Why Do We Watch?
What is it about sports like football, soccer, and basketball that draws hundreds of thousands of people to watch the games on a weekly basis while others like judo, gymnastics, and water polo get few viewers unless, perhaps, it is during the Olympics? Why are some sports played by many and watched by few while for others it is the exact opposite? What, in short, makes a sport a spectator sport?
StarCraft has already proven itself as a spectator sport in many countries, though most notably in Korea. But what is it about StarCraft and StarCraft II that draws so many viewers? There are a number of theories on the subject, and I’ve narrowed it down to what I believe are the three largest factors in the StarCraft franchise’s success as a spectator sport: competitive balance, player narratives, and player/spectator asymmetric information. Each of these factors draws viewers, as some come for the stories and the drama, some to better their own play, and still others to marvel at the high level of professional play.
Everything starts with game design. A successful sport of any kind must have rules that cannot be abused and that allow for a fair match. In traditional sports this is a fairly simple task because each team is given exactly the same resources. In soccer that means a goalie and ten field players arranged in any formation that the team chooses. Since both teams have the same components, all that needs balancing are the rules themselves in order to make sure that there are no obvious exploits available. And once these rules are defined, they are generally set in stone, though still allowing for minor changes (e.g. using balls with different bladder technology during World Cup soccer or adding “challenges” in football to allow referees to double check a play they may have initially called the wrong way).
In StarCraft, however, balance means having units, maps, and mechanics that allow an equal opportunity for players to win assuming equal skill. Equal skill, unfortunately, is difficult to define between races, and the only way to see what exploits are available is to test each unit repeatedly in a large number of situations. So while traditional sports may keep the same rules for decades, StarCraft must be tweaked constantly until it reaches a state that Blizzard feels is completely balanced.
In addition to game balance, there must also be balance between the players. The games that are the most fun to watch are the ones where it is unclear who the winner will be - those epic matches that get to game seven in BO7 series. When the series is a walk-over and you can tell who the champion will be before the match even begins, the game becomes much less interesting. This has been the case with almost every GSL Code S finals so far, which has led many people to look forward to the round of four or eight more than the finals themselves.
In addition, there is the dynamic between Korean players and “foreigner” players – namely that Koreans generally beat us down pretty hard. Notice, however, that I had to use the word “generally,” because we do have a number of solid foreigners who consistently perform well against the Koreans, and that group is rising in numbers constantly. Though the skill gap was high, and we previously had little reason to think that our players would stand a chance, we still watched the games. Now that the skill gap is closing, however, the games have become even more fun to watch; we can see a matchup like oGsNaDa vs EG.HuK and actually have to watch the games to find out who won rather than just being able to assume that HuK either got 2-0’d or got lucky and took a game off of NaDa, never thinking that HuK might have won the series.
However, even when the foreigners were not as competitive with the Koreans, many of us still watched the games. We watched them not because we thought they would win, but because we were invested in the players themselves and their story lines. Every sport has its heroes and its villains, but these are especially important in fledgling sports. Baseball had Ty Cobb in the early 1900s when the American League was only a few years old. People would come to games for no other reason than to jeer and boo Cobb. He was as BM as they come – going out of his way to slash players with his cleats, purposely putting himself in position to crash through basemen, and even purposely bunting down the first base line occasionally in order to seek revenge on a pitcher who had gotten on the wrong side of him. These are the rough equivalents of manner mules and pylons, dancing in the opponent’s base, or nuking your own units, simply because you can.
Cobb, in addition to being the most BM player in the league, was also one of the best players ever to step foot on a diamond. Villains need to be skilled players in order to justify their behavior. For baseball it was Cobb, for us it is EG.IdrA, ST_Bomber, and oGsMC. These players add a level of drama to the games themselves. Watching them win can be simultaneously gratifying and infuriating as they show us the highest level of play while making a mockery of whoever their unlucky opponent is. But we also love to see them lose. When IdrA lost his series against coLTriMaster at MLG Raleigh, he hit his keyboard so hard that his F4 key went flying - and it made the win by TriMaster even more dramatic.
Finally, in addition to balance and star factor, StarCraft has something that other sports really do not – at least not in nearly as high a capacity: information asymmetry. This basically means that there is an imbalance in information between two parties (in this case it’s between the players and the spectators). A recent article by two researchers from the University of Washington credit this reason above all others for the watchability of StarCraft. The chart below shows the order in which information is revealed, according to this study. They suggest that at the beginning of the game the players know much more than the spectators, leading to suspense about what build orders will be used; will one of the players cheese or all-in? Will the Protoss player go Nexus first on Tal’Darim Altar, or will he go with the safer forge expand? And then as the play unfolds, the spectator starts to have more information than the player, such as where the Baneling landmines are placed and what tech and expansions the players are hiding from each other.
StarCraft is not the only sport to have information asymmetry, but in my opinion it does have more than any of the others. In American football, the teams run set plays on offense which remain unknown to the observer until the start of the play. This is, however, a very short amount of time in which the information remains unknown (on the order of a few seconds), and the information being kept secret is much more limited in terms of what the credible options are than in StarCraft. For example, the equivalent of a cheese in American football might be to use a Statue of Liberty play where the quarterback pretends to throw a pass, but as he cocks his arm to throw, the running back takes the ball and does a running play, effectively catching the defense off-guard. This play is run so infrequently that it is effectively ruled out as a possible play. Others like an onside kick or a fake field goal are also unlikely, but they have fairly well-defined uses, and spectators and players alike know when to expect them.
The flow of information over the course of a game in StarCraft makes it a truly unique spectacle to watch unfold, and that combined with the personal narratives and the competitive balance of the game allows StarCraft to be one of the most watchable sports around (eSport and traditional sport, both), as many people who may not even have played the game before are quickly realizing.
Now all we need are eSports stadiums where we can gather to watch the events sporting our favorite team jerseys – but to do that we need the people to realize what an amazing sport this really is. So go out there and find some people to watch a couple games with you and spread the word!