photographs by Angelo Valdivia
Calling a Mario Kart 8 tournament an eSports event is a bold move. When people think about eSports, they picture about the world's best gamers playing intricate, strategic titles like StarCraft and Dota 2, where professionals strap their wrists and exercise their index fingers, knowing that in their 30s they'll age out of top-level competition and will no longer be able to compete for million-dollar prize pools. When people think about eSports, their mind's eye isn't ablaze with randomized weapons and blue shells, seeing the player in last position hitting the race leader with an unavoidable lightning bolt as they go over a jump.
The Mario Kart 8 Ultimate Challenge, hosted on August the 6th by the Esports Gamers League in Adelaide, South Australia, was billed as "the first ever major eSport event" to hit the city. When I speak to Tom Radmonski, the event's organizer, he acknowledged the potential debate around his terminology.
I know that, with Mario Kart, calling this an eSports tournament is a very loose use of the term. – Tom Radmonski
"I know that, with Mario Kart, calling this an eSports tournament is a very loose use of the term," he tells me. "From my point of view, eSports is any sort of electronic game that is competitive. I think that as long as you live with that terminology, any type of competition done by a game at any type of level could be called eSports."
There's an interesting distinction here between sports and eSports, which perhaps ties directly to that grammatically odd capital S that has ensured the use of the word as a proper noun, a name for something very specific. Sport can something enjoyed casually: a Sunday tennis match between friends, a mixed company softball team that genuinely doesn't care if it wins or loses the season, an indoor football team made up of tired dads who want to lose weight. But eSports, traditionally, is a term only applied to professionals taking select games designated "worthy" very seriously.
At the Mario Kart 8 Ultimate Challenge, there were only a handful of people taking the game seriously. By the time the competition reached the semi-finals there were all of 30 spectators left, the rest having left hours ago as the 67 competitors—well below the 400 the organizers anticipated—were whittled down. The man who eventually comes third, Jacob Aiossa, entered with no intention of winning, and spoke with me after the final race: "I thought it would just be a bit of fun. And then I got here and started winning, and just kept going." Jacob didn't follow eSports beyond following a few streamers, and hadn't considered Mario Kart 8 as a game with eSports potential until participating in Ultimate Challenge. "I always thought of it as the party game that everyone goes to."
Even Radmonski doesn't seem to take Nintendo's racer all that seriously. "Mario Kart 8 is a stepping stone for us. We're not stuck on it. From our perspective, it's a matter of starting here and seeing where we go. Whether that's Dota 2 or Counter-Strike: GO or League of Legends or something like that, who knows."
Of all the people in attendance, the one who seems to take the possibility of Mario Kart 8 as an eSport the most seriously—even over the eventual winner, Marley James, a young man who speedruns the game for fun and has a playtime of over 1,500 hours—is South Australian senator Nick Xenophon. Xenophon, who a week earlier announced his intentions to introduce a bill into parliament calling for the reclassification of certain online games as a form of gambling (thanks largely to a misunderstanding of how Counter Strike works), makes a very brief appearance at the event.
Two days later, Xenophon would put out a press release that named Mario Kart specifically in his crusade against underage gambling: "Mario Kart is a fantastic game that many millions of people around the world have enjoyed, but there are legitimate questions to ask about a kids game being used as a vehicle for online bookmakers and for gambling." Whether Xenophon believed that there was gambling happening at the event, or whether he simply had a strange interpretation of how the tournament was run—there was a $25 entrance fee, with a top prize of $1,500 available—is unclear.
As an outsider, the distinctions that others might make between Mario Kart 8 and other, more 'serious' eSports games, aren't there.
What is clear, though, is that Xenophon considered this a proper sporting event, one that attracted the same potential issues that any sport can. As an outsider, the distinctions that others might make between Mario Kart 8 and other, more "serious" games, aren't there. When you take away the question of what can or can't be an eSport, of what games need to do to qualify as eSports, it makes sense to look at a huge group of people playing a game competitively, hoping to win a prize at the end, and call it sport. For all its issues, the Mario Kart 8 Ultimate Challenge showed how this cartoony, cacophonous, fun game could work as an eSports experience, albeit one that would be very different from what typical punters are used to.
Mario Kart 8, for what it's worth to the argument I'm about to make, is a brilliant game. It's easily the best Mario Kart ever released. The track designs are wonderful, the weapon balance (Spiny Shell aside) feels right, and there's definite scope for planning and strategy. But it wasn't until the game's final DLC release, which added in a 200CC mode for all players alongside its pay-walled extra tracks, cars, and characters, that the game's real competitive potential emerged. The final two rounds of the competition, when the race speed was increased from 150 to 200CC, were by far the most fun to watch.
What becomes clear when watching Mario Kart 8 played at a particularly high level is that luck plays a much smaller part in who wins than detractors might assume. When you see a player build up such an impressive lead that the Spiny Shell (the deadly blue one) isn't enough to ruin their race, or hold onto their Super Horn despite an impending shell attack because they know they can outrun it on the next corner, or quickly flick the "look behind you" button and take out a chasing opponent before lining themselves up for a precision bend, it's hard to chalk victories up to fortune. In different speed grades, the point at which power slides must start differs greatly, as does one's approach to jumps—there's rarely a reason not to tap the trigger for a boost as you go over a jump at 150CC, but at 200CC those can make you overshoot off the track or into a wall. Marley James wins because he understands all of this, not because he gets a red shell at just the right time.
Watching these strategies unfold was hugely exciting. In the semi-finals, I saw a shortcut in the DK Jungle circuit used in a way I'd never seen before, as a player drove up a ridge leading to a boost jump but purposely slipped off the end right before the boost, knowing that they would get more speed and better positioning from sliding around the corner on the lower portion of the track. In Sherbet Land, power slides were navigated and planned so skillfully that the players seemed at constant risk of overshooting, banging against walls – but the winner never did. Mushrooms were hoarded for shortcuts that required them, activated right at the apex of a slide boost, the tiny bounce of the kart activated at the exact time required to minimize the speed lost from traveling over grass. It was incredible.
So if high-level Mario Kart 8 is tremendously exhilarating and fun to watch, then why isn't it being taken seriously as a potential eSport? In gaming parlance, there has long been a casual/hardcore divide between the games that are easy to pick up and play and those that require hours of practice and patience just to learn the fundamentals. In professional sports, this divide often boils down to an issue of athleticism—the world's best basketball player is going to be more famous and earn more money than the top competitors in bowling, darts, pool and chess. But "sport" is a term that embraces a wide variety of disciplines and activities.
Mario Kart 8 was chosen for this event for its accessibility. "I'm sure that if you talk to anyone, you'll find that Mario Kart is one of the best-known games (series) in the world," Radmonski theorises. "The Esports Gamers League is not designed for the one percent—it's for the other 99. It's to provide a fun, safe atmosphere, and for people to come together the way they would for any sport. The changing face of eSports will make it seem, in the next couple of years, that we're just another notch in the [growth of these] sporting contests." It's that very same accessibility, though, that has prevented the game from being called an eSport.
For a game like Mario Kart 8 to ever really emerge as a "genuine" eSport, our idea of what eSports are would have to shift. We'd need to think of eSports as something that isn't reserved for the absolute best in the world, and start taking the legitimacy of minor gaming competitions more seriously. There's plenty of talk about how seriously eSports should be taken, of the relevancy of eSports as a profession, to the point where the Olympic viability is a topic of debate. But perhaps for eSports to really expand, to truly meet its potential, we also need to think about how we could use the term in less serious contexts.
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