A confession: One of the geekiest things I do is watch professional StarCraft 2 matches. It takes a little learning to understand what’s going on, just like any sport out there, but it’s really quite exciting when you begin to understand what those guys are doing and just how good they really are. So I’d like to take a little time today to talk about e-sports and professional gaming, specifically some things that may be holding them back, and some possible solutions to those problems.
On one hand, it’s a little silly to suggest that much is “holding pro gaming back” just because it’s not that big in the U.S. In Korea and parts of Europe, pro gaming is a legitimate professional competition. Just because rugby isn’t big in the U.S. doesn’t mean it’s not internationally significant, and the same is true (albeit to a far lesser extent) with pro gaming. Pro gaming is still in its infancy, however, which means it’s still working out all the kinks as it fights for relevancy, and ultimately profitability, on a world stage.
Problem 1: What Game Are We Playing?
The biggest issue, as I see it, is that the game is changing too rapidly and drastically. In any sport there are tweaks to the rule book from season to season. The NFL outlawed the “horse collar” tackle a few years ago, for instance. Relative to the minor tweaks that get made every year, that was a fairly big change. But it didn’t change the nature of the game entirely. It’s not as through touchdowns were suddenly worth more points. Or can you imagine if football teams were limited in the substitutions they were allowed to make, like in soccer? That would completely change the nature of the game. Sorry, slight digression.
But that’s the sort of change that pro gaming experiences every few years. I don’t mean that there are different types of competitive video games, from Real Time Strategy (RTS) games like StarCraft 2, to fighting games, to First Person Shooters (FPS) like Halo or Call of Duty. That’s like comparing baseball to football to ping pong. No, I mean the changes within a particular genre, such as RTSs.
StarCraft 2 is probably the biggest pro game right now. But that game, as a platform for competition, has only existed for a few years. Before that, it might have been Warcraft 3, or the original StarCraft. The long and short of it is that there is no consistent platform (not as in a type of game console, but referring to a certain structure on which something may be built) on which pro gaming may be based. Baseball, for instance, has been around for over 100 years, and despite some relatively major rule changes, like adding the designated hitter in the AL and lowering the pitcher’s mound in the ’60s, the game has stayed fundamentally the same. StarCraft 2 periodically makes patches and alterations to the game, much like seasonal rule tweaks, but go back 10, 15 years and people were playing an entirely different game. Iterating on a game, like the Heart of the Swarm expansion for StarCraft 2 will in a year or two, whenever it releases, can keep a game fresh (the rough equivalent of a new generation of players entering the professional scene in physical sports). But that’s a change that’s easy to understand. A new game entirely taking center stage is like playing football with 15 players to a team instead of 11. Which leads me into the next problem:
Problem 2: Lack of a Governing Body & Commercialism
I’m not here to argue that the MLB, the NBA, the NFL, or any other professional sports association isn’t making money off their business. What I am arguing, however, is that, as governing bodies of sport, it is in the best business interest of those leagues to perpetuate that sport as people know it. What’s good for their business generally corresponds for what’s good with the maintenance of the sport.
In pro gaming, this is much reduced. Blizzard, the makers of StarCraft 2, have a vested interest in making the best game they can, and in making it in a way that caters to high-level competitive play. But they also have a vested interest in periodically altering the game in significant ways. When they release Heart of the Swarm, every StarCraft 2 player is going to buy it. Blizzard has some credibility given their track record, but players will see Heart of the Swarm as the natural next progression of pro gaming simply because of popular appeal, not because a unified authority has deemed it best for the professional RTS scene.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Wilson, the company that makes footballs for the NFL, owned the league. Again, I am not claiming that this is a perfect analogy to Blizzard’s placement within pro gaming, but I think it’s a reasonable one for reasons I will further explain shortly. If Wilson owned the NFL, they would have an interest in altering the football used in small but significant ways every few years. Can you imagine if the NFL suddenly adopted a football that was three inches longer? Every college, every high school, every kid with dreams of becoming a pro, not to mention nearly every team in the league would suddenly have need of buying new footballs. Wilson makes bank every time they make a football design change.
Now, pro gaming lacks an overarching governing body like the NFL. There’s no one to say, if they wanted to, that StarCraft 2 was good enough and pro gaming is not going to adopt Heart of the Swarm for competitive play. Blizzard still might make the expansion for the casual players who find new units and a new story campaign fun, but it would not sell nearly as many copies. Companies, Wilson and otherwise, make footballs according to regulations laid down by the NFL, not the other way around.
I do not mean to say that it’s a bad thing that amateurs have access to the same games as the pros played under the same rules. Indeed, it is imperative that they do. We can’t imagine an NBA without high schools and colleges playing basketball under basically the same rules (yes, timing and such works differently, but you still have to dribble the ball, the court is the same size and shape, etc.)
With that said, let’s look at a couple of possible changes that could improve the state of pro gaming.
1: Create a Unified Governing Body
Yes, this is easier said than done, particularly with the vast difference in the sort of games that are being played competitively, but it really needs to happen. Regional and nationwide administrators are great, but perhaps more than any established sport, gaming needs an international governing body, like FIFA is for soccer (football) around the world. Gaming is, by nature, something that does not require physical proximity for competition. Two teams must converge on a field to play soccer. Two people must run on the same track to race. But, connection difficulties aside, two competitors for a video game can participate from anywhere in the world. Other sports are just getting around to solidifying international governance, but pro gaming must get out front on it.
2: Establish a “Pro Game”
Using games that are created as commercial products is hamstringing pro gaming. Up until now, the rapid change of video game technology has more or less prevented the creation of a game that could exist for twenty years or more. But we’re past that point now. Sure, there can be updates to graphics, physics, etc. as computing power increases, but these are likely to be marginal changes, not the sort of difference between games that populated the 8-bit era and today’s titles. Whatever the governing body of pro gaming turns out to be, it needs to end its reliance on commercial developers to drive pro gaming forward. Rather, it should adopt and license a single game per genre, or better yet, commission the development of a new game built from the ground up to be the professional game. This game could be updated and tweaked at the governing body’s discretion, distributed commercially, even. But it would be fitting a different market niche than your typical consumer game. It would be intended for professional competition. It needn’t have characters, story modes, or much of the peripheral presentation elements that commercial games require. This isn’t to say that it should be devoid of aesthetics. The NFL wants their uniforms to look good so that people will be more likely to tune in. Sounds corny, but it’s a simple fact of marketing.
A singular pro game would be able to begin establishing a legacy of play like the MLB or NFL. You can compare a 1950’s baseball player to a player today. It’s harder to compare a StarCraft 2 pro to someone who played an entirely different game, even if it was another RTS.
I haven’t really touched on much in the way of marketing. It wasn’t really the point of this post, but accessibility and public perception are issues that pro gaming will have to continue to work out as well. Much like the X-Games had to teach people to understand skateboarding, pro gaming will have to teach new fans how to understand the experience they’re selling. Pro gaming has many challenges to face before it might really be considered “mainstream,” but it is growing. If you’re at all interested in any of this, look for highlights on youtube or check out some StarCraft 2 replays here. If you’ve got other suggestions for pro gaming, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.