I talked a bit with some folks on Twitter recently about the popularity of eSports, and I wanted to expand on my thoughts a bit about the subject. I really love the concept of eSports and I’ve watched some tournaments here and there, but overall, I’m generally disappointed with what I watch. This isn’t because the casters suck, or the players are boring, or anything like that. It’s because of how inaccessible eSports are to non-player audiences. Those who don’t play or understand the eSport being broadcasted won’t enjoy it, and I was surprised to discover that this isn’t a problem that a community can fix. This is a game design problem.
Let’s take a look at arguably the two most popular eSports right now: Riot Games’ League of Legends and Valve’s Dota 2. Both of these games draw in hundreds of thousands of viewers during their biggest tournaments, and LoL even sold out the Staples Center for one of their international finals. Both LoL and Dota have very dedicated followers, but they’re also both extremely complex games, even on an amateur level. To be considered a respectable player in LoL, you have to be level 30, which is a feat that takes hundreds of hours to reach. In both of these games, you have to have a basic understanding of almost every playable character in the game and their abilities (a roster that features over 100 characters) to play on even an intermediate level. The basic gameplay for either of these games can be explained in under a minute, which is great, but understanding the significance of this gameplay takes a while.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re watching a match of League with a friend who’s interested in the game but hasn’t played it. The match begins, and four players on one team go into bottom lane to start farming. It’s hard to explain why this is a horrible strategy to them in a way they’ll quickly understand. You’d have to explain the concept of farming to them, then you’d have to explain why champion X and Y need to go to the top lane, then you’d need to explain team composition, etc. Matches pretty much always last for at least a half hour, so there’s a lot of downtime to explain some rules to those interested, but there are always important events occurring in a professional-level match, so you’ll be spending the whole time talking to your friend instead of devoting your attention to the match. This is also under the pretense that a non-player won’t have any questions at all.
Compare that to a sport with simple rules like Soccer. (I’m not choosing a “big four” American sport here because they’re engrained in our culture, which is a much larger discussion). You can talk about how a game’s formation matchup will be one-sided, and all you have to say is “The team with X formation leaves some open spaces here and here.” You can explain why a player needed to slide tackle at a certain moment, and all you need to say is “They probably wouldn’t have gotten the penalty, and they would have the In a MOBA, it’s always a chain that leads up to major objectives. Everything needs to be explained, since the sport is so complex. This is going to be the most controversial statement in this post, but in eSports, complexity is very, very bad. The simpler a sport is to explain, the easier it is to have that sport appeal to a larger audience. If you’re a player, you already have a decent understand of gameplay and strategy. This is why the eSport with the most players is always the most popular eSport.
Complexity is the fatal flaw of eSports. Without clear strategy and rules that a non-player can understand, it’s nigh-impossible for a game to gain viewership unless the player base of the game increases. The best eSport will have a clear objective that doesn’t confuse viewers, but enough strategy to continuously challenge even the best players of the sport. One of the best eSports I’ve seen is KoalaBeast’s TagPro, which is a simple capture-the-flag game with tons of depth for professional players. Another one is Action Button Studio’s upcoming Videoball, which is best described as “The fastest RTS ever”. Even Counter-Strike, an already popular eSport is very close to fitting this definition, but the intricacies of strategy have distanced it from non-player viewers.
It’s extremely hard to develop a game with the credo of “easy to learn, impossible to master”. That’s what eSports needs to break out, and without that, it will forever be a community by players and for players. It will be exclusive. Exclusivity is bad, but you’ve already read a thousand words from me, so I won’t make you read a thousand more. Yet.
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