In late November, 2022, I participated in the first on-site conference of the international Esports Research Network: ERNC22. The conference was organised by the Media, Management & Transformation Centre at Jönköping International Business School in Jönköping, Sweden. Conference participants were also given the opportunity to participate in the biggest gaming event in the world: DreamHack Winter. In this blog post, I will reflect on my experience at the conference and DreamHack as a game culture researcher studying various aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion in esports.
Esports Research Network Conference 2022
Esports Research Network (ERN) is an international research network founded in 2019. The network’s purpose is to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between esports researchers from around the world as well as with industry stakeholders at professional and grassroots levels. While esports has been growing as an increasingly popular form of entertainment and an enormous field for new business opportunities, it has attracted attention from a great variety of research fields and different sectors of society. The ambitious goal of this ERNC22 conference was to bring all these stakeholders together to discuss esports from the perspectives of economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
The conference programme included academic and non-academic presentations, panel discussions, and keynotes. Unfortunately, all the presentation tracks were scheduled simultaneously across two programme slots on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. For me, this meant that I was chairing a session on Tuesday, missing all other presentations, and on Wednesday, I had two presentations in two separate sessions, having to choose one of them. I was a co-author in two presented papers: 1. Maria Ruotsalainen, Matilda Ståhl, & Usva Friman: Esports leagues and tournaments for women and gender minorities, and 2. Matilda Ståhl, Maria Ruotsalainen, Usva Friman, & Fredrik Rusk: Exploring constructions of a situated esports aesthetic within and outside gameplay in a Nordic context. While I was very happy with the sessions I ended participating, I was also sad to miss so many research presentations that seemed very interesting and relevant to my own work. However, the conference also offered many opportunities for networking beyond the academic sessions, which I’m grateful for. During the conference, we also organised a meeting for participants interested in further developing the Esports Research Network’s Diversity and Equality Committee.
Most conference keynotes and panels were focused on industry perspectives, including representatives from companies such as ESL and Riot Games. Topics of the invited keynotes and panels included, for example, HR and careers in esports, diversity and inclusion in esports, and sustainable business in esports. As a researcher studying questions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in esports, I particularly enjoyed Ashley Washington’s (Riot Games) insightful talk on representation in esports.
As a phenomenon, esports is positioned in the crossroads of game and sport cultures, business and associationalism, entertainment and fandom, spanning across a great variety of sectors in our society, from education to industry and media to politics. This makes it an interesting topic of research from various (not only thematic, but also local) perspectives, and it was very interesting to observe how the variety of potential perspectives was represented in this international conference. Here, some tensions could be sensed between perspectives based on critical research approaches and the space given for industry rhetorics. It will be interesting to see how the Esports Research Network will negotiate their position as a global network aiming to cover all subfields of esports research as well as maintaining active engagement with the industry and society at large, both in their future conferences and in their other activities.
DreamHack Winter 2022
After the conference, participants received the opportunity to visit DreamHack Winter 2022 gaming festival. DreamHack is the world’s largest LAN party that has been organised since 1994. Over 42000 visitors attended this event. The event programme includes gaming and esports, but also other activities such as cosplay and live concerts. While DreamHack was first organised in Sweden as a small gathering for a group of friends, the events are now owned by ESL and organised in various locations across the globe.
I participated in DreamHack in the role of a researcher, with my colleagues Maria Ruotsalainen (University of Jyväskylä) and Matilda Ståhl (Åbo Akademi University). Our plan and focus was to collect observation material for our research collaboration on equity in esports. Following our current research interests, we were particularly interested in the equity practices on site, presence of women and other potentially marginalised participant groups, and creation of an ‘esports aesthetics’ on the scene.
Our fieldwork at the event spanned across three days, from Thursday to Saturday. As a game culture researcher primarily interested in communities and cultures forming around gaming, participating in this event was an amazing opportunity. As our current collaboration with Ruotsalainen and Ståhl is focused on esports, most of my fieldwork time was spent observing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive competitions: ESL’s Impact League and Swedish Elitserien.
ESL’s Impact League was particularly relevant to our research interests. In DreamHack, it was interesting to note that this women’s league was played on a bigger stage and more central location compared to Elitserien that is, in theory, open for everyone, but seemed to be a men’s tournament in practice. Impact League seemed to have great production value, and their audience grew bigger as the tournament progressed. We were very pleased to also receive an opportunity to visit and observe the Impact League’s backstage area where the tournament broadcast was produced, and be able to chat with the professionals participating in this process in various roles.
ESL promotes their Impact Circuit as an environment where women can safely participate in esports as competitors, not representatives of their gender: ‘ESL Impact was made for women to unapologetically enjoy what they love the most: Counter-Strike. On the server, it’s your skill that matters, not your gender. With monthly Cash Cups, two yearly online league seasons, and stand-alone tournaments in front of roaring crowds, we give you a competitive and safe playground to prove your skill and dedication to the game.’ At DreamHack, it was indeed great to experience an environment where women’s competitiveness and gaming skill were celebrated on a big stage in front of an enthusiastic audience. However, it is also worth remembering that ESL, Impact Circuit and DreamHack included, was purchased by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in early 2022. With acquisitions such as this, esports has become a new front in Saudi Arabia’s ‘sportwashing’ campaign, and following on the trails of traditional sports, important discussions need to be had regarding the role of esports supporting authoritarian and anti-humanitarian regimes. After all, supporting ESL’s Impact League does not truly support women or other marginalised individuals in esports as long as it supports an administration constantly violating human rights, including the rights of women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
Author biography: Usva Friman (PhD) is a game culture researcher whose work is focused on equity, cultural participation, and cultural agency in digital gaming and esports, particularly from the perspective of women and other marginalised players. She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies and Tampere University Game Research Lab in Finland. Friman serves as the chairperson for The Finnish Association for Game Research, a board member for the international Esports Research Network, and an editorial board member for The Finnish Yearbook of Game Studies. She is the first editor of the book Pelit kulttuurina (Vastapaino 2022). For more information, see https://usvafriman.net.
Photo: Jonne Renvall 2022.
Acknowledgements and Conflicts of Interest
I would like to thank The Foundation for Economic Education for generously supporting this conference and fieldwork trip.
I serve as a board member at the Esports Research Network in 2023 and participated in the organisation of the ERNC22 in a minor role as a track chair. I participated in DreamHack Winter 2022 invited as a researcher as part of the ERNC22.