Michael Kane on his book “Game Boys,” the first major exploration of esports

"...The audience needs to know the game..."

Game Boys: Professional Videogaming’s Rise from the Basement to the Big Time is Michael Kane’s documentation of esports in 2006. Published in 2008, Kane’s work is seen as the first major journalistic exploration of the esports industry and its culture. A decade later, Game Boys is now an amazing time capsule that reminds us what esports once was, what people thought it would become, and provides an important mirror for how this industry has evolved. As such, it is fantastic that Michael Kane allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse to discuss his book and reflect on its place in the history of esports.

You can learn more about Game Boys and Kane by visiting their homepage.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were your favorite video games?

Michael Kane: I was born in 1969 and went through every step of the evolution of early videogames. Pong. I actually had Pong on the TV. Then Atari, which was just Atari, not the 2600. My friend had Intellivision. Then I got the Atari 5200, which was kind of a lemon. Then another friend got ColecoVision.

To answer your question of favorite, I guess I’d just say that everything we had seemed awesome at the time. And was completely fun. Atari came with Combat. That was like Pong but with tanks. Loved that. In the original Atari basketball, the ball was a big square composed of pixels, of course. But it was fun. That probably sounds like some old guy talking about how in the Olden Days his favorite toy was a stick. And he was glad to have it. But we were glad to have Atari, for real. Honestly, times were lean. Before Pong and Atari, as like a 7-year-old you’d try to use a calculator as a toy.

Yanes: When did you first learn about competitive videogaming/esports? On this note, when did you begin to suspect it was more than a passing fad?

Kane: My book, Game Boys, covers an esports season in Summer/Fall 2006, so I heard about it a few months before that. I was writing entertainment stories for the New York Post newspaper and was handed a story to cover about a tournament in NYC. My editor thought it sounded interesting and quirky. Prize money, refs, onstage competition. I had no idea that the esports world existed. I only knew that people played Madden on Xbox Live. So basically before the book, I wrote the same article that I’ve now seen done 20 times over. You’ve seen it. “This Kid trains every day, travels the world and competes for big money. But he’s not a basketball or tennis player — he plays videogames! And mom and dad said videogames were a waste of time.” I laugh now when I see that same pro-forma write-up in newspapers that have just discovered the world of esports. But I was guilty of it, too.

Yanes: As you began to learn more about esports, when did you realize that there was a book that needed to be written on this subject?

Kane: First, I was contacted by a literary agent to look into exploring it as a nonfiction book project. Other recent books had mapped the approach. Various competitors who care passionately about something most consider silly all train and meet for a big final showdown. There had been a book on hardcore Scrabble and documentaries on spelling bees. The lightbulb moment for the viability of this as a story — and what would make it different — was learning that there were team games. I chose Counter-Strike because it had the most hardcore following at the time. With a team videogame, my exploration was how much that team dynamic would resemble a traditional sport. So then something like the book Friday Night Lights became the template. And once I found the big rivalry at the time — perceived top-dog Team 3D and underdog CompLexity — I knew I had a story worth telling. Game Boys is essentially a sports narrative with the novelty of the sport being inside the video monitors.

Yanes: Game Boys was published in 2009. Can you take a moment to describe how ‘primitive’ the technology and landscape was compared to what we have now?

Kane: I’m not particularly suited to comment on modern tech, as I haven’t followed it very closely since the book’s publication. But I keep a half-eye on it because I was fond of a number of the people in my book so I hope for their success. I would assume that Twitch was a great leap forward in terms of building audience. In Game Boys, I wrote the “sports showdown” story mixed with a look at the attempts by those investing their time and money in esports to make it the next big thing.

In 2009, it wasn’t long after poker became good entertainment on ESPN. And the prevailing belief was that if poker could be entertaining viewing, then why not videogames. The esports pioneers in Game Boys were a little ahead of their time — ultimately it did not break through in 2009, which is why you’ll still see those “… and they’re not basketball players, they’re videogamers” stories in newspapers today. But, having taken a circuitous route to answering your “what’s changed?” question, my answer would be Twitch. Or more broadly the wider ability to watch the competitions.

If I made one critical conclusion on how the esports investors bungled their pitch in 2009, it was that they pushed the stars of the game foremost (Fata1ity was front and center), when it was obvious to me that no wider audience would be compelled to watch Fata1ity or anyone else play a videogame just on the word of the commentators that he was the Michael Jordan of gaming. The audience needs to know the game. People have some semblance of how hard it is to shoot a 25-foot jump shot, or they know the unlikeliness of pulling an inside straight in TV poker, so there’s drama.

I concluded that unless there was one game that took the world by storm, a game so ubiquitous that even a layperson to gaming knew the basic rules of gameplay, there would be no easy grab of a wider audience. Regardless of how splashy the TV production was or how much they made the set where the kids were competing look like a spaceship. Again, my conclusion was that nobody wanted to watch somebody else play a videogame, but they would watch the videogame itself. If they come to that game with familiarity with its rules and understand it. So that’s taken time and grown organically to a broader landscape.

Yanes: If you were to write a sequel to Game Boys, what are the main changes you’d like to explore?

Kane: I’m curious to see how Game Boys looks in another 20 years. My guess is it may be a historical curiosity. Esports will have become everything that the gamers and tournament organizers whom I covered back in 2006 for the book ever imagined. But in a way they failed to imagine. Maybe through the interactivity modern tech allows. Or who knows. Maybe gambling or at least a fantasy-sports scenario in which viewers are assembling teams or trying in some way to predict outcome and either they win or lose at home — connected to what’s happening in an esports competition. Kinda funny, actually. That’d be fantasy sports on top of fantasy sports. But quickly bouncing back to Game Boys being an odd relic chronicling the first or maybe second push to make esports the “next big thing,” then it may put a spotlight on those well-meaning entrepreneurs who were tragically ahead of their time.

The most compelling character in Game Boys is Jason Lake, an investor and also coach of the underdog team CompLexity. His sports story pays off in the final chapters, but financially I believe he’s still got both feet in esports and I don’t know if he’s broken even yet. I have empathy for — and to be honest kind of a dark-humor amusement in — people who get screwed because nobody sees what they see. In 1858, a man named Joseph Reckendorfer tried to patent a new invention, the pencil with the eraser built in. Basically every pencil of today. But at the time he was denied a patent because it was determined that the invention wasn’t significantly different than holding a pencil in one hand and an eraser in the other. Reckendorfer got screwed. Jason Lake of Game Boys may someday be the Reckendorfer of esports. But at least I was able to tell Lake’s story. I’m proud of that.

Yanes: A section of your book is titled “Cellar Dwellers.” What were the stereotypes for gamers when you were researching this book?

Kane: In 2006, when I immersed in the world of esports and Counter-Strike and hung out at tournaments and even practices and weeklong team “boot camps” before the tournament season, I was 37 when the gamers were around 20. But I blended in well enough. The stereotypes from my generation were probably that gamers were nerdy and I suppose with older generations there was the fear that they were ghoulish kids who would unleash real-life mayhem on their high schools. Which was garbage then, and it’s garbage today when the current administration tries to muddy the gun-control debate by “taking a look” at videogames.

On the nerdy thing, I suppose that was debunked in two ways. One, at major tournaments there were BYOC areas (Bring Your Own Computer) where noncompetitors could set up for a couple days and play Warcraft or something. So it’s not antisocial, which was a stereotype. Quite the opposite. At the elite, top-teams level of esports, if anything there was an arrogance. Pretty normal stuff, though. A 20-year-old who’s very good at something tends to be cocky. Whether that’s skiing, performing arts, whatever. I liked most of the gamers whom I wrote about. They were an absolutely normal cross-section of young adults. In fact, in Dallas, I found a kind of outcast team of fuck-ups and tough-asses called Mug & Mouse that had gaming to bring them together and give them a positive pursuit.

Yanes: The gaming and esports industries have had to address their long standing racism and sexism. When researching and writing Game Boys, did you see signs of these behaviors?

Kane: I didn’t see any racism. It was largely a homogenous white crowd, though with a fair amount of Asians. But if a kid could play, the kid could play. Much like a cohesive sports team, the bond shared by a gaming team allowed for jokes about race and ball-busting that allowed kids to get past racial issues. But that’s in-person face-to-face exposure.

Of course, much of the racism and sexism is anonymous and comes from a distant keyboard. My research predated GamerGate. I’m not sure what can be done to change the immature nature of trolls operating in anonymity.

Interestingly, there wasn’t a lot of integration of women on the teams that I covered. But there was an all-women clan called PMS for Psychotic Man Slayers (which they changed to Pandora’s Mighty Soldiers after getting an endorsement with the sponsor thinking the original, cooler name was too off-putting). That all-girls clan was something of a stunt. Intentionally attractive girls who got sponsorships and a disproportionate amount of media attention because they were “girls in a boys world.” And they were savvy in self-packaging and promotion. And there was absolutely annoyance from the higher-ranked and more successful clans that the PMS team was getting more ink and camera time from local media segments. And more endorsements. Of course, the PMS girls were surprisingly polished at the media  game and were helping push the industry forward. But that was lost on other self-minded 20-year-olds. So that resentment I witnessed isn’t dissimilar to some of what went on during GamerGate.

Yanes: From a purely monetary perspective, what were some of the financial problems you observed esports having at the time?

Kane: Well, I was covering a nascent industry (esports, not video games in general of course) and nearly all of the clans were strapped for cash. Few had sponsorships, and what sponsorships that did exist were gaming-related. Intel threw some money at teams, as did NVIDIA. A lot of companies, Sennheiser headphones or maybe a mouse company would give a team free equipment. On the tournament-organizer level, some held a couple tourneys a year, made modest profits and cashed out. One in particular, Angel Munoz of Dallas, had a bad reputation for allegedly withholding prize money. It was very much a minor-leagues sensibility. Overall, in 2006 the biggest financial hurdle was trying to lure mainstream sponsors. There were only the beginnings of interest from people like Mountain Dew or energy-drink makers, for example.

Yanes: When people finish reading Game Boys, what do you hope that they take away from it?

Kane: Two things, in no particular order. One I mentioned earlier. That as a historical curiosity, Game Boys is filled with well-meaning people like Jason Lake, the coach and investor, who may well have simply been ahead of their time. Secondly, in writing my book as a sports narrative, I scrapped the pat newspaper conceit of “they’re just like athletes because they practice and travel and compete.” I mean, so do the cooks on Top Chef.

I discovered that team gamers, at least, were like athletes and thus esports was like sports because they acted like professional athletes. That’s inside the game — some were play callers, some were selfless defenders, others got all the shots. And outside the game, as well. Some griped because they weren’t getting enough shots. Weak members inside the game who were costing the team matches, and thus prize money, were sometimes ostracized outside the game. And then replaced. Or good players on so-so teams would jump to the elite teams for the prospect of making more money.

In short, all that’s positive and maybe plenty of what’s not so positive about modern professional sports leagues. That’s the story inside Game Boys that can’t be illustrated quickly in a side segment in a TV broadcast of an esports tournament.

Yanes: Finally, what are you working on that people can look forward to?

Kane: I’ve adapted Game Boys into a movie script, finishing just at the start of 2018 and I’ve found an agent, named Lou Pitt, to push the project. I’ve put the gamers in a high-school setting. The gaming team is the first of its kind at the school and the coach is an old jock gym teacher who’s forced to manage the team of misfits. It’s a comedy, and I think it can be funny and ring true because the old jock coach can follow the same path of understanding — the debunking of stereotypes and the appreciation of skills and the game as a new form of sport — that I discovered while researching and writing Game Boys.

You can learn more about Game Boys and Kane by visiting their homepage.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.


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