I said I’d been working on TN content. Well here is the first slice.
For a long time I’ve been curious about the names people use in online spaces. This fascination grew as I began to watch eSports and saw how commentators / casters have to navigate a complex name space to make sense of the on-screen action. My fascination has turned into several thousand words exploring the way names are used in a number of eSports contexts. Here is the first part of the jottings, the second part is on StarCraft, Race and Culture.
Part 1: What’s your name?
When you listen closely to an eSports commentary you will hear lots names used, the curious thing is that many of these names will refer to the same thing but the caster with swap between one name or another with fluidity that can be a little confusing to the new viewer.
For example, let’s look at a League of Legends players on Team Dignitas, the names that can successfully identify a single actor and so are available to a caster include:
- Gamer handle: KiWiKiD
- Legal Name: Alan Nguyen
- Full gamer handle: Dignitas- KiWiKiD
- Champion (character) name: Vi, Akali, Malphite etc
- Role: Top Laner
- Team: Dignitas
- Twitter: @dKiWiKiD
- Facebook: KiWiKiDLoL
Ostensibly all of these things pick out the same thing in the world. From a practical perspective when a caster uses one of these names an actor is identified so that the viewer understands some aspect of the on-going game. However, names contain nuance. The choice of the use of one name over another indexes or draws attention to something other than mere functional identification.
What I want to examine here is what work the choice of name is doing. Why would a caster use one over another, what would the literate viewer understand from the choices, and what factors influence the choice.
In Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBAs) games such as League of Legends, DOTA, SMITE etc, casters deploy a range of naming strategies during a match. What’s more different casters and events will differ in the dominant strategy being deployed.
Handle v Character
The to dominant naming strategies in MOBA casting are Gamer Handle and Character. There are good reasons to use either of these – the choice probably lies in caster skill and audience literacy.
The use of Character name may appear odd to some, particularly in MOBAs. This is because there are many Characters and any combination (within the limits of team size) could be used in any given match. What’s more, any given Character may be used by different players or teams during the course of a competition. Thus there is a highly transitory relationship between Character name and individual, so it would seem that the use of Character name would be a bad choice to pick out individual actors or actions.
But, there’s a good reason for the use of the Character. Firstly, in any given match there is only one instance of any given Character – so there is uniqueness at least for a period.
The visual representation that the spectator sees and the commentator tends to be pointing out is the Character. To put it another way, it does not matter which player is playing a given Character that Character is always going to the same: Akali will always look like Akali (roughly speaking anyway). Thus when a caster says ‘Akali is going left’ the spectator that knows what Akali looks like will know what on-screen representation to the caster is talking about. There’s direct relationship between name and representation.
We can take this further and suggest that the use of Character name provides context or frame consistency.
That is, much of the detail of a caster’s commentary will concern matters that are framed within the context of the game. A character may obtain an item; use a spell; or a power. For example the utterance ‘Alkali uses Shadow Dance’ is consistent in its use of in-game concepts as a frame of reference (one might say ludagesis as the game equivalent of diegesis).
What the use of Character appears to do is focus the attention of the viewer to the specifics of the moment of the game and the tactical and strategic options that are likely being considered. It does so quite directly as utterances are directed at things within the context of the game, that is we might say that primary frame here is that of the game and ludic intentionality.
The other dominant naming strategy used by casters of MOBA matches is that of Gamer Handle. MOBA’s like most online systems require each user to have a unique name. Here I’m referring to the game-system unique name associated with a given individual as the Gamer Handle - there are some technical differences between games, and variations such as login name v display name, options to append guild / clan / team etc, but generally there is some unique system identifier that’s associated with a given individual.
Typically such names allow and preserve certain typographical features such as capitalization. Hence in our present example ‘KiWiKiD’ is typically displayed exactly as typed here. Other features of online naming culture / leet speak are apparent in Gamer Handles e.g. Evil Geniuses’ Snoopeh; then there are simple name gags such as Fnatic’s WetDreaM and, self referentially to our subject here, LMQ’s NoName.
Having a name other than the Character name serves a number of practical purposes. The main one being that a given player can be identified across matches. More specifically, they can be identified in phases of a game where a character has not been picked or where there is no character per se.
Typically in MOBAs there is a phase of the game where each player picks the character they are going to play during the given game. To make sense of things here commentators need so way of saying ‘X is going to play Y’.
A number of eSports are focused on team play. MOBAs, some arena games like Warcraft PvP and Word of Tanks. Here commentators will talk about individual players, players with team affiliation e.g. Dignitas’ KiWiKiD or just team. Teams in eSports are like teams in conventional sports in that they are a brand that is represented by a changing cast of players.
Where eSports teams differ is that a team name may be an actual company or company / product brand e.g. SKT (South Korea Telecom) and Samsung Galaxy. eSports teams also differ from conventional sports as many span games for example Evil Geniuses which currently has StarCraft, League of Legends, DOTA2, Street Fighter IV and Call of Duty teams.
This expansion of teams across games (like larger guilds / clans that started in one game and have now expanded across multiple ones) helps to overcome on of the structural issues that has impacted the growth of eSports - that the sport has always been ephemeral both in terms of games and players. Cross game teams give fans the opportunity to support a brand that evolves very slowly and does not disappear when the popularity of a given game wanes.
To return to naming – team names are deployed either to add emphasis to the focus on an individual. The will be appended as ones full name might be used in other context’s to add force to who is being picked out. Alternative team appending occurs in the context of a discussion about team play or the team itself. In these cases it’s generally clear that the given player is a member of the team, the appending seems to add a level of consistency to the central context of the discussion at the time i.e. the team. Team names will also be used when there is a play involving two or more usually three or more players – here it is the group that the commentator is drawing attention to so phrases like ‘great play Dignitas’ will be used
The purpose of the use of team naming in MOBAs seems relatively clear, however the use of Gamer Handle or Character in any given moment is less clear. One general distinction seems to be in level of competition.
Low-level competitions tend to have less experienced casters and less famous players; in these streams the use of Character name is more prominent. This makes sense, as both caster and audience familiarity with a given player may be low so gameplay descriptions make more immediate sense when Character names are used.
Whereas in higher-level competitions casters have a higher level of expertise and the audience is more familiar with individual players, who may have moved from team to team. What’s more there tends to be greater discussion of strategy and relative strengths of player / character combinations so a caster may talk about a player’s relationship to multiple characters, even during a game.
However in these high level competition a caster will sometimes shift to using Character name, this has the effect of what we might call ‘attention zooming’ onto details of game play.
RTS - StarCraft
RTSs (Real Time Strategy) games such as StarCraft II (StarCraft or SC2 for short) are structurally different from MOBAs thus the caster naming strategies differ.
First, the most common form of competitive RTSs play are one-v-one matches, as opposed to MOBA’s which are team-v-team. There is a multiplayer variant of games such as StarCraft but these are not as popular.
Second, in an RTS game there is a one-to-many relationship between player and on screen characters. At points in a game a player may control 10s of on-screen characters. What’s more, in Starcraft II there is a choice between three ‘races’ typically players are associated with a given race but two players may play the same race – this means that they two players will control instances of the same character type. Thus in many cases a statement such as ‘the Zerg drone’ could refer to one of 120 character instances in the game roughly half of which would be controlled by one player, half by the other.
Due to these factors Gamer Handle predominates in RTS commentary but through different phases of game and out-of-game talk a range of naming strategies are employed.
If we take a pro StarCraft player such as Soulkey, the naming elements open to a caster include:
- Gamer Handle: Soulkey
- Full in game handle: [SKT] Soulkey
- Name: Kim Min Chunl
- Race: Zerg
- Team: SK Telecom T1
- Colour: Red or Blue
- Position: Top / Bottom, Left / Right
- Twitter: @kimminchulbyuk (김민철)
- Facebook: SoulkeySC
StarCraft World Championship Series (WCS) commentators have standardised on an opening structure that goes: “spawning in the <position> is the <red / blue> <race> <team name> <gamer handle>”. To use Soulkey as our example an introduction would go “spawning to the top right is the blue Zerk, SKT’s Soulkey” this construction gives the viewer all the essential information they need at the start of the game.
Naming tactics will then change through a game, typically a player is referred to by their gamer handle. But, possibly just to add variation, to the commentary and again to draw different levels of detail attention a caster my refer to ‘the blue zerg’.
In addition caster will pick out units in the game to provide an extra detail of commentary such as ‘the queens are moving onto the high ground”. This could be confusing as there may be many ‘queen’ units on the map at any one time. But typically, in cases such as this, the context will be such that attention is drawn to particular units - the screen will typically zoom into the queens (the view is controlled by an ‘observer’ who controls what the players and commentators see); also ‘queen’s are units that are only produced by zerg players so if the game is zerg against Terran or Protoss the viewer knows that the caster is referring to the zerg player.
At times casters will anthropomorphise game artefacts as if they where independent sentient entitles. The WCS casters James Carrol / @kaelaris and Shaun Clark @ApolloSC2 do this when a weak game unit such as a scout is being chased by other units, a typical line will be ‘run away little scout’ said with an air of mock fear of the life of the small defenceless unit.
This produces an interesting effect as it adds a texture to commentary that treats, for a moment, the game units as sentient entities – which is in fact the overall narrative of the game.
Casters use a surprising array of naming strategies when describing an eSports match. One of the things marks out a good caster and an enjoyable eSports experience is the facility the caster has within using the right naming and descriptive approach at any one time to draw the viewers attention to the best level of detail for the action that has, is and is about to happen. It’s a tough job. Hat’s off to ‘em.
Next: StarCraft, Race and Culture.