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Friday, November 2, 2012


It's been true for awhile now that I enjoy watching high-level games of Starcraft 2 almost as much as I enjoy playing the game itself, and I think in most circles that statement would still earn me funny looks. But the idea of video games as having inherent entertainment value for people watching them is something that's starting to gain more traction; Starcraft has been a very established e-sport for some time, and Blizzard has been considering making Starcraft 2 free to play so that it can compete more easily with free-to-play e-sports like League of Legends. I spent an hour or so last night sitting on my couch, eating nachos and watching Day[9] (a Starcraft enthusiast and commentator) analyzing games between high-level players, and in order to keep that admission from being really embarrassing I thought I'd break down a bit of what I think is really cool about that activity, and about e-sports in general.

Actually, "Day[9] is really attractive" might be enough of an explanation.
I was never very physically active in my youth, and never pursued any competitive sport for very long. Maybe for that reason, I've never been taken with watching sports in general; I haven't been to many games of any sport in my life, and I don't know if I've ever watched a game of any sport start-to-finish on TV. Part of that is not understanding the sport, and part of that is not having any point of context for what's occurring; I don't know whether to be impressed, or how impressed, by any feat of any athlete because I don't have any benchmarks to compare it against. I haven't tried to do it myself, and I haven't seen enough talented players try and fail, so the accomplishment is lost on me.

From that perspective, I enjoy e-sports because I understand how complicated some of the things that are happening are. When watching a Starcraft 2 game, I'm impressed when a player correctly infers what army his foe is amassing by seeing what resources that foe is focusing on collecting. I'm impressed when a player commits the barest resources necessary to respond to a threat, so that her production doesn't slow. Hell, it's not an e-sport example, but I used to love watching Metroid Prime speedruns, and seeing people abuse the game in strange ways in order to get through it as quickly as possible. When you know enough about any activity - sports, dance, singing - to be impressed by someone who's good at it, it can become really fun to watch people do it at a high level because you can appreciate the subtleties of what they're doing. When that's dynamic and competitive, as sports are, watching two players who are both very skilled face off, and knowing only one can win, is exciting as hell, even if they're just moving little bugs and spaceships around a digital map.

If this makes sense to you, you might think it looks pretty cool. I do, anyway.

Because of this, I think this offers gaming a way to break into a kind of market that regular gaming doesn't always provide: watching, in addition to playing. And where there are eyes there are advertisers; this is an incredibly profitable avenue for some kinds of games. Which, though interesting, isn't the most interesting thing about e-sports to me. I'm personally just excited about the opportunity to enjoy these games in a new way. It's fun being a couch-critic, to whine with the benefit of hindsight about bad decisions made by great gamers. It's fun sitting with friends and eating nachos and watching a game. If you can get invested in one side or another, there's a lot of tension and entertainment to be had in watching a match. (Granted, team loyalty isn't something that I think is as easily built in fans of e-sports, but that could change as e-sports become more popular.) It's great being able to feel like you can participate in a game even if you aren't great at playing the game yourself. And as I mentioned before when talking about strategy and asymmetry in competitive games, these games lend themselves by virtue of their complexity to a complex metagame, and the more that metagame is examined and discussed and refined - by the grinding of thousands of players on the servers as well as the careful experimentation of masters at the tops of the ladders - the more engrossing it becomes not just to play, but to watch and discuss. It's a new way to engage with games, and more importantly to me it's a new way for people to come together around games. Games are a lot of things to different people, and sometimes they're social and sometimes not. But when they are social, it's really cool to see the roles they can take in social groups starting to expand; it's another indicator, of many, of how many more ways there are to look at this medium, and how much is yet to be done with it.

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