The Spectator Spectre
I recently had an interesting discussion about an article at Tap Repeatedly, and one of the things that fell out of it is how difficult it is to even watch high level play at a fighting game and really understand what’s going on. SRK’s Ponder also wrote a really accurate and amusing rant about this fact, albeit from a different perspective, but many of his points apply to anyone watching a video game.
These are some of the underlying reasons why I believe fighting games don’t currently make good spectator sports for the majority of people. This applies to video games in general, in fact many types of game, especially those with a first-person perspective even suffer far more problems than fighting games do in this department. Whilst the “but I can do all of that!” factor mentioned by Ponder might even help get players interested in playing a game (albeit not to a high level), I’m not sure it’s necessarily a selling point in getting people to watch them. Of course even for the layest-of-laymen watching video game tournament footage there’s the usual “see who wins & loses” and the natural drama associated with any competition – it’s why one of my friends enjoyed watching hours of live EVO footage, even though he himself only knows the basics of these games and can’t even pull off hadoukens with much consistency. It’s just that in many of the popular televised ‘real’ sports the visible signs of what’s going on tend to be more obvious. Most of them have the “wow, I can’t do that!” factor. People are also traditionally more impressed with obvious physical skills than the more mental ones that many video games test; witness the failure of attempts to televise chess, as interesting as I personally found it. I feel this is likely the root cause of the traditional scrub’s love of combos as a measure of ‘skill’ as well, as it’s an obvious relatively ‘physical’ dexterity test they can clearly observe happening, or not happening. Fighting games are also simply so fast that observing the real nuances, even if they can be fully understood and correctly interpreted by the viewer, is incredibly hard to see at full-speed. I’ve recently been watching some videos of high-level play at SSFT2 and HDR to try and improve my game, and I end up clicking rewind and watching the same sequence over and over again to spot what really happened and why. It’s hard to even pick the right timestamp to wind back to though at times, because the game is just so darn fast. And someone new to the game won’t even get much out of that rewinding as they’ll just “see the same thing” again.
This is where an insightful and entertaining commentator needs to step in, and much like ‘real’ sports on TV, offer insights into the ‘what & why’ that the viewer can’t otherwise see. John Madden coming out of retirement to commentate on Street Fighter? “And y’see what you see here is he throws out that big ol’ Shin Shoryuken and BOOM!!” *telestrates large red blob explosive hit effect all over the screen*. EVO made a great start at this, I suspect my friend wouldn’t have watched more than 5 minutes without the commentary team, and many Japanese tournaments do the same. But it’s still very basic and e-sports are playing catch up to real sports badly at this – we need slow-motion replays, telestrating, different angle shots, observation views, stats-tracking and all the other things you see in televised sports today. Of course the handy thing about video games is that, being run in software, all of these types of things can easily be done within the program itself. You don’t need some advanced graphical overlay calculated by multiple cameras to put something like a visible First Down marker on the televised version of a e-sports NFL football field, you don’t even need five kinds of alchemy and wizardry orenchanted magical yellow ants to get these kinds of features- all the graphical and statistical technology is already there. However such post-game analysis tools are ironically still in their infancy and completely under-utilised. Bungie.net post-game reports are a nice start on the stats front, but no other game has managed anything close to it, and most games don’t even offer a simple capture & replay option – most people need to hook up additional PC video capture equipment to even get to this point. Even new games like SF4 are hugely dissappointing, only offering some rudimentary playback facilities as part of their game. Again, Halo 3’s replay features are forging ahead far more with this kind of thing. Shame it’s an FPS!
You can probably already hear the Zerg about to swarm this article. A fantastic example of a lot of this in action is Starcraft in South Korea. Here they have a lot of advantages the rest of the world doesn’t for the most part and, whilst some aspects mentioned may be cultural traits, most of these must have been slowly developed over time rather than just appearing overnight. There is a widespread understanding about the game, appreciation of the skills needed to play, experienced (& I’d assume dedicated and entertaining) commentators, one standard game to play (not dozens of different versions of essentially the same game), and of course not to mention, money involved. But I believe a lot more games in other countries could potentially develop in this way if games developers were serious about it and actually even tried to develop for these things. For example I expect the replay functionality that was added very late into Starcraft’s life (as a free patch nonetheless) was likely a big part of Blizzard supporting the Korean scene. It added a huge amount to the game for even a low-level player like me too. Hopefully Starcraft 2 is going to take the lead on things like this, and I expect it will, as the fantastic battle reports shown so far are already showing signs of a whole host of features for commentators and post-game analysis.
Video games are easily popular enough to warrant some becoming true e-sports and having the money come from the spectator interest; it just needs the right vision, the right kind of game – fighting games being one of the closest we have right now, and the right backing for a developer to say “why not my game?”. It’s much easier than televising chess! A lot of factors involved in Korean Starcraft may be just down to dumb luck, timing, culture and community; but at least devs could make a start by putting the building blocks in place to facilitate more successes like it.