There’s nothing quite like hearing an in-depth conversation about race, gender and other cultural aspects of the esports and gaming industries while simultaneously watching rocket-powered cars score in a fantastical soccer arena.
But indeed, Thursday afternoon, Technical.ly Baltimore reporter Donte Kirby joined some industry leaders for a lunchtime conversation about the future of esports amid a friendly Rocket League competition.
The event, Gaming as a Social Movement, was a part of Philly Tech Week 2020 presented by Comcast’s Virtual Gaming Day. Viewers heard from John Fazio, founder and CEO of Nerd Street Gamers; Gianni Lee, a Philly-based visual artist; and Will Gee, founder and CEO of Baltimore’s Balti Virtual.
Tune in to our twitch NOW as we host @PhillyTechWeek's Virtual Gaming Day!
— Nerd Street (@nerdstreet) July 23, 2020
The four were not only gathered on Twitch to talk about gaming — they were there to play. As Kirby asked the panelists about the future of the industry, access during the pandemic and the nature of the esports community, the four battled it out in the game. At times, the conversation would be punctuated by a four-way “ohhh” or “did we just score on ourselves?” but we heard some thoughtful predictions and reflections, too.
— Catherine Sontag (@CTag115) July 23, 2020
First, interest in esports and gaming has increased during the pandemic, as people across the world are looking for ways to entertain themselves at home, Lee said. (Comcast reported 50% more gaming downloads back in March.)
But access has been and will continue to be an issue in gaming, Fazio pointed out. It was one of the missions behind starting Nerd Street Gamers, which organizes tournaments and operates esports facilities around the country — very few people have the funds to purchase the type of professional-grade equipment to become a pro gamer. It’s a similar paradox to ice hockey, he said: Only select kids can afford to grow up playing the sport, which is how the NHL ended up as a league with mostly white players and a white fanbase.
“But yes, the pandemic has created a larger gap than what we usually see,” Fazio said. Young kids and fans may not have access to internet for school work, let alone gaming.
Does the gaming industry play a role in racial equity?
Lee called out video games’ frequent use of Black culture — from music to personas or entire racial groups used in adventure games — as a signifier that race is already a prevalent part of gaming. Recently, video game publishers such as Ubisoft and Activision have come out with “Black Lives Matter” statements. But is that enough?
“It can’t just be a performative measure of putting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the game,” Lee said. “Think about the impact that ‘Black Panther‘ had on Black culture. There needs to be inclusion on all levels at a company, not because of the movement. I’m glad they’re aware, but I want to see Black game designers and equity in companies.”
The four also touched on misogyny in gaming culture, and how women are often excluded or ostracized from gaming (while acknowledging that they themselves were four dudes discussing the topic).
It’s likely enabled because of gaming’s anonymous culture, Fazio said: It’s easy to talk trash behind a username, but in person, you have to look your competitor in the eye. Forcing people to use their real names could be a step toward changing that, or toward increasing moderators’ attentiveness toward harassment.
“The thing is, we have this idea of the stereotypical gamer, but there’s no stereotypical TV watcher,” Gee said.
Watch the entire conversation (and watch Kirby kick butt in Rocket League) on Nerd Street Gamers’ Twitch. And hey — check out Technical.ly Philly reporter Michael Butler’s profile on esports host and broadcaster Erin Ashley Simon for a look at a Black Latinx woman’s experience in the industry.