What is Holding Esports Back?

 

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I’ve enjoyed competitive sports, board games and video games all of my life. I can’t say I excel in any of these realms to a high degree, but I do enjoy playing them… and thinking about them. Esports aren’t taking hold of the public’s eye as traditional sports have done for a number of reasons, but the two reasons that I want to highlight are that 1) a competitive video game is owned by a sole proprietor and 2) game development is a private, for-profit enterprise. These two aspects of the now largest media industry in the U.S. hold competitive video gaming back from becoming as respected as traditional sports. In other words, the gaming industry still doesn’t know how to make money off of their player-base while designing for competitive gaming. Should competitive video games aspire to the level of traditional sports is a question for elsewhere.

1.

So why does it matter that a competitive game is owned by a sole proprietor? It mainly has to do with easy access for the players on a personal level and being able to enjoy the game in a public way. This sole ownership means that people aren’t able to take the game into their own hands in the same way that a kid playing soccer can (yes I’m from America) by going to their local playgrounds with a soccer ball to kick it around with some friends. Each kid must pay the $50 for Overwatch, create a Battle.net account, agree to the terms and conditions, have a console or computer with internet access… you get the point, in order to play together. Video games are less public in this sense and the players are forced to accept the hegemony of particular companies working in concert in order to play it competitively. There aren’t local little leagues that can just pop up un-officiated, there’s just “play in our virtual court casino or don’t play at all”. In traditional sports, there is no one basketball company that only makes equipment and arenas for the sport of basketball no matter how much, say, Spalding might claim itself to be the ‘official’ equipment company of the NBA. Anybody has access to the game if you can find a ball and a basketball hoop.

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Even Billy Hoe can play

The regulations for a particular traditional sport is maintained by a suite of associations, public groups, companies and governing bodies and not just one particular company. As for a particular competitive video game its that one publishing company that is the gatekeeper to your reveling in competitive play. They will only allow their game to become a sporting phenomenon as long as they are the rulers of the roost and get their fair share of the pie. I don’t blame them necessarily, it’s their product, but most people who enjoy a particular video game don’t want to be tools for a the company that originally made it. People identify with the sport more, not with the company. This sport identification leaves room for a stronger sense of team regionalism as well.

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Even the Predator prefers the Seahawks

2.

The second reason is my mainest of mainer points. Game publishers have to make a choice in how they choose to have a competitive game be developed and in those board rooms are shareholders with one main question in their minds: is this going to make me a lot of money? If so, how? No matter how much, as game consumers, we might identify with a particular game character, or love a certain world, don’t forget that it is Intellectual Property owned by a business. Companies such as Nintendo, EA and all the other AAA publishers are in the business of getting you to love their IP’s, as they want you to continue to purchase their suite of games and make money for their shareholders. It’s basic business, but so easily forgotten in the world of cute cuddly Pocket Monsters that brutally murder each other for the pleasure of their owners.

I recently read an article on Glixel by Justin Groot titled “Why ‘Super Smash Bros. Melee’ is Still the King” and it got me thinking on this point. There are several versions of Smash Bros. games, but Melee is the one with competitive staying power, while the later ones weren’t as popular. It is clear that the following Smash iterations  were designed with more mass appeal in mind. That is, with more hopes for people to buy their game that weren’t just serious competitive players, but a mass of casual players that will bring in that sweet sweet cash. There is less monetary incentive to create an amazing competitive Smash Bros. game if mainly hardcore Smash players will buy it. They’re a business.

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Sure, we make it top priority to balance the game mechanisms and doohickeys or whatever.

In the arena of First-person Shooting  games we have a cacophony of ways that companies are trying to leech money from their players at the expense of well designed competitive play. So much so that it’s difficult to tell whether the governing game mechanic of the latest version of Call of Duty is an FPS shooter or a slot machine. But even within the design of the gameplay itself are attempts to make the game more accessible for players with lower skill. Richard Bartle outlined a ‘taxonomy of player types‘ into four categories: socializers, killers, exporers and achievers. Raph Koster leads and interesting design discussion on his blog here and summarizes the four as:

  • Those who seek to interact with other people, or Socializers
  • Those who seek to dominate other people, or Killers
  • Those who seek to learn and master the mechanics of the world, or Explorers
  • Those who seek to advance within the context of the world, or Achievers

Koster talks about how to design against the “killers”, or in a more sporting way of looking at it, I’d call them “serious competitors”. What I’ve noticed about skill-based competitive games is that game designers are increasingly baking in sophisticated ways in which the matches are more appealing for the less-skilled players. Re-spawning is one thing that I’ve noticed that gets tons of design attention (and complaining from competitive players). When you kill a player on the opposing team in a team death match game, the player will re-spawn somewhere on the map. One way of making the game feel not so punishing to lesser skilled/experienced players is for the designers to have the player who was just killed, spawn behind or just outside the vision of the person who  just killed them, so they can get a quick revenge kill. In earlier versions of Call of Duty, multiplayer revenge kills weren’t just given out for free by the spawning system, but as they were attempting to have more mass appeal, they sold out the ‘killers’ for the other player types. But hey, it’s their game. Apparently it works because they keep doing it, even if it makes grumblers out of the killers. Competitive gaming can’t ignore the designer against the competitive players because companies want to make more money by having more unskilled players in their  gambling ecosystem.

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It’s hiiiiigggghhhhhhh… 

A second sub-point, to the mainer main point, is that because publishers make money by selling games, they have little interest in making and improving a single game in the way that a sport gets improved upon. Bigger budget game publishers typically have two basic routes of monetization: create a new game or create in-game stuff to pay for. Or both. The first is just making a new and slightly improved version of the game with a slightly different story, e.g. “last time you had Gears of War 3, now prepare your wallets for Gears of War 4!” The other route is to add onto the same game, like how Magic the Gathering and Hearthstone add new sets of cards as the official cards to be playin with. A sports equivalent of this would be, “you had basketball last year with only one measly basketball, but this year everybody must officially play with two basketballs!” Free-to-play games are really the testing grounds for new methods of monitization. The whole creation of in-game money, gambling crap, advertisements, friend spamming everywhere. Free-to-play: the petri dish of all things exploitative in gaming

A game that is a bit more precious to me than Call of Duty, Gears, Overwatch or Hearthstone, is the Tekken series. To me they represent a closer attempt to be sports-like, but they are still unable to overcome the issues I’m talking about and reach any sort of family name. They do not cater to players that are unskilled in the sense that in competitive play they don’t add ways for the the less skilled player win through some sort of design trickery. In this sense it is purely a game about skillful play  with highly technical play possibilities and an extremely high learning curve. Killers only need apply. Tekken fans actually are requesting that the developers create ways for them to give them money just so they can keep this franchise going. Yet there is always a new Tekken iteration on the rise. Technology is always increasing. That’s another aspect I haven’t discussed, but to always stay fresh and relevant in the video game sphere (Melee excepted), technical improvements are continually happening. This might not necessarily be a handicap because holy crap, have you seen the new Tekken. Them graphics… Theyyyyyyy’re…

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…better than good!

Now, traditional sports aren’t perfect in any stretch of the imagination, but they are enormous. Esports just won’t be able to take off in the same way as the traditional ones unless large changes happen in the business models. Perhaps esports are just never going to have the same level of appeal as traditional sports do, and that might be just fine for most people who play video games competitively.  I’d like to see more Tekken players though, as I’m gonna be playing it on PC and am worried that the competition is going to be a little sparse.

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