One of the current trends on the internet and in gaming culture is that more and more people are watching other people play games. The popularity and monetization of streaming gameplay has made it not only easy but accessible for just about anyone to set up a twitch.tv or YouTube account and simply broadcast or record themselves playing a video game. With this has come a growing movement towards trying to make the oft maligned ďe-sportsĒ market popular, and as a result, profitable.
There are many games that have existed for some time that catered to this market although mostly unintentionally. Fighting games and shooters like Quake III have been able to exist very consistently as e-sports of questionable profitability for years, bolstered mainly by the hardcore fan base that contributed merely for the love of the game and competition. The developers on the other hand never really made any efforts towards pushing this scene because it was always a very niche market of questionable viability for long term profits.
Much of this has changed with streaming service providers like twitch.tv who make it easy for people to broadcast competitions and tournaments which previously were hard to view or get access to past driving out to the event in person. Suddenly this e-sports community is able to reach a much larger market, and with a much larger market comes the opportunity for advertising and thus the event organizers can not only remain solvent, but extend their financial reach even further and turn a profit. Itís easy to see that with this new revenue stream even the game developers themselves have turned an eye towards this previously ignored market as games such as League of Legends, Dota 2, Starcraft 2, and even Street Fighter seem to cater more to not just competitive play, but to providing tools and support to allow organizing events easier.
As companies like Capcom and Blizzard organize regular events focused around competitive play or Riot and Valve provide increasing in game tools for monetization of the competitive scene, it makes me wonder if these games are even right as a spectator sport. Do they really have the proper makeup to be a widely viewed sport like Baseball or Football is? The core question it puts forth for me is what makes a good spectator sport to begin with, and are these e-sports alike enough to be as successful as real professional sports are?
There are still yet many hurdles for e-sports to vault in order to achieve main stream success. A number of these are superficial though and can change with time. Most people for example still associate a stigma with games as anything but something for children, and in terms of available viewership the reach of television provides real sports with a much larger audience. These issues arenít really core to the differences between the games though, and could easily be conquered with an incredibly mainstream title. The kinds of issues I want to address are ones which are inherent to the activity.
Playing a video game for example, is generally a more expensive activity than real sports are. There are exceptions of course with sports like Golf requiring heavy financial investment, but compare games to something like Basketball, Soccer, or Football which are played by children all around the world with only need of a ball (generally <$15) and a goal which is either easily found in public parks or can be improvised with other materials. Then you compare this to games which require at least the $60 product, and even then require the platform to play it on which can easily cost upwards of $200. Video games are still fairly mainstream nowadays, but in terms of accessibility pale in comparison to most traditional sports. Itís no surprise when you look at what video games have large competitive scenes they are either incredibly popular (Call of Duty) or very accessible (Dota 2) because they are free. Neither of these examples have large scenes because of how well balanced nor fun they are, but mostly because of how many people play them to begin with. Most traditional sports on the other hand are both popular and accessible ensuring that the most amount of people can enjoy them as possible creating a ready market for spectators.
Another concern for the appeal of games is their understandability to the average viewer. Iím sure many when they read this think of the famously hard to comprehend ARTS genre with games such as League of Legends or Dota being infamous for having any number of arcane mechanics. Compare this to something like Football though or Hockey. If you have never seen Football before, you have very little idea what it means if its first down and you probably would spend a more than a few minutes trying to discern how points are allotted. Hockey is a similarly confusing sport for many people despite its penetration into the public consciousness. For this reason I would argue that a game doesnít necessarily have to be immediately understandable on viewing, and in fact some depth makes for a more interesting game in the long run as it gives you something to study and adds value to ďgood play.Ē Depth is why a game like Checkers is generally less appreciated than its more complex counterpart Chess.
Standing close to but not apart from understandability lies readability. Watch any televised sport nowadays, and it might not be apparent to you, but one common aspect is that any moment, you can almost always see every player and have a greater view of how every element is interacting with each other on the larger scale. When you watch a Football game you appreciate a defensive play as you see the Linebackers set up blocks for their Quarterback who runs the ball into the end zone and scores a touchdown. Now imagine that same play but you can only see the first person view point of a single player. Letís even say that you could control what player you are seeing at any time by easily switching between them, but you could never see more than one at a time. This is essentially the problem with most shooters. It is impossible to get a good feel for all the elements in play at a time. You might see the player run the flag from the enemyís base to his own, but you donít see his team mates distracting the enemy sniper, disabling enemy defenses, or providing covering fire as he moves out. You donít get an accurate view of the entire picture. Even games which provide a 3rd person camera are hobbled by the level geometry which constantly blocks views of other areas. Itís not just shooters either; this is a problem with just about any multiplayer game which covers more than a screen length of space. This is still a significant problem in the e-sports domain with many games either being ruined by it, or reducing their player counts severely in order to counteract it. In some games this works out well (Starcraft notably) while for others it only really provides a cheap band-aid on a gaping wound. Regardless though, it provides a wholly different experience as anyone who has played competitive Call of Duty or Team Fortress 2 could tell you. The game competitive players play is vastly different from the one most others play every night.
One final aspect I would like to compare is the idea of competition in each. When you look at sports, just about every sport is considered competitive. Even solitary performances such as running are forced into a point of comparison with other runners so as to produce competition. Video games actually differ in this aspect as unlike other sports, every game need not be an e-sport. There are many games which are completely devoid of competition, such as any primarily story driven game where the results in and of themselves mean nothing divided from the participant. Finishing a 100 meter dash in record time is impressive regardless of the participant, while the ending of Super Metroid only holds significance in relation to the person who experienced it. When you think about it, sports and e-sports are alike in that they both are subsets of the larger category of games. Sports have sort of lost this identity as merely games such as Parcheesi or Connect Four, and have ascended into a different more respectable category. For e-sports to be thought of in a similar way, they may have to make a similar ascension. In doing so though, there is danger that the e-sports people love today could become something entirely different. In fact itís likely they will become at least somewhat different to achieve mainstream marketable success. Whether that proves to be a change people consider a loss however, remains to be seen.
For e-sports to be considered on the same level as a sport like Lacrosse or Rugby, video games will need to go through many changes in order to conform not only to the competitive environment required of a respected sport, but also to assimilate this new third audience Ė the spectator. Already you see changes in modern games which purport to be built from the ground up with the idea of being a spectated game in mind, but on deeper design levels changes can still be made. What we see now are games which are made like traditional experiences with layers on top that make watching that game easier. In the future as e-sports become more popular and more financially appealing we will begin to see even greater changes as games are released out of the gate built from the ground up with the spectator in mind. Once we reach this stage, it wonít be long before you start seeing games broadcast on ESPN right beside college Lacrosse and the World Series of Poker Ė and with that a general acceptance of the medium.
Title Image courtesy of RiotGames NA