Esports Life: Episode One: Dreams of Glory, a $20 PC game that debuted on Steam on November 30, starts out like most every other poorly produced role-playing game: with a crippling character customization process. Are you a boy or girl? Blond or brunette? Full beard or gross teenage facial spots? Button-down or graphic tee? Given that this is a video game that lets you live out the fantasy of playing video games, what sort of video game player do you want to be?
I name my teen Melvin and give him a varsity jacket and thick-rimmed glasses. The game drops Melvin into his suburban living room, and his phone rings. When I click “Answer” or “Connect” or whatever dialogue box comes up, I am for some reason thrust into an emoji-laden text message conversation with Melvin’s best friend Mike.
Mike, it turns out, just scored some sweet tickets to the big esports tournament at the arena downtown. The game gives me two dialogue boxes, something to the effect of: “What is esports?” and “Let’s go!”
I happen to know, thanks to my malfunctioning five-year-old Windows desktop, that it doesn’t matter which answer I select. Either way, Mike responds similarly and the character ends up at an esports tournament. So there I am, sitting in front of a computer playing a video game watching Melvin sitting in an arena watching other people on computers playing video games.
Esports Life, it really does bear repeating, is a video game about playing video games. In the second of many scripted scenes, at the esports tournament, Melvin and Mike meet an esports pro named Malatute. Mike says that I, Melvin, want to be an esports star (Melvin has never said this). “Don’t do it,” Malatute warns. “It’s really stressful and you’ll retire early.” There’s an awkward beat. Then two and three. “It was a joke!” Malatute finally exclaims. Ha...?
The fact of the matter is Malatute’s “joke” is spot on. Professional esports is fairly miserable, involving little control over your work environment, intense stress levels, careers that typically end in your early 20s, and probably lots of Adderall. Of course, video games are all about stripping the consequences from an activity — war without death, football without commercials, being an epic guitar player without years of learning musical skills — leaving only the fun.
Except that in Esports Life, there is no fun.
Back to the plot. The school bully, Russell, stole Mike’s laptop (“Shut up kid. I’m just doing my job as a bully :)”) and challenges Mike and Melvin to a game of esports to get it back. Melvin, who has never esports’d before, must train at a cybercafe by playing two-minute arcade-y games that are named like bad Counter Strike or DOTA knockoffs but make Oregon Trail seem like a modern technological marvel. The Counter Strike-esque game is no more than clicking on little action figures that pop up on a bland background. The DOTA game is… exactly the same.
Melvin can also train by — hold on to your meta-butts — watching fictional pro e-athletes play. Again, for some inexplicable reason, selecting this option only leads to a two-minute emoji pattern-matching game fit for preschoolers.
I don’t want to bore you with the game’s mechanical details, because let me assure you they are profoundly boring. The rest of the game that isn’t playing tortuous mini-games is akin to babysitting a Tamagotchi. When Melvin gets stressed, I make him chat with friends. When he gets tired, I make him go home and sleep. There are lots of progress bars.
There are many video games based around building a career: setting up a farm, driving a truck, managing a football team. This is an absurd phenomenon on its own, but at least those games simulate an activity the player typically does not have access to.
There is of course a gap between the average video game player, who gets no recognition for playing in their bedroom at home, and the pro esports player, who performs in front of a crowd and earns millions of dollars. Perhaps there are some people who want to play out the fantasy of being the video game equivalent of a rockstar, but I am afraid to go down that rabbit hole. Why would anyone prefer to fake train an avatar to be fake good at fake video games when they could just play another, better video game? Help me understand this if you can, please.
In case you disagree with me that the premise of the game is insanely unfun and are considering purchasing it, let me caution that the game is also mindbogglingly buggy. Easily the most challenging aspect of the game is getting it to respond to my mouse movements and clicks. Melvin, who I created with shaggy, short brown hair, sometimes appears with straight, long black hair. Occasionally, the camera gets stuck behind a wall.
As I click and drag myself into futility, I consider things from Melvin’s perspective. He knows he has to do something, but he just can’t do it, as if a dense fog has cut off his senses and short-circuited the electrical pulses throughout the body. Melvin, midway through high school, is the same age I was when I started to feel like a dense fog would suddenly roll in, cut off my senses and short-circuit the electrical pulses throughout my body. I never realized how much depression feels like you’re a character in a buggy video game.
I never realized how much depression feels like you’re a character in a buggy video game.
For another two hours, Melvin goes on like this. Playing bad video games, having stunted conversations at the mall or burger bar with acquaintances he never really gets to know, getting yelled at by his mom for not taking out the garbage, flirting with girls through randomly generated guesses about their interests (“Tennis, pets, and documentaries?”). All to accomplish some arbitrary goal he doesn’t fully understand. — ”What even is esports?” — for a future he’s hardly keen to experience. Ten years ago I was going on like this, and now I am here, going on like this once more.
Eventually, Melvin runs out of money to train at the cybercafe. I think there are supposed to be ways to make more money and advance much further into the game, but I couldn’t find them. There are no more chores to do at home to earn extra cash, which is the only way Melvin can earn money other than Mike’s handouts. He goes from school to home in the hopes that there’s some money today, but there isn’t. He’s stuck in a perpetual loop. He can’t get any better and he can’t go anywhere. It’s at this moment that I wonder if the creators of Esports Life intended it to be social commentary. Perhaps we will find out in Part 2.