Xbox at the X Games hit viewers as something out of The X-Files.
So, when the made-for-ESPN event handed out medals for playing a video game this weekend, a woman who earned an X Game bronze by risking limb more than life cried foul.
— Kristi Leskinen (@KristiLeskinen) January 31, 2016
Perhaps the lady doth protest too much. Both extreme sports and esports can prove hazardous to one’s health. Snowmobiler Caleb Moore died at the X Games three years ago. A teenager in Russia died last year after playing Defense of the Ancients for 22 days straight with short breaks for sleeping, eating, and other gaming distractions that surely become superfluous once we eventually meld with the machines we play.
Okay, thrombosis rates as a very different demise from death via snowmobile backflip. And that’s likely Kristi Leskinen’s point. Sedentary pursuits, even somewhat cerebral and certainly competitive sedentary pursuits, go together with dare-devil stunts like mayonnaise and mint-chocolate chip. There’s nothing vicarious about becoming your own avatar on a half-pipe, and adrenaline junkies, as a general rule, don’t endure sudden coagulation of their pumping blood before they can legally vote.
Dudes sitting on the couch equated to athletes flying through the air belongs to a category beyond “category mistake.” Zealous pursuit of the former (in?)activity produces amoeba-like teenagers with Dracula’s complexion and Napoleon Dynamite’s social skills; of the latter pursuit, taut bodies, winter sun burns, and admiration rather than alienation from the opposite sex follow.
But America didn’t always accept extreme sports athletes as the cool kids.
“When I think about where esports is today, it’s not that different from where ‘extreme sports’ was in the ’90s—basically earning its place in mainstream culture and amassing viewership over time,” Kiki Wolfkill, one of the creative forces behind Halo 5: Guardians, points out. “So when the opportunity arose for Halo to represent esports at the X Games, it was an absolute no-brainer for us to try and tell the Halo esports story here in Aspen.”
Indeed, Winter Olympics traditionalists object to extreme sports invading their snow-covered turf the way Kristi Leskinen disapproves of Atari—that’s the popular console, right?—at the X Games.
The economics of ESPN going full gamer seem sound. The revenue of the NFLMLBNBANHL does not even constitute half the annual income of the video game industry. Traditional viewers of the four-letter network undoubtedly uttered four-letter words watching screens showing other people watching screens. But ESPN executives like what they see in video gaming because they see dollar signs amidst the pixels. It guarantees the network not only a built-in audience but also advertisers eager to peddle their games directly to the people most interested in playing them.
The idea of watching a friend playing Burger Time conjures up more than one person’s version of hell (Hell is other people…playing Burger Time?). But a massive number of young people enjoy playing video games and smaller but still sizable numbers enjoy watching other people play video games. Maybe they all imagine themselves as the guy with the controller imagining himself as Master Chief Petty Officer John-117. Vicariousness by proxy—that’s weird. But so is fantasizing that the characters on The Real World compose your social circle.
If Reagan-era ESPN could ply viewers with logrollers, bowlers, and Nick Bockwinkel versus Larry Zbyszko for the AWA heavyweight championship, then ESPN 2016 doesn’t stray so far from its roots in broadcasting esports. The network’s “E” stands for “Entertainment,” after all. And in a cable-television world in which the History Channel plays Ancient Aliens and MTV morphed into the teenage pregnancy channel, ESPN airing esports represents relatively minor mission creep. If it makes dollars for the Walt Disney Company, surely even Mickey Mouse understands it makes sense.
That doesn’t mean it should, or even could, make sense to freestyle skier/pole vaulter/rock climber/wake boarder Kristi Leskinen. The ESPN visual of passive young men on comfy chairs in front of screens in a climate-controlled environment appears as the opposite of Leskinen nailing an upside down 720 high above the snowpack.
One can easily confuse earth for sky in such a disoriented position. But imagining sitting as sport comes with great difficulty after experiencing the world from that perspective.
Kristi Leskinen, a woman who knows something gravity pulling the blood in her body to her brain, thinks the world has turned upside down.