The Frag Limit

The Problems with Esports.
August 15, 2012, 12:18 pm
Filed under: Team Chat | Tags: , , ,

The concept of esports has been around for some time now.  Ever since the first player met another player online (perhaps in Doom) or in a competitive environment (perhaps in Pong), players have thought about the idea of actually qualifying and competing in game tournaments for money.  The idea of holding tournaments and matches for cash prizes based on skill and talent has been held as a possibility – if not a probability – in the minds of thousands of gamers the world over.  Surely, just as in other sports, if a game has well-crafted rules, is well-balanced and is in general just plain fair for all participants involved, then why shouldn’t it be a viable option for competition?  The only difference between a video game and a real life game is the fact that video games are held in a digital arena right?

Well not so fast.  If there is one thing that we have all learned in the last 40 years since Pong came out is the fact that esports have struggled, and have struggled mightily.  From the earliest cash prize tournaments to the most recent, winnings for tournament victors have not been so great at all.  Indeed, these winnings have been, by almost all standards, abysmal.  The lack of winnings is however only one of the major problems that inflicts the world of esports.  But first, let’s talk about why exactly there is no money in “money” tournaments.

One of the biggest problems with esports has traditionally been the absolute lack of dedicated fans supporting esports on a wide scale and on a consistent basis.  Sure there are fans that make it to the random events around the world (particularly South Korea) and sure these fans often end up dropping some money to watch their favorite players – but the number of these fans is incredibly small.  For all of the players who actually compete in live tournaments there are probably an equal amount of fans – if that.  When comparing this ratio of fans to players to a standard professional sport – such as NBA basketball – it fails to add up.  Indeed the ratio of fans to players is much, much greater for standard professional sports; perhaps with 25,000 live paying fans to 25 players for a NBA basketball game or even 70,000 paying fans to 70 players for a NFL football game.  It’s easy to see the inherent problems with the lack of fans in esports just by considering these ratios.  Ultimately if there is not a significantly greater amount of fans to players, funding such events becomes exponentially more difficult.  And it is left solely to sponsors.

Another major issue with esports is sponsors.  While there are a handful of companies that sponsor events, teams and sometimes even individual players, there are not enough participating (or giving enough money) to create real incentive for players.  The average prize winnings are typically around five to ten thousand dollars and this is not enough money to actually make people want to become “professional” and dedicated video game players.  Of course, this lack of funding from sponsors is to be expected as it is really all just a business proposition – that is, how much money is enough to satisfied the immediate need (a new tournament) to get the company’s name, brand and image out there.  Often times this amount is not much at all and a simple ten thousand dollar check seems to do the trick (if there were more fans though, there would be more sponsors and ultimately more money – so its a “catch-22”).

The next major issue with esports are the games themselves.  Unlike traditional, professional sports games, esports games have failed to find a platform of consistency in design and rules.  Basketball, football, soccer, baseball, tennis, etc. all have a simple arena or field design and straightforward goals and rulesets.  These games all take place on a standard size field or court and always use simple geometric lines and shapes to distinguish areas of play.  For example, a basketball court is nothing more than combination of rectangular and semi-circular areas and lines with a goal (hoop) for both sides.  Pretty straightforward.  On the other hand, video game arenas are almost always complex.  These arenas have wildly varying geometric shapes and areas.  For example, terrain is a common feature in most mulitplayer games and the space in just a fraction of one of the areas of a specific digital arena is many, many times more complex than the entire area of a standard, professional real-world sport.  Now, the argument could be made that complex digital arenas are ok as they lend themselves to the structure and gameplay of the specific game they cater to.  However, I disagree.  The complexity of digital game arenas are perhaps one of the major reasons why esports have failed to take off.  There are two reasons why this is so.

The first reason why complex digital arenas prohibit the growth and success of esports is because there is no standard.  The many, many hundreds and thousands of online games that have been released over the years have done nothing but segment and divide an already fragmented community.  And each new game that is released only serves to further add more diversity and differentiation.  One would think that is would be good (and it is good for casual gaming as more games published means more playing options), however, for esports, this is the worst thing that could possibly happen.  Simply put, the more games there are, the less likelihood that any one game will be the clear “winner” for the general esports platform.

The second reason why complex digital arenas prohibit the growth of esports is because they are difficult to understand.  Perhaps these arenas may not be difficult to understand for the gamers who play them, or even for the players who watch esports, but for the major, general audience out there – the same audience who watches traditional sports games – esports are almost impossible to watch.  One look at an esports match and nearly 99% of this audience is completely lost as to what is happening and why.  This is a huge problem!  If grandpa can’t come into the living room and flip on the tellie and figure out what is happening on the screen before him (sports-wise), forget about it!  Any hope at all for the success of a new sport will be immediately lost the moment that new viewer determines that these games are too difficult to decipher and understand.  Therefore, what needs to happen, is a “dumbing-down” or a simplification of esports games into their most basic elements.  Doing this would allow more people (perhaps not everyone – but at least a good amount) to easily digest and “get” what is going on.

The last major issue why esports have failed to take off is because of the broadcasting quality.  Of the thousands of online multiplayer games that could qualify to become esports platforms, only a handful of them have any sort of semi-decent broadcasting quality.  However, none of these games have anything truly great.  The camera-work, the announcing (casting), and the general production value is nothing to get excited about in the least bit.  And compared to the level of quality that is standard for traditional professional sports, esports simply don’t compete.  Long story short, what this basically means is that mainstream viewers are never going to be interested in esports as the method and quality of delivery is incompatible with what they are use to.  Simply put, for these majority of viewers, watching an esports event is like watching microbe cells divide and conquer under a microscope.  They can get a general idea of whats going on, but they have no idea how or why it’s happening.

Esports have many problems and many challenges at present time.  And in order for our beloved esports to become anything great – that is to say, for esports to have any sort of popular, mainstream following with great prizes and great competition – there needs to be a lot of changes and improvements made to the fundamental structure and delivery of said games.  In short, there needs to be less games vying to become the esports title, there needs to be simpler game arenas (arenas which are more accessible and digestible by mainstream viewers (less geometry)), there needs to be better broadcasting quality all around and there needs to be more fans.  A lot of this is a catch-22 in that you can’t have an improvement in one area without an improvement in other areas (for example, to get more fans, there needs to be better broadcasting quality, but to get better broadcasting quality, there needs to be a fanbase to pay for such improvements), but given this there is still hope.  The challenges are great, but perhaps with enough dedication, support, hard-work and a little luck, esports might just find solid ground and become something truly great.


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