Roll for Initiative: Can video games make it as a mainstream spectator sport in the US?
Welcome back to Roll for Initiative! If you missed our Sunday debut, this is where Ben and I are going to pick an issue or question from the week and debate both sides. We'll give you a glimpse into our thought processes as we (respectfully) disagree on our chosen topic, and give you a chance to fire back in the comments. Round two: Fight!
Can video games make it as a mainstream spectator sport in the US?
Sophie for the negative:
The League of Legends World Championship came to a close this weekend, with the Taipei Assassins triumphing over Azuba Frost. It was unquestionably a major production for Riot Games, with a $2 million prize pool and millions of people viewing the championship from home. It's hard to get an exact number on the number of attendees within the Galen Center where the tournament was held, but our friends at NBC InGame report 10,000. The finals were described as Biblical in proportions - a David vs. Goliath match that captivated the hearts and minds of all who saw. Counting in-person attendance and stream views, it was the most popular eSports event in US history. Seems like a big deal, right? Here's the thing: It's still small potatoes compared to mainstream American sports. The Jacksonville Jaguars, reported by ESPN as being rated the least popular team in the NFL, still have an average attendance of 64,316 at home, and 60,071 on the road - also reported by ESPN. Even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who saw the lowest attendance for the 2012 football season, saw an average 52,074 fans in the seats at home. Super Bowl XLVI was the most-watched television broadcast ever, raking in an estimated 111.3 million views. That's the scale eSports are competing with. The least popular teams outnumber the attendance of the LoL World Championship more than 5 to 1, and that's just their everyday games. The fans may be passionate and it's no small event for eSports, but mainstream America isn't chanting “Mundo!” or “Captain Teemo on duty!” My take is they never will be, either. There are several reasons for this, but one of the biggest is that gaming culture is too uncivilized at this point to become a mainstream spectator sport. Professional gamer Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri was suspended from his clan for joking that he had sex with a 14-year old. This wasn't in a private match, mind you. This was during a livestream game, with an audience. On Cross Attack, a fighting game reality show, Aris Bakhtanians abused his own teammate verbally, because of her gender. He was unapologetic. “The sexual harassment is part of the culture,” he said. By comparison, the NBA has a dress code, and the NFL penalizes excessive celebration. If eSports remains a proverbial 'wild west' - and some will say it should - then it's not going to pull in the views, the community, or the sponsorships that make mainstream success.
Ben for the positive:
Well, first let's deal with the fact that you're dealing with isolated incidents that may or may not paint an accurate picture of the culture behind these communities. Secondly, I live in Cincinnati, and our pro sports teams can sometimes resemble a holding cell rather than a locker room. For a while there it didn't seem like a week went by without a Bengal getting arrested or getting into trouble, and the same kind of hyper-competitive, Type-A personality that excels in these environments is going to have the same problems with playing StarCraft or any other competitive game. The difference is that in professional sports the athletes know that they need to keep that behavior off the field, and they understand they'll be punished for bringing that behavior into their workplace. In both cases you cited the guilty parties were punished either directly or indirectly by losing money or suffering from bad publicity. I'd argue the system worked. I'd like to leave behind the flaws in a few competitors and deal with the much larger issues here. It's hard to educate viewers on what they're seeing, especially with a game like League of Legends where there are multiple things going on at once, and strategy can become complicated. During some gaming event Riot actually sat me down and taught me how to play, and I've played a few rounds against bots, but even I was lost during much of the high-level play during the championships. That being said, I sat down to watch a football game with my kids recently and tried to explain those rules, and they looked at me like I was an idiot. There are very few “simple” sports that are watching by the mainstream audience, we just think the rules are easier because we grew up paying attention. With a little education and a few more events of the scale we saw this weekend, I think we're going to get there, and sooner rather than later.
Sophie with the rebuttal:
It's possible you'll have the dedicated crowd in eSports and I don't doubt the conviction that either the athletes, fans, or even broadcasters have with their respective titles. But part of what makes football, baseball, basketball, etc. easy to grasp is that they haven't changed much over the past hundred years or so. Your grandfather can watch the Super Bowl with you because it's still the same concept as when he was young. There's a barrier to education on anything, but that eases with time. What happens when LoL isn't top dog anymore? What happens when Call of Duty gets dethroned? Baseball is baseball is baseball. eSports are constantly shifting, and that means changes in attention, which isn't what people come to sports for. You want consistency, something eSports can't offer. There's a joke in an episode of Futurama where Leela, re-creating the finale of “Single Female Lawyer,” abruptly goes off-script and tells the Omicronians - who have threatened to destroy Earth unless the cast can provide a satisfying resolution - that she's giving up the law and being single. Fry interjects and reminds Leela that people don't want change, they want to be placated. The American mainstream is the Omicronians. My other main concern is that frankly, the appeal is too limited. We've come a long way and seen a lot of historically “nerdy” things become big successes; Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Marvel's Avengers, and The Big Bang Theory to name a few. But I think of these like I would students peeking their heads into chess club: they're curious, they might even stop in and take a closer look, but they're not sticking around. Even the successes I mentioned can't be successful without pandering to the mainstream. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was a (mostly) faithful adaptation of the quirky comic book, nerd humor intact. It barely made half of its $85 million in theaters. Community is frequently lauded as a reference-heavy, intelligent comedy for geeks. Creator Dan Harmon was fired after three seasons after a steady decline in ratings. eSports is firmly rooted in the geek and gamer cultures. To try and push them outside of that will dilute them both. I hate to reference another cartoon (okay, that's a lie) but as Hank Hill says to a Christian rock band: “Can't you see that you're not making Christianity better, you're just making rock 'n' roll worse?” Being a gamer, to me, is like being in a secret society. The same goes for being a fan of a particular show, writer, or what-have-you. You feel special being in the club, because it is special. It's different. eSports is another such group. If eSports were to branch out into the mainstream as they have before, they would lose their uniqueness and die. Let us never forget TechTV or G4. eSports won't be mainstream. Indeed they shouldn't be. Being mainstream doesn't make you legitimate. eSports have already shown that they meet that criteria, so why do we want them to try and be something they're not? Do you really want the whole family to head to the TV after Thanksgiving dinner to start cheering, “BOOM! HEADSHOT!”?
Ben with the last word:
Well, we're arguing about whether it can be “mainstream,” which is a really squishy term. Many things are mainstream without being popular; I can make a joke about someone dressing like Don Draper and people understand that I'm referencing Mad Men, even if the show enjoys relatively modest ratings. The thing with eSports is that the audience is growing, and that audience is engaged in a way you don't see in many other pursuits. They want to watch the event, and buy a T-shirt, and catch the stream, and play the game… in cold terms of commerce they are the dream demographic. They love what they're watching and they're willing to support it in many different ways with their time and money. One dedicated League of Legends fans is worth four casual fans of anything else. Besides, the games may change but the basics remain the same. If you understand Street Fighter you can grasp most of BlazBlue. Once you understand MOBA games in general you can pick up anything in that genre with a short explanation of the differences in rules. In fact, it's interesting to me that fighting games, which are much easier to grasp than League of Legends, remain a niche thing in the US. Some of the tournaments are a big deal, but the LoL World Championships felt like the first few chords of “Smells of Like Teen Spirit.” That sort of event would have sounded like science fiction even a year ago, and today it's drawing more and more people into competitive gaming. I'm honestly not sure when we can say eSports have gone “mainstream,” but they've managed to grow to a large size in the US already, and I can only see the scene getting larger as events are given more coverage and support. That's a positive outcome for eSports, and video games in general. I can't wait. Your thoughts? Weigh in!