In CoD We Trust: eSports as American as hotdogs and dead presidents

By Matt Martin, Friday, 10 April 2015 11:57 GMT

Three days at the Call of Duty Championships has Matt Martin wallowing in the best of American pop culture.

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“It’s not stage-managed like wrestling, nor as barbaric as MMA. It’s aggression channelled through avatars and filtered with glossy glitter cannons and a new motormouth terminology.”

At this year’s Call of Duty Championship the most popular matches took place in Uplink, a completely ridiculous game mode that mashes ball sports and high-powered weaponry to hilarious effect. How do you make war better? Add a football!

It’s preposterous and completely amazing to watch. It’s a 1970s vision of future sci-fi sports made as real as possible without actually killing other players. Like Rollerball and Harlem Heroes in combat fatigues, where players showboat as they score. That wasn’t just a point to the team, it was a 360 slamdunk immediately after a split second kill.

Of course the commentators – junior TV broadcasters in pop’s hand-me-down suit – never use the word “kill”. That would have negative connotations. Although we sit here watching competitive virtual gunplay between players just old enough to enlist, the subject of violence as sports entertainment is glossed over. It’s not stage-managed like wrestling, nor as barbaric as MMA. It’s aggression channelled through avatars and filtered with glossy glitter cannons and a new motormouth terminology.

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The Call of Duty Championship is as American as spectacle as you’ll ever see. Fittingly the non-US teams were almost all knocked out in the first day, completely outclassed by a different culture of training and a winning mentality. This is killing and consumption. It’s Call of Duty Championship Presented By Xbox. Don’t forget to get you souvenir t-shirt and hat before coming back to see Denial humiliate another team of losers. The banners and big screens, the huge trophy, the chunky platinum rings and $100,000 cheques reflect the glory that waits for the winning team.

This safe, regulated warzone is clinical, with even the four-player teams boxed off behind glass that mutes their screaming mic chatter. You can’t get close because that would break the illusion. Like actors from a Disney Studio, there’s a barrier between them and reality. Swearing and sweat and smoke and sex doesn’t exist here. Just sponsorship and smiles and damn good gameplay. These guys stand tall as the country’s best in class athletes.

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To state that eSports is a thing; that players make a living from it, that hundreds of thousands of fans tune in to watch it, that it’s a legitimate business and form of entertainment is obvious. It’s like saying “games are as big as movies now.” It’s like talking about EVE’s in-house economist with wide eyes. No shit. It’s a real thing and it has been for years. It’s something big and amazing built from nothing. It’s a manufactured sports spectacle and an absolute delight to sit in front of, mesmerised by the lightning quick reactions, the top plays. Those commentators and broadcasters are crucial. They make a bewildering experience accessible.

Man versus man filtered through video game is the best of American pop culture. It’s the almost mythical America I know from movies and hiphop, from the art of Aye Jay and Sucklord. It’s Chuck Taylor’s All Stars, Pen & Pixel, Monster Truck racing, sugar-coated Lucky Charms, a Kennedy headshot and meat patties with extra bacon. It’s something worth billions through dedicated hard work, brash promotion and the click-clack soundtrack of a loaded gun.

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