There have been many attempts to turn video games into professional sports in the West:
- Cyber Athelete Professional League
- Major League Gaming
And many others have tried to create a framework and a support base to enable professional gaming in North America – but it had little effect either on the consumer or on the industry.
Why is that? When will pro gaming come into its own? Unfortunately there are at least four major issues holding back professional gaming, some of which have easy answers and some not.
The first major issue facing professional gaming is perhaps the hardest one to address: The rate at which games change. We produce new video games very quickly. Games tend to grow stale after only a few years, new technology or simply new games push old titles out of the public consciousness and this makes it remarkably difficult to establish a sport.
If you think about chess or go or even professional athletics like baseball, you’ll find that consistency is a major element in their success. By having the core mechanics remain relatively stable over decades even centuries, all sorts of ancillary fields grow up around them that improve their viability as a sport: Professional commentating, coaching, etc… These aren’t things that involve overnight but they are key elements in what make up a modern sport. Additionally, this consistencies allow these sports to be multi-generational affairs. Parents passed the love of the game on to their kids and with that love comes fond remembrance and the growth of tradition.
Play alone doesn’t make a sport, not the way we think of it today. And if we forget that while trying to build professional gaming, we’re never gonna be able to create anything lasting. This is why turning a specific game like Counter-Strike or Starcraft into a sport has been more successful than just trying to turn video gaming into a sport. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do so, we just have to find an answer to the consistency question and that answer is not easy to come by when you’re dealing with something as broad and consumer focus as games.
The second major issue facing professional gaming is accessibility. There’s a lot we can learn from the rise of professional poker when talking about how to turn video gaming into a pro sport, and one of those things is that everyone has to understand how to play and everyone has to feel like they have a chance to win.
Most people don’t realize that televised poker has been available in different forms for decades, but it never captured the popular imagination until two things happened. First, internet poker became easily accessible. Internet poker fed the dream of being a professional poker player. People believe that someday they too might be able to be a card shark, living the romanticized fantasy of making their money at the table and enjoying the fast life promised and that perpetual Vegas Twilight. It’s the same as the kids a dream of one day becoming a professional basketball player or a football star. Without this aspirational element, without this dream, sports couldn’t exist as the cultural phenomenon we think of them as today.
Many people know they’ll never probably be a world-famous baseball hero or even a decked-out main tank for the best guild on their server. But the ability to think that it’s possible, this dream of actually being center stage, allows people to enjoy following the exploits of those who are. It allows us to put ourselves in their shoes, or at least to be content supporting them and cheering them on as our own little way of contributing.
Services like Virgin Gaming are already trying to enable the dream of being able to make a living playing games from your home with peer-to-peer waitering. I’m not sure how comfortable and with that route, as it’s a whole bunch of issues I don’t want to walk into. But hopefully it’s the first step toward truly accessible centralized online tournament play where at any time, day or night, you can put in a few dollars and enter into an automatic mini tournament with real prizes generated from the entrance fees. When every college has at least one kid making their living off games, I think you’ll see the interest in programming vastly increase.
The second thing we can learn from the rise of pro poker is the importance of helping people understand the game you want them to be a fan of. If you look at old tapes of televised poker tournaments you’ll just see video footage of the hands being played out with commenting targeted at other professionals. It’s not that interesting to watch unless you’re a pro poker player yourself. But if you look at pro poker on TV today, you’ll see that every show starts with an explanation of how Texas Hold’em work and all the complexities of the game are laid out in front of the viewer: The percent chance to win, who’s got what hand, and so on. Even a beginner can enjoy the drama of the game as much as someone who could understand all those things on the fly just from looking at the table. Most video games on the other hand tend to appear remarkably complex to the casual observer and high-level players often baffling and hard to follow even to regular players. I mean I can scrape my way through a starcraft campaigner up street fighter to match but watching a pro match and one of those is like seeing a completely different game being played. If we don’t make video games more accessible to the spectator, pro gaming is never gonna go much past what it is today, which leads us to the next topic which is probably the prickliest.
Designing for spectators, NOT for pro gamers. I know this is probably something many people are going to get up in arms about. But pro gamers are NOT the important target audience if you’re trying to make gaming a mass-market sport. Fans are. And fans won’t be playing, they’ll be observing. For people to play a game at a professional level, it has to be a deep game with lots of room for new strategies and ways to improve that play, but it doesn’t have to be infinitely deep. It doesn’t have to be the hardest core experience ever created. For people to watch a game though, it has to be fun to watch, and that’s something we never ever consider when making games ever. Never once has a game designer worked on a game where the question of what the experience would be like for a spectator had seriously come up.
It’s something designers are gonna have to learn from scratch because they’ve never done it before. And unfortunately, the professional gaming community generally seems to be pretty vocal about wanting harder-core games, with higher levels of complexity that require greater levels of skill to be competitive at. Companies designing games for the programmer market actually do listen to what the community has to say and they cater their designs to it. You can really see this in a lot of the defense of the ancients type games that come out of the last few years. And that’s great if what you’re looking for as a pro gamer is a game you’ll have the most fun playing, but if you’re looking for a game people will actually want to watch you play as a sport, that can’t be the route we take.
Luckily, here too we can take a lesson from poker. Designing for spectators is only partially about the mechanics of the game. While we certainly do need to consider what the games like to watch when we’re crafting the rules, we can also take into account that what the viewer watches and what the player sees can be two radically different things. The whole camp and poker changed the sport from being unwatchable to being a lot of fun something by letting the spectator see what cards every player had. This helped create the tension and the excitement the game needed to be a spectator sport. It allows viewers to feel smart and bite their nails wondering if their favorite players would fall for the bluff or if they risk it all on a good hand that was clearly beat. Televised poker has a lot of other tricks to make it more watchable too, like only showing the exciting hands and having the players break up the play to tell anecdotes or give advice, which brings us to the human touch.
Sports are about humanity. They’re more about the people who play the games than they are the games those people play. Without the human drama that goes into modern sports, there wouldn’t be the sort of mass audience affairs they are today. If pro gaming is ever going to succeed, we’re gonna have to find our own stars who struggles in front of the screen and away from it can be compelling to avid fans of hardcore gaming and two people who may never have hopped in a multiplayer match in their life. Being good at the sport will obviously be a requirement but it’s not going to be enough by itself. Being a human being worth caring about or worth hating is what will make someone a pro gaming star, and pro gaming stars are a big part of what will make programming a success.
So there it is for better or for worse. If we want to see programming really take off there are a lot of problems were going the face. We’re gonna have to find a solution for the fanatic pace at which we churn through games. We’re gonna have to make the games we do choose to play as sports more accessible to the world at large. We’re going to have to learn to design games that are meant to be watched rather than just played. And we’re going to have to grow into our own as personalities that have more to them than just the games they play.