Games and eSports: expanding participation opportunities
Games and eSports: expanding participation opportunities
Gaming has gained mass-market appeal thanks to global connectivity and improved, powerful hardware that now comes at a "more affordable" price tag. An estimated 34 million Germans play computer and video games using a host of different devices. Between three and four million of them fall into the eSports category. REHACARE.com has taken a closer look to find out why some German institutions have difficulties defining eSports as real sports and examined how sports simulation games offer people with disabilities the opportunity to participate.
Soccer has long been played not only on the pitch, but also in living rooms on the consoles of the world.
Müller attacks down the right flank, Lewandowski cuts into the middle and heads the ball – Goal! This gives FC Bayern Munich the lead. Can its opponent recover after this?
Esports has become a social movement
Inevitably, the just described soccer scenario evokes scenes we have all heard and seen many times. You are probably not thinking of analog sticks being moved by somebody to make Thomas Müller run down the right side, a button that is pressed to perform a flanking maneuver and another press of the button to get the famous Polish striker who has run into position to play the header. Regardless of whether it’s a real game or a game played on the computer or a console, the shouts from fans or the heart-racing moments of bliss are the same - at least when it comes to FC Bayern Munich. Just like their real world counterparts, soccer simulation games like FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer are immensely popular – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s you who controls the players or whether you watch the actual "professional players" on a big screen during a live event. We are talking about eSports and its community that is growing by the day and is crazy about this movement. No other types of sports have ever grown as fast as the virtual competitive games with the controller or keyboard.
While umbrella organizations and policy-makers have not fully accepted this development or are unwilling to define this activity as a sport, the industry, as well as the number of fans of these types of competitions, is growing fast. Hans Jagnow, the President of the German Esports Federation, which was founded in 2017 knows how massive the movement is at this point. "Esports is a huge social movement. Between three and four million Germans are fans of eSports. That is a large number of people who will play games no matter what the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) or policy-makers say." Just ask young people about their dream job. Apart from becoming an influencer, eAthlete will often come up as a preferred career choice. So you can either roll your eyes and dismiss this as a pipedream of young people with dismal prospects for success, or you can acknowledge eSports as a phenomenon that can definitely earn money. It requires commitment, passion and some talent - just like "real" sports. Some professional gamers are actually making a good living from their "hobby". Events are filling massive stadiums and halls with major, well-known companies sponsoring these eSports tournaments. There is also global live-streaming. Total prize money can range from tens of thousands of dollars up to several million.
In addition to the conventional controller, an Xbox variant for people with disabilities has been available since last year. Microsoft has cooperated with several providers of innovative gaming aids to ensure that as many individual enhancements as possible can be made.
Are eSports real sports?
As is the case with digitization, Germany could also up the ante when it comes to eSports because there is still a lack of an official, professional structure. Other countries like Denmark, France or the U.S. are much further along on the spectrum. Yet the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) and the German Disabled Sports Association (DBS) do not recognize eSports as a sport. A DBS statement from November of last year reads: "The DBS fundamentally does not consider eSports a real sport." Meanwhile, the President of the German Esports Federation (ESBD) believes that’s a mistake and underpins in an interview with REHACARE.com, "the ESBD represents the interests of organized eSports in Germany and we adamantly maintain that eSports are a real sport in our opinion. We consider the reservations of the DOSB and its member organizations to be factually unfounded. They are based on gut feelings and not substantiated by actual sports criteria." The ESBD points to a definite physical strain in eSports. Athletes often perform 400 keystrokes or characters per minute. "These are much faster speeds and higher level skills than are required of the average executive assistant." Esports competitors are also highly accomplished in response times and concentration. After all, they have to quickly process what happens on the screen and respond accordingly – the best athletes perfectly blend speed with strategy.
"This is our big chance to shape this industry and correlate it with true sportsmanship, which includes respect, fair play, and tolerance but also internationality and a conscious commitment to internationality. Most notably, we help to guide young people in this aspect by showing that this is a sport they can play at home in their living room. But if they want to get better at it and look for community relations, they are encouraged to join a local eSports club or visit one of the major tournaments and meet other gamers. This is an area we can help shape as an association. Those you actively oppose this don’t recognize their share of social responsibility," says Jagnow. That being said, the DBS does not fully reject the new sports movement. Even though the association does not consider eSports a real sport, DBS Secretary General Thomas Urban said in November, "eSports gives people with mobility impairments more opportunities for active participation and social interaction."
Niklas Luginsland, who lives with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, has made it into the professional league of the VfB Stuttgart. Esports gives people the chance to meet others, connect and play beyond any physical obstacles. The athlete confessed during the recent German Esports Summit that he would otherwise not be able to play soccer. The console affords him an equal opportunity to participate in his beloved sport.
Since there is more scope for people with disabilities in terms of hardware and in-game options, more positive storylines may be the next step towards inclusion.
Accessibility and the ability to include ALL players
Needless to say, even in the gaming industry, everything that glitters is not gold. At the Summit in Berlin, Maxi Gräff has ruled out 100 percent accessibility since all disabilities are unique. However, it is a step in the right direction when companies like Microsoft - where Gräff is the Marketing Communications Manager - take charge and accept their social responsibility. The tech company’s Xbox Adaptive Controller has given people with disabilities a tool to take participation – quite literally – into their own hands (or feet) in a more cost-effective and less complicated manner. But the controller is by far not the be all and end all and should be continuously improved. But Microsoft has even more in store for gamers. In the U.S., Bryce Johnson at the "Inclusive Tech Lab" is working on ways to improve the gaming experience and performance. Johnson is also behind the Adaptive Controller, which he first conceived at the company's Hackathon 2015, but quickly realized how expensive it is to create custom controllers. Now he wants to make the Adaptive Controller and all of its accessories more affordable and accommodate more people who were previously excluded from gaming.
After the "right" hardware, maybe there will soon be contents that feature people with disabilities in a positive way and create visibility in society by making them an integral part of it. Unfortunately, video game characters with disabilities are few and far between. And the ones that are out there usually reinforce negative ideas. The popular 3D adventure game Life is Strange features a parallel narrative where protagonist Chloe is disabled in a wheelchair after a car accident. At the end of the episode, the player has to decide whether he or she will accept Chloe’s request for euthanasia. Or take last year’s adventure game success Detroit: Become Human. It also has a disabled character in a wheelchair. Carl - the owner of Markus, one of the game’s protagonists – also tells his android that he wants to die. Meanwhile, there are (still) no good role models that have a positive storyline because of or at least despite of their disability.
To change all that, blogger and passionate gamer Melanie Eilert wants to increase awareness - not just when it comes to storytelling in games, but also in terms of their development. The expert who made the Rhineland her home not only extensively tested Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller, but she also recently gave a lecture on "Gaming accessibility and disability representation in media/games" in front of students at the CologneGameLab of the Technical University of Cologne. Her interview with REHACARE.com discussed role models in video game stories and general video gaming accessibility.
The fact is, eSports or gaming in general has more possibilities to unite players from all over the world – regardless of possible disabilities or barriers. And so this pastime also offers opportunities to make a difference in the real world when it comes to inclusion.
Beneficial positive synergies
While this is primarily a movement fueled by younger players – nearly three-quarters of the world's athletes are between 16 and 34 years old – it will sooner or later include older people as well. After all, today’s gamers will soon be older, too. Meanwhile, older people already reap the benefits of advances in gamification and video games in rehabilitation or healthcare settings. The impact in these areas is likely to grow in the coming years, provided that the companies involved in the research and development consider the needs of all players/users.
The German Sport University Cologne conducted and published the eSport study 2019. It suggests that sport and eSports are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Of the nearly 1,200 eAthletes who participated in the study, roughly 84 percent are also active in traditional sports to complement their online performance. Nevertheless, the study also revealed that only half of the respondents spend two and a half hours each week on physical activity as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Every fourth participant is actually overweight. That’s why eAthletes are part of an at-risk group for poor health since they spend a lot of time sitting – an average of nearly 25 hours per week.
Having said that, it is only a matter of time before there are training concepts that support both amateur athletes in achieving better results on the console or computer and improve basic health. After all, a healthy eAthlete is simply a better eAthlete. And who knows? Maybe eSports might soon become an Olympic sport after all or assume a similar position in the DOSB universe as the Paralympic Games, which have their own structures for competition. Speaking of Paralympics: For Tokyo2020 there will even be a separate game for the games.
Esports hasn’t quite carved its niche yet in Germany’s sports landscape. However, there are obvious synergies between real and digital sports, especially because it affords people with disabilities unique opportunities for participation and is a way to attract younger people to join clubs, particularly in light of aging and declining memberships in traditional sports clubs and associations. This would also greatly benefit society.
Incidentally, the previous REHACARE trade fair has shown how eSports and traditional sports can co-exist. Last year, visitors were able to compete against professional players of FC Schalke 04 in a friendly game of Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA and try out new kinds of sports in Hall 7a.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com