Friday, October 21, 2011

Quick Takes - The eSports revolution

And up next on ESPN3 ...

Return to Castle Wolfenstein was always my game. For nearly a decade, I played nothing but RTCW. Day or night, rain or shine, RTCW was this humming insect zapper that annihilated my desire to play other games (or to go outside). Even as the server populations started to dwindle (newer, better games kept coming out and stealing players ... those bastards) and hackers tried to ruin every single match, I kept plugging away because there was something exciting about playing RTCW at a high level. It was my "digital home," and there was a community of hardcore gamers who made it their homes too. But it wasn't just a home, it was a real, competitive digital sport, and it made me wonder about the future of both gaming and sports (and whether they could, or even should, join forces).

If Madden gamers could show up on ESPN2 wearing oversized NFL jerseys and doing that weird "cover your opened mouth with a fist because you've just done something well and shamed your opponent" thing, I felt like RTCW could've easily been there too. Digital sports, viewable by the masses. I spent my childhood sitting next to my brother and watching him play games or playing them myself. The viewing experience for me has always been more enjoyable than any other watchable consumption (better than movies, TV, anything). The quality of gameplay and the quality of the viewing experience within RTCW was on par with most live sports, let alone something relatively uninspiring to watch/play like Madden, and it came down to the sheer experience and precision of the players who turned first-timers, with those tell-tale white-text names, into pin cushions.

I knew every map and could maneuver through them with my eyes closed. I had studied the game religiously and learned how players moved and acted, what their inclinations were and what decisions they were most likely to make in every situation. I played the game so much that, after a dreadful night out drinking, I said goodbye to a toilet full of puke with a German "auf wiedersehen!" Not my proudest moment, but a reinforcement that I knew RTCW and it knew me. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about the 10,000-hour theory (that it takes that amount of time to truly master something), and I felt like I really understood what that meant as a gamer. People would sit in "Spectator" mode to watch each other play, to watch the really good players play, or to watch teams go head-to-head in official matches. That was how people wanted to spend their free time. So where was the market for those people who a) loved to play games and b) loved to watch the best players in the world play them too? The answer came years later in the form of eSports, which are growing at such a tremendous rate right now that publications like Forbes are starting to cover them without irony.

The viewership numbers for eSports events are starting to get scary, and I think it changes the model for how we consume sports and what we consider sports as well. I'm not saying some kid in Korea playing Starcraft II is on the same level as Aaron Rodgers or LeBron James, but if Texas Hold 'Em poker or Nascar can show up regularly on television, I don't see why professional gaming can't either. It may not even need to be on TV, and you can certainly make the argument that television isn't the right format for six-hour death matches, but the mainstream sports media should embrace competitive gaming and eSports. And eSports should embrace the mainstream sports media too. That means professional announcers, professional graphics, and professional coverage.

Forbes released the following numbers from Major League Gaming (MLG) events over the past four months. These are concurrent viewers, all tuning in to online streaming matches at the same time. It's no "Walking Dead" with its 7.5 million viewers (cough ... the comics are better), but these numbers can't be ignored, especially when you consider that people are watching other people play video games:

MLG Columbus (June) – 117,000 peak concurrent viewers
MLG Anaheim (July) – 124,000
MLG Raleigh (August) – 138,000
MLG Orlando (September) – 181,000, with 3.2 million total hours of video consumed.

  • The NBA has finished it's marathon labor talk sessions with nothing to show for it, and now no new sessions are even being scheduled. One source said that some owners are prepared to miss the whole season instead of giving up too much of what they want, which sounds like "I'm going to take my ball and go home." The maturity level of these dealings has been baffling, from commissioner David Stern, the owners, and the players. They're all acting like children, except worse because a child would rather have one gummy worm and give his sister the rest of the bag than for both to get nothing at all (even if he really hated his sister). I'm not sure why the owners and players union haven't thought to just put together a short-term buffer deal so they can actually have a season and not have to rush to come up with the "ultimate fix" right at this very second. If you need more time, give yourself more time. Isn't some money better than no money? Isn't some gummy worms better than no gummy worms? (A+ for grammar.)
  • A.J. Hawk was fined $10,000 by the NFL for flipping the bird toward the Rams sideline last weekend. It's not my money or anything, but I still think it was worth it.
  • Albert Pujols made a critical error in game two of the World Series last night, whiffing on a cutoff throw that allowed the eventual game-winning run to advance into scoring position. Instead of facing the media after the game, Pujols sneaked out of the locker room and left his younger teammates to answer to the frothing pack of reporters. His punishment will be a 10-year, $200 million contract that he will be forced to sign this offseason.
  • I had a bit of a realization this morning re: Tim Tebow. People are excited to watch him start on Sunday, and I'm definitely curious (from a morbid sense) to see what happens, but the Dolphins are probably the worst team in the NFL right now ... Let's just say, hypothetically, that Tebow looks terrible against Miami. If he can't put together an outstanding performance against the Dolphins, doesn't that pretty much set the baseline for how he's going to play the rest of the year? I was going into Sunday thinking it would just be interesting to see how Tebow plays, but I really think this game could be a definitive moment for his whole NFL career. Pretty hyperbolic there, eh? It's what I do.
  • Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony is spitting up to the media about how great it would be to play with Hornets guard Chris Paul. Listen, if you guys already have a Heat-esque backroom deal worked out, just STFU and make it happen. I don't want to hear your BFF love letters to one another in the media for the next year before, gasp!, Paul somehow ends up in New York.
  • A streaker disguised as a referee interrupted the UCLA-Arizona football game, which prompted a massive brawl to break out between the two college sides. See, this is why nudity works. Nobody wants to get near a nude man. Ever. Not even people who are married. Nude men are just repulsive, ergo, they make the best streakers. And they certainly don't cause fights, except between security guards who have to rock, paper, scissors over who has to tackle the guy.

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