Gladiators to Gamers: The Evolution (or Lack Thereof) of Spectator Entertainment


Bread and circuses. A phrase coined to describe the appeasement of masses. It first referred to cheap food and entertainment used by Roman emperors to curry favor and rapidly gain influence. The Roman Empire has since fallen but the concept nevertheless remains.

Billions of people around the world tune in to radio and TV broadcasts of their favorite sports. The most recent 2014 FIFA World Cup received 3.2 billion viewers, almost half the world’s population. Biologically, it makes sense for the players themselves to feel an adrenaline rush and sense of accomplishment from winning each game, but what do spectators have to gain? The easy explanation is that watching sports is similar to watching a live-action movie. Perhaps you have team preferences based on their geographic locations. Or fan loyalty is a family tradition. Or their colorful mascot simply appeals more to you. No matter the case, one competitor is rewritten in your mind as the hero that must overcome conflict to defeat the villain, and you are invested in seeing them win.

NFL team Green Bay Packers fans colloquially called “cheeseheads”

The advent of more affordable and faster computers in the 21st century has driven the rise of e-sports, or competitive video gaming. With competition comes the same levels of enthusiasm and fanaticism seen in athletic sports but channeled into a different emotion, anger. A viral video of a German kid raging at his computer when failing to register for a tournament is an excellent case in point. Although the video was later revealed to be staged, the creator stated he wanted to parody the all-too-real emotions of a gamer.

Angry German kid. Full video at is a live-streaming service started in 2011 that now distributes gameplay to over 15 million daily viewers. It hosts 2 million monthly streamers for almost every video game on the market and has also expanded to music and real-life events. But what’s different about is the interactivity for viewers. Twitch incorporates a chatbox with a variety of emote icons as well as messages accompanying donations that facilitate direct communication between streamer and viewer.

Twitch chat spam. This is a relatively mild form when compared to other copypastas. compounds the active frustration experienced by the gamer by superimposing the taunting of viewers. This is especially evident in the game Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy which challenges the player to traverse an obstacle course of nigh impossible jumps with only a hammer. The game itself is already programmed to provoke the player with philosophical quotes about perseverance in the face of failure each time the player loses progress, and having to read a flood of laughing emotes would surely push the streamer over the edge, right? This brings me back to my original point: entertainment. Many of the streamer’s actions are exaggerated because he plays for an audience. It is without a doubt that players become invested in the game and experience a catharsis during frustrating gameplay but to what extent?

Losing all progress in Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). To be fair, the sign warned “Do Not Ride Snake.”

This question is especially relevant when discussing the now-popular League of Legends streamer Tyler1. Initially having a small following, Tyler1’s notoriety skyrocketed when he was indefinitely banned from the game for toxic language and intentionally dying. The #freetyler1 movement to unban him consequently exploded on Twitter with thousands of retweets, and despite Tyler1’s ban from League of Legends, he prospered as a Twitch streamer by playing other games. Tyler1’s hothead personality only seemed to grow more extravagant after such operant reinforcement. After petitioning for 2 years, Tyler1 was finally reinstated, and his first League of Legends stream received 400,000 concurrent viewers at its a peak, a record number for an individual streamer. The events surrounding Tyler1’s ban and reinstatement are comically dramatic for the billion-dollar company Riot Games that created League of Legends and rival the plot of a reality TV show.

Tyler1 is well-known for his outbursts of anger while playing League of Legends (2009)

Are e-sports simply a revamped version of gladiator games designed to entertain the masses? What role does a spectator analogous to the jeering crowds in an amphitheater play in polarizing performers? Is it even accurate to compare streamers to performers? Albeit interesting, these questions pale when considering the Hawthorne effect on a larger scale. News media today has a prominent role in agenda-setting, in which topics covered by reporters are deemed more important. This directs the populace’s view to controversial issues. How do world leaders react differently when they realize they are being watched?



GAME OR BUST. Probably Bust Though….

By: Squid


In King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters we witness the underdog, Steve, tackle the task of getting the world record score in the arcade classic Donkey Kong by practicing for hours a day and performing under pressure. The other side of the story shows a demigod of the arcade world, Billy, as he constantly displays a smug grin while maintaining his super star status from the comfort of his home. It really is a great story of a clash of titans that have mastered their craft to an uncomfortable level. By the end of the story, Steve’s works pays off and the audience is left with the knowledge that he successfully holds the top scores on Donkey Kong (live and recorded). Everything is right in the world – Billy and his goons don’t come out ahead, and the audience can stop feeling sorry for Steve. But what if he didn’t get the record? What if he just failed and I was just left there….cringing and feeling sorry for Steve, his wife, and his kids? Well, if that happened, Steve’s story would be like thousands of gamers around the world — thousands of gamers in the United States that all play the same game: League of Legends.

League of Legends is a notoriously addictive game. It has everything it needs to capture gamers and keep them playing the game. One of the biggest features of LoL is the immense professional scene that allows top gamers to make salaries and become famous like Billy Mitchell. But unlike Steve, most League of Legends players will never come close to becoming professional because they lack the work ethic and skill. The saddest stories are the players that come close to making it and end up failing; they put their money on the line, they move to a gaming house, take off college, and walk away with nothing…their dreams shattered. For young players that is a huge fear when trying to become the best. In Steve’s case, not as much was on the line, but he was clearly obsessed and had the risk of walking away as a failure who threw away valuable time.

Games can consume so much of an individual’s life. From the hours spend casually, to thousands of dollars gambled on the opportunity to become do what you love most, professional gaming is risky. When watching King of Kong, I couldn’t help but imagine the Steve that could have been: a sad, broken dude who obsessed over an arcade game. Steve is more than a character in a great documentary. He is a vivid example of what it takes to be a professional gamer; it’s hard; it requires countless hours of practice and dedication; you have to juggle real life with your dream; the chance of failure is high. In the end, you might fail….or you could play video games for a living….which is rad.

A Fist Full of… Drama

Being familiar with the competitive gaming culture around the game League of Legends, I have some basis for comparison when I watch King of Kong. In short, the competitive drama in King of Kong is when some people take something too seriously. And that is not a bad thing.

Having paid attention to what is basically the Major League of League of Legends, I know that what often excites people is the rivalries between the teams and players. In all honesty, much of the spectacular appeal in competitive events such as pro sports and competitive gaming lies in the people playing them, since the events themselves often do not have an interesting or existing narrative: watching Donkey Kong is watching a little man jumping over barrels and fireballs over and over, watching League of Legends is watching two teams of ten characters clobbering each other with fancy graphics, watching football (American or European) is watching a bunch of sweaty men/women going after a ball.

When the players generate drama between themselves, people pay attention. Famous biker is found to be doping? National television headlines the news. An American League of Legends player trash-talks another one on camera? Everyone posts the video on the front page of reddit. Drama between two Donkey Kong players? A documentary is made. These events draws attention from both the people who are familiar to the games and those who are not. I personally have not heard of Twin Galaxies and the competitive arcade culture until I saw the film. Drama generates excitement and exposure, and they in turn help legitimize competitive gaming.

Yes, I said “legitimize.” No, don’t pretend some of you don’t think gaming is dumb, with your jerseys and team paraphernalia. Joking aside, competitive gaming, much like competitive sports, puts the player or team on the spot, and often deemed the lesser if they are not successful or victorious. In situations like that, attitudes come into play, and people butt heads. Billy Mitchell probably believed he had to protect his position as the best player of Donkey Kong around, thus leading to some of his more unsavory comments. Perhaps Billy Mitchell is not the most likable person around, or perhaps he is a sore loser, but personalities like him create stories because of their undeniable skill set at their games and the drama they create.

FYI: Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe, and Walter Day are still involved in competitive gaming today. There are some videos of them playing in events on the Twin Galaxies website.