who controlled sci-fi armies and determined the fate of civilization. He drifted further into the game and, as his parents came to see it, out of the physical world. It was all fiction, of course, but it seemed real to him. And soon MarineKing started to like this fantasy world better than the real one.
One night, in his journal, he scribbled a secret: "I want to grow up to be a pro gamer.”
How do you even begin dissecting this rotten paragraph? Show me a kid who enjoys school work and I’ll show you both those who go on to be academically exceptional – by definition not the norm, or they wouldn’t be exceptional – or the sort of bland pupils who fake it until they hit their dead end middle-tier management jobs. If the latter part sounds like a wild leap then surely it is no more wild than the conclusions arrived at by the writer about the mindset of the player. Look at the language used? Does it not imply that he was somehow under a spell, that he was deluded?
MKP supposedly under the spell of the game, living in an alternate reality
“It seemed real to him” – did it? At any point was the subject of the article really under the belief that he controlled alien legions? That is the sort of gibberish you wouldn’t even level at a scientologist but it seems e-sports participants are fair game. Who wouldn’t like a fantasy world more than the real one? It’d be pretty stupid immersing yourself in one that was worse, surely? And I guess, before we come to the deliberately overlooked sporting comparisons, that no-one else immerses themselves in a fantasy life they prefer to reality. Bored housewives who sit while waiting on the kids coming home, watching an endless stream of daytime talkshows, or reading magazines dreaming of some swarthy Caribbean lover fondling them on a sun kissed beach? What about the serial hobbyist, a model train collector spending his private time watching his motorised models zip around the same tracks evening after evening in contemplative satisfaction? What about the economically disenfranchised retreating into a world of violence where they can attain some sort of status they can’t in any other domain?
Lazy stereotypes one and all but isn’t that what we’re working with here? That we are condensing the broad spectrum of human emotion into something easily categorised, that fantasists are somehow different from those of us with desires and ambitions, which are somehow acceptable.
The tone of the piece also struggled to remain consistent, at times using language that would make you think there is at least some veiled admiration for the player and his craft. These then would be portrayed as being tics or trappings of obsessive compulsive disorder.
They (sic) characters look like nonsense, but they form repetitive patterns on the keyboard and MarineKing uses these exercises much like a pianist would when warming up.
This quickly segues into:
He was busy surfing the Internet, looking at pictures of pigtail-wearing Korean pop stars. Then he quickly moved on to another round of "StarCraft" -- not because of the competition, really.
He just wanted -- or needed -- to keep playing.
This is as good a place as any to talk about the similarities to mainstream sports that MKP, or any top e-sports competitor, would display. It is incredible the inherent bias in the piece in attempting to add a sinister element to something as fundamental to sporting excellence as “practice” and “dedication.” Take for example the stories about England’s legendary fly-half Johnny Wilkinson who would practice his kicking for hours and hours on end, hundreds of kicks from different angles and distances, every day in addition to his regular training. When snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan was a child all he wanted to do was knock the balls around his table at home, which is why he had made his first competitive century at the age of 10. Perhaps most famous an example would be David Beckham who would stay on the training ground working on his trademark free kick technique that established him as one of England’s greatest midfielders.
At no point would you suggest these people were “addicted” to their sports. You wouldn’t feel comfortable implying that they were driven by some sort of demon. Nor would you talk about the regime they put themselves through in order to be better sportsmen in derisory tones. Most sensible people would have to utter a form of admiration, even if they don’t follow or understand the sport they are involved in. The sacrifices required to be the best are often perplexing to the rank and file but that is what separates them from us. It has to be that way. And in the same way MKP’s regime might seem extreme, it is proper that it should because there are plenty out there who wouldn’t practice as much but will also never achieve the things he has. Having spoken with many pros as part of my job most say the same things, that the South Koreans practice so much that it makes them baulk at the idea of having to match that. They say this dedication is what keeps the Koreans on the podium and Europeans off it, an indicator of cultural differences that are also overlooked in an article packed with shoddy journalism.
No comparisons with mainstream sporting personalities were made, despite them being obvious
Another thing crucially overlooked is the fact that sportsmen of all stripes, which includes cyber athletes, have their little rituals that on the surface make little sense. Superstition and sports go hand in hand and competitors all have their own little idiosyncrasies. These can be curiously mundane such as Paul Ince never putting on his football jersey on until he had left the tunnel. They can be a tad more extreme such as Goran Ivanisovic having “lucky” diet he religiously stuck to during tournament play… Then they can be outright bizarre like the Zimbabwean cricket team batting partnership of Grant Flower and Mark Dekker who would always greet each other, like Russian spies in fiction, with the exchange "I hope you get hit on the head," with the other replying, "Same to you."
None of these professionals are bonkers. They want to win and to do so sometimes you have to trick yourself into an illusion of control, to take the unknown factors and somehow make them manageable. Even though luck is an abstract concept, across the board sportsmen seem to believe in it and try to harness its power. It serves as both a supposed shield from defeat in times of success and it also acts as an excuse when victory eludes them. No mention of any of this in the article though. No ruminations about why MKP’s behaviour might be the way it is except to summarise it as the trappings of an addict. The way the writer portrays it the player is literally “Jonesing” for a game. The reality is probably far harder to put down in black and white, so the sensational is preferred.
Park wanted her bright child to be a judge -- and she saw online games as a dangerous distraction.
"We were really, really concerned about him," she said. "We asked him to stop again and again.”
There are numerous clues in the article to where a lot of the issues lie and while it is in the nature of those who wish to excel to appear extreme, reading between the lines it seems clear the parents not only haven’t been supportive but they too have been consumed by the same hysteria the article seeks to provoke.
Parents will rarely accept their children’s choices in life, especially if they are unconventional, however the reactions documented within this piece of writing are clearly overzealous. Yet there is no direct criticism of this, the language always softening to a sympathetic lilt, clearly sympathetic with the plight of exasperated parents. The writer is always careful enough to avoid any critique of dodgy parenting by ending the relevant anecdotes with something that suggests, once again, it is the player with the problem:
One evening, when she heard the keyboard clattering from her son's room in the middle of the night, she became furious. She didn't want this digital game to steal away her son. A middle school teacher already had flagged MarineKing as a potential gaming addict, after he took a government survey that asked about his use of online games and computers.
So she cut electricity to most of the apartment.
Without power, she knew he couldn't play.
"We could hear he was playing in his room," she said.
"We said, 'Stop it! You stop it, please! Please, please, please,' we said. So we thought if we turned off the electricity, he couldn't play the game. So that's what we did.”
Through the walls, she listened as the rapping of MarineKing's black keyboard fell silent.
But the noises that followed were just as wrenching.
"We could hear him screaming.”
Are those who spectate with such great enthusiasm too closet addicts?
Even if you are to take this exchange at face value (I imagine if I was to take away David Beckham's boots before training he'd be peeved too) you’d have to conclude that this is not a normal exchange, not a rationale way of dealing with the issues at hand. Even if their child was in the grips of some sort of compulsion, it is well documented that extreme behaviour often leads to more of the same. There is no support or understanding here, just fear and a resolute belief that what their son was engaged in was wrong. So much so they are even content to make their own flaky diagnosis of “gaming addiction” based on no professional evidence, one that the article is happy to echo unquestioningly.
Take Seung, a 17-year-old I met in Seoul. He didn't want his real name used because of stigma associated with gaming addiction. Like MarineKing, he grew up idolizing the pro players he saw on TV. He told me he wishes he could stop playing, but he can't. He spends sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day, he said, tapping away on the keyboard playing online games like "Maple Story," "Sudden Attack" and "StarCraft.”
Seung attended several counseling sessions for gaming addiction -- supported by the government -- but said that wasn't enough to make him stop. He's not sure he'll ever be able to.
"I feel like the game is pulling me," he told me in December.
Much to his mother's dismay, MarineKing exhibited similar symptoms.
Overlook the fact that anyone who has googled the “similar symptoms” of a headache will likely come back with the diagnosis of a brain tumour and you can still see the fundamental flaws in the direction the writer has taken. So keen to make this story not about the player’s battle to be the best but rather a family battling against the evils of gaming, the piece resorts to the laziest of filler material – the anonymous source.
Far be it from me to question the integrity of a journalist – even if I will happily question their competence – but out of all the people that the writer met in Seoul they happened to meet someone who not only was a “gaming addict” (still no actual diagnosis from anyone qualified to make one) but one that too exhibits only the extreme behaviour conveniently in line with the story that is being told. It seems a rational conclusion to make then that if this one person was special enough to stand out in the mind then there must have been a slew of regular people who faded into obscurity because they did not exhibit this behaviour. That is, in the process of trying to track down someone to add credit to the idea that gaming addiction is a terrible problem in South Korea, the writer must have had to discount the quotes of many. Why else would this one person stand out? Why elect to use someone who chooses to remain nameless unless there was no other alternative? Indeed, the scarcity of sources coupled with the flimsy nature of the one utilised suggests the issue really isn’t that widespread, if it is indeed an issue at all.
MKP - the face of an addict, or the face of commitment?
The critical lack of understanding of the difference between a competitor and a casual player is also overlooked. This “Seung” plays many games, whereas the subject is solely focused on Starcraft 2. Culturally there would of course be similarities – Starcraft is huge in Korea and is televised. Most males of a certain generation would aspire to be like the players that they saw making large amounts of money in a country that still has some very impoverished parts to it, for simply playing a game. However few would have the drive or desire to ever get there, to understand that every minute “wasted” on Maple Story was a minute that could be spent perfecting the finer points of the game. This is what separates “Seung” from the likes of Lee Jung-hoon. They are not cut from the same cloth.
Even when the parents effectively disown their own son because of his passion and plans there is an unwavering, implicit support for their actions. The author may say that it is not his place to judge, yet judge is exactly what he has done throughout. Curiously the decision to throw a fifteen year old child on to the streets isn’t met with any condemnation, even though most would consider this to be neglect.
MarineKing's non-clinical treatment at the meditation center didn't work as planned. It kept him away from "StarCraft," sure, but he spent much of his time there visualizing the game -- wishing he could play. When he came home, MarineKing's parents once again heard the familiar rattle of his keyboard through the night.
Their feud came to a head in October 2008, when MarineKing was 15.
After a heated shouting match, MarineKing's parents decided to throw their son out of the home.
Lee Hang-jae, his father, pushed him out of the door and locked it behind him. His mom, somewhat remorseful, peeked out to see where her son would go. She watched in horror as the elevator climbed to the top floor of their building.
She worried he would jump to his death.
"I was freaked out," she said through a translator. "But a few minutes later, he went down to first floor and went to security office.”
MarineKing spent several hours in that office, not sure where else to go. He never considered committing suicide, he later told me. He needed to get some air.
Again, this is portrayed as a side-effect of the gaming addiction, that such drama is inevitable when you deal with addicts. It isn’t viewed as a dysfunctional family failing to treat each other with the proper respect on all levels – it is again placed within the context that the player, who is of course at this juncture still a child, is to blame. Or rather, he is to blame because of the evils of the game and his improper relationship with it. Can a responsible writer really just skirt over the fact that either his parents overreacted to their son getting some fresh air to avoid further conflict, further proof of the hysterics they have perpetrated throughout, or that potentially they could have driven their son to take his life?
No positives about his lifestyle, not even earnings, were mentioned
These last few paragraphs may sound like an attempt to judge the family. I don’t want to go down that road as none is perfect and, with only the facts as they laid out in this stilted piece of propaganda, I’d not like to arrive at any conclusions. However, in the desperate search for an extreme story the writer overlooks examples unless it emanates from the player himself. This to me seems disingenuous, an attempt to use literary smoke and mirrors to obfuscate the real story, which is – for me at least – a family being torn apart by one player’s will to succeed.
It is made all the more absurd in hindsight with the few closing paragraphs. Again, the writer fails to draw the conclusion most would, that if the parents had simply talked to the player and learned a bit more about the pursuit he was engaged in, there would have been little cause for the incidents that must have drove a wedge between them all. In it is an admission of ignorance but rather than seize on that and use it as a platform to assist people in attaining that understanding.
At first, they didn't accept this new reality. But they softened over a long, tearful conversation in MarineKing's bedroom the night he returned. They agreed to let him pursue this career -- moving to Seoul so he could train.
"I never realized how good he was," his mom later told me.
But his father put one condition on this agreement.
If you're going to be a gamer, he told his son, you have to be the best in the world.
The piece dwindles until the writer decides that perhaps the whole gaming addiction angle – and the lurid tagline to the article reads “In South Korea, Internet gaming breeds two extremes: elite “athletes” who earn fame and addicts who literally play until they die.” – has gone too far and tries to turn it into an e-sports “Rocky”. The rivalry with MVP and what separates the two would have made for a much better piece, a much more interesting portrayal of by what the degrees of success and failure can be caused by. I for one would like to know how supportive MVP’s family were of his desire to be successful. I guess that story isn’t one to be told.
There is no closer inspection of any of the other "characters" in the story, notably MVP
The last paragraph shows, that despite everything, if MKP is “addicted” to something it is winning. That makes sense at least. No true competitor likes to lose and if you set yourself lofty goals such as being the best in the world then there is no place for even the most minute of failures. The reaction to not being able to play? Could it not be that these are perceived not as obstacles to feeding an addiction but rather obstacles to victory? And if they are viewed in that way you can see that he has hurdled them quite nicely, a success story where the protagonist should be championed and not demonised. After all he now has annual earnings of $105,000 from playing in a country where the average salary is somewhere in the region of $26, 440.
I asked MarineKing if he ever thought about quitting "StarCraft II." The game had caused his family such strife, and he hadn't been able to fully meet their expectation that, if he pursued pro gaming as a career, he had to be the No. 1 player.
"I mean, of course there are times when I have a really hard time -- especially today. And I feel depressed and sad but right they're there (sic) are fans who are cheering for me and are very supportive, so I never thought about quitting," he said. "Unless I'm forced to quit.”
He expressed regret at not performing better in front of his parents.
"I wanted to show them the moment I was going to win."
When I read the piece I didn’t see MKP as a shameless addict. What it did open my eyes to was just how much he had gone through to achieve what he has. It gave me a new found respect for the player and I’m confident I am not alone in that.
The piece itself seemed to backtrack in its last few lines but the damage was done. "After the tournament, I talked with the psychologist, Dr. Han, about gaming addiction in Korea. I described MarineKing's training habits, and his personal story. He said the number of hours and the intensity with which he approaches "StarCraft II" borders on addiction. But there's one difference, he said. Pro gamers usually aren't addicts. Addicts can't succeed on a higher competitive level, he said. The game takes complete control. Pros, however, find a magical balance. They're obsessed with the game, maybe, but their playing of it isn't depressive, meandering and hopeless. They're chasing after a goal."
Why isn't more made of the fact that the one actual doctor they address regarding gaming addiction actually disagrees with the comparison that the writer has spent the entire article building? That is more of a watershed moment than a familial resolution.
What I could not respect and never will are the attempts to apply lazy labels to anyone who dares to make competitive gaming their preferred pursuit of choice, that somehow they are ill and need a cure. It is implied that even in success they suffer some sort of greater, more profound, defeat, that they may win at games but somehow they lose at life. If the mainstream want to see it that way, if they need something unfamiliar to justify the clear absurdities in many aspects of human behaviour, let them have it. I’d suggest that in future next time they come calling keep the doors shut. They’ll be back. There’s money being made and plenty more to. Just like those who scoffed at the first professional footballers, soon enough we’ll be that dull and tepid mainstream and pieces like this will be remembered as a footnote in just how ill-informed those who poked and prodded around the edges really were.