Sports of all kinds have been around forever. Just as kids will gather round and chant “fight” when there’s a scuffle on the playground, as long as people are watching and getting entertained, it can be called sport. But does this apply to eSports?
In general, traditional sports require a certain amount of room. This means that there is then space for people to gather around and watch. These crowds can cheer for their home team, or boo for the opposing side. The psychological boost of knowing that people are rooting for you can be key to a team’s success – hence the idea of home team advantage.
With eSports, it really is rather different. First, there’s the issue of how to watch. Most pro games are streamed on twitch. While Twitch is a fantastic service, it is purely for streaming – you need to know what you’re looking for and when. This means that it can be really difficult to find interesting or important games that are being played. Dota 2 is the only game that has worked around this with their built in spectating client. Plus, plenty of people can’t stream their games (it takes quite a bit of bandwidth and speed). This is why the games played between teams during the DGL aren’t streamed through Twitch – all the bandwidth is being used by the teams to actually play the games.
Then there is the idea of home team advantage. Because most games are played online, and teams can be comprised of people from a range of locations, there is no real sense of home team advantage. Sure, sometimes a team might travel for a tournament and play in a different set up. However, most spectators don’t support a team based on their location, but rather their play style or personalities. It’s not like the Blue Bulls or Sharks – teams represent their own identity and not a region. Additionally, when spectating a game, it is very hard to convey those cheers or excitement to the player. Much like the man who yells at the TV screen during a Rugby match, there is no way to be heard while spectating an eSports match.
Speaking of being heard, there is then the matter of Shoutcasters. Just like in traditional sports, casters explain what is going on in the game, expressing the range of emotions and helping the spectator to understand what is going on. With eSports, this can be a discussion of item purchases, available strategies or simply blow by blows of fights. Casters are absolutely integral to raising awareness and emotion during any eSport match.
I suppose this is where I raise my issue with eSports at the moment. I know I should be spectating League of Legends – it’s the World Championships, after all. However, I just cannot get interested. It’s not that I think League of Legends is a superior game to Dota 2. I honestly enjoy both games. And yet, there is nothing drawing me to watching the World Championships. Nada. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know or care about the teams. Or maybe it’s because I’m not entirely clear on when the games are taking place. Regardless, it just doesn’t have the same spectator draw that Dota 2 does.
But it’s not just MOBA. I went to Fourways Mall on Sunday to watch the ESWC finals. There was a nice setup from Main Gaming, but it was lacking that spectator value – no big screens for everyone to watch on, no shout casting, just a bunch of guys gathered around TVs playing FIFA. Sure, their gameplay was impressive, but without those extra elements, there was no reason to stay and watch. Without a spectacle and excitement, it’s like watching buddies play games in your living room, only the buddies are strangers and there are no couches or booze.
So when does gaming move from the activity we all know and love, to an eSport? Is it when there is competition, ladders and rankings? How about when there’s a tournament? Maybe when prizes and money are up for grabs? For me, it is when there is a reason to watch. A reason to act like that kid on the playground, gather round and chant for your favorite or root for the underdog. eSports can be exciting and interesting, but only if it is treated as competitive entertainment, with all the bells and whistles that go along with it. It may be very different from traditional sports, but the need for spectating is the same.