Just yesterday, co-founder of Riot Games Brandon Beck shared his immense e-sports optimism with GamesIndustry International. Going far further than everyone else who has insisted that competitive gaming will become a mainstream mammoth in an always-elusive few short years, Beck aimed for even higher stars, stating, “I fundamentally believe that e-sports will be an Olympic event in my lifetime.”
An Olympic event. As in the Olympics. The real every-four-years deal.
I’m sorry, Brandon Beck, but I have to disagree.
Or, at least I have to disagree to some degree, and simply from a spectator’s perspective. While I can’t comment on the satisfaction derived from being an audience member for an RTS like Starcraft II or, even better, a MOBA like Riot Games’ own League of Legends (that humble title you may know as the most-played PC game in the world), I had my first real experience watching a Major League Gaming fighting tournament last week.
Actually, I should edit that to read: “I had my first real experience watching a portion of a Major League Gaming fighting tournament last week.” Because e-sports are bloody boring.
Despite my passion and dedication to the video games industry, e-sports never struck me as something interesting, as something I should be watching. Regardless, I stumbled upon an upgrade code last Friday to stream MLG’s Summer Fighter Arena in glorious HD. Free from the silly Friday night distractions of maintaining an active social life that plague so many of my friends, I popped some popcorn, input my VIP key on MajorLeagueGaming.com, and connected an HDMI cable to my television to confirm the seriousness of the situation at hand. If it isn’t in-your-face plain-as-day evident yet, I was ready to enter the world of watching e-sports for absolute enjoyment.
And I left less than a half hour later.
Because of poor planning on my part, I jumped in a tad too late and the Soul Calibur games had already begun. While this misstep no doubt detracted from my ultimate understanding of the event before me, I didn’t believe it would be too much of a setback. After all, missing the opening kickoff of Monday Night Football doesn’t ruin the entire night, and neither does skipping the first game or two of a tennis match. In both cases, it’s only a matter of minutes before you’re all caught up again with what’s going on. Surely an MLG tournament would play out in a similar user-friendly easy-entry fashion, right?
I’ll admit my tardiness set this pioneer voyage off on the wrong foot, but I would still conclude that this e-sport is destined to retain its niche status even if I had shown up on time. Avoiding any ancillary arguments about a restricted spectator experience solely because of the interactive intentions of gaming, I can use my own observations to effectively squash the ridiculous expectations surrounding the sport.
For one, the players are just that: players. Not athletes, but players. Gaming at the professional level requires such a significant amount of mental concentration that no expense is spared on physical presentation. Chess is valid comparison, and that timeless battle of wits failed to achieve Olympic success in its first experimental outing in 1924. Without raw emotions, everyone is boring. I saw no sweat, strain, or excitement, only dead faces focused on a screen. Should I cheer for the lifeless guy on the left playing as Viola or cheer for the equally-lifeless guy on the right playing as Viola? With no defined personality, no visible traits or standout characteristics, I simply couldn’t care about two kids with no energy.
Crazy as it sounds, the gameplay itself might have been even less engaging than the emotionless men controlling it. Not a rabid fan of fighting games in any respect, I found the rounds nearly impossible to follow. Oh, I’m competent enough to identify who has the upper hand in an isolated fight, but I’m oblivious to the subtleties that make these gamers superior to any other guys kicking back on couches around my college. Guy On The Left won this round…but what does it mean? Who’s in the lead overall, and how many rounds does it take to win? Is there a tournament bracket on display somewhere showing the order of operations, the climb to the coveted championship game? How many players are in that bracket, and which game am I watching now?
Are you beginning to see my problem here?
God-awful commentating didn’t come close to helping this lost cause, either. Whether it was redundantly repeating the obvious (“Looks like he’s hoping for a ring-out here…”) or relying on unnecessary references to past play (“This is very different than his usual fight style…”), this narration added nothing to my entry-level understanding of the sport before me. If anything, the dialogue only made me feel like I should already know what’s going on, like I’d wandered into a world I didn’t belong and should get out before anybody notices. And so I did.
I want to imagine I just had a bad first impression, that most matches are exciting edge-of-your-seat clashes of the ages between the baddest boys and girls in the game, but those dull few minutes left me doubting. As I said earlier, maybe another genre is a totally different breed of beast, one more transparently grueling (not to mention popcorn-worthy). Still, I saw no Olympic future in that experience from last week, even if new events are chosen without regard to spectator appeal. And so I have to disagree with you, Brandon Beck.
Now for the sake of less airtime spared for floor gymnastics, let’s pray that I’m wrong.