The Overwatch League’s culture has been plagued with a word that crops up again and again. It gets spammed in Twitch chat during interviews, and repeated in post-match threads on Reddit. It made an appearance during the Hangzhou Spark’s introductory montage in their first match against the LA Valiant five months ago — and every week since then. That word is “cringe,” and competitive Overwatch fans need to reevaluate how we use that term.
What even is Cringe?
The montage of Spark players, posing to lyrics that declared “I think you’d better bow down,” elicited mostly confusion and derision during the broadcast. The chat box was quickly filled question marks and OMEGALULs, a Twitch emote that often denotes scorn and laughter aimed at something. Granted, Twitch chat is a terrible look at the esports zeitgeist, but the moment does showcase a conflict within the community. When a team or player is performative, is it inherently embarrassing? What makes a performance “cringe”?
It’s important to first pause and question what “cringe” even is in modern parlance. The dictionary definition says that cringe is the act of recoiling in distaste, and that speaks well to how cringe is ultimately an almost physical sense of embarrassment.
In German, it’s called fremdschämen (second-hand embarrassment); in Korean, we describe it as the sensation of our fingers curling and clenching as we witness something awkward or fake. It’s feeling embarrassed for something or someone, especially when the person appears to have no self-awareness, so we have to feel embarrassed on their behalf. I’m referring to something like the face-melting embarrassment we all felt watching DJ Khaled aggressively footsie himself on the Overwatch League Grand Finals stage. Like, oh, honey, no. Oh no, no, no.
Compared to DJ Khaled, calling what Hangzhou Spark’s introductory montage (or any other slightly awkward pose or interview moment from the Overwatch League, really) “cringe” feels inaccurate. I doubt that Hangzhou thought they looked like professional stars or Overwatch heroes, but they obligingly went along with the montage anyway. These performances comes with being in an Overwatch League team, after all.
To cringe, or not to cringe?
And either way, what’s wrong with a bit of cringe? What’s wrong with being performative? I say bring on the theatrics, the bad acting, and the over-the-top honest-to-god spacesuit uniforms, because those are still one of the best and most memorable things about the history of StarCraft in South Korea.
Give me the ridiculous pre-match skits and bits that have the players themselves cracking up while they perform, though they still commit to it because they’re not above a bit of self-mockery and fun. We’re all nerds here, people. Why are we acting like we’re anything else?
Part of the joy of esports is the fact that both performers and viewers are self-aware; everyone’s in on the joke that of course esports pros aren’t singers, actors, or even good trash talkers … but it’s fun to watch anyways as a decadent piece of fan service. When teams throw metaphorical spaghetti at the wall in the form of varied jokes and promos, sometimes you get lucky and encounter something like An “Wakawaka” Jee-ho catching everyone off-guard by soulfully crooning a karaoke song that came out before he was even born.
That fan service is a response from the players to the earnestness with which esports fans cheer. It’s a little nod to the fans in the arena and on Twitch, a shared moment of both hype and humor. These performances performed by awkward players often read as sincere and heartfelt, not artificial pandering. It says to the fans, “I see you.”
Let esports be esports
The discussion of “cringe” overlaps with concern for the “legitimacy” of esports, and how esports appears to fans in traditional sports. The dialogue around this field has come a long way from obsessing over esports being a “real sport,” thank goodness, but here and there a keen observer can still notice the lingering self-doubt. There’s the discomfort with how much crossover there is (and likely will continue to be) between esports and anime, esports and K-pop, esports, and any kind of content that comes across as “cute” or “cringey.”
Behind these arguments is the concern that these overlapping influences will somehow disqualify or make esports lesser. The question “disqualified in whose eyes?” is never answered during these debates.
There’s the way that esports fans like to point and laugh furiously at people who are outraged about Overwatch League being broadcast on ABC or ESPN. “Look at these fossils!” they laugh. It’s funny, because these angry tweeters don’t get it, and dunking on them is a way to validate that you’re better than that.
When taken together, all of these things paint the picture of a field concerned with the approval of people who might never understand or approve of esports. Why does the opinion of a television audience matter to Twitch users, when television will never be the primary home of esports?
Esports is not merely footage broadcast to our screens. Esports is all at once the flurry of action happening on screen, the furious scroll of the chat, the constantly refreshing Twitter timeline, the instantaneous clips and memes and gifs — it’s the addictive sense that you are watching with an invisible, yet massive, community with whom you communicate in so much more than mere words.
Even when I went to the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, even when I attended Contenders Korea matches (back when they were on LAN), and basked in the sense of a physical crowd, I could still see that so many people were on their phones as part of their viewing experience — as was I. Spectatorship is so often defined by where it takes place, and in esports — no matter where the players are physically competing — takes place online. The community is the viewing experience.
It’s possible people who reject video games will eventually get it; I’ve seen enough esports parents attend matches and come to an understanding of the appeal, even if they have no idea what’s happening on screen. But the community can stop wasting our breath ridiculing or trying to persuade the people who firmly believe esports is not a sport simply because to them, it doesn’t look like a sport. That’s fine. Why do we even have to prove ourselves as a sport in the first place? Why dress up in a metaphorical suit and tie to impress people who don’t care?
Even the Overwatch League itself seems self conscious of how it appears. Its city-based model is a good way to help build local markets, but the League keeps looking to the Yankees or the Lakers. The esports audience is still fumbling with the concept of geolocation in a field that has usually agreed to more crudely drawn boundaries, like East versus West.
Esports doesn’t need to adopt the air and appeal of traditional sports. Fans have already built a vibrant, thriving community, and we need to snap out of our inferiority complex. Esports is a different beast, comfortably sprawled across platforms, across media forms, across video game fandom and anime fandom and k-pop fandom, the only place in the world that you will find a Japanese anime-inspired, Chinese streaming platform-sponsored, sci-fi railgun finger-themed pro-gaming team. And really, at the end of the day, that’s the most exciting, un-sportslike thing of all.