Esports Series: We Need More Balls (original)

I want to do a short series of posts on the nature of esports that will focus mostly on how esports can be designed for. This builds on a very old post I wrote years ago that I’ve realized was never posted to this blog. So I’m going to start by reposting it. I’m not totally happy with it by my current writing standards, and a lot has happened since I wrote it. Notably the explosion of MOBAs, Hearthstone, birth of Overwatch as an esport, and Rocket League. The last of which is a much more successful variation on the game most responsible for inspiring this: Altitude’s ball mode.

I may do a significant editing or rewrite pass in the future. But for now it’s as is, written in September 2013


Why are sports still more popular than e-sports?

If the ominous newscasting in the US is believed, it certainly sounds like more people with access to both are choosing video games over playing outdoors. Traditional sports have history, and easier hardware requirements on their side. But even among gamers, so few e-sports have proven successful. Is there some secret that sports have tapped into that e-sports haven’t? Actually, yes. The key to any successful sport is the concept of trajectory.

For the purpose of this argument, I’ll define “trajectory” as something traveling in a curvilinear path, or arc, over time. In its purest, and literal form, it’s watching the trajectory of a ball as it flies towards the goal, with enough time to let you wonder if it will make it. Yet it can also stand for the progress of a team over the course of a game, or season. I’ll touch on why each part of the definition is important, using the world’s most popular sport, soccer/football, as an example.

The path is a line because sports need simple mechanics at their core. Soccer can be largely summed up in 4 rules: only the goalie can touch the ball with his arms, no physical contact, stay within this box on the field, and each team tries to get the ball in the opposing net. The action of playing is even simpler, almost exclusively limited to running, and kicking. This simplicity gives the game the accessibility to appeal to children, without many complexities to prevent them understanding a professional game on the TV.

The path is curved so that there is complexity in these simple actions. Part of what makes this so appealing to every skill level is that, discounting physical fitness, an amateur is just as capable of making the same great play as a professional. It may only be a 1 in 100 chance for the amateur, but the chance is there.

In those moments we can relate to the professional player, and see how we might someday achieve their level of skill. Watching the consistency of those rewarding plays grow with time and practice is naturally encouraging to practicing, and developing that skill.

The arcing path of a trajectory also necessitates metaphorical ups and downs. While a soccer team may hold the upper hand in a game by scoring first, field position and posession are handed to the opponent. A straighter, linear path of progression would be much less interesting. Imagine if the rules stated posession had to be regained during play, so after each point, the scoring team regained control.

The path is travelled over time so that there is a chance to observe, predict, and react to the possible outcome. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this last point. Tension is something we usually associate with suspenseful films, but any sports fan can tell you about a time they were on the edge of their seat for a game. Even if it’s that amateur player, seeing the potentially great outcome of an action before it’s completion is exciting.

This is where the drama of sports comes from, and what makes a game instantly readable to people that aren’t professional players. This is what makes it a sport and not just a game.

Most video games do include this idea of trajectories on some very basic level. Like traditional sports, you can track the progress of a game, or season by the score, and win:loss rate. But in sports it’s so much more. You can follow the arc of an individual player over a game, season, or career, that of a team pushing downfield on an individual play, to the literal trajectory of the ball on each pass and shot. This depth of layering, especially down to the minute level, is something most video games lack.

It’s one stark weakness of Counter-Strike, which otherwise, seems so well suited to e-sports. While it’s easily one of the best balanced, and designed competitive games, even Counter-Strike has never had a truly broad appeal as an e-sport. Even as a player with an understanding of the mechanics, I found it hard to get excited watching professional games. Engagements rarely lasted long enough to predict an outcome ahead of time, let alone build tension towards it. The time from action to result is simply too instantaneous for it to work as a sport.

The idea of a sport is a concept built on sociology, and psychology. Since the human brain did not physically change over night with the advent of video games, we can’t hope to so quickly reinvent the fundamentals of sports either.

Starcraft stands as the most successful example in the brief history of e-sports, but could hardly be more mechanically different from most field sports. Yet its success can be traced to this idea of trajectories. You can watch the simultaneous arcs of gathered resources, army size, harvesters, or kills. By scouting, a player can find the timing and build type their opponent is using. Knowing the trajectory of when that build will be at its strongest and weakest allows them to plan accordingly. When something isn’t scouted, it can build tension for the audience as they watch, and wonder if it will be discovered in time. There are even arcs in some individual actions during a battle. A group of banelings rolls in, the marine group splits perfectly, and only a few fall to the acidic explosions. A tense disaster-in-the-making is averted with great skill, creating an exciting moment for the audience.

Aside from complexity, and abstraction, it’s the brevity, and rarity of those individual action trajectories that is holding Starcraft back from mass market appeal.

E-sports in general need more of these key moments with the readability, and time to savor them. The team, and the play are important, but they don’t truly make a sport.

What people remember is the pass, the catch, the shot.

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