"Those little lightning bugs are kind of cute…oh, gross!" – Your mom
It's true. Your mom doesn't know which faction is "imba" this month in StarCraft 2, she can't tell you what a "jungler" does in a MOBA, and she probably thinks a "Zerg rush" is some kind of energy drink. Your mom probably doesn't know that e-sports exist, and on the off chance that she does, she certainly doesn't understand why you're so fascinated by watching little troops and critters run around a map and kill one another.
Even so, e-sports (competitive multiplayer games played before spectators for prestige and prizes) are on the rise, and major game companies are spearheading efforts to put video-game play before an audience. Last year, Valve hosted The International, a Dota 2 tournament with a $1,000,000 purse for the first place team, before the company had even released its game to the public (to be precise, it still hasn't). Blizzard Entertainment, publisher of World of Warcraft and StarCraft 2, expects to host the finest talent playing their games at the Battle.net World Championship in lieu of running their popular Blizzcon convention this year.
Still, for all the effort put into popularizing eSports, your mom (and the public at large) couldn't care less about the goings-on in competitive gaming. These people may not follow baseball or football either, but it's likely that they at least appreciate the excitement of friends and family who do. If we want the battles of our best and brightest to achieve more mainstream appeal, we have some major hurdles to overcome.
E-sports communities are opt-in communities
Pop quiz: Why does your mom root for the home team?
Don't over-think it because she doesn't over-think it either. She does it for one simple reason: because they're the home team. See, your mom, being a wholly natural creature that doesn't break the laws of physics, exists in only one place at a time. She, like most humans, probably thinks of the place where she spends most of her time existing as her hometown. When the home team goes to the big game and brings back a shiny new trophy, they're bring it home to that place — her place.
On the other hand, if your mom wants to root for a team in a game like StarCraft 2 or Dota 2, she'll have some homework to do if she wants to make a meaningful decision. She won't have the comfort of built-in hometown heroes to fall back on because unlike members of a traditional sports team that congregate in one place, members of e-sports teams are scattered all over creation. When a team of digital generals takes home a giant novelty check, it isn't also her hometown's giant novelty check, and that makes it a lot harder for her to get invested in the outcome of the battle.
Unfortunately, considering the location-divorced nature of online gaming, I can't think of a meaningful way to squeeze e-sports teams into a construct that distributes them geographically. If you want mom to make an informed decision regarding which team to support, you could always breakdown the nuances of each pro's playstyle for her, but even the most dedicated parent risks having his or her eyes glaze over when faced with that. You might be better off letting her choose her favorite fighters based on a factor that already makes sense to her.
"Okay, I'm pretty sure the crystal guys are losing now." – Your mom
Most major e-sports games are poorly designed for spectators
So let's pretend that mom has gone to the trouble of choosing a team to support. Maybe she went for a crew of well-mannered sportsmen if she has traditional values. Maybe she chose a scandalous gang of rage-quitters and smack-talkers if she watches too much reality TV. Whatever the case, good on her for making the effort.
Now, when actually watching an event, mom confronts an entirely new problem. She's accustomed to watching traditional sports. She's used to being able to understand the entirety of the moment-to-moment action by following a ball.
Seriously, think about it. How many traditional sports can a viewer take in effectively just by following the position of a ball? If you swap a ball for a puck, a shuttlecock, or a folding chair (you know, for pro wrestling matches starring a nefarious villain), the list expands even further. Mom conceptualizes sports within that paradigm. It makes it easy for her to step in and out of the action as she needs to.
Now let's look at e-sports games. MOBAs have meaningful action afoot in three lanes and the intervening space between. We've already, at bare-minimum, tripled the difficulty for mom to effectively follow the state of the match. StarCraft 2 presents a similar assault on mom's cognitive capacity. Just off the top of my head, she'll have t o attend to two armies, scouting intel, drop play, worker transfers, expansion efforts, and upgrade statuses to know who has the advantage.
Oh, and did I mention that all of this action is happening simultaneously between two players, but both vantage points are impossible to view simultaneously? Wish your mom luck for me as she endeavors to watch a live game, will you?
We have a long way to go
If our goal ultimate goal is to produce e-sports coverage that even your mom could watch and enjoy, we have some work cut out for us, but I don't think we're taking on an impossible task. Might I recommend a few ideas to get us moving in the right direction?
We need to learn what makes people root for a competitor in sports that are less centered on a two-goal structure: NASCAR, golf, pro-wrestling, etc. Any sport that draws a lot of spectators and forces them to actively pick a side in the competition is worth studying.
Complex games need more powerful tools to deliver info on the game's state to the viewer. StarCraft 2, for example, has some diverse stat tracking that commentators can pull up, but a picture-in-picture pop-up showing a player taking his latest expansion along with a count of expansions with active gatherers held by each player would have much more punch than a few graphs. Something like that would allow spectators to take a peek at a meaningful event in progress without having to pull away from a major conflict.
Casual viewers need a hub that caters to their need to have the basics of the game explained. They may not need an entire website, but they probably need more than a stickied forum thread made by a generous volunteer. Imagine a series of short “game appreciation” videos that explain what actions are important in a match and why they contribute to overall victory. Something like that would be much less intimidating than coverage that assumes its viewer is well-aware of popular players, critical acronyms, and dominant strategies.
It isn't crazy to imagine a more mainstream e-sports scene. I believe in the capacity of the games dominating this movement to excite not just viewers with an existing investment in the hobby, but people from all walks of life.
And yes, that does include your mom.
Images via battle.net/sc2