In 2012, author TL Taylor catalogued the rise of esports as it transitioned from a marginal, niche activity to something we might call mainstream today. In her book, Raising the Stakes: E-Sports and the Professionalization of Computer Gaming, Taylor wrote that esports—the act of playing video games so seriously that you achieve a level of mastery that is rare for a leisure activity—is compelling because we recognize how serious that commitment is.
Playing video games is commonplace, but playing video games this seriously, professionally, is less so.
For decades, of course, there have always community of players who value and champion this kind of play. For example, early arcade games had Twin Galaxies, an organization that verified high scores on arcade cabinets, and organized tournaments, like the Video Game Masters Tournament, for high level play. Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day was deeply committed to sustaining the scene.
Fast forward a dozen years, and the rise of id's video game Doom and the birth of LAN's and networked play starts to look similar to the esports of today, with large events like Quakecon, and big prize pools to go with. In one notable example, John Carmack's 1987 Ferrari and $5000 was the prize at the famous Red Annihilation tournament hosted at in 1997 at E3. At this year's DoTA 2 Championships, the prize pool for all involved totaled more than $18 million dollars.
If Netrunner is to truly grow, it will be up the community of players themselves to make that happen
Contrast these legitimately bonkers prize pools with what was on offer at this year's Netrunner World Championships in Roseville, Minnesota: a small trophy for the World Champion, more than a dozen playmats for the top sixteen players and some alternate art cards as participation prizes for everybody else. Netrunner might be one of the most rewarding competitive games to play in the world right now, but it's nowhere near as popular or as developed as its electronic brethren.
Why might this be? One possible reason is that Netrunner is still relatively new: the original game, designed by Richard Garfield for Wizards of the Coast in the 1990s, didn't last very long. Fantasy Flight's reboot was launched in 2012. I would proffer a possible second reason for Netrunner's relatively small competitive scene: the majority of the tournaments are those that are organized around Fantasy Flight's business model. If Netrunner is to truly grow, it will be up the community of players themselves to make that happen.
Netrunner, at first glance, might seem to be a very different game from what you'd typically consider esports. It's played at a real table, with a real human being sitting in front of you. You move real cards around on a table, and fiddle with real tokens. There is a tactile feel to it. But while Netrunner may be played offline, its community largely lives on the net.
Netrunner is defined heavily by the global "metagame," the game outside the game. There is a vibrant reddit Netrunner community, and several independent community hubs (most notably, Stimhack) with forums for players to talk. At the same time, there are several online deck building websites with a "social" component built into them: Netrunnerdb and Meteor. If you want to know how you rank globally with Netrunner players around the world: just pop over to acoo.net, where numerous tournament organizers post their game results. These digital spaces allow the community to reflect on the best decks, gossip about the best players, and speculate about new cards.
The professionalization of esports has been led by a game's biggest fans, rather than by the company who designed and sold it
It is also worth mentioning that Netrunner can also be played online, even if doing so is a pale imination of the real game: the tabletop software OCTGN as well as the browser based Jinteki.net offer free, (likely copyright violation-laden) digital alternatives. These two services link the global metagame together: they grease the space between the continents for global tournaments, such as the recent Stimhack invitation only 'Psi-Games' event.
The point to all this is that Netrunner is more than a board game; it is both geographically bound to local scenes of play as much as it is inextricably bound to its dedicated community of players online.
If you look at the history of esports an interesting pattern arises: the professionalization of it has been led by a game's biggest fans, rather than by the company who designed and sold it.
Video games used to be singular commodities which, once sold, were no longer in the hands of those who made them. Yet Netrunner has, until recently, mostly been defined by its creator, Fantasy Flight Games. The company's 'Organized Play' division sends out kits to stores, whose owners distribute the contents as participation prizes. These prizes come in the form of "alternate art" cards—cards that everybody likely already has, but with new art on them that are legal to play with. They also award moderately rare "playmats", rubberized plastic mats designed for Netrunner play. All of these prizes are signifiers of your dedication to the game and your skill, rather than anything akin to money and fortune.
The night before the World Championships were set to begin, my friends and I all agreed: these tournaments are cheap marketing for the game, and we are the vanguard of enthusiastic buyers, the faithful that buy new cards the day they are released. We are the people who invest our own time and energy into the game, and in the process, add real value that didn't exist before.
The lifeblood of this game is maintained and managed by the people who play, but the corporation that owns the game ultimately directs the community's flow. While it is clear that Fantasy Flight genuinely cares about the Netrunner community, there are visible fractures between what Fantasy Flight wants for its game (to sell more), and the community's desire to elevate the game to something akin to what we see with professional esports.
The cash prizes were announced to applause, but somebody jokingly called out: "It's ruining the game!"
Take the community organized, Android: Netrunner Pro Circuit King of Servers tournament, for example. The tournament was held the day before this year's World Championships, and the format was fantastic. Instead of playing as lone players, each team of four would play together, advancing together through the ranks. The team also had a deck-building limitation: every corporation and every runner faction (save for the new runner mini-factions) had to be represented. This meant that everybody on the team wouldn't be able to only play the most competitive decks: they would have to get creative and make sure to include typically weaker factions and still do well with them.
The prize support included dice, alternative art Jackson Howard (a previously notoriously hard-to-find and yet must-have card) and an acrylic Near-Earth Hub alternate ID (alternate IDs and alternate art cards are the only "rare" cards in the game). To top it off the tournament's entry fee was pooled to create a cash prize: the top four teams would win money.
The cash prizes were announced to applause, but somebody jokingly called out: "It's ruining the game!" The room laughed it off. At the end of the day, it's hard to imagine anybody being too upset about the winning teams walking away with a couple hundred dollars: all of the games I played were a lot of fun, and the participation prizes more than made up for the entry fee.
It was still a far cry from a 1987 Ferrari or an $18 million prize pool, but a small step towards what we've seen in esports: the community taking the lead and building what they want.