The The New York Times examines what has happened to the in-person experience at the Final Four. The cheapest seats in the house this year are $150 after your customary scalper markup, and that sum will get you roughly a country mile from the court; your best means of figuring out what is happening there are ludicrously large LCD screens suspended from the ceiling.
At the Garden, which seats fewer than 20,000, the arena shook with excitement. Here, the sounds of the college bands and the cheers were lost inside this Grand Canyon. To most fans, the game had virtually become a silent movie. The clang of a shot hitting the rim. The madness of coaches shouting. The sickening squeal of skin sliding across the floor as players grapple for a loose ball. Many fans at this Final Four missed out on that. But that has become the norm. The event was last played at an arena built for basketball — what a concept — nearly 20 years ago.
Some level of intimacy is required for basal enjoyment of a sporting event, I’d argue.
Dictionary definitions of ‘sport’ that always get dredged up when someone questions the legitimacy of esports as a whole, typically in the comment thread of a mainstream publication’s “oh isn’t this cute” story on esports, those definitions always annoy me because they tend to focus on the extreme physical prowess of competitors, and leave the spectator dynamic out of it completely. Physicality, and physics in general, is only part of the elixir.
At its best, it becomes operatic. Every sound and gesture holds meaning; not just from the players, but from the onlookers as well. It’s hard to glean any of that from the upper reaches of a 100,000 seat arena. Such a scale spells the inevitable heat death of the sporting atmosphere; everything gets lost in space. In yet another instance where Texas gets it wrong, bigger isn’t always better.
“Good or bad, it’s moneymaking,” said Jim Calhoun, the Hall of Fame coach who led Connecticut to three N.C.A.A. championships. “But I like the smell of the game, I like hearing the sneakers, and you don’t get quite as much of that here. Those past Final Fours years ago were intense and beautiful, but now, unfortunately, this is the trend.”
Clark Kellogg, a CBS basketball analyst, nailed it when he said, “The game of basketball is meant to be played in an intimate setting, but we’ve obviously squeezed all of the toothpaste out of that tube.”
I think the case for not letting things get too much larger in esports is clear, no matter how hard leagues argue for the prospect of yet bigger spectacles. This is not for the sake of scene economics, but simply to preserve conditions for compelling theatre. As evidenced by this year’s Final Four, sitting in a stadium to watch what’s happening on giant screens doesn’t scale indefinitely.
This piece is coming rather shortly after Riot’s sell-out crowd at the Staples center, ESL’s efforts towards filling a 50,000 seat stadium, and Valve’s quick sell-out of the Key Arena for the next International. The honeymoon phase for high-capacity esports events is still on, clearly. But just like massive winner-take-all prize pots, the luster on these blowouts fall off quite quickly. As soon as they’re over, we’re hearing about how the next one will be way bigger and way hype-er. OK.
I suppose what I’m asking is, when will ‘building esports larger and larger to prove our legitimacy versus traditional sports’ finally take a backseat to ‘allowing more people to enjoy it in person where they are’?
The state of the scene is that the vast majority of people watch streams, not because it’s necessarily their first choice, but because esports has no presence where they call home, and spending a weekend of travel to spectate an event isn’t feasible. The gap in the market is huge, and pulling towards what we’re seeing in college basketball is pulling in the wrong direction.