Video Games and Competitive Sports

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about a few games, League of Legends (LoL) and Overwatch being the big two, and whether their spectator sport efforts will succeed. I don’t think they will outside the niche of people who play these games. This is why.

For reference, LoL is a 3/4 view game wherein little characters move on a big map. Overwatch is a first person shooter. Both have tactical and strategic elements.

Competitive events including physical sports like baseball, motorsports such as racing, and even pageantry such as beauty contests, can only get watchers if the object of watching is a person. In baseball the spectators watch the players. In motorsports spectators watch the drivers moreso than the cars. If you follow a race, people talk about Bob driving the ***** car, but it’s almost always Bob first. Beauty pageants of course are people moving around. All are personal. The spectators watch a person compete. These contests/games/events have spectators that do not compete themselves.

Non-video games where the humans are the players but not the object of interest do not do well finding spectators outside their player bases. The oldest of which is chess, and in chess, 99-98% of spectators play chess. Drone racing has the classical problem, and 95% of spectators in the stands are drone pilots. The other 5% are wives and girlfriends (I’d like to include boyfriends and husbands for inclusiveness, but if you go to a drone race, it’s all wives and girlfriends to a rounding error). In these competitions, where pieces that are not people compete, the spectators are people who play themselves. The exceptions, wives and girlfriends, are connected to players.

I cannot think of an exception. Competitive events wherein the object of watching is not a human do not have significant fanbases outside of the player-base.

Paying attention to LoL and Overwatch, one comes back to this rule. Both games are huge. Riot Games claims 27 million unique players play LoL every day, 80 million monthly. Overwatch claims 40 million active players. These are huge player bases. But these are also hard limits. 95% of LoL spectators play or have played, and in my personal experience, that number is closer to 99.***%.

I think it’s a matter of narrative stakes. Let’s compare with chess.

Chess is not necessarily more complicated than soccer or baseball, but there are no stakes for the human. If a piece dies, the player is fine. The human loses nothing. Even when people artificially try to raise the stakes with prizes and national honor, we do not see the players lose.

Sports players get hurt a lot. Their blood, sweat, and tears create a direct risk. They’re putting themselves on the line, and even when we don’t see the person such as in motorsports, the risks are high because fatalities are not rare. The event raises the stakes. In beauty pageants, the contestants are judged personally. Spectators look at the contestants, relate to the contestants, and there’s a certain understanding of the stakes there.

LoL has no stakes. ‘Death’ can happen ten or more times a game. It becomes irrelevant. The human being we try to relate to is sitting at a computer.

Observed news coverage of esports. All of the promotion shots will be of the human players, never the characters. The video game is advertised with characters; the sport facet is advertised with humans.

And yet when we watch, the humans are removed from the action beyond reasonable interpretation. In a race car, the driver turns the wheel back and forth, and that’s easy to follow. Furthermore the spectators watch the car and know there is a person in there. In esports, the player manipulates a mouse and keyboard so minutely a spectator cannot derive control from the inputs, and the spectator watches a battle completely without real, human people.

I think this provides two levels of restriction. The top level is the narrative elements of risk and relatability, wherein the lack of a human being physically in the action, striving, keeps people out. The bottom level is the nature of the event, and the restrictions that make watching it difficult, too difficult for most people.

Let’s talk a moment about drone racing. It is incredibly boring. Small lights move through illuminated obstacles almost too fast to see. Following the action is nearly impossible. Even with an onboard video feed, as a spectator I couldn’t figure out what was going on until several races had passed and still rarely felt comfortable with my knowledge of the event. The competitors stood still, moving thumbsticks, and staring into their own screens. One cannot visually discern any stress or risk.

Watching a LoL game is maddening. Even as a player, half the struggle is knowing what’s going on where. Watching a game I’m not a player in means that the event is a mindless display of flashing lights and special effects. The game effectively has three arenas wherein four battles go on simultaneously. Imagine watching a basketball event with three courts, games proceeding simultaneously on all three courts, bleachers between the courts, and the game taking place on the bleachers too. One cannot watch it on one TV screen. LoL is impossible to watch because you’ve only got one camera, and if you want to see something, you have to hope nothing else is going on at the same time. Most significantly, if we’re being honest, the game is half an hour to an hour long with no set ending AND NO BATHROOM BREAKS. NONE. Unlike racing wherein at least you know about when you can go, you never really have a good idea because the game becomes increasingly unstable as time goes by and sudden endings become more easy to accomplish.

One might note that in motorsports the multiple objects of interest problem arises. Often the most interesting part of a race is the battle for fifth place or so, not first. Isn’t this the same as LoL’s multiple arenas?

Yes. THIS IS THE WORST PART OF WATCHING MOTORSPORT. Of course it is the element that esports replicate.

Watching an esport event is difficult to watch, a test of the bladder to endure, and frustrating. I firmly believe this is because the event is not constrained by humans.

Thus watching and understanding requires skills, skills one can only learn by playing. There is no emotional impact because even death is merely a ~45 second timer. One cannot relate to the entities doing the competition, because what you watch to discern who wins is a non-human avatar. If you do watch the people, you’ll see nothing that will give away the outcome.

I cannot see long term success, and cannot think of a comparable example that does. The only path to mainstream popularity I can imagine is an event where the engaged player base is so large that it becomes a major market in and of itself. They’re on the way with tens of millions of players, but a typical NFL game has ~20 million viewers. That doesn’t count the number of people who follow the sport but obviously don’t watch every game, or the people who only tune in when they’re at a bar or a party. I don’t think the latter of those demographics exist for esports.

I stopped playing LoL effectively years ago and lost all interest in pro-play almost simultaneously. I doubt I am alone.