Duel Shock: eSports

Redartifice: Welcome once again to Duel Shock, where we take an issue off the bench and give it a run for four quarters. My doubles partner today is Trjn, and we’re tackling esports. Trjn is a dabbler in both StarCraft and League of Legends, and follows the big esport leagues quite closely.

To start our discussion I want to look back a little bit to how computer games went from arcade-level competitions to worldwide cyber games. The first really big competitive game was probably Quake, which was released in 1996. While there were a couple of tournaments before that, big Quake Lan tournaments codified many of the tournament structures we know today. After 1997, cyber games grew rapidly, with games like Counter-Strike, the original StarCraft and FIFA all developing large followings and inviting many competitors.

Counter Strike is a stalwart of eSports competitions

My own following of esports came rather late- I only really started looking at them with the release of StarCraft 2. The difference now is that rather than having to go to tournaments and watch on site, most tournaments are now streamed and commentated from anywhere in the world.

What about yourself, Trjn? How did you start following online gaming leagues?

Trjn: Street Fighter 4 had just come out and I had bought into the hype pretty badly. I had friends willing to play that ranged from complete novices to those that could handily destroy me. I took the lazy approach to learning; I watched the pros. There was a lot of content being put out on Youtube but almost every weekend Shoryuken.com would be featuring yet another tournament on their front page. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked and from there I moved on to watching other eSports through Twitch.tv, primarily Starcraft 2.

Right now really is the perfect time for spectators, with streaming sites making it all too easy to see what your favourite players or teams are doing and making it even easier to follow the action at any tournament, major or minor. The amazing crowd noise at IEM Katowice (The Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Katowice, Poland- ed) recently makes me think that it’s even better to be there live. This isn’t just nerds hunched over a keyboard, these are competitors playing for the spectacle.

DOTA champions Team NaVi met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov

Redartifice: It’s interesting that you started with Street Fighter, because fighting games to me seem to be the esports genre that’s closest to a “conventional” sport, at least on the face of it- boxing has been a mainstay of sports on TV for a long time. Do you think watching fighting games is a good “entry” for people who aren’t familiar with the whole tournament/esport culture?

You touched a little on this, but one of the things I like as a spectator is that I actually have a lot of choice- not just in who and what I watch, but also who is commentating and how they present it. I’m quite partial to Life’s A Glitch‘s When Cheese Fails series, which takes StarCraft 2 games where one player has tried and failed to use cheap tactics and commentates with jokes- it’s a kind of broadcast you really wouldn’t get with conventional sports. Some tournaments, however, use single streaming services or only have official feeds. With some of these streams and YouTube casts starting to get thousands of viewers, do you think we’ll see more tournaments tied up into exclusive deals? Will we see Twitch as the only webchannel authorised to stream a certain game?

Trjn:There really isn’t one game or genre that I would recommend as an entry point. It’s a bit like saying that someone should watch basketball or road cycling as their entry to watching sports. It’s a matter of finding one that sparks your interest. Personally, I’ve found the trick to getting into a new eSport is finding good commentary. Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to follow DOTA2 and that would have been nearly impossible if not for the commentary by Tobi-Wan from JoinDOTA

If people want to get into eSports, I say just look for people playing whatever sparks your interest and hope that there’s a commentator there to help introduce you to it all.

Exclusive deals with streaming sites have been a part of the scene for some time. The Starcraft 2 scene has content available on pretty much all major streaming sites in some form. Players and teams often have exclusive partnership deals with a streaming site for a share of the advertising revenue. One of the more prominent members of the Starcraft community, Day[9], hosts a daily show appropriately named the Day[9] Daily. He will stream it live on Twitch and then a few hours later will upload the videos to Youtube and embed those on his own site. Major tournaments like Global Starcraft 2 League or Major League Gaming will host Videos on Demand on their own sites (sometimes only accessible to subscribers) after they have streamed the content live.

It seems unlikely that one site will be able to control access to all of the streaming for any game. While Twitch does dominate at the moment, there has always been healthy competition and hopefully it continues that way. A recent example of this is the collapse of own3d.tv, who were Twitch’s main competitor, particularly when it came to League of Legends streams. It didn’t take long for Azubu.tv (owned by Azubu, a Korean organisation that runs a collegiate SC2 tournament, owns two LoL teams and a team of SC2 players) to spring up and try to fill the gap. Twitch is still the market leader but there’s enough of a market for others to try and find a place.

Australian eSports champion Moonglade has played Starcraft in international competitions

Redartifice: It’s true that the internet broadcast is fundamentally different to a TV broadcast, but I wonder if one day streaming of eSports will run up against the same barriers as regular sport. You can look at the recent court decision on Optus “Streaming” AFL games which, while not the same, proves that big content providers will go to bat over streaming and broadcast rights. Not that I expect LoL broadcasts to have the same amount of money in play any time soon!

One thing I’ve noticed recently is the rise of “BarCraft” events, where pubs broadcast eSports much like you would at a normal sports bar. While i’ve been unable to attend one yet, I do like the idea of bringing eSports out of the computer space and into the space that sport traditionally occupies. Do you think that we’ll see other aspects of eSports jump to the “mainstream?

Trjn: The sheer amount of money that Telstra spent to secure the rights definitely shows that there is value in online streaming. Youtube has been branching out into streaming as well but they currently have a lot of restrictions in place that hinder the current streaming revenue models (typically related to ads). It could very well be possible that after the NBN is in place and people turn to the internet to watch their traditional sports, they might take a gander at eSports too. It’s already an option for some people; last year I watched the Tour de France through the SBS website because I had no signal on my television.

Barcrafts are a fantastic way to bring supporters of eSports together. It is very difficult to participate here in Australia, particularly as most major tournaments are held in Europe or America resulting in many matches being played late at night or early in the morning.

The origins of eSports are a good place to look when thinking about how they could jump into the mainstream. Fighting games like Street Fighter and Tekken had continued success thanks to the arcade scene while LAN cafes were responsible for the success of Starcraft, Counterstrike and Warcraft 3. These were social places with low barriers to entry that anyone who was interested could simply visit and join in. The barrier to entry is even lower now for participation thanks to home consoles, cheap PCs and the internet but the social aspect has fallen to the wayside as a result.

If there were open areas for newcomers to dip their toes into the water, it would definitely help break eSports into the mainstream.

Redartifice: I agree with what you said about newcomers- it’s difficult to penetrate online games with established player bases (or perhaps that’s just my Bronze-League StarCraft sensibilities showing). One thing we’ve seen recently is the emergence of coaching and training modes in some of these big games- Heart of the Swarm will have more in-depth tutorials, and DOTA 2 includes a Coach Mode. I think this is a positive step, especially for the potential fans who see the big “2” after the word DOTA and aren’t sure they can jump in.

I think it’s interesting that you brought up the social aspect, as in many ways that’s one of the drawcards of real-world sports- sitting in the stands, or in a bar, with supporters of the same team. At this point, without going to a live event, about the only way you can get this fan to fan interaction is in the chatbox next to a live stream. What steps do you think eSports organisers and teams could take to build this sort of atmosphere?

“Barcraft” events have taken eSports away from the computer and into traditional sport-watching venues

Trjn: I don’t know if there is some magic bullet that will help build that sort of atmosphere. If I knew it, I’d probably be out there with the tournament organisers and teams getting the word out.

Right now, Dota 2 has just broken the record for the most concurrent users on Steam and Heart of the Swarm is coming out. These are huge player bases that are probably largely unaware of what’s going on. Both Valve and Blizzard are doing a good job at letting people know that the eSports side of the game exists but I think the simplest thing that people can do is play the games and talk. If you’re in game with someone, it’s the perfect time to see if they’re interested. From there, you can only hope that curiosity takes a hold.

Redartifice: I think you’re right, that there’s no easy way. Like all sports, it will build a following over time, and as new games come to the fore I’m sure that we’ll see an expansion of the genres that become popular for audiences.

In my opinion, eSports really do have a shot at becoming mainstream, more than any other gaming-related entertainment. In may ways it’s because the infrastructure is already in place- people know how to follow and react to sports, and there are established sporting channels and coverage mechanisms. The trick will be getting eSports firmly wedged into those channels, as that’s where the big bucks lie.

Ah well, one day. What do you think? Are you a watcher of eSports? Are there “esport” games that you’d like to try? How do you think eSports can go mainstream? Let us know in the comments.Would you like to step into the Duel Shock ring? got a topic you’d like to discuss? Let me know- you can find me on Twitter @redartifice

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