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“Sportification” Will Destroy Competitive Gaming

The sport-ifitcation of games is a bad thing. This is the thought that came to me a while back, and has been lodged in my brain ever since. Why? Well, to be honest, altough I’ll try and justify it in this article, it’s more of a feeling than a well thought out argument. The influence of sports (and big business) on competitive gaming feels “icky” to me. It makes my skin crawl. I’m not even sure why it feels so wrong to me, but I’ll try and figure it out as I lay out my argument. I’d love to hear what you think on this subject. Let me try to explore the issue first and set out my reasoning as best as I can.

In a culture that’s poised between finding its own identity and being subsumed by the movie and comic book geekdom, there’s a third outcome for games: That it becomes co-opted by broadcasters keen to market, package and brand gaming exactly like pay-per-view sports events.

Cheer the fuck up
Imagine these cold, dead, soulless eyes watching you as you undress at night.

And I don’t like it. Games are their own thing. They have developed a voice of their own. From chip tunes to pixel art, games have bled into every aspect of modern culture. Galleries of game art, orchestras playing Mario theme tunes and huge conventions like PAX taking over whole cities. All of these are great things for games as they become bedded into contemporary culture. That’s why it’s disheartening to see games aspire to be something less exciting; when they aspire to the exposure and mainstream relevance of movies and sports by trying to become more like them. And games offer so many more creative opportunities than these rival forms of entertainment.

Shout "Firefly was Rubbish!" and die in 5 seconds.
Shout “Firefly was Rubbish!” and die in 5 seconds.

For a long time the closest reference point for games was cinema. Big publishers like EA used the success of Hollywood blockbusters to gauge the success of their game franchises. The Games Industry courted Hollywood openly, with both Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrahams appearing at E3’s with nebulous commitments to games. While it might have felt like our hobby was breaking out into the mainstream, in reality this approach leads down a cul-de-sac. If a famous painter came along and told a conference of composers that he/she was going to shake up the world of music, no one would pay them any attention. Composers are just fine without artists or any other people from different mediums trying to reinvent their craft, especially those with no understanding of how to write music. And yet, in games we look to these Hollywood legends for affirmation. We don’t need Steven Spielberg to come on stage and tell us that games are now important and relevant to more people than ever. We know that already. Everyone does Steve, and we don’t need your (admittedly well-meaning) approval.

Does it games?
Does it games?

So games have to keep a respectful distance from movies. No doubt both have significant similarities, and a great writer for screen should be able to adapt to the interactive medium. Similarly, talented artists can thrive in both mediums (although in Hollywood they are more likely to be underpaid and under-valued). So games can learn lessons from film. But games won’t replace movies, nor are they as similar as industry pundits and writers would like to say. It’s easy to present Halo 3 as more successful than the biggest Hollywood movie of the year, but it’s a massive red herring. The mediums are so different that it’s not a meaningful comparison. Games are more expensive, played by different demographics, sold and marketed differently and experienced in a completely different way.

I could go on at length about all the missteps games have had as they become more like movies and correspondingly progressed the interactive medium less. The Dragon’s Lair games were the most amazing looking games of their day, but they were terrible as games because interaction was almost non-existent. Similarly, in the early days of CD there was a fad for interactive movies and games laden with FMV using real actors. Sewer Shark. Night Trap. They were curios at best, and did little to push interactive entertainment forward.

Come, let me take you on a tour of the rest of the 80's. I warn you, its awful.
Come, let me take you on a tour of the rest of the 80’s. I warn you though, it’s awful.

Thankfully games are differentiating themselves from movies. Like the very Hollywood concept of the schoolboy standing up to the bully for the first time, games have come to the realisation that they can stand on their own. They can stare down the bully and make him back off. To string the metaphor out further, the bully has realised that the plucky little opponent is formidable in his own right, and now the bully seeks to work together with the plucky youngster to get… um…. more sweets? Look, the point is that movie studios are starting to realise the strength of the games industry. They now realise cross-media can be more than just a shitty licensed game made in 8 months. Indeed, with the recent ascendance of television over cinema, projects like Defiance are an encouraging early glimpse into how games and television series can cross promote and coexist.

The show/games' supposed to be good, and if I meet anyone whose watched/played then I'll ask them!
The show/game might be good, and if I meet anyone whose watched/played then I’ll ask them!

But I was talking about sports, wasn’t I? Yes. E-sports. With games now established to be “a-bit-like, but very-different-from” movies, it’s sports culture that is infecting us now.

More people watch games now than ever before. Watch, not play. From “Lets Play” videos to brag clips to E-sports and tournaments, we watch games more than ever before. In the case of Lets Play videos, these combine gameplay footage with YouTube personalities to create something new. Whether it’s reaction videos to scary games or genuinely funny or insightful commentary, these gameplay videos are now huge, and have also changed the face of games journalism.

Lets Play videos are interesting in that they are a relatively new thing, but they are also unique. They aren’t a version of something that already exists. They don’t generally copy the style and format of existing media, and in Let’s Play videos you can find every kind of presentation and style, from one person talking through how best to complete a tough section of a game, to four terrified girls screaming as they’re chased by Slenderman.

While I see the value in Let’s Play videos, what I find both distasteful and threatening to games culture is sports influenced presentation. You know the sort. I’m talking about everything E-Sports, and in particular anything about pro Call of Duty, Star Craft or League of Legends (and other such games). The types of games broadcasting with M-M-M-M-M-M-Multikill! action replays, colour commentators, guys with head sets watching a monitor, post game interviews with sweating geeks and hype girls in short shorts.

You may ask the (kinda) fair question, “Whats wrong with this kind of thing Tom?”. You might go on to then say, “Why can’t games be just like sports? We can replace sports! Star Craft/LOL/DOTA/Halo is the new football.” Well Mr Strawman, you’re wrong. And I’m going to tell you why.

I hate sports broadcasting. It’s full of people who can’t talk well, spouting cliches like it’s going out of fashion. That’s a huge generalisation of course, but there’s no denying that the post game-interview often involves people whose primary strength is not diction or erudition, talking at length about a subject for which there is little to actually say. Essentially, post game interviews boil down to “How sad are you that you didn’t win?”, or “How great do you feel now that you are the winner at sports?”. The nervous, sweaty, tired athlete or team manager rarely has much to say that’s worth hearing. The few that manage to be entertaining do so not by their in depth analysis of the event that has just occurred, but because their natural personality and wit shines through.

Move post-game interviews into the arena of Star Craft or League of Legends and you have something akin to a car wreck. Slick media trained interviewers looking for a break into “real” television hold nervous, sweating, pale socially awkward young men hostage, asking the same stupid questions that footballers get asked after a big game. These interviews are generally tragi-comic and impossible to stop watching, like a car wreck or someone having a breakdown on live TV. In some cases this is literally true, as your average professional gamer has as much fear of the camera as they do of social contact outside of a chat room or running out of energy drinks.

And to be fair it’s not all awkward guys. Here’s an awkward guy AND an awkward girl.

Now again I’m painting in broad strokes here. Sure, there are a few professional gamers who can communicate well. They are in the minority though. Your average professional gamer has to have practiced for a ridiculous amount of time on their chosen game to become proficient. They have sacrificed a lot to become as good as they are. In this respect, they have something in common with athletes.

Smoking Joe Frazier was once asked whether he took Christmas day off and missed training. He said that if his opponent took that one day off training, he could get the upper hand by training while everyone else ate Turkey. So he never took a day off. This kind of will, commitment and resolve is what it takes to be a success in a sport, and the same commitment is required to be a professional gamer.

What happens when you commit so much of your time to a sport though is that you don’t develop other parts of yourself. Maybe you’re not as good at expressing yourself in face to face conversations. Certainly you’re less likely to be natural and poised when on camera. That takes either immense inner confidence or practice. Most pro gamers won’t spend much time practicing their small talk and their camera manner. That’s time they could be practicing.

So the post-game interview is an aberration. Pointless and off-putting in sports, it’s even worse in pro gaming. Often carried out by a pretty woman with a microphone on a socially awkward young man, it often develops a bizarre maternal feel as the guy is by turns reassured and then patronised.

But its not just the post game interviews that grate with me. It’s everything about e-sports coverage. The presentation. The on-screen graphics with player profiles. The news ticker with updates. Why does it all have to be so overtly influenced by pay per view sports events? There’s a reason I’m not a big sports fan, and presenting games like they are a sub-set of sports is damaging. Games are bigger than that. Games can be more.

That’s not to say games can’t learn lessons from sports broadcasting. Sometimes mainstream television are terrible at presenting anything competitive. In one example, a television show on BBC 1 showed celebrities racing each other in a mock-athletics competition. In the closing straights of the race, the camera switched to a head on view, making it impossible to tell who won as the viewing angle made it difficult to see who was in the lead. Sports broadcasting always gives the best angle to view the events that are taking place, so that’s one thing e-sports can (and does) take into account.

Evo is the other big talking point when it comes to competitive gaming. In the newest Giant Bombcast, Jeff Gerstmann described Evo as a mess of humanity. It’s not slick. It’s not dominated by big business. Sure, there are companies involved as sponsors, but the organisers are fanatics. Fighting game fans to the core. It feels like at the very centre of Evo (and the fighting game scene generally) there’s an independence that’s missing from other competitive sports. Blizzard and Riot keep as tight a leash as they can on competitive gaming in their respective games, but Capcom, Namco and SNK know that Evo is a bigger thing than any of them, and they can’t dominate it.

But Evo has its own ugly side too. Because it’s not slick. It’s not corporate and inclusive. Allegations of sexism, bullying and controversy are never far away. Is that part of fighting games culture? I don’t know. I am however glad that the streams for Evo are free from awkward interviews, the sponsors are held at a distance and the commentators are more influenced by the strong fighting game scene than they are by mainstream sports broadcasts.

I guess what it comes down to is the fighting games community has a strong character and personality of its own. The MOBA’s and Star Craft and Call of Duty do too, but in those cases it’s not as well developed, and into the partial vacuum big businesses and mainstream sports presentation fill the void.

So is there a solution? That’s not a rhetorical question, I actually want to hear your answers. Maybe this isn’t even a problem. It certainly feels like it is to me though. When I watch games masquerading as sports I feel isolated. Excluded. Like something has been stolen from me. I want it back. Lets take it back.

Published inEditorial