Esports. A field sneaking about the shadows. It is another frontier in our desire to hit the mainstream in a similar way to how a football (soccer, not hand-egg) may be kicked. A metaphor perhaps appropriate to how I got musing on the importance of what game is picked as an e-sports competition.
A little back story. So just over a week ago I was shuffling along, with my hands in my pockets, when I thought to check out the Guardian. It is honestly my preferred news source (even if they occasionally print pretty horrid things), so a daily glance is nothing new. What did catch my eye was a story about e-sports. Considering they have a tendency to occasionally miss the point, I had a schadenfreudian smirk on my face as I clicked to view.
It was a story announcing that BT Sport would be broadcasting FIFA 17 matches live on TV. It is a rather brief and inoffensive story, one I'd normally shrug off and move on. Something that is fine, not every news posts needs to be long and light the world on fire. However, then I begun to ponder: Was FIFA 17 the right game as a flagship on the new frontier that is live UK esports?
No, GamesMaster does not count.
Let's consider why you'd pick FIFA 17 as one. To get the obvious out the way: While BT Sports does primary show football, that is not their full repertoire. TV Catch Up on their website is boasting that UFC and rugby are trending next to football. I can also dip my toes into MotoGP, take a gander at some cricket and maybe finish off with a bit of NBA. There's also tennis, sailing, fishing and more. So sport exclusivity is not an issue.
Now, let's leap into what I think was the intended reason: Accessibility. After all, football is a dominating force in sports-related media in the UK. It's grasp even reaches beyond both harden and casual fans, as even those who have no interest in football usually have some second-hand cultural knowledge of the sport. So, logic would dictate that an e-sport focused on a simulation of a sport everyone is familiar with would be the perfect lure into the growing field.
Except it misses an important part behind support: Investment. To paraphrase my dad who is very much into football when I told him about the story, with a smirk, “but it's all fake”.
This is a sport where often people will support their local team. My dad supports Sheffield Utd for that reason (as it is where he's born-n-bred) and a neighbour supports Brighton. When supporters root for other teams, it'll be popular teams where people rally behind players they're familiar with. You expect these same people to suddenly cheer behind a fictionalised version? It strikes me as a little silly.
I said silly, not impossible.
While some will likely still be able to root behind these games, they will be a minority. “Oh, don't worry, esports fans will top it up” is a sentiment I'm sure exists. That said, I do worry about how many esports fans are there which would be interested in the FIFA type. Besides BT Sport and ESPN recently signing the game on, the only group I can find that arranges for FIFA competitions is World Gaming. In contrast, if you wish to watch a match of Street Fighter from 2016, you can check out one of 26 events.
Using this data, I am not sure there will be enough esports fans to compensate for the loss in football fans to justify this broadcasting.
That isn't to say there lacks an answer to what esports title would be more appropriate. Just there is the hurdle that non-savvy people have to be able to comprehend what's happening at a glance, while being invested in what is going on.
Sadly, accessibility is a requirement that pulls down a lot of the more traditional esports titles. MOBAs are straight out. Not only due to the genre but also the amount of heroes (and therefore information to learn). Similarly, strategy titles would be gone due to a strange camera style (isometric or top down with UI) that I believe the average person would not grow attached to and would either be a peculiarly fast pace or so slow as to bring people to tears. There is Time Commanders who used Total War, but it seems the show was more geared from a pop-historical perspective than as an esports venue.
I'd say most fighting titles would also be out, as most I'd wager are so vibrant and fast as to not mesh well with pop-culture depictions of fighting. A pop-culture built upon Hollywood films where if there is martial arts to be had, it is in a dance-like form rather than an array of HADOOOOOKUNS and SONIC BOOM! Although we'll get back to this.
Well, except that one time. Since then, it has been Tuesday everyday for one Dtoider.
Some shooters would also be shot in the back of the head. I predict the average viewer of a sports channel would not be thrilled with a cartoon aesthetic style. This is something that leaves Team Fortress 2, Overwatch and perhaps even Halo (due to the sci-fi nature) dangling in the breeze. I'd also be inclined to also exclude those whose age is beginning to show (e.g. Quake, Unreal Tornament and Counter Strike) or have a less-than-stellar appearance due to budget (e.g. Verdun, Insurgency and Fistful of Frags).
Yep, as pretty bad as it is, it'll be people's love of Hollywood that esports would have to tap in to to make it accessible and decipherable at a glance by the non-savvy folk. The same people we grumpily beg to get out of their safe zone, are the same folk using the same pop-culture to make their games that is important here. So, let's study what we have.
We do have the Call of Duty series, specifically the Modern Warfare iterations. However, these come with a problem: Perks. Say you're someone who gobbles films like John Wick, Fury and Olympus Has Fallen and then sits down with a bit of footy to relax, with no familiarity with video games. Would you instantly know if someone had Last Stand or Martyrdom at a glance via UI (so the enemy does not know) or how they function? It isn't a deal-breaker issue like genre, but I'd be inclined to reduce the amount of potential perks at first and then introduce other ones as a fanbase grew.
There is also the Battlefield series. This is a tricky one. The main problem you have is a large collection of players. Even at a small 32 game match, that is a lot of players to try to keep track of. This is especially as each is making their own push. To keep to a manageable level that audiences of sports are familiar with, I'd probably keep it to 10 per team. This is because football (soccer, not American) have 11 per team including a goalkeeper, so 10 moving players. While rugby has more players (13 a side) it is a comparatively unpopular sport for audiences. Needless to say, if a player count got reduced that heavily then maps would have to be redesigned to compensate.
Another random point is, due to an “open interpretation” of WW1, I think Battlefield 1 could be considered as well as Battlefield 4.
Although I'd still be tempted to roll back on the more sillier parts.
Interestingly, there is one more title that I believe could make it on a sports channel. It lacks the arcade-y approach of it's modern-warfare competitors, it is even debateable if you can use the word “warfare” to describe the setting, but it's CQC nature and instantly recognisable setting makes it a potential candidate. The title being Rainbow Six: Siege.
To get the main problem out the way: It is slow and brutal. Sports audiences would risk just watching two people peeking around a corner, trying to spot a slither of skin of which to shoot. Which when death arrives, it is sudden. There's rarely a struggle. Just a gunshot to begin and end the conflict. So imagine two SWAT officers dancing around when suddenly one thumps the other in the face.
However, there are two main positives the game has going for it: Recognisable context and recognisable abilities.
Rainbow Six Siege, in the PvP context, is an attack/defend scenario featuring SWAT raiding a building. It is something that has appeared in film after film, as well as mentioned on the news. Even if a police-setting hasn't been seen by the audience, the idea of attacking a building or defending a building in an urban environment is one easily understandable by non-videogame familiar folks.
You can even imagine your permentant-scowl on everyone's face if it helps!
Speaking of easily understandable, the ability system executes this incredibly well. You have characters that look distinctive enough to know who you're looking at. In addition, most abilities in the games are ones that make sense in a real-world setting. If you put a car battery up to a metal object, anyone who makes contact is going to get jolted with it. Thermite can burn through metal, like metal walls. Sledgehammers can break wooden walls/barricades in a swing.
While some operators require demonstration, I still think they are easily understood due to real-world knowledge. Blind-firing grenades are still grenades. Grenades can be shot down by a particular ability. Bulletproof barricades can still be broken, albeit with a lot more resistance.
The only downside is Siege has begun to dip into the more complex territory lately. This especially comes in the form of Jackal and Mira, two latest additions that I admit I still don't fully understand how they work. Jackal is meant to track people, but I don't fully grasp how so and Mira I don't fully “get” how to break the one-way window. So caution would be needed for future operators. Especially as the developers plan at least 50 operators with currently 28 about, with the hopes of maybe hitting 100 one day with a comparison to MOBAs.
With the added bonus that Siege is already a toxic wasteland of salt, fury and harrassment, a place where MOBA players can feel like home.
With all my gleeful heralding of all three of these games that could work, they still have a colossal hurdle to climb over: Camera work.
Sports, in a traditional form, have the fortune of allowing for a side angle where all the players can be spotted at once. Due to the nature of FPS involving shooting, cover is a major part. So major that level design is a significant part of a FPS game as the amount of routes, the elevation and quantity of cover are only a few environmental ways a battle may be won in the favour of one side or another. This is only amplified with Battlefield and especially so with Rainbow Six Siege as they both boast destructible terrain to the point it is often a significant tactic. So a way would have to be devised to allow people to keep a track of the action easily, preferably with a majority of third person views as to mimic Hollywood camera work.
That said, maybe I'm completely off the mark. I still find it interesting to consider what could bridge the gap between the sports and esports world as it would further help normalise our peculiar culture to the world at large. I personally think it'll only occur by embracing the “they're not real people, it's just a virtual world” as much as possible to capture our joy of Hollywood, but maybe there's another factor I'm overlooking? Maybe people will begin to be apathetic to virtual people being on a football pitch rather than real folks punting a ball about? I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on the subject as I believe e-sports, even if you don't personally enjoy them (e.g. I don't), is an important part of our culture that I hope flourishes.