eSports Won’t Go Mainstream Anytime Soon

mlg-dallas-2013On a whim, I watched part of the recent MLG Winter Championships. I’ve never watched MLG before and never played StarCraft 2 or League of Legends. As such, I was, naturally, completely lost at first. Over the course of the couple of matches that I watched, I was able to grasp the basic concept of the SC2 games was to kill all the opposing units but that was all I was able to grasp.

This made me think of stories and columns I’ve read over the last year or so that speculated that competitive gaming and eSports could break into the mainstream as a sport with sizable interest and possibly make the transition to TV.

While it’s entirely possible that competitive gaming might make it to TV, it’s not going to evolve past the niche audience and break into mainstream consciousness anytime in the near future.

Let’s start by establishing that I’m probably best classified casual gamer. I don’t buy a lot of hot new releases and usually buy games on sale some months after release or little indie games from Steam. I’m probably not your typical Major League Gaming viewer or fan. MLG’s problem is that I’m the exact sort of person who they need to hook to grow their sport.

When the UFC got big after the launch of The Ultimate Fighter, it wasn’t simply a case of “if you build it, they will come.” People didn’t tune into MMA because it was on TV but because it was good TV, the fights were entertaining and people had a grasp of the sport thanks to a good base of knowledge from watching boxing (or fighting growing up) and coach commentary after the fight. That and there was the typical reality TV drama that was certainly helped by some damn good fights.

starcraft-2-screenshot-02-multiplayerWatching the final two matches of StarCraft II at MLG Dallas and part of the League of Legends final left me more confused than anything. I could grasp that the basic goal of the SC2 matches was to destroy all of your enemy’s units. However, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was happening on the screen. Despite the fact that I’m a gamer and a sports fan and am usually pretty quick to pick up on the nuances of a game/sport, the skirmishes I was watching looked like a giant blob that was dissolving from the inside out.

While understanding a sport isn’t necessarily an excuse for not trying to watch it (I didn’t understand T20 cricket before I watched some IPL matches but I absolutely love it now), it does present a very real and very intimidating barrier to entry for many potential new viewers.

Some of this is down to a cultural thing. It was easy for me to learn about sports growing up. My dad could tell me about baseball or football. All I had to do was turn on TV to hear about hockey. Anybody can flip on a sports channel or find a sports blog and be overwhelmed with insightful analysis that you can learn from.

Competitive gaming just doesn’t have this way in for new viewers and non-gamers. My biggest complaint about watching StarCraft II at MLG Dallas was that the commentators were describing what happened and was happening (before screaming GEEGEE) rather than analyse what was happening. Destroy all the things is an end goal but if I don’t know what or why someone is doing, it just looks like a small mess on a drab looking map.

starcraft-2-screenshot-03-mlgMLG’s StarCraft matches have a short break (about five minutes) between battles in a best of three/five/seven series. While this is primarily an ad break for viewers and a time for the gamers to go over replays to analyse the previous game, there is nothing from the commentators. This would be an ideal time to fill in some blanks as to what the players are thinking, what they could have done differently and how they can adapt. Instead, it’s dead air.

If and when MLG or another eSports league gets a TV deal, they need to take a long look at what professional sports broadcasters do to inform and entertain the viewers beyond show the action. That’s where I found MLG to be lagging behind “real sports” the most. They have to adapt elements of a traditional sports broadcast, like using analysts rather than two play-by-play men, in order to grow the sport beyond the hardcore gamer base. Interviews and profiles on players to get people interested in the personalities usually helps too (explains why Sidney Crosby is so divisive since he doesn’t have a personality). And it’s be nice to feature some graphics showing how the players are doing in a given match rather than a best of the series score.

Even if a larger audience would be willing to tune into competitive gaming events, there is one other cloud looming large over the possibility of eSports getting a break in the mainstream.

NBC Universal recently shut down G4. The channel that focused on such things as video games wasn’t doing well enough for NBC to keep alive so they bailed on the concept of a cable channel to dedicated geek culture to launch the metrosexual-targeting Esquire Network. If a whole channel dedicated to things geeks love isn’t sustainable, could shows dedicated to just eSports gain traction?

attack-of-the-showSure, that’s admittedly comparing apples to oranges but there was apparently nothing worth salvaging from G4 as everything was cancelled. Let me repeat that to let it sink in: Every G4 produced show was cancelled in the run up to the channel becoming The Esquire Network. If geek culture mainstays like Attack of the Show aren’t worth saving, how can we have any hope that something as largely niche (though, admittedly big in the gaming community) as MLG could make it big enough to have a continuous TV presence, let alone go mainstream?

Now I know that MLG had some of its biggest viewership ever for MLG Dallas but that’s online viewing. They can talk about record highs in unique views over the weekend and concurrent viewers and the average length of viewership but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll translate to TV. It means that MLG has found a formula that works online. There’s nothing to say that it can make that jump to TV and keep growing. No, it’s not likely to shrink overall as a result but suggesting that it will go through a UFC-esque hyper growth is unrealistic.

I don’t have anything against MLG or anyone involved in eSports. It’s been a part of gaming in some form or another since the invention of the high score screen and getting the high score is one of my favourite things in the world. I’m just saying that we should hold our horses. Forcing eSports onto a medium that won’t work for it will do more harm than good. It still has to get through some growing pains before it’s ready for primetime.

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