Author Archive

Learn from a Nerd: David Wiers Explains esports (Part 2)

Editor’s note: The esports landscape has really expanded over the past year or so, and, for the longest time, we’ve given all the esports stories to David Wiers (an avid gamer and former esports competitor himself) since nobody else here really understands it. Contributor Patrick Dubuque looked to remedy this by digging deep with Wiers to get a better understanding of how this whole world works. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 is below.)

Patrick: Player movement in itself doesn’t seem like a big deal – it happens in every sport, and it gives fans a metasport to talk about during the offseason. But that’s another point, and one of the reasons I have a hard time getting into, say, soccer, let alone the tourney-based sports: is there even an offseason? Sure, seasons are techinically arbitrary endpoints, but having a standings page that automatically resets gives fans a chance to reset expectations, but also gives new fans a convenient entry point. Do esports have such a thing, or do we all have to just jump into it in media res?

David: This about the perfect time to pick an esport, actually. The Dota 2 Star Ladder Series is just now starting the playoffs, League of Legends North America, European and Korean Spring Split is yet to begin or is only one week in and in CS:GO, a number of leagues and tournaments are set to kick off in the coming weeks. Given the number of titles that have reached or attempting to reach esports status, there really isn’t an offseason if you wanted to follow every single one. Even if you just picked LoL, Dota, or CS:GO (again, arguably the three biggest esports titles) then following all three would still leave you very little time to do watch any other esport or any traditional sport. For me, my level of dedication is pretty split between soccer, baseball and select esports titles.

One thing esports does have going for it is near constant action. As you mentioned earlier from your time in Korea, they had (and now have multiple) channels dedicated to esports. Where I have to wake up early to watch Tottenham play, I can probably tune into Twitch/Azubu/MLB/etc. at anytime and get some solid esports viewing in. In that regard, a lack of a formal, unified season (for titles other than the mostly rigid LoL schedule) is great.

P: Near-constant action is great, but I really feel like there’s something to be said for an offseason, especially after the culmination of a single championship. With different games and different tournaments competing for attention, especially with wildly different gameplay and viewing experiences, it seems like there’s a real danger of fracturing the market, if it hasn’t been fractured already. Other sports like chess (it’s a sport, damn it) and even football during the USFL era suffer when there’s no one real champion to hold up at the end of the day.

Do you think that the future of esports is a general unification, some level of organization above the corporate/tournament level? I envision something where a “season” requires mastery of five or so different games, each requiring different skillsets and thus requiring different skilled team members (almost requiring the specialization of position players) to attain the best overall record. Is this possible? Or will the unique reality of shifting games and cultures prevent anything that codified from ever taking place?

D: I worry about oversaturation and players being exhausted and overstretched, absolutely. I think we saw that this year in CS:GO. There were times where domestic league games were played at a level I think most would call subpar, possibly because both teams just finished traveling to Europe.

As for different cups, leagues, and tournament organizations, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I love Dota 2’s main event, The International, which has broken the prize pool records for an esports tournament I think three years running. On the other hand, teams focus almost entirely on qualifying and seeding for that one tournament, with not much else top level competition happening throughout the year. It’s a topic that clearly cuts both ways, and while both LoL and Dota 2 crown World Champions, as does StarCraft II, CS:GO doesn’t. I’d like to see a World Champion of Counter-Strike like back in the days of WCG, but even then the WCG winner had to contend with the summer and winter CPL winters. Personally, I’m all for the leagues uniting to offer a world series of CS:GO, but due to sponsorship needs and contracts, I don’t know if we’ll see that for awhile, at least until the developer steps in.

And my concerns aren’t just about gameplay quality either, but content delivery. With MLG being sold to Activision Blizzard recently and ESL purchasing ESEA late last year, and now the SSL being live casted only on Dingit I’m concerned about esports fans consumption, and no, not just the stereotypical Mountain Dew and Doritos. is the undisputed king of streaming platforms, but it’s gotten to the point where the numerous flaws in Twitch are being recognized and then quickly forgotten, almost as if esports fan don’t want to give MLG TV, YouTube, or any other competitor a real chance. That said, some Twitch competitors such as Dingit is pretty awful, as is Azubu and Afreeca, but I’ve personally had the exact same problems on Twitch as I have with MLG. Heck, if more people used YouTube to live-stream, I think that could be the best among them given the Google backing it has.

I guess my dream scenario, at least for CS:GO (as they lack a World Champ) would be for a World Series-type event, probably in the form of the top eight teams in terms of tournament and league placings (not fan vote) meet in a December showdown to crown a champ. The event could be broadcasted by CS:GO itself (Spectating in-game rather than in-browser) that way no tournament or league could complain about ad revenue, viewership, sponsors and subscriptions…basically, like almost all things, esports is about the bottom line.

P: So the question that will have to be asked over and over: are esports a sport? What makes a sport a sport?

D: I can’t get there and call it a sport. It can be physically demanding, mentally exhausting and injuries (RSI, carpal tunnel etc.) but I still can’t call it a sport,. To me, and I could be way off base here as I equate professional sports with pro-gamers, a professional athlete has some sort of natural athletic gift. It could be throwing a fastball, running a route, kicking a ball, whatever, but some physical aspect shines through. While there is aiming, reflexes hand-eye coordination and the other physical things a part of esports to be sure, it is not on the same plane as soccer, baseball or even golf.

Again, not to minimize the physical aspects of esports, but they’re light compared to any other sport. I’d liken esports to that of darts or pool There is skill that separates the top from the average Joes, as well as a certain physical demand, but the physical side is secondary to the mental. As for your mention of chess earlier, well, I’m not sure that’s a sport…

P: I’m finding that in my old age, I’m growing increasingly indifferent to the physical aspect of all sports. As a participant, sure, physical exertion and execution if a major part of playing a sport; as an observer, staring at the action on a television screen, the images are already devoid of physicality. Whether those images represent actual people sweating, or are representations of people sweating controlled by people in office chairs with gamepads, has no real effect on my experience.

Execution is great and all, but I don’t watch basketball for the free throws or football for the extra points. It’s the strategy, either on the larger scale or the split-second reactionary one, that makes sports interesting to me, and that translates perfectly to esports, or chess, or even an episode of Jeopardy!. At some point, maybe it’s no longer sports, but I don’t know where that line is and I can’t really make myself care.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation where two people are playing RBI Baseball against each other on Twitch. How is that different, to a viewer, from a recording of a high school baseball game?

D: It probably goes back to reaction times and then level of play. An 16-year-old center fielder might take a bad route or a hitter could be late to a fastball. Sure, those types of issues or errors can be coded into a game as well, but that difference — at least to me — is very huge.  As for the level of play, I wouldn’t want to watch low level baseball just like I wouldn’t want to watch low level esports. Watching a Bronze StarCraft II player or Silver CS:GO player is similar to coach-pitch baseball and softball. It’s the same game as the pros are playing, but the difference in skill is the impressive part.

Maybe that’s one of the things still holding eports back: an inability to convert the level of difficulty to the general public. When someone gets a pentakill in LoL or Dota 2 or a clutch ace in CS:GO, it’s usually an extremely rare and difficult feat to accomplish. Without a basis of comparison, the average non-esports enthusiast might interpret nothing but a bunch of characters, colors and effects on the screen. Just about everyone can recognize the brilliance of a walk-off home run versus very few people recognizing the brilliance and game sense in a 1v5 clutch situation.

P: That’s true. But from the perspective of the person watching on the couch, what’s the difference between watching athletes on a television screen and watching digital representations of athletes on a television screen? What makes one sports and the other not quite sports?

D: As far as spectating goes, it’s an increasingly small difference, but I’d wager the difference is the element of, I guess for lack of a better word, risk. Reaction times are critical in both sports and esports, but when I’m playing MLB 2K16, the fastball aren’t actually humming by me, etc. Not to understate the injuries in esports, but the risk and danger to the players is very different. I highly doubt anyone watches baseball for the beanings or football for the helmet-to-helmet hits, but with physical stakes considerably higher on the field than on the screen, I suppose that would be the difference to the viewer.

P: Is the physical risk to the athlete actually exciting to you? I honestly never even consider it.

D: I don’t think “exciting” is the word, but it’s certainly something I’m aware of. Here’s a video of me facing 50 mph and 70 mph in the batting cage. The highway speed pitches aren’t even close to a major league fastball and I was flailing helplessly. Of course, batting cages aren’t consistent, no seams, etc., but really, I was never going to stand a chance against 70 mph. On the other hand, I’ve played against top tier talent in CS (Hell, Stuard Holden, former Bolton Wanderer and USMNT player and his team steamrolled my team and me several times) back in the 1.5 and 1.6 days, and while we didn’t fare well, my team and I certainly did better against them than I would against an MLB pitcher. Sure, this is just one example and perhaps time has colored my memory a rosy tint — I wish I still had the demos, sadly that computer is long gone — but even semi-pro CS teams can take a map off of pro teams. I can’t see an Indy ball team winning a game against an MLB squad.

To come back to your question, I’m more impressed with the physical ability of pro athletes than I am of the reaction time/aim of esports. The risk involved is secondary, maybe tertiary to what I’m watching, but it is a factor for me. If tension equals compelling story lines (and reality TV would make it seem so), then the physical stakes of sports is much higher than esports, and thus I’m more impressed with sports over esports, and I’m a massive esports fan. I mean, I’m watching DreamHack Leipzig (SCII and CS:GO) as I’m writing this!

P: College baseball teams win occasionally against major league teams! That’s one of the great things about baseball, I think.

Okay, so let’s move on. We’ve talked about how difficult it is to become a sport, all the logistics that go into creating the sport itself and what can make people a fan of it. People quote the viewership and the dollars that go into the industry, and these are all very important things.

But esports have a strange cousin that receives next to no money or attention, except for a couple charities a year. The scene is also nearly completely opposite: individual-focused rather than team, supportive, almost non-competitive. While tournaments take place in giant arenas, speed running takes place in people’s homes, or at most in hotel banquet rooms. And yet the product, the actual gaming, is at least to me as compelling, if not more, to the head-to-head gaming scene.

Is speed running a sport, in your mind, and what makes it fall into such a different realm than the DOTA/LoL sphere?

D: I don’t think speed running is an esport. I adore guys like siglemic et al who do the N64 speed runs of Super Mario 64, but I can’t get there as an esport. The level of competition is certainly there, yet so many speed runs depend on glitches, bugs, etc. that would never fly in a league or organized format. For example, Halo 2 speed running is actually done an older patch of the game, because Bungie opted to remove the sword flying/rocket canceling exploit. It’s a high level of competition, but I can’t get there as an esport.

I guess the counter-point to glitches is things like bunny hopping. It’s used in just about every Half-Life or Half-Life 2 game to speed run, and it is allowed in competitive formats, though the old CAL system did ban bhopping for a spell. Now that I think of it, I think either CEVO or CAL had a limit on crouch-hopping (continuously and rhythmically tapping the crouch button while running to change the sound of the footsteps as well as the player’s hitbox) in CS 1.6 to two consecutive “crouch hops.”

I’m torn now. I don’t see speed running as an esport right now, but I reserve the right to change my answer. If that’s flip flopping, well, so be it.

P:  I just find it compelling as a viewing experience. GDQ just wrapped up their winter charity marathon, and while I missed most of it, there’s just so much spectacle: two players playing Super Metroid on a single controller, a guy getting all the way to Tyson on Punch-Out! while wearing a blindfold, listening to audio cues and timing dodges. It’s really fun to watch, and it’s fun to watch in exactly the way that sports are to a lot of people: seeing the same games played by average people, done to an incredible degree. There’s just so much joy to the experience, a level of sportsmanship and collective pleasure in Beating a Thing, that you don’t see in directly competitive sports that often. It’s Bautista’s bat flip without a pitcher to embarrass. It’s great.

What do you see as the immediate future of the sport? What does it need to do to gain popularity/acceptance with the potential fan?

D: I’m going to sound like a candidate running for office here, but I have a three point plan on how I think it will happen. We’ll soon find out, given the first, big step, is already all but wrapped up.

  1. Television Deal
    1. The Turner Esports League will hopefully bring a boon to CS:GO, and thus esports as a whole. It’s set to kick off this summer and I’m optimistic it will catch enough positive attention to really gain traction in the general population.
  2. Higher accountability
    1. I’m taking for both teams and organizations as well as players. It’s a mix of maturity, penalties, restrictions and binding contracts is something desperately needed. Teams drop rosters, churn or cut players, while different players quit on their teams, leave games while a match is live, etc. I know some organizations do have legal contracts, but other orgs appear shady at best.
  3. Corporate sponsorship
    1. Already various esports related companies sponsor teams. For example. Intel, Hyper X, Razor, Nvidia and many others are involved, but few non-esports related sponsors are involved. There is Samsung, Korea Telecom, CJ Group, but most are in South Korea. I remember Stride Gum had a personal sponsorship with Tyler “Nony” Wasieleski, but those types of deals are far too infrequent. I like to imagine a day where it’s like soccer, with various airline companies or banks sponsoring teams.

P: So this is how the sport will become successful as a business model. But how will it become loved? How will it reach out to people who hate millenials or think blood is a necessary part of entertainment? How will it win my heart, Wiers?

D: I’d argue that it is already loved, haha, but I get your larger point. The on-screen action is still the primary form of entertainment, but to circle back to an earlier point, the interviews, ceremonies, celebrations, basically the *style* in which the esport is played will help capture people’s hearts rather than just their fleeting attention. Without sounding too much like Office Space, it’s about the flair and the drama. I’m generalizing here, but for me, a compelling story in esports is infinitely more interesting than in the traditional sporting world. I didn’t particularly care when Jon Lester pitched against the Red Sox as an Oakland A, but please believe I was glued to my screen when Spencer “Hiko” Martin played his first match for Team Liquid against Cloud9 after he left C9. Esports drama is basically a reality TV show for me: it’s a never ending source of entertainment, though still secondary to the in-game action.

I could be off here, but given how much esports figures interact with the general public (meaning, via Twitter, vlogs, blogs, etc.) versus traditional athletes, the big difference seems to be just how unfiltered the esports competitors are. There is no HR department to screen bad tweets, and few repercussions for them in the first place. I wouldn’t call the esports world transparent in the least bit, but definitely unfiltered. Some esports figures, not just the competitors, but commentators, writers and hosts as well, often jump in with the banter. Sometimes it feels like they’re just baiting the fans to post reactions on Reddit or Twitter, but the interaction, at least to me specifically, is at least refreshing. Imagine David Price jumping into a random thread on r/baseball. Now shrink that down about 1000 times and you’ll have a close comparison to when an esports figure pops up in a thread on r/dota2 or r/globaloffensive and the like.

I feel like fans of anything desire interaction with the stars in their respective fields. The level of interaction in the esports realm far outpaces — for better or worse — that of traditional sports. Get people to pay attention to your esport for a game, have a sharp interview, be personable on social media and bam, you have a likeable (and marketable) esports figure. That’s how people will get drawn in.

P: I hope so. It’s interesting to watch any sport in its relative infancy, creating the foundations for its own future heritage. I’m not sure that this iteration of esports is for me, or even meant to be for me; I prefer a more methodical, chess-match style of battle, one where the audience can scheme along with the participants. I guess what I prefer is actual chess, which is just never going to happen. Or a blend of poker and esport in which two players sit across a table and play Twilight Struggle with their cards exposed to the camera.

D: Instead of Chess or esports, what about streaming a game of Risk or Settlers on Twitch? I think I would watch a streamed Euchre tournament, but that could be my inner Michigander coming out.

As far as watching esports grow from a nerd niche to a wider audience (and hopefully mainstream in the coming years), it is amazing to view the progression. Will I one day say I watched Olof “Olofmeister” Kajbjer in a similar way I’ll talk about Mike Trout? Maybe, maybe not, but we’re certainly closer to that happening than we were even two years ago. And that’s enough progress for me.

P: Me, too. Thanks for answering all these questions, David. It was fun.

D: Thank you, Patrick! Hopefully my rambling words (that may have flirted with a rant from time to time) can help bring a wider audience to the outstanding realm of esports.

Also, I’m not sure exactly where this would fit, but this link (posted today) has some awesome charts/graphics on the rising money in the esports industry, with a projection for it to reach over $1 billion in 2019.

Learn from a Nerd: David Wiers Explains esports (Part 1)

Editor’s note: The esports landscape has really expanded over the past year or so, and, for the longest time, we’ve given all the esports stories to David Wiers (an avid gamer and former esports competitor himself) since nobody else here really understands it. Contributor Patrick Dubuque looked to remedy this by digging deep with Wiers to get a better understanding of how this whole world works. Part 1 of that chat is below.)

Patrick: So [recently] ESPN announced its esports section, which seems like a major step toward legitimizing the phenomenon. As someone who enjoys video games but was born in a different era, I find myself attracted to the idea of esports but entirely outside the realm where it takes place.

The first thing that struck me when I went to ESPN’s site is the header: where the usual categories like standings and schedule go, the basic elements of a sport, there are three games: League of Legends, Dota2, and Hearthstone. Are these it? I know there are other games which are played competitively, if not at that level (Rocket League springs to mind), so what differentiates these three? Are they the “major leagues” right now, and what changes that, if anything?

David: Similar to how the MLB is different from the NFL, is different from the MLS, each individual game can carry multiple esports leagues. On one side, League of Legends is ran from a very rigid — some would say concrete sequential — manner from the game’s developer, Riot. On the other side of things is Dota 2, ran by their developer, Valve. With different leagues, formats, qualifiers, and simultaneously running events, the esports schedule can get hectic in a hurry.

As for different games, I’m a bit surprised to see Counter-Strike: Global Offensive not a part of the specifically named esports titles. After LoL and Dota, CS:GO is almost universally acknowledged as the No. 3 in esports, and some would argue at times, the No. 1 title. In CS:GO alone, there is FaceIt, ESEA, and CEVO for league play, plus weekend style tournaments like Major League Gaming, DreamHacks, Intel Extreme Masters, and more.

I personally find it very curious that ESPN pushed out this launch at this time, just days after TNT had a cross-promotion with their NBA guys for the new CS:GO league. If you ever wanted to see Shaq get banter’d by some esports nerds, well, here you go.

As for changes, I have to envision a player union of some sort in the near future. Whether or not it will be for individual games or across all of esports is in the air.

Have you had a chance to check out Twitch.TV, MLG, Azubu or any of the streaming options that has really allowed esports to take off? They’re driving a huge amount of innovation and change to almost all digital media, not just esports.

P: I watch Twitch occasionally when I’m pacing in circles with my two-month-old, but not enough to be able to track the competitive stuff. It’s always hard when you don’t have the time to immerse yourself in a sport, give it the time it deserves to appreciate it. As a newer sport, I guess that’s an issue esports has on the bigger scale.

So what makes a game “good” for competitive gaming? Is it the interests of the players, the interests of the game publishers, the interests of the viewers? I personally find FPS shooters far more difficult to watch, as a theoretical sports fan, than other styles of games, and even the endless multitasking of the RTS makes my head hurt a little (I was an awful, awful Starcraft player). Does that factor in?

D: Oh man, the list of things that make a game good for competitive play is long and varied. My unconsidered answer off the top of my head would be game balance above all. If one particular strategy, weapon, character etc. is overpowered or underpowered, the game will suffer from it, people will leave the game and any esports hope and hype for it dies out. That said, there are a number of games I would think make for great entertainment, Team Fortress 2 to name one, but a mix of gameplay balance and a stale meta-game in the competitive scene have hurt various titles.

Rather than address the gameplay side of things, the production side can absolutely make or break a tournament or league. Sound, camera work, good conditions and times for the players and the casters/hosts all play a huge role in how an event is perceived. I remember back when StarCraft II was *the* esport around, the North American Star League held a major tournament and their sound was an absolute disaster. Despite being the biggest esport title on the block at the time as well as featuring great gameplay, the most referenced thing about that is still a running joke in the SC community. If ever an event has sound trouble, there is no shortage of “NASL sound guy must be here!” type jokes. I mean, even a quick Google search almost four years after the event brings a ton of memes, joke videos and an announcement about the guy getting fired.

To circle back to my previous mention of meta-games within esports titles, they are to me, one of the most fascinating parts about games. The “mind games” so to speak can play a huge role, especially if someone does something unexpected and against the “normal gameplay.” It’s like when the NFL mixed in the Wildcat formation, the rise of the cut fastball in baseball, or better yet defensive shifts in baseball. Small things that may go against the tradition of the sport, but when executed correctly, can have a huge effect. I may be talking against a straw man at this point, but I still bristle a bit when people shrug off esports and simply “nerds playing video games.” There is nuance to each esport, and heck, to each tournament and league as well as calculations to exploit the other team or other player’s nuance.

P: I guess that takes me to the next aspect of esports I don’t really understand: the player and team structure. My first intro to the sport was when I lived in South Korea in 2002, and found a 24-hour StarCraft channel. Without being able to understand the announcers, and not being good enough at the game to appreciate the subtlety onscreen, the image I was left with was the players: two guys sitting across each other, clouds of dry ice tumbling over their feet, utterly motionless and expressionless. I loved it.

Given the structure of gaming, the amount of attention it requires during play and the fact that the focus of the viewer is on an avatar on a separate screen, can the gamer reach the same level of stardom and identity as other sports? Or are they doomed to be a secondary part of the action for reasons of logistics alone?

D: I think some esports figures are already stars, at least in their niches. If the issue of recognizability is at hand, then we’ve already seen that happen to traditional sports stars. I mean, Kris Bryant just wore sunglasses and people didn’t recognize him as their Lyft driver. Sure, we can be overly reductive and say esports players are just guys sitting in chairs, but we can be equally reductive with other sports. Basketball, hockey and soccer are just teams of people trying to put an object in a net.

There has been, I don’t want to say issues, but concerns and some bemoaning of a player’s real life persona not matching their in-game flair or style. The crude term “faceless Korean” in the StarCraft scene was one where it attempted to describe a potentially great Korean player, but someone who lacked a significant persona in the post or pre-game interviews.

I’m hesitant to call a lack of perceived persona racially based, but I absolutely think it is culturally based. The Dota 2 and LoL scene is largely dominated by Koreans, Chinese, and Europeans, specifically the Nordic countries. None of these countries are known for their outgoing or boisterous personalities, however that is changing with time. Korean SCII pro gamer Jan Min-Chul, better known as MC (aka The Boss Toss for his incredible Protoss playing abilities) recently sang Frozen’s Let It Go at a StarCraft tournament. If you told me 10 years ago a Korean would be singing in front of thousands of people, I would never have believed it. That said, there have been some, umm, enthusiastic and wild characters in esports. Look no further than Lee Sung Eun, aka FireBatHero for possibly the only time an esports player will take off his clothes, throw out ice cream to the crowd and then jump into a body of water. Although I will say Won Lee Sak, aka Parting, did two of those three things back in the fall of 2014.

While it isn’t an ideal proxy for popularity, esports some esports organizations rival that of traditional sports. For example, Fnatic is at 475K Twitter followers, Team SoloMid is at 540K and then my beloved Oakland A’s are at 291K and your Mariners are at 325K followers. If we aren’t already at the time of huge esport organizational as well as individual player popularity, we’re damn close.

P: One thing that might affect the visibility of particular players in esports is the lack of visibility of teams. From an outsider perspective, teams seem to be composed in a similar fashion to NASCAR: loose allegiances of players assembled like corporate executives, with no tie to local region. Because of this, it’s harder for the introductory fan to grasp onto a particular team or a even a particular star who feels, even artificially, “theirs.” Is this true? Or because of the sport’s international underpinnings, does rooting take on more of a nationalistic bent, like the Olympics or FIFA? Or is it not so much the lack of cohesive teams that lend to a lack of observable standings to track, and more a product of a more golf/poker-like tournament format that prevents a fan from appreciating the greatness of a team?

D: Unfortunately, allegiances and even signed agreements are often not enough to keep players — and organizations — from breaking promises and breaching contracts. Players get cut, teams get cut, teams leave organizations, orgs buyout other player to replace their own, etc. Mostly things take a regional pride, such as North America against Europe against Asia, etc.

That said, players shift and move regions as well for most esports, though the World Championship Series for StarCraft is region locked to citizenship and other legal paperwork in an encouragement to get the local players some competition. I have pretty mixed feelings about that, as fostering the local scene is of course important, but region locking any competition makes it less of a meritocracy. Of course there is also pride for each nation, and it was huge upset when France beat South Korea in Nation Wars recently. For some genuine esports passion, here is the French broadcast of final moments.

On the topic of observable standings, the crew at Team Liquid, plus the various Smash Bros boards as well as the group that runs Esports Earnings all do incredible work. TL in particular has been a massive influence on just about every esports fan, really whether those fans know it or not.

Anecdotally, I’m not sure all of the esports fans really recognized the level of team-play and coordination it takes to play at a high level. From my days of being an active esports competitor, it isn’t just aim and reaction times, but it’s working as a cohesive unit and breaking down previous demos of yourselves and opposition. Recognizing your strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses in real-time as well as conveying that to your team is what separates the top teams from the also-rans. I remember breaking down opposing team’s demos as if we were football coaches going over game film. Being at the top of the esports world really is a full time job, and then some. Unlike blogging, it isn’t just sitting in mom’s basement, amirite?!

(Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon.)

A Short History of Video Game Baseball: Tornado Baseball

Part 1: The Magnavox Odyssey

Four years have passed since Ralph Baer brought the thrill and excitement of baseball to your television via the Magnavox Odyssey and its three omnipresent white squares. The year is now 1976, and everyone is playing Pong, listening to Afternoon Delight and mourning the deaths of renowned Japanese electrical engineers Hidetsugu Yagi and Shintaro Uda. Magnavox has released two more home consoles, the 100 and 200, but it’s becoming clear that for the latest games, the burgeoning arcade scene is where, proverbially, it’s at.

We have the first ultra-violent video game, Death Race, based on the movie and rewarding players for running over stick-figure “gremlins” with their cars. Atari, with the help of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, release the iconic Breakout. Meanwhile, Midway Games returned to the grand old game, releasing the two-player arcade Tornado Baseball.

Baseball grew up a lot in those four years. Players are no longer represented by squares, or even one of the more intricate quadrilaterals. Instead they are honest-to-God stick figures with arms and legs and saddle-sore thighs, sometimes locked in rigid half-wave, as though shielding themselves from an unmoving and broiling sun. Also, there are eight of them, the catcher deemed unnecessary for the cause.

Tornado Baseball is still black and white – color arcade games were known by this time, but still expensive and rare – but instead of projecting directly out of a screen, it is cleverly projected upwards onto a mirrored panel that adds grassy green and dirty brown. The game is two-player only still, and certain actions are still automated: runners travel a predestined number of bases per hit, and throws and catches are made by the fielders without waiting for advice from the player. (In the event of a double play, the second out is called before the throw reaches first, in pleasant Frank Drebin-style umpiring). Outfielders, in what will become a common refrain, move with synchronized precision.

Mechanically, Tornado Baseball looks far more like the modern arcade baseball game than the Odyssey’s version: the batter is at the bottom, the fielders spread out above him. I say batter, but we’re not ready for that yet: instead we see a floating bat that swings through the plate at the push of a button. The pitcher selects one of eight different types of pitches and then steers it, in that wonderfully odd Mario-jump way, left and right and slow and fast to deceive the hated bat. After contact, it’s 1972 again: the ball flies off the screen in a given direction, the bat transforms into a runner and gets 0-4 bases depending on where the ball disappears. Quoted from the manual: “The infielders automatically move to make the plays, which adds to the excitement of the game.” Sure.

It’s not a game that aged well. The timing aspect of hitting remains the same as the Odyssey version, but the aiming mechanic on the part of the hitter has been eliminated; now it’s just wait and click. Also, the advanced graphics actually only succeed in underscoring how limited the game is in other aspects. In an interesting bit of flavor, the players run on and off the field between innings, and defenders run to cover bases – the pitcher in particular loves to cover first, even when the first baseman is still standing there – but there’s no animation for throwing a ball, which makes the game look as if it’s being played by little puppets.

Tornado Baseball grew in several directions. On the arcade side, it saw three sequels, each with a new name and a handful of slight improvements. Double Play (1977) added a computer AI but removed four of the eight pitch-types. Extra Inning (1978, not pluralized) restores the lost four pitches and adds a extra-game prize for hitting six letters in the outfield. Extra Bases (1980) finally included a graphical overhaul, including color and rudimentary bleep-blorp sound.


It was also a launch title for the now-forgotten Bally Astrocade, a home console from 1978. The Astrocade sold for a staggering $299 ($1,168.05 in 2014 dollars) and employed advanced technology for its era: the ability to display four of 256 colors onscreen at a time, 4k of RAM, 8k of ROM, and a glorious 160×102 resolution. Compare that to the Atari 2600 (128 colors, 128 bytes RAM, 4k ROM), released in the same year, and you can see why it paid to be rich in the late seventies, as in all other times.

It’s a rare case of the concurrent home port being far superior to the arcade original. Of the Midway baseball family, Tornado Baseball most resembles Extra Bases, released a full three years later. The limited resolution wreaks havoc on the font, and the stick-limbs of the players are a little more stick. It’s perhaps a bit of a disappointment, still feeling more like pachinko than sport. But if you loved baseball enough in 1977 to sink 1,196 quarters into it, the Astrocade was a cost-effective solution.

A Short History of Video Game Baseball: The Magnavox Odyssey

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how young video games as a genre really are. When Ralph Baer’s “brown box” saw commercial release as America’s first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, The Godfather had been out in theaters a month. The Watergate break-in was in its planning stages. Agatha Christie was still writing novels.

The Odyssey had no sound and no color, just a trio of white squares that could be moved across the screen. Cellophane overlays were affixed to the television screen to create backgrounds. Sadly, no footage seems to currently exist of Baseball in its full glory. Still, while words are meager, we can hope to replicate the experience as best we can.

The Odyssey’s baseball game was not a launch release, but one of a small number of supplementary games that were sold later that year by Magnavox retailers. Many retailers weren’t trained to sell or advertise the add-on games, and they’re consequently rather rare; copies on eBay generally sell in the $100 range, equal to what the system cost in 1972. (That price seems reasonable, and technically is. In 2014 dollars, it comes to $566.35, the going rate for cutting-edge entertainment.)

Baer’s Baseball wasn’t technically the first electronic version: John Burgeson and Don Daglow had previously created games on mainframes at their local universities. These games were more akin to OOTP than to The Show, printing out simulated box scores based on managerial decisions. The Odyssey was the first to reach the American home, and the first to employ actual video. But one of the most striking things about it is how much of a board game it is.

Along with the mylar overlay, which interestingly and necessarily orients home plate on the right side of the screen to work with the Pong-based physics, Baseball came with playing cards, dice, tokens, and cutouts to help track all the information that three white squares couldn’t convey.

1 Magnavox Odyssey

Before explaining the game itself, the controllers also require some explanation. Almost every modern gamepad fulfills the same set of functions, but before Nintendo gave us the D-pad, controllers were a mess. Every one handled inputs differently, and all of them did it badly. The Odyssey’s controllers were plastic cubes with knobs on each end, and the inputs were performed the way one would maneuver an Etch-A-Sketch: the left knob moves your square horizontally, and the right knob vertically. A smaller knob could impart “English” on the square acting as the ball, allowing it to wobble. Developing skill at the Magnavox Odyssey appears to have been as difficult as it was temporary.

Given the limits of what the Odyssey could do, in terms of square-projection, it’s a little surprising how intricate, or how needlessly complicated, Baseball turned out to be. Before play each team generated their lineup by rolling dice to determine each batter’s handedness and batting average, and recorded them on their lineup cards. These statistics altered the difficulty of each pitcher-batter matchup: the strike zone expanded or shrank depending on the skill of the hitter, and the handedness of the batter and pitcher determined the starting count. Hitters on the wrong side of the platoon started the at bat on a 2-2 count, while an opposite hand would only need a single ball to draw a walk. Perhaps ambitiously, the players were expected to update the batting averages of every batter after each plate appearance, depending on their success.

Runners were tracked on a cardboard field set on a floor or table, using tokens of various colors depending on the predetermined speed of the runner. These determined the outcomes of balls in play. A deck of cards randomized certain special events.


The mechanics of the actual gameplay, in contrast, are straightforward and even evoke the possibility of fun. The ball is flung from the left side of the screen, crosses over the pitcher’s mound, and hurtles toward the plate. There the batter’s square waits. The pitcher can twist the ball in the final 60.5 feet to sneak it past the batter, and if he does so in the correct range, the batter is out. If the batter’s square collides with the ball, it rockets back the other direction, where he tries to reach the left side of the screen, twisting it unrealistically to evade the fielder’s grasp. Depending on where along the overlay it left the screen, the hit is either a foul, a single, a double, or (depending on the luck of a card draw) just about anything.

The rules also allow for sacrifices flies and bunts, pickoff attempts and steals, and even balks. Play continues until nine innings are complete or, more likely, one’s patience is depleted.

It’s difficult to assess Odyssey Baseball. As the original home console, there’s absolutely nothing to compare it to: imagine the excitement and novelty of the Wii remote, and extend that to the entire concept of controlling the display of your home television.

Needless to say, it’s not something worth hunting down on eBay. The graphical limitations and the cumbersome controls would make it useful for no longer than a single experimental play-through (though you can try it here if you’d like). And its four pages of rules feel two pages too long, in what was to be the first instance of a recurring theme: the eternal conflict between realistic simulation and fun arcade experience. But there is actual fun to be had. It’s the same core concept that made Pong a smash hit two years later. It’s the reflex-based timing and tension of the pitcher-hitter matchup, distilled down to a useless white powder. It’s a good start.

It would be a long time, in fact, before video game baseball got this fun again.