keekerdc.com

essays and pithy thoughts

The watchability problem

in glhf

My spell checker is convinced watchability isn’t a word. No matter, it’s the core of my thesis here, so my contrived term stays; I think it conveys the proper meaning better than ‘a quality of a thing pertaining to an observer’s ease in comprehending it.’

I’m increasingly convinced that this is gaming’s true final frontier. I greatly enjoy splitting hairs on the business of sport and how it pertains to gaming, but in the end, none of that matters if nobody’s watching. If a game doesn’t accommodate layperson spectators, if it’s not watchable, it’s not a ‘professional esport’ – otherwise it’s just a game played competitively.

Yea, I’m going to get uppity about semantics and argue against the application of ‘professional’ to most of the scenes it’s applied to today. It’s not your profession if you’re not making sustainable, livable cheese from it. If you’re paying out money to support your participation in it and not making it back, it’s a hobby, not a profession; it’s amateur, not professional. Not that there’s anything wrong with being honest about the amateur status of the vast majority of gamers, nor should it be taken as commentary on the skill levels of those playing; amateur sports are every bit as competitive as their professional counterparts (if they exist). My point is that the mere existence of a high level of play does not professional make. The difference is in the cashflow, and the cashflow in sports comes from spectators, not players.

There have been a handful of Counter-strike teams that could be considered professional over the course of the game’s existence – teams that have pushed their way into the black through prolific prize tournament winnings and subsequent endorsements. But these teams are few and far between. The same might be true, to a lesser degree, for DotA. On the solo side, a multitude of different duel/twitch games (mostly Quake titles) have collectively provided a platform on which many more recognizable names have been established, and the success of the SF4 scene speaks for itself. If we’re being honest, however, the teams and players that could really call themselves professional were few and far between, and gaming remains largely an amateur venture.

The exception to this, of course, is Starcraft. For purposes of this particular topic, I’m going to drag along the Street Fighter scene as well. At the very core of the success of both of these games is not a uniquely cohesive grassroots scene, or piles of money tossed at it – those are symptoms of success, not the causes. You can throw all the money you please at World of Warcraft arenas (as MLG did), for example, and it will never blossom as a professional esport. The reason why Starcraft and Street Fighter have exploded while others have floundered or stagnated comes down to that they’re actually watchable!

If it would please the court, I’d like to present my watchability, and thus ‘viable esport’ criteria:

  • You can grok the basics. Anybody familiar with the concept of a sport can easily pick up the salient objective of Starcraft and Street Fighter: pummel your opponent until there’s nothing left. I’m not talking about nuance here – all newbies to any sport require some hand holding to pick up on the details that matter. I am talking about being able to understand what the objective is, and who is generally winning, within five minutes of first exposure to a match.
  • You can understand some of the finer points without having actually played the game. This is where most games fall off the horse. DotA/HoN/LoL comes to mind immediately – huge community full of highly skilled players that have no chance of developing a legitimate professional scene due to the fact that there’s no chance in hell that laypeople can understand it. Counter-strike barely clears this bar in my mind, and most days when pondering this topic it simply doesn’t – the maps are a huge part of the game, and if you don’t know most regions of most maps by sight from a first-person POV, there’s no chance that a CS stream is compelling viewing to you. I can sit with a layperson and describe a the significance of a particular Terran build, or explain why a heavy mech-n-tech Protoss strategy is about to eat that bioball for lunch, and have them understand it; everything’s out in plain view and readable. I can’t describe the multitude of tactical variations of de_inferno to a first-time CS viewer and have them be able to even recognize an A-side rush by sight; it’s when deeper understanding of a game can only come through hours of play time does a game not pass this test.
  • The developer has provided an unobtrusive means of spectating play. This seems obvious, but is going to rain on some popular games’ parades, including some of my favorites. The Battlefield series has never been great in this regard and has actually gotten worse in recent editions. Call of Duty has never had a viable means of spectating a match without the help of someone that can stream video at an aggressive delay – an ability that’s increasingly rare in the age of free live Flash streams – and I’m afraid all the recent noise I’m seeing about Black Ops is more or less futile. At least they can take solace that they’re not Halo players; MLG can’t even make this game watchable, and they bring truckloads of video production equipment to the table. This is something that’s completely dependent on the developers. If they don’t see the value in writing extra code to accommodate spectators as well as players, then there’s really no hope for the game long-term.
  • It’s entertaining to watch even if you don’t play the game. Some people are so enthusiastic about a game that they enjoy watching it just as much as they do playing it. The gaming scene can be a pretty insular crowd, and many of us think of our favorite game as the ultimate esports experience; those that argue to the contrary are simply idiots. The true test is to sit someone down that doesn’t play the game and see if they feel even remotely the same about it. Starcraft and Street Fighter, I think, can produce that sentiment most reliably. Others…I can’t feel the same about.

Really, the proof for me is in that final criteria. We need to find those gaming experiences that are supremely watchable and become tireless evangelists of them, regardless of our own affinities to particular communities or favorite late-night pub jaunts.

When you get right down to it, a large player base only goes so far when the goal is to build a new sport – you get a robust amateur scene but nothing further. Yes, you need plenty of skilled people playing, but you need more people, by an order of magnitude, that are simply around to watch, in order for a sport to come of age, and develop a professional ecosystem.

Our goal is to get people watching.