eSports will take over the United States with business sense, infrastructure, cash, and competition
Talking to Major League Gaming CEO Sundance DiGiovanni is fascinating. We take much of what we understand about modern sports for granted, and he tends to break things down to their component parts when discussing video games as a spectator sport. “If you’ve never watched American football or baseball, they’re incredibly confusing games,” he told me. “As is cricket. Tennis is a little confusing, but you kind of get it. If the ball goes past the player, that’s a point. The more complexity, the more people on the field, the more options, the more random occurrences, the harder it is to explain the game to the audience.” DiGiovanni describes listening to ESPN broadcasts, from the point of view of someone who doesn’t understand the game being played. “If you just listen and don’t watch, the way the game is being described is in such a simplistic manner,” he explained. “The team that holds the ball longer will probably win. Okay, that makes sense. It may seem obvious but we have to say it nine or ten times to program the audience. So that’s what we do. We try to peel that away, make it accessible, without stripping out what makes the game. It’s challenging, but we’ve been doing it for a while.”He walked me through describing Capture The Flag to an audience who has never seen a first-person shooter played competitively, and he was able to bring that phantom audience up to speed very quickly. “So you start with the vanilla, there is four versus four, or five versus five, the first person to get that flag and bring it over here five times is going to win that round, and it’s the best of three,” he said. “Okay, I get it. Now what’s that? It’s a sniper rifle, one-shot to kill the head. What’s that? A rocket launcher, it has splash damage. You start with the simple things, just as you do when you’re broadcasting football.” You begin to hear the play-by-play in your head when he talks to you. “The score is 3 to 2,” the hypothetical announcer says. “You can see that the blue team is going for the sniper rifle, that’s going to give them a real advantage at range. Now if they can protect their base and move up the sides of the arena, where you can see there is very little opposition…” DiGiovanni knows how to sell drama, and he pointed out that half the fun is when the announcers get something wrong. You see this all the time in football, when the announcer is calmly describing what play he expects to see, only to erupt in an excited yell when the quarterback breaks away and is able to run it in. The play-by-play doesn’t have to be accurate, not all the time. It merely has to educate, and entertain. Perhaps not in that order.
Keeping everyone happy
I’ve only begun to report on eSports recently, and it’s taken a rather intense amount of research to learn about this world. The community has its own lingo, and both players and casters have their own tags, complete with randomly capitalized letters and masses of consonants. It’s a scene that, for all its ambitions to break through to a wider audience, is incredibly insular. “It is, it is. So the way you fight that is persistence,” DiGiovanni said. “It’s understood that we have to serve multiple areas. The community, foremost. If we screw that up they’re going to tell us to go fuck ourselves. They’re going to leave. The players, the casters, the publishers, the marketing people… that’s just in the industry. Outside of that we have people who are wondering why they should tune in.” “You look at things like League of Legends with 40 million people downloading it. Everyone plays it, it’s free, the Mac client came out. It’s only going to get bigger,” he explained. The trick is to get that audience to tune in and care about the top players, and the teams that are vying for what are now huge competitions, complete with a thundering audience. It’s an incredibly popular game both in terms of players and professional competition. “League of Legends is actually very difficult to broadcast because if you don’t play the game, you can’t understand it,” DiGiovanni said. “StarCraft is bug army, alien army, human army, guns, people understand that. It’s sci-fi stuff. It’s Orson Welles stuff… “ I’ve sat down to try to watch League of Legends broadcasted at the professional level in the past, and it’s very hard to tell what’s going on, even when listening to the play-by-play. I wasn’t sure why the crowd lost its collective mind in certain spots. The pace of the game is hard to grasp. League of Legends treats each player’s death as very important to the other side, which makes it intimidating for new players. If you make a mistake and die, the other players on your team will often send you nasty messages. I’ve been told that the best approach is to play against computer-controlled opponents for dozens of hours before trying to play against humans. Riot, the developers of the game, understands that they can’t dumb the game down without alienating its massive audience. They also know that reaching out to a wider community is important. One year at PAX they invited me into their booth, and a talented League of Legends player sat me down for an hour or so and patiently taught me how to play. I’ve talked to other reporters who have gone through the same thing with Riot. They didn’t expect coverage, or at least didn’t ask for it explicitly, but the more the gaming press understands the game, the better for everyone.
Problems with Internet, and getting the money to flow
Getting people to watch the streams and keeping the level of competition high are only two parts of the puzzle of getting eSports seen as a mainstream pastime in the US. You also have to have companies who are willing to sponsor the competitions. The product has to be something that can be sold to marketing, and advertisers. Football is a sport that many are passionate about, but from a business perspective it can sometimes seem like nothing more than a delivery mechanism for beer commercials. Advertising is the fuel that keeps the world of sport moving, and it can be hard to sell that idea to big companies. “We have to say look at this, do you remember when you thought snowboarding was crazy? Or NASCAR? Or Poker?” DiGiovanni said. “ESPN broadcasts dominoes and spelling bees. It’s competition. It’s what we’re about.” Get enough people watching, especially males in the 18-25 year-old demographic with a little bit of spending money, and you’re going to be profitable. It’s a matter of compromising a little bit in many areas, to try to attract as many interests as possible, and to be persistent in growing the audience. “We’ve seen massive growth. Just under 5 million people tuning into our broadcast weekend. One hundred seventy-two countries. There’s not many places on the planet we’re not touching. Now it’s just a matter of getting into the mainstream.” He puts the word “mainstream” in air quotes. Video games are already mainstream. The idea of watching other people play them is not. There are other, more direct things that may limit the growth of eSports in the United States. “It may very well be infrastructure. The Internet over here is garbage,” John “TotalBiscuit” Bain told me when I asked what held the community back. “We can’t even necessarily watch Twitch streams at a good resolution. The infrastructure must be resolved.” It’s a multi-layered problem. The events themselves have to keep lag to a minimum, while also broadcasting high-quality streams to the people watching at home. The audience itself has to have access to a high-speed Internet connection to watch the competition. Television reception is a solved problem; you can catch football in almost every part of the country with a small antenna. High-speed Internet is a much thornier problem, and it limits the audience. If you can watch the stream, you can’t participate in any meaningful way. “We must have the infrastructure so people can watch it comfortably. Once we get that we have to nail down professionalism, and production, so it’s an enjoyable viewing experience for everyone,” Bain said. The professionalism aspect is particular interesting, with Riot spending much in time and resources trying to keep players as civil as possible. Ongoing, problematic behavior leads to player bans, and those bans are now news. If you’re training to become a professional player, or are already making money playing League of Legends, a ban can limit, if not destroy, your livelihood. For Bain, it all comes down to presentation. “They made poker a spectator sport, how did they manage that? It’s all down to how they produce the shows,” he explained. “And we have to do the same thing in eSports. We can’t just have a live cam feed of the game and expect that to be good enough. It isn’t.” The pieces are all in place for eSports to begin taking off the United States. We have a large community of dedicated players in a number of games. Infrastructure is improving, and it may even been in the process of a major disruption for the better. There are many ways to jumpstart a community, but a giant stack of cash certainly helps. An upcoming Black Ops 2 event features a million dollar purse. That’s the sort of action that gets people interested, adds drama to the proceedings, and leads to coverage in a number of outlets that can bring in a more diverse audience. The finals will be streamed via Xbox Live. That’s what DiGiovanni is looking for: the opportunity to raise the level of competition, appeal to a large audience, spread the message, and of course make money. “We always have to look at what the potential is, because at the end of the day it’s a business,” he explained. “It’s a passion and for many people it’s a hobby, but if you can’t draw an audience,” he said, gesturing to the computers and games around us, “this is all just the biggest LAN for you and me.”