The Mainstreaming of Esports Is Slow, Sure, and Not Over Yet

Illustration for article titled The Mainstreaming of Esports Is Slow, Sure, and Not Over Yet

As a good American I was filled with a jingoistic fervor after the triumph of the Evil Geniuses at The International, the world championship for Dota 2, this past weekend. I like video games. I like sports. But I’ve never watched esports, not a single match of Starcraft 2, Dota 2, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, or anything else. In the hopes of learning more about yet another thing that the United States is better at than anyone else in the world, I decided to talk to Rob Zacny of the new podcast Esports Today on the Idle Thumbs network, for Shall We Play a Game?

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You can listen to Shall We Play a Game?, the podcast I host with former NPR producer and correspondent JJ Sutherland, here.

A lot of sports fans play video games, as evidenced by the popularity of things like Madden NFL, MLB The Show, and NBA 2K. Those fans are the same people that esports appeals to, Zacny believes.

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“A lot of typical gamer culture, such as it is, if you want to use that blanket term, I don’t think is that accepting of esports,” he said. “The interesting thing is, if you really get into esports, and you hang out with people who really follow esports closely, they also tend to be the same people who follow sports really closely. I don’t think it’s necessarily that these are sports for gamers. I think they are sports for a generation of sports fans who have also grown up playing video games. I think that’s where the bridge happens.”

When you toss around a football in your backyard, you’re not really playing the same sport that the professionals that you watch on Sundays in the National Football League are playing, Zacny pointed out. They have referees and uniforms and equipment that you can’t recreate at home. Esports is different.

“In Dota, in Starcraft, in Counterstrike, you can go play the exact same game the pros are playing,” he said. “You can literally just play the exact same game that you just watched a grand master player compete in. And you can take what you just saw, and in your half-assed, incompetent way, you can try to mimic it.”

To me, esports feel like they’re having the same cultural moment in the United States that video games as a whole had about a decade ago. People are noticing how much money they make and wondering what that means, and whether they’re missing out on something meaningful. The people who run the world of sports and sports media, like the people who run the capital-c Culture in the United States, aren’t sure they respect video games. But they do respect the money.

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“Esports is always about to have its breakthrough moment,” Zacny said. “And I think we’ll still be talking about esports having its breakthrough moment in another five years. Part of that is, what does mainstream cultural acceptance look like in the next five to 10 years? What’s the future of cable television? Esports arrives at this really odd time when the media landscape is fragmenting. I’m not sure the mainstreaming of esports will look anything like the mainstreaming of football or basketball.”

Sports fans in the United States may not have rallied to the Evil Geniuses the way we rallied to the women’s soccer team when they won the World Cup this summer, but the victory was important for America’s international reputation, Zacny said. “North America, in general, has a reputation for being a bit of a dumpster fire when it comes to esports,” he said. “This is a region that is known for being long on hype and personality.”

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The Evil Geniuses aren’t on the Wheaties box yet—and I found it disappointing that the South Koreans didn’t add Starcraft 2 to the Winter Olympics they’re hosting in 2018—but ESPN’s E:60 documentary series announced Wednesday on Twitter that it will air an episode this fall about the American triumph: “5 guys from California won $6.6 million at #TI5 ,the Super Bowl of competitive gaming.”

Surely the feature film, the Hoosiers or Miracle of esports, is next.

Illustration for article titled The Mainstreaming of Esports Is Slow, Sure, and Not Over Yet
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Chris Suellentrop is the critic at large for Kotaku and a host of the podcast Shall We Play a Game? Contact him by writing chris@chrissuellentrop.com or find him on Twitter at @suellentrop.

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DISCUSSION

MOBA’s suffer from the “what the hell is going on” syndrome that, honestly, a lot of games suffer from as spectator events. Esports wont really take off until they become more transparent; I’m an avid gamer, I’ve played league, and I still can’t follow whats going on in matches because the game doesn’t telegraph it very well. Additionally, the rules are so complex that you can’t infer the importance of any action just by seeing it.

People who don’t play football at all can still watch a game; this is true for most sports. Once you’ve been given the breakdown on how the game is won (get the ball to the goal), you can follow the actions and see how they contribute to that, because all of the information is right there. You can appreciate what’s going on in a game without even understanding some of the more nuanced rules. If you see something you don’t understand, you can ask someone. MOBA’s don’t have that. Many times, you don’t even know what to ask about, because the game is a mess to watch (especially when teamfights happen). A skills visual effects don’t often tell you what it does, especially when there are lots of status effects attached to it. People watching can’t appreciate what the players are doing because they literally cannot have any idea about what just happened; the game doesn’t tell them in the same way that more traditional sports do.

Fighting games, on the other hand, do this very well (mostly). The game is 100% visual, so once you are told the objectives (KO opponent), you can see how every action contributes to this goal. It’s still not as transparent as physical sports, because in this case we are missing some of the technical aspects - like p-linking, option selects and frame traps - but they are still more watchable than MOBAs.

I guess my whole point is that Esports are great for people who already play the games, but won’t expand to a larger audience (and gain more widespread acceptance) until we can address the issues of transparency.