The Holy Trinity of eSports
eSports has been around for a while; it is by no means old, but no longer that young either.
In 2004 one of the hottest tournaments at the time, the Cyberathlete Professional League, more commonly known as the CPL, sported 40,000 viewers for the Counter-Strike 1.6 finals using HLTV (an in-game spectator client, groundbreaking for its time). Now in October of 2011, the IPL3 had roughly 65,000 people watching StarCraft II using modern HD streaming.
These two events are seven years apart, an eternity in the digital world, and although there have been clear improvements in technology as well as in tournament management, the viewership numbers are surprisingly similar. The growth would still be considered slow even if we would use the slightly more generous viewership-numbers reported throughout the year from MLG and DreamHack who both have had really high peaks but similar averages. It’s a far cry from the explosive and world-conquering growth that many have hoped for and predicted throughout the life of eSports.
So why would now be any different? What makes right now so special, to make us think that we can grow eSports to many times it’s former and current size? Well, it all comes down to three things really. Three pillars that today are fundamentally stronger than what they were seven years ago. The Holy Trinity of eSports: Technology, Tournaments and Teachers.
“Technology is the vehicle of eSports.”
The technology used back in 2004 was not quite as refined as the streaming we have today. You had to do your own observing and manually attempt to sync the commentators along with the HLTV buffering, something that is just as tricky as it sounds. All in all it wasn’t very user-friendly, but tens of thousands still put up with it because they loved what they saw: a new genre of sports that valued brain over brawn. Competitors were admired for their smarts and mental fortitude instead of physical endurance and power. Mental aspects such as strategy, reaction time, and on-the-fly decision making took precedence over physical abilities such as running faster, throwing farther, and jumping higher. It was a digital sport for the increasingly digital mankind.
But something happened, and eSports entered a steady and painful decline that lasted years. Someone almost killed eSports, literally, and everyone within the eSports machine had a theory as to who held the gun. A consensus on the specifics and the contributing factors were hard to reach, but thankfully this debate faded away as StarCraft II re-ignited the flame that had been dormant for so long.
eSports, the common form of entertainment known as gaming, but elevated to its extreme through competitiveness and skill, is growing once more. This time the vehicle that drives it, the foundation upon which it stands, technology, is ready to embrace a larger crowd, an audience beyond the young PC enthusiast. No longer do you need to jump through hoops to get a decent spectator experience; it has finally become as easy as watching good old TV. Although we will surely continue to see innovations in the ways we watch eSports, the major accessibility hurdle has been overcome. Despite this, technology alone will not carry the torch of eSports to the heights we aspire it to reach.
Luckily, the tournaments themselves have come a long way from where they were. There used to be a time when the tournament was a large convention floor, stacked with computers at one end and gamers milling about everywhere else. That was it. No stage, no seats, no big screen projection for whatever curious audience there might be. Only gamers and the game. Today we have a live audience numbering in the thousands who chant the names of their heroes on stage, all in front of a directed live-stream filled with interviews, commentary, and entertainment between matches.
A few years back the only cheers you’d hear would come from the players themselves, and the only reason you would even get to see that is because someone managed to capture the final round on a dark & shaky video to upload for the community hours later. As a result, when we would proudly state to our loved ones that these guys just had won $50,000 playing video games and did so professionally all over the world, the overall production did not impress or win them over to the point that they would take it seriously. Now, today, all of that has changed. And although there still is work to be done, improvements to be made and awkwardness to iron out, there can be no doubt that a threshold has been crossed when a truck guided straight into the the lifeline of a tournament (its Internet connection), still failed to put a dent in the quality of the content produced.
However, with all this said, with all these improvements in mind, eSports is still in short supply in regards to one vital component for it to reach its true potential: Teachers.
"There's nothing more cool than being proud of the things that you love."
The deeper your understanding of a game is, the more avenues of enjoyment are open to you. Only once the spectator is armed with a deeper understanding of the game will he or she be able to enjoy the more subtle aspects of it. The tricky part is guiding someone from one end of the spectrum to the other. A good spectator sport is easy for the casual viewer to understand and also provides depth for the seasoned veteran to enjoy.
Traditionally it has been the commentator’s job in various sports to educate and highlight those small but important things, thereby bringing the viewer a more complete picture of the action at hand. But our games within eSports are, whether we like it or not, quite complicated to explain to the average Joe. Yet we still do not dedicate enough time to lower the barrier of entry for the uninitiated.
One of the many things that helped create the incredible surge in popularity for Texas Hold’em in the early 2000s was the continuous education of it’s viewers. Each and every time an episode of the World Poker Tour or a similar show would come on they would dedicate a few minutes to explain how an already quite simple (yet deep) game worked. It did not matter that 95% of its viewership already knew the basics of the game in and out, the point was to always reach out to get more people hooked; the addition of poker-lingo and even trivia at times also helped to expand the common knowledge of its viewership.
We, as a community, do not teach very well yet, and when our front-figures who commentate the games try to do so with the uninitiated in mind, we as a community complain about the simplistic strategical analysis. Great teachers such as Day mask their teachings in a veil of entertainment while also conveying advanced concepts in simple terms. This is a rare and wonderful gift, and he is justly celebrated for it. But we need to come to terms with the fact that Day can only be in one place at a time, while we at the same time want eSports to be everywhere. Other commentators need to be given “permission” by the community to attempt and teach as well, and that would include explanations of what the hell the 1-1-1 build is and how vision up/down cliffs works.
"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."
In order to reach the promised land we need a well-produced tournament that can establish common ground with the casual viewer, reach a broad audience through the gift of technology, and educate its spectators from all backgrounds, even if only on a very basic level. When we can put our mom in front of an MLG stream and have her understand what takes place on her own, only then we will have won. We are close, but we are not there yet.
Nowadays the poker boom has subsided. Internet gambling laws and fraud investigations have tempered its growth, but only after having multiplied its player pool many times over. The lifestyle sponsors and companies who rode that boom are looking around for the best way to reach the same demographic once more, and eSports is nearly ready to strap itself onto that same rocket and head straight to the mainstream stage.
The Second Coming of eSports is soon upon us. Bask in its glory and rejoice!
"Everything is digital now," says Lake. "We talk on our cellphones. We spend half our days on computers. We live in a digital world. Through the history of humanity, we've taken different aspects of our civilization and made them into sports, so why wouldn't it be the perfect time for some kind of digital sport?"
Written by Joel 'Offsajdh' Hakalax