Sunday, September 1, 2013

Showtime! - Ideas to improve the presentation of e-sports

One of the interesting things that has happened in gaming over the past decade is the rise of the professional circuit. For evidence of this, consider that Starcraft is practically the national sport of South Korea and has dedicated television stations covering matches and analysis. On a whole, I feel the emergence of a professional circuit is a boon to the industry even if it does carry a big of baggage. Today I will outline a bit of the overall impact of professional gaming on the industry and then transition into a few ways I think that the industry can take queues from more established sports.

Mostly Good, Some Bad
I think that the positives stemming from professional gaming are pretty obvious. A professional circuit increases awareness for the industry as a legitimate past time. While the stigma of the loner in his mom's basement has mostly disappeared, recognition on the level of athletic sports would represent genuine mainstream acceptance for gaming. With this acceptance comes more money pumped into the industry which leads to an overall broader selection of high quality games. Beyond this, a paid gig as a gamer provides an aspirational goal for those who are truly dedicated. That said, I feel that caution should be exercised in perusing a career as a professional gamer as the odds of making it are probably just as slim as any athletic pursuit. On the flip side, as professional gaming becomes more prominent, so to has the pressure on developers to make games conducive to it. In short, this means that some times a developer may make design choices in terms of balance rather than entertainment. As anyone who has played a thoroughly broken map made with Gary's Mod can attest to, sometimes it is just fun to revel in overpowered systems and mechanics without being bogged down in whether things are truly fair. Fortunately, at this point, developers haven't totally abandoned the notion of fun in imbalance as recent releases like Saints Row 4 can attest to.

On a whole, I think that gamers should embrace the professional circuit as a natural extension of their hobby. Even if you don't actively follow the top players or care to watch live matches, it is important to recognize the passive knock-on benefits you enjoy through a vibrant professional circuit. With this in mind, I think that the way the professional circuit is made accessible to the common gamer can be greatly improved and ought to learn some lessons from some of the other established sports. I recognize that to implement some of these might ultimately require financial investment but I think that investment would pay off in the long run as e-sports could increase their audience through a more appealing presentation. Below are some pretty common features found in major sporting broadcasts and some ideas on how I think these could be ported to different games. It is important to note here that these additions are primarily made with the casual viewer in mind as I feel the more ardent fan is not having a problem watching already.

Instant Replay
A common utterance of the casual NFL fan is that the game feels a lot more exciting to watch on television then in person. I think a major reason for this perception is that the NFL game has a lot of downtime between plays which is filled in on television with analysis and replay. For fighting games, in between matches players execute 'button checks' to ensure that their controller is interacting properly with the game. For those who have never witnessed this, it is about as thrilling to watch as it sounds (so not at all). These moments are typically filled with commentators giving a bit of background on the players and their tendencies which isn't necessarily a bad thing until you start watching matches in rapid succession and invariably two unknown players square off against each other and the commentators have literally nothing to contribute. These moments could easily be filled with replays from the previous match stopping and highlighting critical turning points or interesting strategic decisions. For the RTS, it isn't uncommon to have short lulls in matches where players are regrouping or temporarily focused on base management. At these points, I think a break away screen showcasing a recent skirmish could really help to maintain viewer attention.

Any time a batter steps to the plate in baseball, a plethora of statistics are made available; in the park this information is presented on the scoreboard and on television it is usually presented as a graphical overlay. These statistics allow for a viewer to get a reasonable idea of whether the player is likely to smack a home run  or go down swinging even if they have no idea who the player is. In boxing, between rounds the viewer is treated to stats on punches thrown and landed and can give an impression of which fighter is winning. While I these types of statistics could fairly intuitively be implemented for a fighting game or RTS, I think they are especially crucial for the FPS. Statistics on kills and deaths are usually available on a screen overlay at the players command but cannot be displayed full time without obscuring the screen. Here, a spectator doesn't need to be focused full time on the match and providing a constant scoreboard to provide at a glance information would be invaluable.

Unique Angles
I think this is just the surface of a much broader category of things that can be done to make the experience of spectating different from playing. Poker has been immensely successful through the use of a 'hole-cam' where spectators know what cards the players are holding and can watch the machinations of great and bad calls; the audience is thus primarily paying attention to the psychological aspect of the game as opposed to mathematics.For an RTS, which is designed to hide opponents from each other until they are scouted out and detected, a spectator need not be restricted and providing a side-by-side of both players views could provide an easy comparison of who is focused on what. I think this would make good sense when both players are focused on base management with the screen merging to a single perspective when skirmishes erupt. For the FPS, pulling the camera away to a thrid person view could allow tracking of multiple players at once. It is not difficult to envisage a camera placement such that it catches opposing players on opposite sides of cover in a single view. Both of these examples are demonstrations of how the rules the players are abiding by can be broken for the spectator in the name of a better viewing experience. Games are especially open to manipulation along these lines because they need not be constrained by physical limitations; putting a camera in front of the quarterback in the NFL would be physically disruptive whereas a digital game would not have any problem in doing this

All told, e-sports are still in their infancy and I am sure that I am not the first person to come up with these ideas for presentation. No doubt, money has been the chief reason behind them not being implemented; it costs money to make a slick presentation and e-sports are probably not drawing enough viewers to ensure return on this investment. I hope that e-sports continue to grow and that one day watching the game from home will be just as entertaining of an experience as playing itself.