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.)
Patrick Dubuque is a wastrel and a general layabout. Many of the sites he has written for are now dead. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.