Television is an odd medium. It is traditionally designed to appeal to the widest range of people, the greatest common denominator. It's no surprise, then, that the televised competitive playing of video games hasn't taken off worldwide. Gamers, as a whole, fancy themselves wise to the tactics of most marketing ploys and thus carry around a certain amount of cynicism, a cynicism that advertisers don't find all that alluring.
Instead, e-sports mostly thrive on face-to-face competition, which is counter-intuitive for an industry that exists primarily on televisions and computer monitors, but look back at the history of TV shows like WCG Ultimate Gamer or the old World Series of Video Games and you can see the valiant effort and ensuing failure that has also become the story of other, similar endeavours.
There are problems with e-sports. And there are, of course, solutions.
The passion about personal competition — the proof that e-sports can thrill an audience — can be easily seen through the attendance of regular professional gaming events, such as November's Major League Gaming's Pro Circuit stop in Providence, Rhode Island. It's a place where gamers got together to have fun — and to play games for prize money. I interviewed some people in the scene, people who organise teams of players, to get an insider's view on the problems inherent (and possible solutions) to bringing e-sports to the mainstream.
"I don't think we're ready for TV, nor do I think we should want television," says Curt Carter, development director at pro-gamer group CheckSix Gaming.
There are too many obstacles for a fledgling movement to overcome, it should try to grow in its natural habitat: the internet.
TV programs had been focused on the wrong stuff. They played on the novelty of broadcasting video games rather than gearing themselves towards the "two per cent who really, legitimately care," says Jerry Prochazka of e-sports pro gaming team vVv Gaming.
Quantic Gaming CEO Mark Ferraz agrees. The past attempts at bringing e-sports to the general public were monolithic; "It was the big wheels, it was the big money and basically trying to create wildfire that didn't exist." Big events tried to cover all the bases. They were all general appeasement but zero engagement.
The question then becomes how to do it better on the internet. For Ferraz, "it's the personality, it's the drama." You can see it when you watch these events live at MLG or the Evolution Championship Series; there's a reason why people show up wearing shirts that say "Make More Marines!" to StarCraft tournaments and why Evo 2004's Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike wild semifinal is still labelled as the most memorable moment in competitive gaming.
(Exhibit A: Commentary that's focused on the maps and tactics, not the personalities.)
The intimate side of the competition must be highlighted. If people don't care about the best gamer and his struggle — and instead dwell on how much better they can play the game — the personal part of the sport is left behind. To neglect the personal side is to leave the audience of pro-gaming at some minimal per cent of gamers.
For Prochazka, the neglect for the personal side of pro gaming is exemplified in the commentating. In more traditional sports such as football, you will notice that for large portions of any given game, no one is all that intent on watching the game, yet the sportscasters never stop talking. What do they talk about? The players. Talking incessantly about player history or habits or personal tidbits brings the viewer a sensation of being one of the insider elite. "This is why trivia is important," Prochazka says, "you need fans to connect to things."
E-sports commentary, however, plays the complete opposite way. If it isn't pure, rapid-fire play-by-play like with most Call of Duty matches, then it's throwing so much insider jargon around that it's no surprise many newcomers — let alone non-gamers — turn the other cheek. Personalising the commentary makes the initial exposure to the world of competitive gaming less shock-inducing for initiates and keeps current fans feeling like they are engaging with their idols in ways that would otherwise seem impossible.
(Exhibit B: 12 minutes in, the jargon-filled commentary begins)
CheckSix's Carter sees another hazard: getting warm and fuzzy with big companies to grow the sport. "I do not think we're ready [for corporate influence]," he says. "Let's do the exact same thing we're doing now, but more of it. The next big step is content distribution."
Ferraz, on the other hand, has other ideas. "I think the people who have been here ... lack business acumen. I'm trying to make a business that can pay for its shit." Someone who understands the industry and understands how to run businesses needs to lead the way so e-sports can become lucrative and long-lasting for players, managers, and fans. "It's time for revenue, it's time for business."
They all agree, though, that it should be about the fans. Growing e-sports must happen from within the community, and, as Prochazka says, the way to do that is bring more personal stake to the table. "The single common thread is passion," that same infectious, overwhelming emotion you feel when you see a football arcing towards the centre posts from 50m out, or a back break through a gap and sprint halfway across the field for a try.
"Tend and water the ground that is clearly fertile,' Ferraz says. "Trying to create something artificial is still artificial."
Aside from being a freelance writer, Tim Poon is also a computer scientist, a professional dodge ball player and knee-deep in a love/hate relationship with indie culture and subsequently, scarves.