I recently read an interesting article from Ben Kuchera for Penny Arcade Report in which he interviews Seth Killian, Capcom’s community manager. The interview centres around the video of a single match of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike in 2004’s Evo Championship Series, considered to be the USA’s foremost fighting game tournament.
One particular line from Seth stuck in my mind: “Only around one percent of people who watch that video really know what’s going on.” This frank admission from Seth suitably illustrates one of the most fundamental issues surrounding eSports gaining further traction as a movement; only hardcore fanatics are able to wrap their heads round the more nuanced concepts of some of the video game titles that get played.
Two of the most popular genres in eSports are fighting and real-time strategy. One of the few elements that these genres share in common is a vast and complex code of regulations, strategies and language that completely alienate mainstream sensibilities, let alone the grand proportion of self-confessed gamers with merely a conversational background in these disciplines.
Even worse, those that do spent time starting out and trying to learn these games in order to become part of the movement can find themselves alienated rather than welcomed by the incumbent, further expanding the gulf between casual and enthusiast eSports supporters. WingSpanTT of Top Tier Tactics illustrates the predicament:
“Simply put, e-sports will never become mainstream unless the competitive gaming community can get over itself and open a dialog with lower level players, hobbyists, and unskilled spectators. The average baseball fan can’t throw a curveball. The average NASCAR fan would shit himself if he drove over 140 mph. Hell, half the world’s soccer fans can’t afford three meals a day, nevermind spare the energy to insult one another over what constitutes perfect goalkeeping. Yet despite the fanbases of these sports being almost universally non-competitive (or even non participating) audience members, sports are incredibly popular, if you haven’t realized. Maybe part of that is that they’ve been around longer, but I’d bet part of it is that the average viewer is allowed to share his or her opinion without getting publicly humiliated by everyone in hearing distance.”
Of course, one may dispute that the majority of eSports discussions take place on internet forums, a medium highly vulnerable to inflammatory, provocative and obnoxious behaviour thanks to the anonymity and remoteness of the audience. However, it is on computers that aspiring eSports players practice their craft, making WingSpannTT’s distinction all the more relevant.
To demonstrate the importance of audience awarenessand inclusion in building eSports one need look no further than the popularity of StarCraft tournaments in Korea. Jeremy Reimer of Ars Technica provides a brief history of the phenomenon:
“The year was 1999. A combination of government-sponsored inexpensive broadband, punitive tariffs on Japanese video game consoles (which at the time meant video game consoles in general), and the rise of “PC bangs” or gaming cafes where people played computer games, all combined at once to create something entirely new. Local [StarCraft] tournaments at the PC bangs grew into larger and larger events, and when the Korean TV channel OnGameNet sponsored the first OSL championship, won by Canadian Guillaume “Grrrr…” Patry, there was no turning back. Patry became the first StarCraft superstar, appearing on talk shows and being mobbed by fans.”
Thus, aspiring young hopeful StarCraft players found themselves whisked into the spotlight by sponsors and broadcasters and a nationwide obsession was born.
That being the case, it seems remiss that the eSports community all but overlook a genre that could have a remarkable following owing to the lowest barrier of audience entry; namely the sports simulation genre.
Video games such as FIFA Football, Virtua Tennis and F1 already mimic the regulations and tactics of their real world counterparts in football, tennis and Formula 1 respectively. Fans of any of these sports would be instantly at home watching the digital equivalent.
Naturally it could transpire that there may be a loss in translation for a portion of sports enthusiasts, such that the digital equivalent does not offer the equivalent thrill of its real world forefather. This could partly be down to the lack of actuality to the affair, the absence of physical exertion or risk, or the simple fact that the enthusiasm for the original sports stems from more than just the game but also the people. If sports enthusiasts have a sworn allegiance to a particular team or player, then the digital manifestations will not offer the equivalent pull.
Another potential issue may arise in overcoming the licensed nature of the aforementioned sports. The teams and players represented in the games mentioned above are based on real sports stars. As such, any representation of said players and teams in a professional context may be heavily protected by the rights holders.
However, this may also be seen as an opportunity as much as a threat; assuming that licensing issues are overcome, real life players and teams may choose to sponsor their video game playing counterparts, perhaps even paying handsomely to see their team or player represented.
I’m sure that fans of existing eSports leagues and tournaments may bristle at the thought of games outside their remit from invading their hallowed ground, but that is not to say that the inclusion of sports and simulation games would impact negatively on existing StarCraft, Street Fighter or CounterStrike tournaments. In fact, the inclusion of such titles could be seen as a gateway into a wider acceptance for their beloved series.
Football is a game about strategy, placement, and timing. It demands you to consider when to attack, and when to hold back. These are critical elements to any real-time strategy title. Tennis is a game which demands that you consider your boundaries and capabilities whilst reading, anticipating and reacting to your opponent. These are crucial skills for any fighting game. Formula 1 is a demanding test of reflexes, skill and hair breadth accuracy. No self-respecting first person shooter player could do without similar attributes.
By making any scene more accessible, you remove the unorthodox and underground nature of that scene. This is true of all arts and cultures. The eSports culture is no exception.
What do you think the key to mainstream interest in eSports is? Do you think sports and simulation games are the key to mainstream acceptance of eSports? If you don’t already spectate or follow eSports – what would make you do so? What factors do you see as standing in the way of eSports becoming mainstream – or is it just a matter of time?
Sean Daisy started his writing career as a scriptwriter, before taking his hand to writing about video games; his true passion. He joined Destructoid.com’s community writing team in 2009 and quickly made a name for himself with his witty, incisive and innovative articles. He joined Destructoid.com‘s Features team 2011. He is based in Ashford, Kent. On Twitter he is known as @seandaisy.