A lunch date with Melek Balgün can be a lengthy affair. Japanese delights abound on our table as the 29-year-old talks animatedly, her eyes wide with excitement. And indeed, life is very exciting for her right now. She has just been nominated for a Grimme-Preis award in the Information and Culture category for her work as a presenter on the television program Art of Gaming, on Europe’s Arte network.
It’s an incredible achievement. “Surreal” as she puts it, considering the journey her sport has taken. Until recently, eSports was followed solely in geeky circles, but it’s now well on its way to global conquest as the digital game events fill entire arenas with dedicated fans.
Computer games are Balgün’s passion – she’s been playing them ever since she was able to sit up on her own. Not only did she grow up in a home with four computers, her best friend’s dad was also a computer scientist. When visiting her friend, she would often see him working on computers in his workshop. “I quickly realized it was something I wanted to do, too,” explains Balgün.
Not for girls?
By ninth grade, Balgün was reading IT magazines rather than teen magazines, and was the only girl in the after-school computer club. The boys sitting behind her would often play Counter-Strike, a multiplayer game that became the subject of controversy because of its alleged glorification of violence. The boys in the club would often laugh and whoop while playing, so Balgün asked to join in. They said the game wasn’t for girls.
This set everything in motion, recalls Balgün. After school, she stopped to visit a neighbour who was an IT technician, and the next day, her network was all set up. “I played against my little brother. After a few weeks I was so good, I beat the boys from the computer club.”
I played against my little brother. After a few weeks I was so good, I beat the boys from the computer club.”
That was all 15 years ago. Gaming has since gone from being a hobby for computer geeks to a mass phenomenon – and even a cultural one. Today, computer games are featured at MoMA. In Norway and Sweden, eSports are taught in school, and the first eSports degree program is being launched in the United Kingdom. Major soccer clubs like Schalke 04 have signed contracts with gamers. And Mercedes-Benz has been partnering with the Electronic Sports League (ESL), the largest and oldest eSports league, since 2017.
In recent years, the world’s top gamers have been able to fully dedicate themselves to their discipline. With worldwide eSports audiences now in the hundreds of millions, their activities are followed by everyone from middle-aged family men who like to play football on their PlayStation on weekends to teenage aficionados of League of Legends, a fantasy computer game teeming with mythical creatures. LoL, as it’s known, can be played from any place at any time – free of charge at first, though most gamers eventually opt to pay for the chance to compete against better “champions.” Every month, some 85 million people log on to compete in five-player teams, using a virtual map to storm their opponents’ headquarters.
A new kind of athlete
Mastering League of Legends can also earn you millions. There are around 10,000 professional gamers in the world today. Making up to eight decisions per second – 480 per minute – they have fared better than top US Air Force pilots in tests. Top-level teams will have gone through every possible scenario together so many times, they intuitively know what moves their teammates are going to make.
Elite gaming has given rise to a new type of athlete: quiet, polite, focused, with remarkable hand–eye coordination and concentration. In an analog world, the eSports stars of today might have become pianists, violin virtuosos, brain surgeons or the like. But the digital sphere is where their virtuosity thrives.
To put their art into words and to make it more accessible, they need presenters – people like Melek Balgün, who was herself a pro gamer for many years and now regularly commentates events such as Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, sometimes for crowds of 18,000, while the footage is projected onto big screens. “Not everyone is lucky enough to witness a sport evolve in the way eSports has. That’s why we’re all a bit emotional at the moment,” she explains. “Our community is growing, but I still feel that strong sense of solidarity from my first years on the scene.” She routinely uses “we” to refer to the gamer community, making it sound like this consists of only a few hundred people as opposed to many millions.
In 2017, Balgün completed her degree in international marketing. She now works as a freelance presenter. Art of Gaming is just one of her many projects. For example, she and a French colleague work with scientists to investigate what makes people want to game so badly. There is, clearly, a lot to talk about.