onsdag 16 november 2011

Proposal: "Programming competitions as (e-)sports"

I wrote a longer blog post about computer programming competitions a month ago and I mentioned an upcoming workshop, "Beyond sports vs. games", in that blog post. The workshop had a November 15 deadline, and what they asked for was a 500-word "extended abstract". I submitted this extended abstract and will get to know if it is accepted before the end of this month:

Programming competitions as (e-)sports

We can think of a pure leisure activity passing through a number of different developments or even “stages” in the process of becoming a sport (i.e. in the “sportification” process). From being played mostly for fun, an activity can undergo successive changes (or “developments”) with an emerging consensus coalescing around competition formats; fields of play, tournament rules, judges, time frames, what constitutes cheating etc. Further changes might involve factors having to do with developing a “sportified” activity into a spectator sport (Croona and Bleichner 2011), perhaps also encompassing (or trying to create) a commercial layer and business models around the activity in question (professional teams, practitioners, coachers, commentators, sponsors, broadcasters etc.). Computer gaming has undergone some, if not all of those changes during the previous decade (Rambusch, Jakobsson and Pargman 2007, Hutchins 2008, Taylor and Witkowski 2010, Cheung and Huang 2011, Taylor 2012).

In his bachelor’s thesis in sport sciences at Malmö Högskola, Kalle Danielsson (2005) examined to what extent e-sports could in fact be regarded as a modern sport. His inquiry took as its theoretical starting point Allen Guttman’s (1978) list of significant characteristics of modern sports (that were lacking in their pre-modern forbearers):

1. Secularism

2. Equality of opportunity to compete

3. Specialization of roles

4. Rationalization

5. Bureaucratic organization

6. Quantification

7. The quest for records.

In my contribution to the workshop, I use the same list of characteristics to examine the process of sportification in yet another activity beyond sports and games, namely competitive programming/programming competitions. While there are several different strands of competitive programming, my study focuses on the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC). In the 2011-2012 competition, 8000 teams from 2000 universities in over 80 countries compete for 100 spots in the world finals (to be held in Warsaw, Poland in May 2012).

At my own university, the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, ICPC is a somehow important event among some of my colleagues at the School of Computer Science and Communication. Several professors and Ph.D. students have participated in the ICPC competitions and later become involved in ICPC-related activities and tasks, such as training and coaching new students and new teams at KTH, as well as working on organizing, documenting and broadcasting the ICPC event itself.

The empirical material for this study primarily consists of interviews with KTH faculty, Ph.D. students and (primarily) fourth year students in the computer science program who are taking the course “Problem solving and programming under pressure”. This course is tailor-made to allow a limited number of students to “try out” competitive programming in order to see if it’s something for them, as well as to “search for talent” among the students. The course is followed by informal voluntary practice sessions, later leading to the formation of a three-man team to represent KTH at the ICPC competitions.

In terms of the analysis of the material, I am particularly interested in “problematic” characteristics in Guttman’s model, i.e. characteristics where competitive programming does not qualify, or where there are significant or even structural tensions between characteristics of modern sports (Guttman 1978) and the practices and goals of the ICPC


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