In Real Life Interview: Lawrence Tabak talks eSports, gaming kids, writing

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In Real Life is an upcoming young adult novel about Seth, a troubled kid who dreams of a career in eSports. The novel opens as Seth struggles to balance a dysfunctional family, troubles at school and his first chance to get into a huge tournament for his favorite game, Starfare (inspired, of course, by Starcraft). We had a chance to ask author Lawrence Tabak a few questions about writing, eSports and raising children who grew up to become professional eSports competitors.

Technology Tell: As your kids grew more and more into games and eventually eSports, how much of it all was a learning experience for you?

Lawrence Tabak: We were all breaking new ground, parents and children, when it came to electronic gaming in the 1980s and 90s. Just as my parents worried about too much TV viewing, we were quickly onto the addicting attraction of even the earliest video games. My wife and I thought we were being suitably cautious by barring Nintendo or other gaming consoles from our home, imagining that our two boys would instead be reading books and playing outdoors. However, as a writer, I was an early adopter of computer technology, getting our first Apple IIe in the mid-1980s a few years before Josh, my elder son was born. By the time he was four he was already enchanted with the technology, even though the only game-like application we had was the keyboard training exercise, which he performed at least a few hundred times. The first games we bought were educational, like Reader Rabbit and Math Rabbit and we thought it was all terrific. By the time Josh was six we had our first PC and a slew of games on 5.25″ floppies. I played quite a bit with him as we tried to solve Lemmings and Maxis’ SimAnt, while he spent hours on games like Treasure Mountain, a quasi-educational, level-based game that had Mario-like elements.

Technology Tell: As a parent, was it a scary unknown? Or an intriguing new experience?

Tabak: I don’t know if it was good marketing, or altruism, but many of the early computer games were decidedly educational, and it made it easy for parents like us to purchase them and approve their use. Pure entertainment games on consoles, like Mario and [Sonic the] Hedgehog, were, for us, kid culture, something that our boys did when they were visiting friends. Honestly, we were more appalled when we visited homes where young kids had cable TV hookups in their bedrooms than we ever were with the presence of video games.

Technology Tell: How involved were you in your sons’ hobby and eventual career path?

Tabak: Both of my boys were huge game and puzzle fans, from board games to physical puzzles to computer games. I still have a bookcase row that crosses an entire room filled with computer game boxes: SimTower, StarCraft, Baldur’s Gate, Myst, Age of Empires. Those were the gifts of choice for years of birthdays and holidays. Both of my sons were, and still are, huge Magic the Gathering players and we’ve arranged family trips to coincide with tournaments across the country. Between them they’ve played uncountable Grand Prix events and PTQs. As far as competitive eSports, Josh found his way to the top the Heroes of Newerth when he was a senior in college, taking the one course he needed for graduation second semester. His subsequent involvement with SK Gaming and Fnatic teams as well as his current career at Twitch were all his doing.

Technology Tell: Was Young Adult the plan for your book all along, or did anything specific influence that choice?

Tabak: To be honest, I began writing for teens when Zach, my younger son, began to complain about finding books he liked when he was in middle school. I tried to find novels about kids like him and his brother, whose passion was gaming, and couldn’t find any. So I started writing my own.

Technology Tell: When framing a novel around eSports, what did you draw from for the supporting sub-plots?

Tabak: I wanted to portray the more complex world that surrounds any teenager, even one devoted to a particular pursuit of excellence. That meant a family environment, school and that universal teen arena of crushes and, sometimes, even romance. Since my own boys are notoriously private about all such matters, I had to use personal experience and imagination to portray the relationship between my main character Seth, and his first significant romance.

Technology Tell: What challenges did you face, getting a book about gaming published? Was self-publishing ever considered an appealing option?

Tabak: Getting a book of any type traditionally published is a huge uphill battle. I was not personally interested in pursuing self-publishing; perhaps I’ m just old fashioned. I felt a special need for the comfort of endorsement from an experienced publisher, and the associated support in editing, production and marketing. I was also ambitious in terms of distribution opportunities, and it would have been virtually impossible to get a self-published book into stores all across the country, the way In Real Life will be. One huge hurdle for the book was the sense that serious gaming is a boy activity and 80% of young adult books are bought by girls. Hopefully, we’re going to find that a lot of girls are intrigued by electronic gaming and why sometimes very cute, if nerdy boys, seem more interested in their computer screens than them.

Technology Tell: Do you have any advice for writers wanting to explore this or similar territory?

Tabak: It struck me some years ago when I began the book that gaming is now a ubiquitous aspect of youth culture, but was being underplayed or even ignored in Young Adult literature. It baffles me to read supposedly contemporary novels where a plot would fall apart if only two characters texted each other, or kids spend weeks without touching a computer or iPhone. These worlds seem to me as fantastical as anything in speculative novels like The Hunger Games. Video games and associated plots are rich with story opportunities. Cory Doctorow comes to mind as a writer who has tapped into this, but he’s the exception, not the rule. Jump in!

Technology Tell: What has your experience interacting with gaming media been like, in the context of getting your book out there in the public eye?

Tabak: I guess it’s pretty obvious, but most gaming media and gaming sites seem pretty restrictive in their coverage of culture. They tend to constrict themselves to writing about the games only, rather than the topics that people who play games might find interesting. I hope that In Real Life will be a bridge between gamers and readers — an acknowledgement that these two in a Venn diagram would have plenty of overlap.

Technology Tell: Before you went for a novel, what led you to writing, and what topics have you written about?

Tabak: I began getting serious about creative writing at Northwestern and continued at the University of Iowa, where I wrote a wheelbarrow full of short stories (including a few sales to obscure publications) and began selling nonfiction to somewhat less obscure journals. Over the years I’ve freelanced features and essays to dozens of journals, including the major in-flight magazines, Fast Company, and The Atlantic Monthly. In Real Life is my first published novel.

Technology Tell: What are your thoughts on eSports as competition? Is it where it should be compared to other forms of competition? Does it have glaring issues in need of fixing?

Tabak: I worked in the world of tennis for years, including a stint on the staff of the United States Tennis Association. The current state of eSports reminds me of the transition of tennis from an amateur sport to big-time professionalism, which took place gradually, beginning in 1968. It wasn’t a neat transition, with competing circuits, attempts to lock players into exclusive contracts, and lots of disconnected events, many with marginal prize money but a willingness to pay under the table for the stars. It took decades to sort all this out. Like eSports, tennis depended on a large base of players who could relate to the sport and identify with the greatest players. It seems inevitable to me that an industry as rich and robust as electronic gaming will develop a vibrant professional tour. The model of The International, where a $10 million purse (larger than the men’s singles prize pool at the U.S. Open tennis tournament) was developed without the deep pockets of traditional broadcasting, pretty much seals the deal. One unique challenge will be the way the games evolve, while traditional sports are characterized by just the opposite: a tennis court or soccer pitch is virtually immutable. It’s going to be fun to watch!

In Real Life will be released in November 2014. If you’re into or curious about eSports, or are already a fan looking for some extra validation in other mediums, check it out. It is being published by Tuttle and should also be hitting store shelves.

Site: [Tuttle Publishing]

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