The Frag Limit

The Problems with Esports – Revisited.
December 19, 2012, 4:49 pm
Filed under: Team Chat | Tags: , , , ,

A few months ago I wrote a little blog post (which you can see below) entitled “The Problems with Esports”. This post generated a fair amount of discussion amoung certain circles regarding esports and the potential it may have, or may not have, to grow into something really tangible and great. That discussion died down quickly, but it is always ongoing, lurking their in the background. The questions raised and the hope for a better esports tomorrow is always on the hearts and minds of those who love multiplayer competitive gaming. Its been a long road, but games with strong esports elements to them are still alive and well and the passion is still there among both casual and “professional” gamers alike. Yet we wait for the answers to just resolve themselves, at times, and we hope that the pieces will fall just into the right place so that we can see our beloved games rise from the private (yet intense) hobbies we have into something more along the lines of a mainstream, brightlight, multimillion-dollar entertainment extravaganza (similar to how the UFC went from being “underground” to the big time in the matter of one short decade or so).

However, it is somewhat of a vain notion to think that esports will just “arrive” some day and that esports will find its proper place amoung the traditional, mediated sports heavyweights (read; professional sports). This will not “just happen”. Attempts have already been made at capitalizing on the esports gravy train (or what looked like a gravy train at the time) and most of these attempts have not boded so well. The CyberAthletic Professional Legeaue spent A LOT of money to host world-class tournaments that offered big-cash prizes on a semi-annual basis. But despite its attempts to offer these healthy prize pools and extravagent tournaments it could not secure the sponsers nor the fanbase required to sustain the overall operation. The Field of Dreams notion of “build it and they will come” simply did not hold true. The fans did not come.

So, we must ask ourselves (competitive gamers of all kinds) what is it exactly that “fans” are looking for? What will make the everyday Joe a fan of esports? What will attract the hardcore, or even the casual, traditional sports viewer to the world of esports? To answer this question we should consider some of the things that I have already written about (see previous blog entry), but we should also consider this: Fans of traditional sports are fans of individual teams and, in as much, they are also fans of individual players on those teams. Fans of traditional sports are fans of “uniqueness” – which is to say that they enjoy, respect and marvel at what is discreet, what is seperate, and what is refined.

To get an idea of what this means let’s take a look at one of traditional, professional sport’s greatest heroes, Michael Jordan (of course, however, any person, on any professional team, has the same opportunity to be examined in the same manner in which I examine Jordan as the nature every individual is “uniqueness” (every individual is unique). Indeed, professional sports is littered with an overabundant population of current and retired examples from which to choose. This is, in fact, the whole point in itself: The success of professional sports stems from the unique potential of every player). In the video below we see a video reel put together by the NBA which highlights some of Jordan’s greatest plays. Let’s examine a few of the highlights in this video. The #10 highlight shows Jordan coming down the court with about 7 seconds left in the game. Jordan covers a lot of ground at a qucik rate of speed to position himself close to the basket. At about 8 feet out from the basket he pulls up for a shot. His tongue is sticking out. He elevates straight-up in perfect text-book form for a jump shot and shoots the ball gently over an extremely tall defender. The ball swishes the net in one pure movement and the game is tied. The #7 highlight shows Jordan recieve a pass from far down the court from Rodman. When Jordan catches the pass right near the out-of-bounds line he expertly loops the basketball behind his back to save the play and to trick the defender in one swift movement. He then covers a good bit of ground and quickly excelerates to the basket. At about 5 feet from the basket he jumps and pumps the ball from side to side to shake off the last defender and then finally he lays the ball in the basket. The commentator notes “that guy is pretty darn good”. The #3 highlight shows Jordan standing just outside of the three-point line with the ball. He looks around and trys to decide what move to make. Should he pass, should he shoot, should he just take it in? An instant latter his mind is made. He acts as if he is going to pass, but then he swoops the ball in a wide arching movement (to shake off the defender), then starts to attack the basket. A huge forward comes in to defend the basket and decides to just foul Jordan. The forward lays his gargantuan arms over Jordan’s shoulders as Jordan lifts off into the air. But Jordan has too much power and finds a way to loop the ball low and behind the basket and to bank it high off the top of the backboard and into the goal. Jordan’s tongue is sticking out the entire time and the fans, as the annoucer notes, “are delirious here in Chicago”. Finally, in the #1 highlight in this video we see Jordan first knock the ball out from the opponant’s hands by coming up from behind him. The ball bounces around a bit (off the opponant’s leg and hands) and is eventually scooped up by Jordan. Then a little bit later, at the very end of the game, we see Jordan make a strong offensive push towards the basket. He acts as if he is going to just drive the ball all the way to the hole. But instead of doing that (maybe because he saw too many defenders), he ducks his head low, places his left hand on the defender’s right buttock and pulls back in one great, swift movement. The defender nearly falls to the ground trying to keep up with Jordan’s misdirection as Jordan squares off for a shot at the top of the arch. The ball hits its mark perfectly and the Bulls win the game. The commentator can only say, “oh my goodness, . . . oh oh my goodness” at this impressive display of unique talent.

Of course, many more examples may be very similiar to the one’s examined here. Michael Jordan is just but one star in the NBA. There are many others who have also shined just as bright in their talent, their style and their execution on the basketball court. There are also many, many others who have shined in other professional sports as well. Indeed, this is the nature of professional sports. There are stars that draw and entertain fans. Likewise, there are also teams that do the same thing. Teams that coordinate well together – better than any other team – find a synergistic relationship between the members of that team and create something greater than the sum of its parts. This is exciting to watch as well and will draw many, many fans. It is also a unique phenomenon just like the unique player.

There are also many other things to say about “uniqueness” in professional sports. For example, what did Michael Jordan do in between his highlight plays? What actions did he perform and what mannerisms did he have on the court that were unique? How did he shoot the ball at the free-throw line? Was his free-throw shooting as interesting as what other people have done on the free-throw line? Was Jordan as interesting as Shaq (who’s hands were as big as the ball itself and couldn’t save his life with a free throw)? What about Dennis Rodman? What did Rodman do that was unique at the free-throw line? Or better yet, what did Dennis Rodman do that was unique off the free-throw line (which is to say, in the rest of his life outside of basketball)? Rodman is well known for his crazy antics, his crazy hair, his crazy tatoos and such. Did these unique elements, manifested by his unique personality traits, create a sort of “aura” around him both on and off the court? What kind of draw did Rodman have on fans due to these elements? Some may like him, some may hate him, but one thing is for sure; the man was always interesting and a spectacle to watch.

More can be said about this. Indeed, it’s not just the people who are “special” or who stand out that exhibit uniqueness. Uniqueness is found in each and every player in every professional sport. The way a player ties his shoes, the way a player warms up on the sidelines, the way a player holds a bat, the way a player throws a ball, the way a player trains, the way a player negotiates a contract deal, the way a player jumps or ducks or dodges all are examples of unique character traits. Each and every thing that a each and every player does in each and every professional sport is unique. This is true because humans are unique creatures. Each human is discreet and differentiated from other humans.

Now is a good time to return to esports. I have asked here what it is that draws fans to professional sports. I answered this by saying that it is the uniqueness of the players and of the teams of each respective sport. Now this question must be asked: Do esports allow for the same kind of uniqueness that is present in professional sports? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Esports do not have unique, discreet, seperate players. Yes the people who play esports behind the screens are unique (of course), but the characters, or “players”, in the game that is being played itself are not unique. The characters in esports titles are identical. Not identical in the sense that there are not different roles or positions that can be played on any given team, or in any given game, but that these roles are exactly the same across the entire gamut of human players who play each role. In other words, humans can only select to play a limited number of players or roles in any given game (usually about 4-6 different roles in a FPS title).

Here we see the draw of the uniqueness of professional sports get greatly reduced and severely diminished. Instead of watching a Michael Jordan, or a Shaquille O’Neil, or a Dennis Rodman (or anyone else for that matter) we instead see the exact same character perform the exact same actions over and over again. For example, in the game of Tribes: Ascend we see a Sentinel who physically looks (and who physically moves and “acts”) exactly like every other Sentinel in the game. There are no defining physical traits to the Sentinal skin other than the ones created by the character designer. The Sentinal cannot stick his tongue out when he snipes a Capper from far afield (and if he could do that then that would only be another animation created by the animator and that animation would be avialable to all who play the Sentinel – thereby rendering that animation UN-unique). Furthermore, the Sentinal can only go as fast, fly as high, and sustain as much damage as every other Sentinel in the game. Sure some gamers will be better at using the Sentinal class than other gamers, but the Sentinal is still the exact same for every gamer who decides to use him. One Sentinel cannot condition himself better, workout harder, eat better, and train smarter than another Sentinel. One Sentinel cannot study the game more or practice a certain move and improve his skill in performing that move better than another Sentinel. One Sentinel cannot fly longer or ski faster due to his workout and training regimen. No amount of conditioning will change this fact (for it is true that Sentinels cannot even “condition” in the first place – they are not unique creatures). Every Sentinel is the exact same as every other. Every Sentinel is defined by the character designer, the animator and the game designer who made him. The Sentinel cannot vary from this hard-coded data. This is a fact. In much the same way, the same things hold true for every other type of character or role that can be played in every esports title (the characters and roles are limited by their design and by their functionality, and they cannot vary from that design).

Now some may argue at this point that that gamers have the ability to utilize the characters and roles (the players) in an esports title better than other gamers and that this gives them a way to give the characters uniqueness. For example, a really good “professional” gamer can control his character better, faster and more aggressively than another gamer using the exact same character. This control lends itself to being “unique” and special. While this is true (some people are better at playing than others), it is only true to an extent. The control weilded by the “professional” gamer, while lending him the ability to win matches, does lend him the ability to be a “better” character. The character or role used by the pro gamer is still the exact same character or role used by the other gamer. The professional gamer just knows how to get more out of that character or role than the other person does. The fact still remains that the base attributes to that character or role are the exact same between the two gamers. One gamer cannot condition, train, or build his character better than another gamer. Therefore, uniqueness does not exist for the professional gamer. In other words, a professional gamer cannot be a Michael Jordan simply through his control of a pre-designed character alone. A professional gamer can only be a Michael Jordan by being the character itself and not a proxy of that character (which at this point in time is still not possible).

Another argument that could be made about uniqueness in esports is that since the gamers who play the characters are unique (and indeed they are) then the characters that the gamers control don’t have to be unique. This is, to a very small extent, true. As we can see in today’s esports world, some professional gamers do have a sort of unique aura to them (one example may be Fatality from Quake 3, among others), but how much does this aura draw fans to watch these gamers play? Is the uniqueness of the professional gamer enough to draw real fans? I say that it is not. It is not because the professional gamer, while unique, does not appear in the game itself – he only appears through proxy. The gamer does not bring uniqueness to the game (except maybe in a very small way by his mastery of the pre-designed game framework – he can play the game better and smarter than other gamers). But this mastery is enough enough for a flourishing world of uniqueness that is present in all other mainstream, professional sports. In the NBA, for example, every player on the court is unique with his own set of skills and abilities, whereas in esports, every player in the match is NOT unique but is the exact same as every other player. This difference cannot be emphasized enough. This is the major problem with esports: The complete lack of unique character traits.

So, as we can see, there is a lot of room for improvement in esports. Indeed, if esports is to ever to become a mainstream, professional sport (like the NBA for example), there will have to be much work done in the area of player uniqueness. This is a tricky thing to resolve, however. For at the moment that a game developer says that they will make their game “more unique” and adds more animations, or more skills, or more abilities to their game they have in essence “missed the point”. The point is not to increase skills or abilities in a game for at the moment that one does that then they have only created a more convoulted character, or characters, to their own game (and they have essentially made their game less balanced). Furthermore, if they offer the same helping of new skills and abilities to every gamer out there, then uniqueness is lost again as every gamer will have access to it (thereby rendering the game UN-unique again). Perhaps a game designer could design a game where unique skills and abilites could be greater for some gamers and weaker for others, but this does not seem like a very fair approach and of course there would be much controversy in light of such a situation. Everyone would want to be the “superstar” and no one would be satisfied with being a mere “run-of-the-mill” character. There is also the idea of “virtually reality”. If a gamer could further integrate himself into the playing experience via headmounts, VR treadmills and movement tracking devices and so forth then the player’s uniqueness would be greatly amplifide. The gamer would become the character and not just act as a proxy of it. But this stuff is very expensive and not available on a mass scale. Only time will tell if esports will ever find uniqueness, but one thing is for certain; until they do, esports will struggle for real, paying fans and esports will continue to flounder like it has for the past 15 years without question.

Please tell me your thoughts on this matter below in the comments section!