How esports are embroiled in a geopolitical call of duty

27 octobre 2020
By Professor Simon Chadwick, emlyon business school, France and Dr Paul Widdop, Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

In a recent ranking of First Person Shooter games, the website identified ‘Call of Duty: Warzone’ as one of the best ever. The website noted how the game ‘[twists] every element of battle royale into something that feels fresh, but still familiar – exciting, but accessible.’

For some people, the competitive gaming that forms the basis for Call of Duty is perhaps a little too fresh, hence many of them baulk at such games being labelled ‘sport’. Yet there is something so familiar about them that even the International Olympic Committee is examining where and how such games can become a part of sport’s biggest mega-event.

The IOC has already dismissed the possibility of shooting games being included in any of its future competitions. Indeed, when gaming was permitted as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games, the organisers took a similar stance. Instead, the roster of games used was Arena of ValorClash RoyaleHearthstoneLeague of LegendsPro Evolution Soccer, and StarCraft II.

As the debate about whether people sat at a computer-terminal challenging each other in fantasy online worlds is sport continues to rage, what is now labelled ‘esport’ has become a global commercial phenomenon. One estimate indicates that the industry might currently be generating $1.5 billion in revenues. By 2021, some industry experts are predicting that the annual esports audience will be heading towards 600 million.

Nowhere is the dramatic growth and commercial largesse of esports more evident than in the League of Legends (the World Championship of which has been taking place in Shanghai throughout October). During the same competition in 2019, more than 100 million people viewed the tournament, the audience peaking at 44 million viewers. This was hardly a surprise as it is not unusual for 8 million people to log in and simultaneously play the game.

The success of esports may seem to be an embodiment of free market economics and technological liberation. However, even the behemoth that is the League of Legends needs to be considered in a broader context. Indeed, across the esports landscape, what is rapidly emerging is a complex network of geopolitical issues that look set to shape its ecosystem over the coming years.

If there’s anything familiar about Call of Duty, perhaps it is that George Orwell’s famous quote about the Olympics still seems apt – it is war minus the shooting, or rather only with e-shooting. Yet the esports war appears to be imminent, and there is evidence that troops are massing on the frontline for literal and metaphorical battles.

For instance, it is notable that the United States Army already has a 16-member esports team that participates in livestreams of games including Call of Duty, Apex Legends and Fortnite. The army’s official position is that the team is a more effective means through which it can engage with young audiences and therefore boost recruitment.

However, this approach is mired in controversy indeed the team even went into a self-imposed pause earlier this year following criticism that had banned users who asked about US war crimes on its Twitch chat. Some commentators asserted that this violated users’ First Amendment rights.

In another incident, US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tabled an amendment that would stop the military from using esports for recruitment purposes. Although the amendment was defeated, the Army responded by introducing a set of guidelines restricting its Twitch channel to players who are 18 years old and over.

However, the army’s suggestion that its esports squad represents ‘a means of outreach, a way for soldiers to present a more personal, relatable side of themselves’ raises questions about the team’s ultimate role. Rather than just being a recruitment tool, could it ultimately serve as an instrument of soft power in engagements with overseas audiences? And could the channel serve diplomatic and international relations purposes?

The battle-lines are already being drawn across this terrain; when the League of Legends began at the end of September, Donald Trump was making bellicose noises that reverberated around the esports landscape. Having spent the last year pursuing both Huawei and TikTok, the president has recently set his sights on some of China’s other digital targets, one of which is Tencent.

Tencent is a Chinese multinational technology company, based in Shezhen. The company owns 93% of Riot Games, an American video game developer, publisher and esports tournament organiser. The biggest tournament it organises is the League of Legends, a competition which some observers claim China is in love with. Donald Trump is reportedly keen to clampdown on Tencent’s activities, security concerns being cited as the reason for his concerns.

At the very least, a tenacious Trump administration could damage Tencent and Riot Games’ commercial activities. But there could be broader economic, political and technological reasons for curbing their activities, as Washington seeks to exert its power over China’s growing influence in the digital space.

The weaponization of esports and gaming in this way has become increasingly evident over the last year. During the summer, when India and China clashed in a long running border dispute, heightened tensions led to the Indian government banning more than one hundred mobile phone apps from China.

At the time, the Indian government claimed the apps were detrimental to the country’s sovereignty and integrity, its defences, and state security and public order. The clear inference being that China was using the apps to spy on India and steal confidential data.

One of the banned apps was PUBG (Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds), an online multiplayer battle royale game developed and published by PUBG Corporation, a subsidiary of South Korean video game company Bluehole. In India, China’s Tencent was authorised to publish PUBG.

Though the esports action often appears to twist royale battles into something fresh but familiar, offline politicking seems to be paralleling it. Although esports are relatively new and still viewed with some cynicism by seasoned sports watchers, there is no doubt that Call of Duty, League of Legends, PUBG and others are quickly beginning to mimic the controversial politics of existing, off-line sports.


This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon
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