Growing Pains – A focus on the spectator
One of the most common themes in discussions I have about developing e-sports is that quite often, the spectator experience is horrible. Downtime between games, bad observing, game disconnects, and audio issues are just a few select issues that I have heard about this year. Not only is the lack of a focus on the audience one of the biggest disservices to the community that e-sports producers are currently making, but it is a major hurdle that, until addressed, will continue to hold back the industry.
A casual examination at professional spectator sports makes it quite clear where the focus of the production is on: the spectator. The viewer gets fancy scoreboard animations, player statistics popping up on screen, icons and lines that appear on the field to mark important regions, etc. All of these no doubt cost tons of money to develop, but do they help the players at all? Absolutely not – these features are for the spectators only.
American football, my go-to spectator sport example, does a great job providing a good spectator experience. The regular camera angle displays most, if not all, of the players, zoomed out with defense on one side, and offense on the other. As the play develops, the camera man will zoom in and pan out as necessary, making sure to capture key elements on field, namely the quarterback and the ball. Once the play develops, the camera can jump to important areas. For example, if there is a pass, the screen will quickly pan over so that the spectator can see the result of the pass – was it caught, and by whom?
Additional information is then provided after the end of the play. Was there a key move that allowed the play to succeed, like a well-executed block, or pump fake?
For example, if there is a pass, the screen will quickly pan over so that the spectator can see the result of the pass – was it caught, and by whom?
The viewer gets to see key elements of that play from a new angle. Even penalties get replays, so that the viewer can see why play was interrupted. Is there a challenge on the field? The viewer will be treated to several replays from multiple camera angles. Each play generally takes up about 40 seconds of airtime, and it always goes back to the same starting camera angle to let the viewer know what’s happening on field.
None of the above developments in any way benefit the actual game happening. All of the development of those systems, all of the money invested in camera equipment, etc., does nothing to impact the game directly. So why does the NFL, a multi-billion dollar industry, well-known for being stingy, spend money on all that stuff?
It’s because they acknowledge the importance of the spectator. Most people do not play football. But, a lot of them watch it, talk about it, and analyze it. Let me put this in a very simple way:
The spectator sport industry is built around the spectator, not the player. The goal of a spectator sport is to create a community that will watch the sport and buy merchandise and products of the sponsors, not to have the best games.
Yes, the game has to be playable and fair, and yes, good games help to create hype within the fan community, but by and large, the game is secondary to the industry. That’s why there are multiple spectator sports that more or less have the same business model – numerous regional teams that have stadiums that fill up with fans, television broadcasts that can sell ad space, and long-term contracts tying players to teams to create a predictable team atmosphere throughout the years. The model is adaptable because it is successful at creating passionate fan communities that will sink money and attention into the spectator sport.
Which is why the lack of focus on the spectator in today’s e-sports may be the reason some current e-sports business models seem to be failing.
Mark Ferraz, owner of Quantic Gaming, had to disband his organization due to sponsors pulling out. On the Data Mined Out podcast last week, he acknowledged that they probably spent too much time on player development. In my head, I couldn’t help but make the comparison to Evil Geniuses, which despite having mediocre results, is involved in notable marketing projects with companies like Kingston. IdrA driving a Bugatti Veyron does nothing to improve his APM, but it does reinforce that “bad boy” branding, which creates excitement for the audience when he does play.
There needs to be more of a focus on the spectator by all aspects of e-sports productions. For example, most Korean events are only streamed at times that are bad for many living in Europe and America, and while the (rarely free) VODs are accessible anytime, they remove the element of watching something with a community. Other tournaments have attempted to solve this dilemma with re-streams, but the Koreans seem like they don’t even care.
Sometimes, even the game itself limits the spectator experience. Heart of the Swarm is introducing customizable UIs for observers, but still limits how far you can zoom out. Shooters often lock you into the view of a single player, and floating cameras have a hard time following the action. These issues stem from engines built around being playable – not watchable.
Now, video games have a long way to go before they will be able to catch up to something like MMA in terms of pure spectator entertainment – which makes sense. Competitive brawling has been a spectator sport for thousands of years. But for us to start down that road, game designers and content producers need to sit down and have a hard think about how to place the spectator as the key person to focus on – not the gamer.
Picture courtesy of Bloodyelbow.com
I was challenged by an ESFI coworker after writing this article. He pointed out the GDC 2011 Dustin Browder lecture about how Blizzard designed StarCraft 2 as an e-sport. Here’s my reply.
Dustin stresses in his talk about how clear and simple they designed StarCraft 2 to be. He makes a comparison to football, “I don’t know all those rules, and I can watch football, and I can sit my wife down and I can explain a couple of basic rules, and she’s watching…” The talk makes a promising start.
Unfortunately, he quickly diverges from his earlier points and begins talking about gameplay, and about what it feels like as a player, not as a spectator. He even goes on to discuss about the single-player campaign, and how players can use that experience to build drama into the multiplayer.
Blizzard did do a good job, but they didn’t go far enough. They clearly designed StarCraft 2 with spectators in mind, but they unfortunately designed it based on a spectator base that plays the game already. People who haven’t played StarCraft 2, and who don’t follow current builds and strategies, have an immense hill to climb when trying to spectate the game. Often, armies of seemingly equal sizes will engage, with one being the clear victor.
Let’s take an actual look at what spectators are seeing, and how they can evaluate the sport:
Image courtesy sportsgrid.com
Who is winning? From the upper part of the screen, the TEN team (Tennessee Titans, light blue) is ahead 23 to 22 against the HOU (Houston Texans, dark blue) team.
What is happening? The Texans have the ball, and the quarterback is jumping for a poorly snapped ball (it’s up over his head). It is a passing play. There are 14 seconds left in the 4th quarter. This is a high-tension moment. Houston needs to score to win the game, but a bad snap means this play is basically over. Can the Texans somehow turn this play into a score, or will they lose to the Titans? In order to do so, the quarterback needs to somehow regain control of the ball, and make a successful pass to a receiver in the endzone.
What you need to know to understand that: Very little, to be honest. All you need to know is that in order to score, your team needs to have control of the ball in the endzone (very visible on the left-hand side of the screen), and a few basic rules and positions, like how the quarterback is the one who throws, the receivers catch, and the defense is trying to stop that pass attempt from happening.
Now, for StarCraft 2:
Image courtesy cstarleague.com
What is happening? Looks pretty clear, two armies in the middle of engaging, the light blue player (Invi for Brown University) looks to have the purple player (NEFNConsu for Berklee College of Music) on the run. Which means light blue is winning, right? Not quite, take a look at the supply. Consu is ahead by over 20 supply, and a look at the minimap tells that he has an additional base as well. You can also see what is being built in the upper right, which is nice, and the series score, which is 1-0 in Berklee’s favor.
Who is winning? Even as a long-time fan of SC2, I can’t answer this question at this point in the game. The truth is that either player could pull out a win from this point.
What you need to know to understand that: This is the key with spectating e-sports right now. You need to have previous knowledge of the game. A lot of it. I know that Consu can pull ahead easily by sniping the colossi with vikings and stimming over the Protoss ground army. Likewise, if Invi manages to take out the vikings and keep his colossi count high, he will have no problem stomping on a Terran bio-ball. Either of those likelihoods can happen, but even if they do, that does not necessarily mean there is a guaranteed winner.
So, yes, Blizzard has focused on designing their game for a spectator. But they unfortunately have only done so for a spectator that has played the game already, not one who hasn’t, and most likely won’t in the future. And I can guarantee you that for however big the demographic is of people that have played and understand StarCraft 2 is, the demographics outside of it are a lot bigger, and accessing those demographics are the real hurdle on the road to becoming a successful e-sport.
Ferguson “AlphaFerg” Mitchell is a writer for ESFI and a caster for the CSL. He writes a column every other week to share his views with the greater e-sports community that address the growing pains of the industry.