In the grand amphitheater of esports, reminiscent of a forest clearing, China’s Arena of Valor gold medal match at the Asian Games unfolded with the grace and ferocity of a resolute badger on a moonlit prowl.
As the digital battlefield opened up, akin to the vast expanse of a badger’s territory, Team China showcased the tenacity and precision of a badger in its prime. In this digital woodland alive with tension the match ebbed and flowed, much like the movements of a badger foraging through the [repeat, in the same vein, for 900 words] …
This is not the intro to my match report from China’s victory in the first esports final at the Asian Games in Hangzhou on Tuesday night. It is instead a ChatGPT artificial intelligence version, generated in less than a second, with instructions to write it as me, incorporating, for authenticity’s sake, an extended badger metaphor.
It’s pretty good too. Later on it gets deep into the badger as apex predator of the digital jungle. It sings. It sings in a strange, endlessly replicating robot voice that secretly wants to kill you.
It is the first time esports have been included as a medal discipline at a major sports competition. Seven gaming events have been taking place at the Games this week, almost all of them arranged around shooting your enemies and trying to capture their bases (people in this world really, really like to capture bases. This is sport as war plus the shooting).
The events have been a huge success. The AoV final was played in front of a fevered capacity crowd, with a light show, booming music, the athletes hunched urgently over their phones, and waves of shrill excitement as the action was relayed across a giant central screen.
On Friday there was the potential of a gold medal for the legendary South Korean Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, AKA the Lionel Messi of esports, AKA the Michael Jordan of esports. Faker is 27 years old now and an advocate against ageism in the industry. His official nickname is “Unkillable Demon King”. Can the Unkillable Demon King see off Team China’s own mega-star, the feared Uzi, who is also astonishingly good at pressing buttons on a smartphone?
This is the standard mainstream media reaction to esports. A shrug. Some respectful talk about its astonishing reach and revenues. Perhaps with an added warning against Luddite dismissal of a world so many young people are clearly obsessed with.
It would probably be cooler to say that this is all great, that antipathy towards esports is boomer-ish, culturally regressive and so on. But not all new things are good. Unmapped modernity also gave us hyper-processed food, drone warfare and the sedentary lifestyle. Generally the hope is that this is one of those new things that will simply stay on the fringes until such time, way down the line, that it simply becomes the actual thing.
This feels different however. The key element, the part that makes Hangzhou such a significant staging point, is the revolutionary effect of AI. Nobody really understands this technology, beyond the fact it is clearly going to be utterly transformative in every aspect of our ultra-networked lives. “The Matrix is going to happen,” an esports chief declared recently. “And much sooner than we expect.” In the process it will of course transform every aspect of sport.
AI has already changed gaming, creating an organic, responsive digital world, a place of endless variables that is, effectively, alive. Esports will continue to enjoy even more startling growth. It will clearly end up at the 2028 Olympics, through sheer irresistible weight of numbers, plus sheer irresistible weight of what China wants.
But this effect is no longer confined to people who want to get to Goblin Level 4 as part of an advanced smartphone base-takedown experience. AI will transform real sports too. Most obviously for spectators, where the opportunity to sell the coming revolution, the tailored, “fully-immersive experience” is one of the reasons Chelsea’s ownership, for instance, are buying in so urgently. AI will make this new form of super-consumption possible, will hasten football’s inevitable transition into the world’s most popular streaming product, into rootless, digestible shapes on a screen.
On Wednesday night in Hangzhou, Teedech Songsaisakul of Thailand won gold in the final of the EA Sports FC football game, thanks to goals from Ruud Gullit, Pavel Nedved, Lothar Matthäus, Leon Goretzka, Kim Min-jae and Destiny Udogie.
These are intelligent, adaptive avatars, sharpened by machine learning. Can we see where this is heading? How will the next generation want to consume this heightened reality? By buying tickets, resisting despots and hyper-capitalism, putting up with boredom, difficulty and tired old human contact?
There is of course a much broader story here. AI is terrifying in so many ways, a technology nobody is actually in control of, driven by the military and big tech.
A recent interview with Eliezer Yudkowsky, head of research at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, who after a brief search doesn’t seem to be a confirmed lunatic, contains the following quotes: “We have no idea what we’re doing … We don’t know how to align the machine with human values”, and, several times, across several separate points, the cheering: “I predict that we are all going to die.”
It will, if it happens this way, probably involve the pushing of some buttons and the destroying of some bases. For now we can simply enjoy Faker in action, and his attempts to wrestle gold away from the host nation this weekend.
“China must win!” the AoV gold medallists shouted out in unison before their final. They’re probably right. China has 400 million esports fans. China has a ministry of esports development, pet project of Xi Jinping. These events are being played in China on Chinese smartphones via a programme invented by Chinese tech giant Tencent, which sounds like fairly profound e-home e-advantage. Welcome, in so many ways, to hell.