Over the last two years I have watched a lot of eSports. Mostly the games you would expect – League of Legends, Counter Strike: Global Offensive and World of Tanks. What I have discovered is that there is a barrier – people just don’t find them entertaining enough. OK, if you are already a fan of the game, you will love it either way. However, as with all forms of entertainment, you need to be able to grab new viewers or eventually those you have at the beginning will eventually get bored and move on. This is most easily shown on reality TV shows such as Big Brother, and Jersey Shore – same formula year in year out but nothing that brings a new audience, so eventually the show dies a slow, painful death.
The problem is that eSports struggles to be entertaining to the outsider. This is caused by many things: Downtime, slow boring matches, and hours of listening to people speculating about what might happen, rather than just straight-up gameplay.
Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be invited to the World of Tanks Pacific Rumble tournament in Japan. This is the third time I have been to similar events (I also attended last year’s APAC Season 2 Finals in Korea and the 2015 World Finals in Warsaw). Over that time, I have seen a massive shift in how Wargaming has run its tournaments, making them not just a sport but a form of entertainment. This is something that needs to be done to increase the profile of eSports overall.
So here is my experience: Firstly, I love World of Tanks. I spend way too much time playing it and it is my go-to game when I am trying to waste a few moments. However, in the Wargaming League’s original format, competitive World of Tanks could only be described as boring. It was generally 5+ minutes of camping followed by either more camping, or a couple of minutes of action. There was no motivation to win, so rounds often ended in draws. Lots and lots of draws. As a strategy this was effective, but as entertainment it was terrible.
Between Korea in October 2014 and the Grand finals in Warsaw in April 2015, this format changed. Simply put, WGL made it so someone had to lose. This changed the gameplay dramatically and made it way more exciting to watch, Wargaming are still making changes to make things more entertaining, but honestly, if the Tier X exhibition match played in Japan with the new rules is anything to go by, the League will have a very interesting future.
This now brings me to the other problem with eSports as entertainment.
The downtime. I’m talking about when the games aren’t playing. Things like character selection, setup and the natural variance of how long a round can take all eat up time and aren’t that much fun to watch.
World of Tanks has a very streamlined tank selection process, which takes 1-2 minutes, but League of Legends really has a massive issue with this. If you are a fan of the game, waiting the 10 or so minutes before a round for the teams to pick their characters is interesting, however as a social spectator, it is pretty much the most boring thing in the world.
So you wait 10min for a round to start, you wait 10min for characters to b e selected before the game finally starts – that’s 20min of nothing to the social spectator (and that doesn’t take into account teams changing, which can add another half an hour to the wait). As entertainment, this much downtime is terrible.
Once again, of course this stuff is interesting to the hardcore fan, but it’s far from interesting to the casual watcher – and it’s the casual watcher is really the key to growing the sport. Without new watchers, who turn into new players, you won’t get the hardcore players bringing fresh blood to the game, and you also won’t get the “around the water cooler” conversation that gets more viewers.
Turning sport into entertainment isn’t a new thing, and it isn’t exclusively a problem for eSports. But it is a barrier to get even more people watching. Over the years we have seen traditional sport add things like cheerleaders, live music, giveaways, comedy shows, interviews, and many many other things to their broadcasts. This is something that could easily be utilized by esports, and something that shouldn’t be discounted.
Interviews with the winning and losing captains at the end of a round, interviews with celebrities watching the sport, some kind of exhibition match that is being played on the sidelines (the faster-paced the better), celebrity matches, something other than the handful of suits sitting at a bench speculating what is going to happen or elaborating on what went wrong.
No matter how you look at it, eSports is still transitional. Sponsors are showing up, but until you see non-tech related brands like Toyota, Coke, and Citibank, we haven’t hit the mainstream. That is something that really needs to be achieved both to make video gaming a true traditional sport replacement, and to make it sustainable. To get those brands, they wil need to get something out of it.
The recent Crown Casino CS:GO tournament in Melbourne is a great example. This event had mainstream support from both Fox Sports and Crownbet, however it confused the hell out of the non-gamer audience when it was broadcast on Foxtel with people heading straight to social media to complain. Again, this comes back to the issue of entertaining a mainstream audience. We need that viewer to switch on the TV or stream and keep watching it even if they don’t know what is going on, just because it is entertaining.
I have no doubt that eSports will find the balance between sport and entertainment that will eventually bring it into mainstream, it’s a matter of “when”, not “if”. With the vast population now playing video games in one form or another it is inevitable, however it will take talented organisers and flexible viewers to make this happen. It will also take the realisation and mind-shift that the viewers are just as, if not more important than the players.
Other sports have had tens if not hundreds of years to work this out, lets hope it takes eSports a little less time, so we can all enjoy it.