essays and pithy thoughts

Pro Gaming: hitting the big time - when, where, and how?

in glhf

In the following space I hope to outline some of my thoughts on the gaming world that center around one little buzzword: mainstream. This may take several installments, but this post will at least serve as a starting point in generating some discussion (add your comments, please!)

It seems to be overriding goal of most leading organizations in the eSports world to bring gaming ‘to the mainstream.’ The CPL, WSVG, MLG, even media organizations like MTV and TsN have used such language in reference to one of their key objectives in getting involved with organized competitive PC and console gaming. Yet with the CPL faltering somewhat (which cannot be argued with the upstart WSVG making major CPL events mere stops on their tour), and with coverage of these events clearly not garnering the kind of attention that they were intended to grab, that is, the attention of the mainstream (the last major competitive event that was telecasted was the CPL Winter event in New York by MTV), the question still remains if gaming can ever reach ‘mainstream’ status. Clearly the right formula has yet to be found. However, while that question is not a new inquiry, I feel I might be the first to ask whether gaming should be aiming to garner mainstream attention. But more on that later.

So what exactly is holding gaming back from recieving attention from the masses comparable to that of sports? It could easily be argued that this is the parallel that the trailblazers of competitive gaming are trying to reach. And while this parallel doesn’t quite make sense on the ‘amateur’ online level as has been pointed out many a time on league forums everywhere, when it comes to thinking of gaming on the professional level, this comparison cannot be ignored; it is the model to be aimed for. I feel there are several things that competitive gaming lacks in its current state that is hampering its development as a cultural entity rather than just a novelty profession for some and a hobby for a few more.

One of these elements however is not the lack of ‘superstar’ personalities. This is clearly one of the things that is developing just fine – with top names signing endorsement deals, getting their names on equipment, etc. But while the public image of the ‘gamer’ is moving away from the painfully nerdy guy with glasses living in his basement due to these handful of true professional gamers, there’s plenty of incidents like this one that could just as easily paint the gamer as an immature, unprofessional idiot. While much the same could be said about a few professional athletes, that is more the exception rather than the rule in pro sports. Browse the forums of any such ‘professional’ gaming organization, or any place where top gamers online gather for that matter, and you will see much the opposite. The issue here again is not the lack of personalities, but the lack of good personalities.

A more serious issue here, however, is the games themselves. With games becoming increasingly rich in graphics, sound quality, content, and gameplay, it would seem that the games should be the least of worries here; yet the games being played competitively are holding gaming back. No, it’s not about the violence. Most games allow you to disable the gore, if any, and reduce the content to little more than a Nerf-gun fight with cartoon-like consequences, safe for any child to watch. The issue is spectatability, and carries two prongs: either the games themselves don’t lend to passive spectating very well, or built-in support or mechanisms that make spectating easier are spotty at best, or both. Counter-strike arguably leads the way on the PC end as far as support for spectators with HLTV, which I think is one of the major factors keeping 1.6 on a far inferior engine more popular than its Source-based cousin. However, even so, is CS that fun to sit and watch? What about other games, such as Halo or BF2 or AA, that have less spectator tools; are they more spectator friendly?

Being around the eSports media scene for quite a while now and just through my own observations as well as talks with my colleagues in this field, it has become quite apparent to me that the games being played, while rich in the terms of gameplay and quite rewarding to the player to participate in, hold very little in terms of a rewarding for the gaming spectator, and holds even less for the casual spectator. In other words, you have to be a gamer to fully understand what’s going on while spectating today’s games. You would have to have played Quake 4 to know just what a crouch slide is and how it can be used. You would have had to have played BF2 to know just what prone spamming is or what squad hopping is and how it’s used (or used to be used). Part of the task of fixing it does indeed lay on the shoulders of the developers; all it will take is one developer to build a game with the advancement of the sport in mind over making millions of dollars first (and then they’ll make their money anyway) and build a game that is both deep enough to offer rewarding gameplay at the upper eschelons of competitive play while still being simple enough to be grasped and enjoyed by the casual spectator. This is a tall order and I realize is easier said than done on multiple counts. I still hold that it can be done, and it may require looking outside typical gaming genre molds to achieve.

The other part of this task, however, lies with myself and my colleagues in the media industry. Gaming media currently is dominated by gamers with their target audience being other gamers. Language used both in print and streaming medias has been largely directed towards the eSports-savvy crowd at the expense of alienating any part of the mainstream that may take interest. This is only compounded by the unnecessarily hostile and cliquish culture and mentality of the gaming community, who would just as easily cast off a newcomer as a ‘n00b!’ and flame the hell out of them before giving them a hand.

I will leave this entry here, but this topic still has much left to explore. As always, your comments and discussion here on this topic would be greatly appreciated – please post your views!