An e-sports referee oversees a match at the League of Legends Pro League tournament in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on April 17. (Photo: IC)
Over the past few years, Chinese e-sports teams have shone on the world stage. The first e-sports gold medal was won by a Chinese team during the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, Chinese e-sports team IG (Invictus Gaming) won the championship at the 2018 League of Legends Pro League and China's Overwatch team also ranked No.2 at the 2018 Overwatch World Cup.
The e-sports industry has been increasingly gaining ground around the world. In China, the popularity of e-sports players rivals even that of some popular singers or actors.
The outstanding performance of Chinese e-sports teams have increased people's confidence in the industry in China. However, there is also another group of people who should not be overlooked: the referees.
Since the birth of competitive sports, referees have been charged with a sacred duty. This has been true with traditional sports such as wrestling and boxing, and remains true in the digital age of today.
Yang Bo, a former pro Starcraft player and e-sports referee, is now the deputy manager of Beijing 99 Interactive Entertainment Marketing Consultants. His company's clients include famous game companies such as Tencent, Netease and Blizzard. What's more, they also have close relationship with People's E-sports, a subsidiary of People's Daily.
"In a professional e-sports match, several specialized referees work under a chief referee to oversee software, hardware and the internet," explained Yang.
"Some amateur referees or amateur players can also play some not-so-important roles in an e-sports match, but some positions like chief referee and the manager of gaming equipment should be handled by experienced staff."
E-sports referees do not necessarily have to possess excellent gaming skills.
"They must know how to handle different problems," Yang said, which requires building up experience overseeing matches.
Entering the digital age
Just like in other sports, referees are necessary to ensure formal competitions are carried out smoothly and fairly. However, unlike in other sports, far less attention has been paid to e-sports referees than traditional referees.
"However, they are both working on a specific competitive sport, so they have a lot of similarities," said Yang.
"From 2004 to 2006, China already had a few e-sports referees, but their expertise was too general," said Yang.
Yang explained that at the time, many regulations and methods were brought over from traditional sports refereeing even though they didn't necessarily fit the new genre.
However, Yang says that traditional sports referees' influence has been far more positive than negative.
Yang talked about one 40-year-old referee who joined the e-sports training program.
"He has a solid theoretical base for how to deal with unknown situations, such as how to pacify the players," said Yang, noting, however, that the middle-aged man still has problems when it comes to understanding gaming equipment and the internet.
"For the first 10 years, e-sports in China had a very tough time," Yang said.
While increasing public attention and support from the government has allowed e-sports and its related industries to begin to thrive, the training of e-sports referees is still catching up.
"In my experience, many e-sports match organizers hire referees from a small pool of people who they have worked with before," noted Yang.
"And it's rare to see a referee who has received professional training at an education institute."
According to Yang, good referee must be tested in many real e-sports matches and not just be limited to theory as some problems they will encounter will not be listed in the rule books. Referees must take responsibility for the decisions they make.
"A good referee can make an e-sports match run smoothly," said Yang, "but an incompetent referee can do a lot to harm a match."