Tropes vs eSports

Tropes–or at least the modern idea of them–have been getting a bad rap lately. They are written off as crutches and cliches, when really it’s only overused tropes that end being cliches. Which is what makes a cliche in the first place. A trope is simply a tool, a sort of shorthand or symbolism between authors and audiences, and like any tool, it’s how it is used that gives it meaning.

I like the idea of tropes for more than fiction, because it’s more direct than pointing vaguely at some sort of cultural osmosis, but it works the same either way. It’s relevant for eSports because we are reaching a point where there are people interested in watching games that they have less (or even no) interest in playing. Ten or fifteen years ago that was not really the case. Then people who watched the games were the same people who were playing the games, partly because there was way less streaming going on, but also because they generally had to have played the games to be interested in watching them, or even know that there were competitions to be watched.

These days games that want to have competitive communities try much harder to integrate spectators, either directly through the game’s clients, or with replays, or by advertising, sponsoring, and even running leagues and tournaments. For now that’s mostly because they still think of the audience as being the same group as their general player population, but that’s not always the case, and it certainly wont stay that way.

Ease of Access

When I first started watching competitive gaming there were few methods that were both viable and easy. The barrier for entry was quite high. To watch a Quake game I needed to download a replay, same with Warcraft 3 and DotA games later on. That meant I needed to have the games installed, and those replays were completely self-serve: the viewer had to control the camera, when they could (Quake replays were limited to the viewpoint of the player who recorded them.), and if I wanted shoutcast commentary–if that was even available–I would have to download and run that concurrently with a different program and sync it up with the action. Of course, if a new version of the game was released that would often invalidate or cause errors in older replays, so a separate install or version switcher was also a necessity. And all of that was dependant on knowing which 3rd party sites had replays and commentary to begin with, and they were also all after the fact. It was possible to watch live Quake through QTV, but that was a whole different set of problems. For a game like Warcraft 3 (and DotA), the only way to spectate live was to be in the game as a spectator.

Fighting games were even worse, with very little video unless someone dragged a camera to a tournament, and pretty much no commentary at all. Viewers were expected to know what was going on, both mechanically, and in the player’s heads, and to this day many competitive players don’t think watching fighting game videos is very instructive or helpful (past learning what combos and setups people are using)–though that’s also mostly because it can be difficult to get into the player’s heads, and the actual game should be going on there.

The one exception, of course, was Brood War, where the games were being broadcast on Korean TV. Certain enterprising individuals (RIP Jon747) would upload recordings of the Korean broadcasts, but that often meant blurry video and Korean commentary. Which was always entertaining, but not very informative to non-speakers. Even the English commentaries depended on just muting the Korean language track and speaking over it. Yes, some of my fondest competitive gaming memories, as a viewer, were a result of that, but it was all more effort than most people were willing to put into watching or broadcasting.

All that started to change with YouTube and other video sites, which made it easier to post long VODs, and then HD videos, and then streaming sites came along, and everyone started to get faster connections with better bandwidth, but even a couple of years ago the only way to get replays of smaller fighting game tournaments and gatherings was if someone showed up with a laptop or camera to record and then upload them, and that was still a task that required hours of editing, transcoding, and uploading. And still none of it was live.

Nowadays it’s as easy as tuning into a Twitch stream to watch high-definition video and commentary of any live tournament. Being a viewer has never required less effort, and it’s only going to get easier.

How to Spectate

Concurrent with the easing of requirements for being a spectator has been the general increase in people watching games, which should be obvious. But it has also changed how some games, mostly the competitive ones, are marketed, and how they’re broadcast.

Used to be that people doing commentary for a game were just as much part of the community as their viewers. They were doing niche work, and they knew it, so they spoke directly to each other. There was very little effort made to be transparent or welcoming, or even polite most of the time. They weren’t looking to attract a wider audience, only to retain the viewers that already existed. That changed drastically when streams became the go-to source for gameplay and sponsors started to become more involved. When money was on the line there was finally incentive to clean things up and start looking to attract new viewers. Flaming and swearing started to die down as there was always pressure to keep a stream friendly for all ages, and any instance of off-colour speech was spread rapidly by the so-called stream monsters. Suddenly there was a difference between what someone could or would say on a stream and what they would say live at an event, because the stream audience and the players were no longer the same.

Commentary then started to lean more toward being informative, because they weren’t speaking to the people who were part of the tournaments anymore, they were aiming for a much wider audience, and most of them were new to competitive games. They had to tell players what they were watching in order to keep them watching, because even though it was easier to find video of competitive games, viewers still needed to know what was going on if they hoped to get anything out of it.

Soon enough these YouTube VODs and streams became a secondary source of advertisement for new games. Starcraft 2’s beta was widely streamed, and before that there were VODs of test matches to show off current builds, a tradition Blizzard has kept up, and other developers have emulated.

What’s most interesting about these is the way commentary has evolved even further. Where it was originally only speaking to players who already knew what they were watching, and then changed to speak to players who wanted to know what they were watching, with each new year and each new game it becomes more about speaking to viewers who really only needed to know how what they were watching was different from what they already know. Notice in that Heroes of the Storm video how very little time is spent on explaining the game’s objectives, it’s genre, or specific mechanics, unless they needed to be differentiated from the norm. Because a level of knowledge is now expected. Because the game is built around tropes that viewers are now expected to know. They can make a 20 minute video about a game that nobody watching has played and not have to spend 18 of those minutes describing what a hero is, why there are creeps spawning and rushing down lanes, and that the game is lost when a team loses its home structure.

Each new game lays down more groundwork, establishes more tropes, and makes it easier for the next game to find an audience.

But that also means that each new game has an audience for whom owning and playing that game is less of a requirement for watching it.

How to Broadcast

I suspect this is one of the prime reasons for most developers taking a more hands-on approach to their competitive communities. As far back as Brood War it was proved that an audience of non-players was possible–and probably even required–for a game to become successful as an eSport. The problem, of course, was that the developers still want to make money. I watched Brood War games for years, and though I did own a copy of the game, I felt no desire to start playing again. And KeSPA didn’t care, because they were making their money from viewers, not players (they also didn’t care because I wasn’t watching on Korean TV, but that’s besides the point). It was basically the same situation with Starcraft 2, though it didn’t hold my attention nearly as long.

As the tropes become more well known, as the games become easier and easier for non-player to become viewers while remaining non-players, there will need to be ways of making money from them. That starts the same way sports already do it, with rating and advertisement revenue, but it should eventually extend the same way sports do, with merchandise, both physical and virtual. Valve has gotten a jump start there, by selling team pennants that players can equip to show support during tournament matches, the same way someone might show up to a football game wearing a jersey. The next step in eSports development, at least for the developers, will probably be a bigger emphasis on all sorts of out-of-game purchases and tie-ins. It makes sense for them to want to make money as directly as possible from each fan, and it should be natural enough for fans to want to support their favourite players and teams.

In a much broader perspective, this positions video games, and eSports, to eventually take a cultural foothold that can put them on the map permanently. I had to play Brood War in order to understand competitive Brood War, and I played Warcraft 3 and DotA before I watched either. I played Quake and many different fighting games for years, even competitively. At the time that was the requirement needed to be a spectator. A decade or so later I can watch Starcraft 2 without ever having played more than its singleplayer campaign, as can many others. Most spectators don’t need to be told the reason for basic fireball-uppercut spacing games in Street Fighter 4 anymore, and that will hold true for the next Street Fighter game, and every other fighting game released in that mould. A new League of Legends clone only needs to tell viewers how it’s different from League before they can be expected to understand it. As time goes by each genre’s norms become more firmly established, their tropes become more well known, and eventually we may reach a point where the rules to fighting games or a resource management RTS games will be as well known as the rules to many sports, because–just like sports–everyone will have played or watched them in the past.

There are apparently 70 million people who have registered accounts with Riot, and millions more with registered DotA 2 accounts. Even considering all the smurfs in there, that’s way more people who know some basic rules to the genre than 10 years ago, and that number is only going to grow. Each one of those is a potential viewer.

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