Friday, 23 September 2011

StarCraft II and eSports

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a friends of mine, Vincent Laurent (aka Amnesia, to tetris folk), on our history playing Tetris, and why we still bother hanging around the community and playing the game. There came a point at which I mentioned that if I could go back five years with the hindsight I have now, and do things differently, I'd probably choose to play StarCraft instead.

His first response was "so you regret everything?" (it was probably a bit more Frenglais than that), and no, I don't regret anything. I could have probably done something with my time that wasn't playing video games, I'll ignore that line of thinking. The fact is that while I've met some awesome people and hand awesome times in the community (and still do), the competitive scene for the game seems to be a complete dead-end. It's fragmented, has very little official support (aside from not-even-a-handful of tournaments) and to be honest I can't see it ever becoming particularly big.

On the other hand, StarCraft's competitive scene is now almost reaching the point where it's moving across from being big in the community of people who play the game to being small in the world at large as an eSport. There's big money to be made by the players, and the audience numbers are starting to really kick off.

I don't know how truthful the comments that StarCraft is Korean's national sport are, but it's historically where most of the big competitions and money has been. Korean players have had teams, coaches, sponsors and all that jazz for longer and on a much bigger scale than in the US or Europe (or so I am lead to believe), but it's now really starting to increase in the West as well (the US Evil Geniuses team has a frickin awesome team house).

There is a lot of money to be made as an SC2 player these days, and I'd say pretty surely that those numbers are only likely to go up. Even aside from prize money and team salaries, there are players like Destiny and other casters online that are making a fairly solid full-time salary just through streaming their daily gaming over the internet with the size of audiences their streams regularly get.

I wouldn't try to claim that if I'd started on StarCraft: Brood War instead of Tetris DS that I'd be making some pretty nice money on the side by being one of the top EU SC2 players instead of top EU TGM players, because that's just not how this sort of thing works (and Tetris, with a far smaller player base, is much easier to become one of the best at), but it would have been nice to have given it a go and seen where I'd gotten. But this post is not to lament stuff I could-but-probably-wouldn't have been, this is more a prediction that in 10-15 years the whole eSports scene will be substantially bigger than it is now to the point at which it verges on mainstream viewers.

Forbes magazine recently interviewed Sean "Day[9]" Plott, a guy I've come to have a lot of respect for and be a huge fan of, on the issue. Firstly, I think the fact that Forbes have even bothered to interview someone almost entirely unknown outside the SC2 community is a fairly big deal for this sort of thing (they also did quite an interesting interview with Destiny on how he now makes a living streaming and can earn up to $40-50 an hour doing so). Secondly I think some of the points in that interview are pretty interesting and enlightening on how the whole eSports scene could develop as a whole in the next few years.

StarCraft: Brood War matches attract sizes of crowds in Korea that can literally fill a stadium

eSports and professional gaming tournaments have been around for absolutely ages, but it seems only recently that things have properly started to pick up, I'd say most probably because live streaming of matches over the internet has exploded the audience sizes far beyond the few thousand people who are nerdy enough to go to these events to watch it first-hand.

Gaming tournaments always used to be sponsored by extremely nerd-centric brands. Companies that make graphics cards and high-end hardware and various other brands that my parents have never heard of (well, maybe my Dad would have). And sure, the sponsorship is still largely covered by brands like NVidia and Alienware, but these days you also see brands like Pepsi (sponsor of the GSL in Korea) and Dr Pepper (I think MLG?) plastered all over these sorts of tournaments. The fact that companies as big as Pepsi and Coke are getting involved and putting money into these sorts of events is a show that they're starting to gather serious attention beyond the most hardcore nerd scene. There was also Day9's After Hours Gaming League, a tournament involving employees from Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and various other US internet giants. A couple of weeks Destiny and Sheth did a 24-hour charity drive on their streams for Doctors Without Borders and managed to raise around $32,000 from stream ads and viewer donations on Paypal.

So aside from internet streaming becoming far more widespread and popular, why now, and why StarCraft? Personally I think it's because SC2 actually provides a decent eSport from the spectator's point of view, whilst most other games don't.

I used to think the idea of watching people play games was totally stupid. I was a huge player of games, but the idea of watching other people play just seemed totally dull. Sure, they might have been awesome, but I didn't know any of these people, and why should I care? Partly I think this stemmed from the fact that most pro gaming videos on the internet are first-person shooters or music-based games like IIDX or Guitar Hero, which all produce games that are totally useless to watch as a spectator. Sure, maybe you can see that it's quite impressive that they can do that, but to your average player or non-player everyone who is really good just looks the same (high-level Tetris is the same), and for first-person shooters you're either watching a first-person cam from one player and missing most of the action, or you're watching from a higher level and can only really see people shooting each other and dying.

The difference with StarCraft is that its gameplay creates something which is far closer to a conventional sport. You can see players gain and lose the upper hand, make tactical decisions and errors, you get close calls and tight spots, comebacks, and all the other stuff that makes regular real-life sports entertaining to watch. To steal and extend an analogy from the Day9 interview, it's like chess, only a lot fsater, with real time explosions and stuff, and where the strategy can still be subtly there, but from a spectator point of view it doesn't require you to be at their level of thinking to see what they're doing.

Blizzard have gone to great lengths to create a game which is fun and provides depth in strategy and skill, whilst still being extremely balanced at a competitive level, and they've done all of this almost with making it a spectacle in mind. It's set up so that casters and commentators can easily have an overlord view of the entire game and present it live how they want to.

What's more, it's accessible as a spectacle. With commentators you don't need to have played the game to understand what's going on. Sure, you probably need to watch a few games to pick things up, but that's the same for any sport. You might not appreciate the difficulty and complexity of what the players themselves are having to do to manage and control everything as well as they do (and I'll say after a few months of playing - it's fucking hard), but appreciation for the skill isn't something that's necessarily required to enjoy a sport.

I think the fundamental barrier to the likes of SC2 becoming majorly popular is that it is still a video game, and just the label of "eSport" will cause most people to be somewhat prejudiced against its qualities and validity, in the same way I was until not that long ago (it doesn't help it's also a stupid term). That said, the generation currently reaching their mid-twenties is one that grew up playing video games in a way that the previous generation didn't, and it could be that the viewpoint of video games being a pointless hobby and waste of time opens into one that allows them to be seen as a legitimate form of entertainment. Sure, it's just two people manipulating things on a screen, but there's not a huge fundamental difference between watching people running around kicking a ball on TV and watching player-controlled armies duking it out in terms of the entertainment it provides.

Short of a small miracle, there's no way I'll ever come even close to a professional level on StarCraft II (especially not if I stick to my current timetable of only playing it for a little bit every few days) but I'd personally find it awesome if the game itself and its competitive scene would keep its current rate of gaining popularity. The last MLG had a record 130,000 live viewers online during the event (on the main website, not counting other official streaming sites or people who watched the recordings at a later time). That's still tiny compared to most regular sports (or even the Korean GSL's reported 100 million viewers when you include people watching the recordings uploaded online), but for an American gaming event broadcast over the internet it's not a bad figure.

So whilst in terms of the internet the figures are relatively small for the most part, I still think that as word gets around a bit more, and maybe as the available audience shifts into one that is a bit more receptive to this sort of thing, StarCraft II and a few other eSports could genuinely start to pick up a proper audience, even amongst people who don't actually play the games themselves, and it honestly wouldn't surprise me to see these sorts of things proper televised in the west in ten or twenty years' time. It won't ever happen to Tetris, and I totally backed a losing horse there in terms of monetary repayment for invested time (not that I ever played it for that reason anyway), but I still think it'd be fricking cool for SC2 anyway.

Either way, StarCraft II is one of the few sports (to use the term liberally) that I can actually watch as a total neutral and enjoy (the others being forms of cycling and motorsport). Because despite my original scepticism, it's actually surprisingly entertaining.

1 comment:

  1. Space invaders was my limit although I got quite good at Worms or the gameboy version of Star Wars Monopoly. Not sure I could've made a living from it though.