Monday, December 19, 2011

Competitive Gaming: Hunting Big Game for Sport

So, it's been a while since I've written an Audley Enough. I've been busy as a Halo Coach and more recently as a writer/blogger for MLG. Lately, I've been following the professional gaming scene even closer, and one debate just keeps springing up wherever I go.

"Should competitive games be labeled as sports?"

Now, I'm sure 95% of my audience just said, "No, they're not athletic, so they're not sports."

What's my catchphrase? NO. SHUT UP. YOU'RE WRONG.

And since that's not a valid way to argue, I'll go ahead and be so kind as to break down the argument and explain, in detail, why I personally believe eSports should be qualified and viewed by outsiders as actual sports.

First, going to drop a few dictionary definitions.

an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.

So, the dictionary definition of sport is that it is an athletic activity. "Ha, Audley, you're wrong after all!" Read further.

(I deleted 1 and 2 of athletic because they were actually less descriptive.)
of or pertaining to athletes; involving the use of physical skills or capabilities, as strength, agility, or stamina: athletic sports; athletic training.

a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.

Athletic - something with athletes that requires physical skills.
Athlete - a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.

There's no denying video games require a great deal of hand-eye coordination in order to play. In fact, apart from thinking and reacting to the information given on screen, the majority of gaming is hand-eye coordination. You move your joystick or mouse, your character (or army) moves across the screen. An enemy army appears, you see it, you move it as fast as you possibly can to get the fuck out of there! It's ALL reaction time.

Hand-eye coordination is an athletic ability. It's what allows baseball players to hit a tiny ball with an oversized stick. It's what allows basketball players to arc a ball into a hoop. It's what allows boxers to not get knocked the fuck out. Sure, these other sports I'm naming ALSO require stamina, strength, speed, et cetera, but I would go so far as to argue that several competitive games require a greater deal of hand-eye coordination than these sports to make up for that (maybe not boxing...but that depends on how much you're reading an opponent's muscles versus how much you're just hiding behind two arms and getting beaten up waiting for an opening). Information is presented for fractions of seconds and players must react to them accordingly.

If you have slow reaction speeds, or can't really get your hands and eyes on the same page (I have stupid fingers, I know what it's like) will fail at competitive gaming. It is both a talent and a physical skill which can be trained and improved upon.

Some competitors even go so far as to train in gyms in order to improve their body's physical strength, believing quite firmly that this physical training benefits their reaction time and mental health when competing in the game of their choice. Flamesword and Roy of Halo, and eG.InControl of StarCraft II are a few examples of this.

But here, I'm just arguing semantics, which is not my goal. Come on, you know me better than that. I push the envelope with my arguments.

The crux of my argument comes down to three bullet points. Competitive games should be viewed as sports because:
1) Participants have to invest large quantities of time in practice in order to remain competitive.
2) Competitive games gather a significant number of spectators to watch the players or teams compete. If there are no spectators, there is no sport. It's just two guys in a dick-waving contest.
3) Players, now, are capable of making a livelihood off practicing and playing their game.

The latter two of those are recent developments, sure, as eSports have exploded into wide popularity with StarCraft 2 and League of Legends driving competitive gaming to a new level of popularity.

The first bullet, regarding practice (Yes, Allen Iverson, we're talking about Practice. Again.) is one I've talked about in a past Audley Enough. Skills go dull when they're not kept sharp. And, above, I explained that video games do require skill. Not that I had to, we all know competitive games are competitive because someone can be better than someone else at them.

I don't feel I really need to explain the logic behind including practice. It's self-explanatory, and I kinda feel like I'd be beating a horse that's already been turned to glue and bits. So let's move on.

Spectators. They matter.

As I said in the bullet, without spectators, a competition between participants is ultimately just for naught. There's no fan investment. There's no glory. There's no being hoisted above the shoulders of Billy Iwannagopro and carried off the field. It's just you, and some butthurt guy you beat in something.

Sports are played for spectators. Even as far back as the gladiators, sports were all about pleasing the people in the seats of the arena just as much as seeing who would win. If there weren't asses in the seats of the arena, it's just two slaves beating the shit out of one another until one dies. Or a man stupidly wrestling a lion. We'd label him a lunatic, not an athlete.

Spectator numbers for eSports have been skyrocketing recently. This isn't arguable -- MLG has been releasing numbers for their viewership after each tournament, and numbers have been consistently going up. Fandom of StarCraft 2 and now League of Legends is expanding rapidly, and even gaining mainstream viewership as events like BarCraft are getting organized worldwide.

(For those of you that don't know what BarCraft is -- it's essentially a giant party and at a local bar, where StarCraft II tournaments are streamed. There is also Bar of Legends, which is essentially the same thing but for LoL. If this sort of thing interests you, check for more details and attempt to find a local BarCraft.)

At MLG Providence, the viewership among males aged 18-24 surpassed MTV, FX, Comedy Central, and TBS for the weekend and over 3.6 million hours of combined video were consumed over the course of the weekend among the 1.2 million unique online viewers. (Source: The 1.2 million comes from dividing amount of video by average viewing time per viewer. Logical maths.) Concurrent viewers jumped from 138,000 at Raleigh, to 180,000 at Orlando, to over 240,000 in Providence. The spectator base for eSports as a whole is rapidly growing.

A large part of this is that the games themselves are being designed to be more friendly to spectators. The mechanics have less senseless complexity. Visuals are being "cleaned" up to make it rather clear to viewers what's happening on screen. Games are given Spectator Mode so commentators broadcasting the game can give a full picture of the game's goings-on, much like the SkyCam set-ups in football games. Additionally (and again, much like real sports in this age), commentators are required to have a deep enough knowledge of the game to translate the in-game action to the viewing faithful. Through graphical and mechanical enhancements over the years, video games have reached a state of watchability by a much larger market than there was back in the days of colored squares and slightly different colored squares, and those in control of broadcasts have a lot more control over what is communicated to the viewers.

Commentators like Day9 go a long way in bridging top-level gaming to new and experienced viewers alike, with a combination of colorful humor and deep game knowledge that makes complex maneuvers understandable to even the most n00bish of n00bs.

The existence of a large spectator base helps facilitate the next bullet point: the players have to be able to make a livelihood off their game. No, I'm not discounting college sports (see: scholarships) or amateur events like the Olympic games (which, I'm pretty sure they have sponsors to feed them anyway).

But up until recently, gamers still had to work part-time or full-time jobs in order to get by in life. Three things have changed. Prize money, sponsors, and the advent of streaming.

Prize money has gone up for many of the games we label as eSports. Not necessarily at individual tournaments, but the quantity of tournaments and leagues that are able to sustain themslves has increased dramatically with the success of new competitive games. But prize money is only awarded to players If only winners got paid in sports, the Columbus Blue Jackets would be one broke-ass organization.

This is where sponsors and streaming come in. Sponsors, whether they be sponsor teams like vVv, TeamLiquid, Evil Geniuses, Complexity, Quantic Gaming, or Dignitas, or products/organizations like Red Bull, Stride Gum, or Dr. Pepper, take off a chunk of the financial burden on players by paying their way to the tournaments they attend. I'm not entirely sure about the details these sponsor teams go through, but on several recent podcasts (vVv's Loser's Bracket and Live On Three to name a couple), eSports personalities like djWHEAT, SirScoots, and LordJerith have mentioned that sponsors are actually able to make money off eSports these days and give a livelihood not only to the players, but also to coaches, commentators, and even little guys like me who simply write about games.

This, of course, trickles down to players. Team houses are springing up in the American eSports scene. Team houses are a staple among Korean StarCraft players, but only recently have American teams and players become able to afford the investment. In StarCraft, Evil Geniuses have a team house. In League of Legends, Team Solo Mid have their own place in New York. Even in Halo, pro player Naded is attempting to reach out and start a team house. For the latter two teams, which aren't under any major sponsorships like EG, they are paying for their house through one of the best things to happen to eSports: Streaming.

Thanks to organizations like Twitch.TV and own3d.TV, players are able to sustain themselves financially through streaming. For more popular games like StarCraft or League of Legends, the income is quite a bit more substantial than, say, Halo Reach (where the most popular pro streamer, Ninja, rarely reaches 1000 viewers...compared to the several thousand to over-nine-thousand of League of Legends pro players.) However, players are able to partner with these two companies and include advertisements on their stream, and for each view (or thousand views) the ads get, the players earn money, simply for playing (and practicing) their game.

This has a doubly beneficial effect since it allows players to invest more time into practice, which ups the level of competition, which can gain more fans for the game, which can increase stream numbers. Players that don't have to work a full or part-time job to sustain their livelihood and can instead just invest their time into practicing are given a leg up on their competition. It also serves as a way for players and fans to interact with one another, through streamers offering community rewards, or through simply talking in chats for the streams. In this manner, players can earn more fans for themselves, meaning more retained stream viewers, meaning more revenue.

Through streaming and the growth of sponsor teams, players are getting larger exposure and are finally becoming able to support themselves outside of tournament rewards.

So, I've made my three points. And I know it's not the standard argument people use in the "is professional gaming a sport or not?" -- but I am of the opinion that as long as you're arguing about the physical demand of the game (which, professional gaming DOES have, mind you) they're only arguing semantics, and the argument will go nowhere.

I feel sports need to be defined not by the skills required, but by the goal to be brought out through the competitions. The amount of competition and skill (physical or otherwise) required to compete is not particularly arguable for competitive gaming as a whole (though some individual games may be argued). However, as competitive gaming is growing, the focus of tournaments is shifting toward the spectators, much like many of the sports we've known and loved for the last century, and the competitors of these games are becoming able to focus on it as a career. This paradigm shift is what I believe (and debate) qualifies competitive gaming as a sport.

If you really have that much trouble with the name, because you think gamers are all unathletic nerdsacks and nothing they ever do could possibly be qualified as a "sport", at least acknowledge our collective banner and rallying cry of eSports. This call goes out to members of the FGC as well -- I know you separate yourself from eSports (and, based off precedent, I don't blame you) -- but for the good of both our communities, we need to unite and show off the power of competitive gaming and eSports.

Look forward to my next Audley Enough...whenever it may be. You know how few and far between these can be. However, I think I shall be writing again soon, with a deeper look at how games need to be designed for Spectators in order to be successful tournament games these days. I wonder why that is...

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