Update on November 19, 2012: Edits have been made for general readability, clarification of specific issues, and a slight adjustment to the synopsis. In addition, TeamLiquid.net administrator “heyoka” has stated to me that the decision to cover DotA 2 was a year in the making before the official announcement,* which would stand in the path of my assertion that the site saw some “hideous writing on the wall, roughly translating to “Nobody gives a fuck about StarCraft II anymore.”” While I am normally reluctant to let facts get in the way of a good narrative (end sarcasm), the article has been amended accordingly.
So you see, roughly a decade ago, the StarCraft community openly rejected Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion pack The Frozen Throne. This community of Blizzard real-time strategy fans found common ground with disappointed Warcraft II players, who believed the slower pace of this new game, its smaller unit counts, and the addition of powerful hero units “dumbed down” that series, the idea that Warcraft III did not have a high enough “skill ceiling”. (Translation: I had to learn how to play a new game, so the game sucked.) They also rejected the game as a spectator endeavor, because the game is analogous to American football, in that it is difficult to follow and understand if you’re looking from the outside in.* Fast forward to August of 2012, and the staff at TeamLiquid.net (the pre-eminent Western source for coverage of professional and tournament StarCraft) announced that they would begin coverage of tournament and professional DotA 2,* the sequel to the custom map famous for stripping down the real-time strategy genre as conceptualized in Warcraft III, the game that was not up to the standards of StarCraft players. The reaction of TeamLiquid users and readers to the announcement was generally (if not overwhelmingly) positive.*
And with both DotA 2 and Riot Games’ League of Legends siphoning sponsorship away from StarCraft II tournaments, there is now a threat that lower-tier professional StarCraft players and the amateurs who spent endless nights championing that game’s “skill ceiling” will now follow in the footsteps of Kim Won Ki (Fruitdealer),* Jin-Ho Hong (Yellow),* Kim Sang Jun (Puzzle), Choi Jong Hwan (CoCa), Hwang Doh Hyung (Min),* and Kim Seung Chul (MVPsC).* Those Korean StarCraft II players have all committed to player and manager roles within the League of Legends landscape, chasing the company-funded money that now pours into that game’s tournaments, chasing bigger and better opportunities for a paycheck. With this pursuit of the “skill ceiling” coming pathetically full-circle, and with video games evolving into a career choice that has nothing to do with pursuing the best games, it’s time to discuss why e-Sports™ has jumped the shark, how “games as spectator sport” are being transformed by developers, and why the developers who participate in this transformation will (and already have begun to) harm the quality of their games.
All you have to do is explain how professional video game tournaments came into existence. You start from the early days, where the medium was popularized through a little-known versus multiplayer game by the name of Pong. And I’m sure that when the first Pong machine was placed inside its California test location, a lot of heated exchanges followed, and we just didn’t have the game mechanics or media outlets to measure them. Then Space Invaders pioneered the high score concept, and Asteroids let you record your initials next to the high score, and in 1982, Walter Day unveiled a national scoreboard in his Twin Galaxies arcade. From that point onward, the original purpose of “competitive video gaming” (the act of seeking out better competition and benchmarks as a test of video game skill) was to make the act of playing video games more interesting, to provide additional incentive to continue playing and enjoying various games, and offer a sense of community as built around that competition.
Now, through the medium’s early history (the primitive Pong clones leading into the Golden Age of Arcade Games), competing through a leaderboard was kind of silly. Ignore that the scoring systems in most “classic games” are horrible at measuring the skill level of the best players. If these scoring systems could not be broken with a simple glitch, exploit, or tactic, they almost always valued endurance over efficiency, where the goal is to play for long periods of time instead of playing as well as possible. And even today, the act of overcoming somebody else’s high score in a single-player video game has no bearing on how the game operates and functions. You may engage more complex pre-programmed patterns and use more engaging tactics in the pursuit of that high score, but “chasing that score” is ancillary to the act of playing and enjoying the game.
All of that changed when Doom and Street Fighter II introduced their respective platforms to a world-class versus multiplayer experience, transforming the score-hunting culture into a world of head-to-head combat. (Which is no disrespect to the world of modern shoot ’em ups and the competition that centers around their intricate scoring systems. Unfortunately, according to the journlolism sites and the people who read them, Ikaruga was the first shoot ’em up since Space Invaders.) This evolution of “score-hunting” was now yielding meaningful results, where players began to substitute themselves for the complex and challenging artificial intelligence that still eludes developers for regular commercial use. (Of course, it’s also more profitable to corral players into online portals with paid marketplaces than create competent computer opponents, but that’s a story for another day.)
These communities and this competition had a very specific purpose. Generally speaking, the most enjoyable difficulty level is the one that places goals right outside of the player’s reach. Not too hard, and not a cakewalk. Players had no conventional means of setting the difficulty level in these versus multiplayer games unless that difficulty level fell right in line with a sub-par computer opponent. And even then, that computer opponent’s predictable, limited patterns were going to prove less interesting than an array of human opponents. In response, players used arcades (and online gaming portals) to find that proper difficulty level, to find players of “equal skill”, to maximize enjoyment of the game or games. If players had to bond around this common interest in order to find that difficulty level, then that’s exactly what they did.
From there, things went into motion. These versus multiplayer games built community, and from this community, came competition. From here, people had a desire to figure out “who the best are”. To do this, they adopted tournament models used for sporting events and other forms of competition. But while “bragging rights” come with their own perks, it’s not going to attract much attention outside of the local venue. Bragging rights do not pay for the gasoline that got you to the venue or the stone-cold stare of a mother or father who think you need to stop wasting time on vidya gaems. To increase the level of competition and attract better players, tournament organizers used cash prizes. What people quickly figured out is that, unlike the era of single-player score hunting, many of these games were as interesting to watch as they were to play. People love the psychology that comes with having skilled humans directly compete against each other, regardless of the means (i.e. game or competition) by which they compete. Eventually, these “organizers” came to include large third-party entities, who could subsidize larger tournaments through admission and sponsorship. And when enough interest had generated enough money in “the scene”, the potential for salaried players emerged. These players could win enough money that they could that they could turn “being a video game expert” into a profession. Hey, there were talented players already doing this for free, putting tens of hours a week into a single video game because they enjoyed the hell out of it. If they could make some money by playing a game they already enjoyed and get recognition for their efforts, then why the hell not?
That is how, from an enjoyable game, you got “video games as a spectator endeavor”. I guarantee you that if you look at the history of every spectator sport that became popular during the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, it played out much the same way. Baseball became nationally popular as it was played in Civil War army camps and the first professional team appeared half-a-decade later. Football and basketball were popularized through college intramural events that were followed by the formation of school teams, and the pro variants hit their stride over the next half-century. That’s how it worked. This process was a bottom-up endeavor. People enjoyed playing the game, which led to interest in watching the game, which led to business models that could finance teams of salaried athletes and organizations to govern them. As it applies to professional video games, “bottom-up” is a no-risk system. The game’s tournament, professional, and spectator scenes only become as large as their player base (and third-party entities) are interested, willing, and capable of creating. This was the model that dominated competitive video games from roughly 1996 to 2007, a span of events which included the formation of a South Korean government organization to promote and facilitate video games as spectator sport, major gatherings like QuakeCon and DreamHack, and an array of organizations like the Cyberathlete Professional League, World Cyber Games, Evolution Championship Series (Evo), and Major League Gaming. All of these organizations boast a fairly wide range of success and stand atop countless failed organizations, endeavors, and “failed games”.
Now, I won’t act like game developers weren’t sponsoring tournaments and competitions prior to the rise of the CPL and the Korean e-Sports Players Association, because they were. And I won’t act like the goal of these promotions was anything less than “get people to buy more video games”. Nintendo held a series of video game competitions through the early nineties, famously emblazoned through the specialized game cartridges used for the competition, cartridges that now sell for thousands of dollars on the open market. Nintendo wasn’t the only Japanese game developer doing this. A number of Japanese developers and publishers organized their own domestic tournaments, featuring a variety of fighting games and titles like Compile’s puzzle wunderkind Puyo Puyo. (Based on what I know about the topic, the coffers of these companies were the only realistic way to get a large prize pool for a major Japanese video game tournament, as any player participation fee would violate national gambling laws.) Those tournaments were advertisements for their wares, period. However, the scope and goal of these tournaments were completely different. To put it in a naively colorful manner, these competitions and tournaments were a celebration of what had already been accomplished. Once again, bottom-up. These games were considered top-of-the-line by their participants, and a company-hosted tournament was a wonderful tribute to its success.
That is where things have changed. (I apologize to my regular readers, because the following has been discussed a thousand times. Bear with me here.) Over the last half-decade, there has been a pronounced shift in the business of game creation at the high-end game developers and publishers, brought on by a combination of financial collapse, incredible diversification of the devices used to play video games, and networking tools that allow companies to control and modify game code at their discretion. Through this model, the goal is to transform video games from boxed, tangible goods into persistent, publisher-controlled services, where users must abide to the absolute whims of the copyright holder. Along the way, after years of being perfectly okay with South Korean professional StarCraft, Blizzard Entertainment got pissed off at the Korean e-Sports Players Association for using their copyrighted game code and game assets for broadcast in front of live audiences. First, Blizzard Entertainment tried to use World of Warcraft arena competitions as a test model for this new intellectual property doctrine, and it failed miserably because World of Warcraft is an awful game. Then, after muscling KeSPA out of the way, Blizzard got some limited exposure in the West as StarCraft II was played at Major League Gaming tournaments, and Sean Plott (Day9) was listed in Forbes as one of its “30 Under 30”,* and internet tech sites began gushing about the bright future of professional video games.* From there, it was on.
Right now, two large game companies have followed in Blizzard’s stead: Riot Games (in conjunction with the fat wallets of Chinese backer Tencent) and Valve. What was once a celebration of select, excellent video games has now become a falsetto marketing facade, where companies have discovered that they can disguise advertising and hype as “company goodwill”. These companies use prize tournaments as direct marketing, to attract players to their games with these tournaments and promote brand awareness. (As an added bonus, this apparatus turns talented players into minor celebrities, and you could never ever beat them at Game X, so who are you to tell them that the game sucks? While “being good at a game” and “understanding game design” are two different skill sets, the visibility of these players will go a long way in exempting the game from criticism.) Normally, in the pre-release phase, direct advertisement through ad placement, television commercials, and journalism fellatio would be derided as a misallocation of resources that should be going into the development of the game. But when companies pour millions of dollars into professional video game tournaments, nobody thinks “advertising”. Instead, people applaud the company’s support for competitive video game players, often and mistakenly perceived to be the company’s “biggest fans”. Where interest in the games once created interest in prize tournaments, companies now seed interest in prize tournaments as a means to create interest in the games.
“So the creators of the games have taken it upon themselves to advertise and market their games through tournaments. So what? You already said that they’ve done this in the past. What’s the difference?” Let’s explain that. The ultimate goal of this system is like all advertising: Convince people that older games are old hat, and get the rats scurrying onward. So far, that has actually worked well. In the collective case of Riot, Blizzard, and Valve, these three companies have created games that are functionally similar to StarCraft: Brood War (StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty) and Defense of the Ancients (League of Legends, DotA 2) and seeded these similar games with prize money. This way, somebody who is already good at one of those older titles has to expend little energy to convince themselves that their skill set can win them a paycheck, and those players take the plunge, which legitimizes the game as “tournament-worthy”. Like all advertising, the goal of these company-sponsored tournaments is to create an intense urge to play these games, before it can be countered with reasoned, rational thought. Under the old model, professional scenes helped to maintain the popularity of legacy titles. And do you think Valve enjoys living in the shadow of Counter-Strike 1.6 when they want to release a new Counter-Strike game? Do you think Blizzard enjoys that their real-time strategy games will be judged by StarCraft: Brood War? Like every other major video game developer that has to please shareholders, wants to release a sequel every year, or simply wants to continue making more money, the answer is “No.” (If you have to, you can assert intellectual property rights and take the tournament organizers to court, bending their business model to your own favorable interests. So if you’re Blizzard, you can destabilize and destroy the apparatus for professional StarCraft: Brood War, giving professional StarCraft II a chance to succeed in the critical Korean market. Oh, whoops. I’ve said too much. Carrying on.)
And just like all video game advertising, this narrative and message has to be secured long before the game actually gets a release. I don’t think there’s any better event to exemplify this than the 2011 DotA The International, where sixteen of the best Defense of the Ancients teams on the planet were invited to play DotA 2 for a million bucks.* The players were invited by Valve and the tournament was sponsored by Valve. That event was played in August of 2011 and was the worldwide public reveal of the game. As of November 2012, DotA 2 is still in closed beta and Valve has not announced a release date for the game. (Note: Despite the fact that you can purchase “Early Access” of DotA 2, the game is still in a beta phase. When Blizzard ran a very similar promotion with StarCraft II, they didn’t call it “Early Access”. They called it “pre-order the game and you get a beta invite.”) That’s correct: We are now playing games for gigantic sums of money before they have even gone into a public beta-testing phase. Companies are now boasting that “This game is worthy of being played in front of large audiences!” before anybody even decides if they like the damn game. They are replacing a grass-roots approach to competitive video games with a centralized business operation. Bottom-up is becoming top-down. (Hopefully, you can now understand why the competitive fighting game scene, while undergoing some degree of commercialization, is often repulsed by the sponsor-driven, squeaky-clean world of professional StarCraft II.)
With the bottom-up model, these games underwent rigorous peer review by their best players, long before anyone tinkered with the notion of playing them for money. If the game sucked, then nobody played it anyway. But here’s the most important thing: When companies were designing these games, nobody was thinking, “Hey, let’s make this game fun to watch.” If the game lacked the audience, mechanics, or systems necessary for widespread viewership, then…who gave a crap? People just enjoyed the game and life went on. Nothing of value was lost. So, for instance, Supreme Commander (and its expansion pack Forged Alliance) aren’t going to lose their place in history because its pacing, flow, and ridiculous strategic complexity aren’t conducive to large audiences of screaming Korean teenage girls. And nobody is going to claim that Supreme Commander is inferior to StarCraft II because the latter is the game being played at large tournaments. (Well, nobody with a brain, at least.)
With that, I hope you can understand what the problem is. Where companies once had the mere goal of making an incredible video game, they simultaneously seek to make an electronic sport that can promote their wares. It’s difficult enough to take dozens of professional video game designers and coordinate their talents in the pursuit of an entertaining video game. Now you’re asking these developers to explore uncharted game design territory, the act of creating a fun video game that will be fun for live audiences? Get. Fucking. Real. What this will do (and has already begun to do) is pose a significant detriment to the quality of the games that use this “e-Sports” marketing model.
See, professional video game competition acts much like the internet message boards, online play, and replay features that preceded them. They are a form of mass media within an individual game community, where results, outcomes, discussion, and reaction to that discussion can be disseminated throughout that community. And now, we have digital distribution tools that get these tournaments across the internet while they are being played, which coordinates viewing eyes and makes the megaphone effect even louder. Widely-popular professional video game tournaments (and discussion of these tournaments) will reach and impact far more impressionable minds than either replays or a general discussion of game strategy. These competitions hold a trump card over the “old media models”: Legitimacy. When people tune into these events, there is little doubt that these are the best players using the best, most optimal tactics that are currently known. Which is not to say that they are the best tactics, but they are usually the most complete examination of what is known about the game’s systems as manipulated by the most capable human players. For the large percentage of players who have no grasp of game theory, those who have no ability to think outside of the game’s mechanics as they are currently known, these tournaments act as proof and affirmation of any preconceived notions.
The absurd amount of potentially valuable information generated by the pro-gaming peer review process is only as valuable as the player base that is analyzing it. And in the last twenty years, you have had a marked shift in the psychology of video game players. Needless to say, outside of the fighting game scene, the romanticized image of the player who seeks to overcome imbalance at all odds, the player that accepts imbalance as one price for a well-designed video game, is mostly dead and done. (Okay, “romanticized” was a bad word choice. Eh. Whatever.) It’s been replaced with a generation of players who believe that their unwillingness to experiment with all of their available options is a game design flaw. Video games are far more popular today and you have far more mediocre and average players playing the games. And if you believe video game pioneer Don Daglow, he pins the blame on an American school system that refuses to fail anybody, leading to a generation of video game players who view difficulty (and punishment for poor play) as a flaw in a game’s design.* But since these players collectively comprise the most lucrative video game market on the face of this planet, developers will cater to that audience. Also, you have increasingly respected audiences in these communities who would rather play less interesting games, so long as the rule set for those games go further in determining who the better player is. They are the players that want “balance”, they are the players that “play to win”. And while I have always defended the player’s right to win at all costs, this class of video game player often values “what rewards skill” over “a compelling, immersive game experience”.
When you combine tournament results with an untested video game and a player base full of complete idiots, you get precisely the result that you would expect. Normally, in the business model where it takes a year or two for a game to find financial success on a tournament level, the shit-tier player is long gone and has moved on to the next video game flavor of the month. That shit-tier player now gets exposed to these tournaments (and the potential for misinformation) from the month that the game goes live. Every perceived design flaw (whether “imbalance” or a poor game mechanic) now becomes a crisis of confidence. While these video game competitions are a great marketing vehicle and keep players engaged with the game when they are not playing, they also magnify any flaws in the game. When Blizzard does everything in their power to promote a major StarCraft II tournament, and then Zerg runs the table at that event, the outcome becomes publicly discussed and disseminated on a wide scale. And subsequently, it becomes a confirmation and validation for everybody who thought that Zerg was too powerful, even if the strategies, tactics, playstyle, and skill level in that tournament have no bearing on the events of their personal Bronze League hell.
Where professionally-played video game tournaments were once a validation of a video game’s systems and mechanics, they now cast ultimate and swift judgment of game design. This has hamstrung game developers, who no longer have the privilege of patience. Their player base will not allow “imbalance” to go unaddressed. (Let us not forget that 1998’s StarCraft: Brood War, held by its community as a paragon of interesting asymmetrical game balance within the real-time strategy genre, was not considered a balanced game until 2002. Terran was believed to be a step behind Protoss and Zerg until Lim Yo Hwan (SlayerS_BoxeR) pioneered the modern Terran playstyle, and did these things on a public platform.) See, if these professional video game tournaments demonstrate that the game has significant problems, it risks threatening the livelihood of those playing the game for a living. If you disrupt the livelihood of those players, they may become upset. If those players become upset, they may speak their mind about the game, which they have only been playing because they can get paid to do it. Many of these players attract considerable attention in their community and are considered respected statesmen of their communities. Those players may say “the game is not good”. And if they say the game is not good, others may listen. And if they listen, then those players may ask: “Why the hell am I playing a crappy game?”
If you want to make these voices even more harmful to your bottom line, use a free-to-play payment model, where the developer injects new content into the game over a long period of time. This creates an expectation that developers can and will address community complaints. Players know that if you have time to insert a new hat into the Hat Shop, you have time to “fix the game”. Now, perhaps the modern generation of casual shit player would have forced the developer’s hand, anyway. But in the pursuit of building these games around a corporate notion of intellectual property rights, companies have created business models that not only require a large amorphous mass of casual scrubs, but require companies to acknowledge the casual scrub long after the game has been released. Companies no longer have the benefit of the old boxed, retail game model, where the designers could tell their players to shut up and learn how to play the game. (“They already got our money” used to be a running joke on the Battle.net Forums, even with Blizzard Entertainment’s sterling reputation for post-release support.)
So then…in the delicate act of creating a great video game, an entertaining spectator sport, and catering to a player base that has been riled by the outcomes of their spectator sport, developers have settled on what will be a disastrous solution. The goal is to create the safest, white-bread video game design possible. This design philosophy discourages complex and interesting game mechanics, because those complex mechanics are more likely to have unintended consequences that could jeopardize game balance. This philosophy also values complexity through sheer choice, where most of the “depth” is derived from learning the concepts, mechanics, variables, and choices within the game, and not the act of mastering those systems. These games have a low rate of “active complexity”, where Call of Duty may have dozens of weapons, killstreaks, and perks, but you are limited to two weapons and a handful of bonuses at any given time. Now yes, as Call of Duty, The Elder Scrolls, World of Tanks, and League of Legends have all demonstrated, this is a financially successful model for game design, where you can introduce large amounts of disposable content as months and years pass. But it’s also much easier to design one-hundred-plus interchangeable Champions for use in League of Legends than construct tightly-knit, complex, polished factions for use in a world-class real-time strategy game.
After you design this game, you quickly respond to any playstyle developments that may provide the perception of an imbalanced game. If something is “imbalanced”, you “balance it”. You balance it before anyone has had the chance to figure out if it was a problem in the first place. By valuing game balance over interesting unit design, by fixing “problems” with rash design decisions, you gut the depth of your games. As we’ve seen in StarCraft II and League of Legends, we have now gotten to the point where the development of playstyles is not centralized around improvements in player skill and the process of exploring a game, but around the game balance updates themselves, where the illusion of depth is created every time Riot Games creates a new Champion or recreates the skill set for an old one. Therefore, you should be completely unsurprised when I say that this new class of “e-Sport” (as manifested through StarCraft II, DotA 2, and League of Legends) is not very good. Woah, hold back on the butthurt, DotA fans. I don’t think StarCraft II is very good, either. This is coming from somebody who defended that game for over two years and told people to be patient while salaried players tore the game apart. I’m not defending StarCraft II anymore, because it is what it is. But even then, I would take that average-to-middling real-time strategy game over the best DotA clone in existence, a template that will remain flawed until developers are willing to re-evaluate the state of that subgenre. These may not be awful games, but when you match them against relevant video game history, they are far from the best, and hardly the games that are worth broadcasting to the world.
And what do you get for all of your troubles? You get absolutely no guarantees that, as some of TeamLiquid’s readers would painfully put it, these developers are “growing e-Sports”. (Fittingly, the major problem will become the quality of these games.) Game developers and publishers left these tournaments to third-parties for a reason. Say what you want about KeSPA business practices, say what you want about some of their policies, when it came time to broadcast to the world, they ran a bang-up fucking ship. That was the organization’s “business model”, that was their specialization. And outside of a freak power outage at the StarCraft 2009 MSL Grand Finals,* I’ve never heard of any KeSPA tournament coming remotely close to the Riot and Blizzard horror stories. (Yes, KeSPA had the gambling thing,* but that scandal had nothing to do with the ability for the organization to run and broadcast an event. World Cyber Games also had the 2007 StarCraft bracket-tanking incident, where Song Byung Goo (Stork) deliberately lost placement matches so the Koreans could sweep the medals. But that kind of stuff also happened in, you know, the 2012 Summer Olympics.* That’s a casualty of “win at all costs”, not a mismanagement of organization resources.)
Having Blizzard design a tournament submission process (where players have to submit the location and IP addresses of tournament computers in order to prevent Battle.net from blacklisting them) does not “grow e-Sports”. Having that system block and stall everything from regional tournaments,* to the IGN Pro League,* to Major League Gaming,* to Blizzard’s own Battle.net Invitationals* does not “grow e-Sports”. Cheating scandals that directly stem from a failure of Riot infrastructure, where participants at the League of Legends Season Two Grand Finals were able to turn their heads and look at the giant screen above them, do not “grow e-Sports”. “But League of Legends is drawing more attention and larger crowds in the West than any e-Sport to-date!” Yeah, there’s a reason for that: League of Legends is one of the most popular video games on the planet, the most popular game that uses a viable template for spectatorship, and the most popular game to use “e-Sports” as a marketing model. The game has replaced Counter-Strike as computer video gaming’s hyper-masculine five-on-five team sport.* League of Legends succeeded because it has incredible crossover appeal with the hugely-popular MMORPG and dungeon-crawling genres and inserted the lessons of those genres into a team versus multiplayer environment. It has succeeded in spite of its marketing model.
That only leaves a couple of questions left to ask: What other companies will give this marketing model a try? Which companies have the money to do it? Which companies have the proper games to do it? Will League of Legends run away with the market and push out any future contenders? And to answer those questions, I would say, “Who gives a shit?” Quite frankly, if nobody dares to tread the ground of Blizzard, Riot, and Valve, I would welcome that. Then everyone can go back to spending large amounts of time on top-notch versus multiplayer games because, you know, people genuinely enjoy them. As it currently stands, I view the majority of the participants in “e-Sports”—the players who affix themselves to inferior games in the pursuit of a paycheck, possible fame, and/or community endearment—as no better than the people who line up to purchase the next Call of Duty because, “Well, my friends are buying it too.” If you think that “being the best” is a valid pursuit, then play the games that you enjoy, and become the best at those. And if those games are good enough to be the sports of the future, we can determine that after we’ve decided they’re the best games of past or present.