The Best of (Bad) Intentions; Thoughts on what’s Really Ruining E-sports
“Imagine how much better they could be though,” said my friend, sounding a little disappointed. I looked over at her, a bit puzzled over what she meant.
“Nick and Dan are my favourites by far. I mean, as duos go… maybe if we’re discussing individuals, then,” I said, but my friend interrupted me.
“No no, I agree, they are clearly right up there compared to other E-sports commentators. But imagine how much better they could be if they received some proper training. Like, from someone who usually commentates normal sports like football or something, you know?”
I had to concede the point. Subject matter aside – it didn’t really matter which “normal” sport you compared with – even second-tier sports casters and commentators were simply better in every way than even their best E-sports counterparts. I mean, here we were watching the GSL Starcraft 2 finals, arguably the event that most merited high production values and professionalism in all of pro gaming. And, personal preference aside, I think anyone would struggle to find more professional, experienced hosts than Nick “Tasteless” Plott and Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski within the western Starcraft 2 community. But if we’d have cycled between the GSL broadcast we were currently watching and even the most mundane broadcast of athletics, we would have had a really hard time making a case for the Starcraft broadcast being better in any way, biased as we were. Indeed, we’d probably have a much easier time making that same case for the Korean-speaking trio commentating the same game just a stone’s throw away from Nick and Dan.This exchange between my friend and I has stuck with me for the 7-ish months that have passed since it happened. The reason it stuck is because there’s an extremely uncomfortable question following in the wake of the original discussion. That question is “why”.The struggle to answer this question has permanently recalibrated my mental radar to react to the many instances of amateurishness found in E-sports – especially when the offenders are high-profile individuals or organisations, or when there is, explicitly or implicitly, a lot of money involved. Below is a list of examples of various expressions of suckiness in the Starcraft 2 scene that I’ve picked up on over the past year or so. Later, I’ll propose some potential solutions off the top of my head, and finally I’ll elaborate on why I think that none of these solutions have been pursued at the time I’m writing this. But first things first; let’s start by looking at some wildly different examples of tendencies and events that have no place in professional sports.
The Events and Tournaments
- The North American Star League or NASL. It’s really hard to know where to start with this absolute joke of a tournament. I’ve never before, or since, felt quite so cheated out of the price-of-admission for what was essentially a load of Video-On-Demand or VODs (the live casts never quite managed to synch up with my schedule). While most people probably remember the abysmal final event clearly (or maybe not-so-clearly – come on, it was shit), I wouldn’t want anyone to forget the horror of only having the VODs available in 1080p (ask someone who’s on mobile broadband how much they appreciated that one). Also, let’s remember the appalling production values, the absolutely terrible website design and the technical issues that I can only assume would be blamed on the server backend of things. To illustrate just how disappointing I found this whole thing, let me first state that I am a very frugal person. With that in mind, know that I didn’t watch even half of season one of the NASL. The whole thing was an amateurish hack-job, and the reason it even warrants a mention is because of the disappointment factor; a really big deal was made out of how much money was going to be invested into it before it got started.
- Major League Gaming or MLG. In my opinion, MLG is pretty professional in most respects. Okay, forcing us to watch placeholder images while potentially interesting matches are happening off-camera kind of sucks, sure. But the real reason I’ve put MLG on this list is the Dallas 2011 event. Yeah, that one. The one that effectively didn’t happen unless you were there, on-site, watching it live. “An Act of God”, someone would call it, and indeed it was a bit of a freak occurrence for the entire thing to go to shit the way it did. However, it still raises the question of “would this ever have happened to the MLS or NFL or Champions League”? With those events, the question is rather “how quickly would the issues have been fixed”.
- Dreamhack and other mid-to-low-profile tournaments that make it overly difficult and/or impossible to get VODs or replays for later viewing. Do the people behind these tournaments have any idea how much Starcraft 2 there is to watch on the internet? Do they know how many fans there are in time zones that just won’t allow them to engage in live viewership of at least half of the noteworthy tournaments? Do they know how much revenue they are potentially missing out on by not making it super-easy for people to watch the tournaments on their own terms? Well, no, I don’t either. But it doesn’t feel like such a big stretch to assume that it far outweighs the costs of making the material reasonably easy to access.
- The overall poor on-site logistics of every tournament with a substantial live audience. Now, while I’ll be the first to admit that some people just need to thicken their skin up a little bit and that pro gamers really shouldn’t lose perspective and think that they’re rock stars, there’s a certain level of roadie work that we should be able to expect out of organisers of live events. The act of providing casters and players with “backstage” privileges, allowing them to get to and from the playing area and, for example, bathrooms is just civilized and decent in my book. Also, assisting in setting up autograph signings and little meet-the-fans events would lower the number of stressful, though no doubt well-meaning, ad-hoc signings and “oh-look-it’s-Huk-let’s-all-go-up-to-him-at-once” situations. Articles like this one, which practically begs fans to treat players like human beings, should not have to happen.
The Competence of the Non-Playing Pros
- Casting. Though this article started with a reflection on Nick and Dan over in Korea, I still believe they make up the best casting duo in the Starcraft scene. Sure, apart from the fact that they could take a few pointers from a few “real” sports casters, my biggest gripes with these two are actually little niggles. For example, they really need to look up the meaning of the word “reactionary” – whenever I hear it I’m imagining Infestors with checkered scarves hurling rockets over walls at fanatical Zealots – poignant perhaps, but quite obviously unintentional. Also, confusing “title set “and “tile set” makes me think that maybe a bit of a read-up on nerd lingo wouldn’t be misplaced either. That said, Tastosis, as the duo calls itself, are probably as good as Starcraft casters come.
Now, if we are to talk about the average level of casting, we’ll have used other people as examples. While Nick and Dan may well be less-than-perfect, everyone else is generally just bad in one way or another. Now, the point of this post is not to put people on blast, so I’m not going to name names. Instead, let’s see if you – and this is only directed at reasonably hardcore Starcraft 2 watchers – manage to figure out whom I’m talking about just by the following descriptions:
- The European caster who understands the game rather well but whose grasp of the English language sometimes fails him, resulting in, among other things, the random use of words and phrases such as “whatsoever” and “any time soon”.
- The very energetic caster with the boyish voice and appearance who even when casting a large-scale event seems to bring his hobbyist antics with him.
- The “token chick” from Europe. Really hot, of course.
- The British guy.
- The other British guy who is, in fact, much better – and now you’re kicking yourself for not thinking of him first.
- The caster who got loads of viewers early in Starcraft 2’s life, most likely by virtue of his chosen name which a lot of people interested in the game unwittingly searched for.
How did you do? Now, before you start giving me a bunch of shit about how good it is that we have these kinds of “unique” casters with “their own styles”, please keep in mind that all these little quirks and idiosyncrasies that you’re trying to defend are the kinds of things that are likely to put quite substantial numbers of people off. A friend of mine saw her first Tastosis cast while preparing to help me proofread this article, and she used the term “douchey commentary” to describe what she was seeing.
I’m not asking for someone who is so bland as to be inoffensive, just someone who is generally accessible to most, if not all people. Other sports have these people in droves. Why don’t we?
- Analysis. I can imagine at least a handful of people being surprised at seeing this one. I mean, to most people, the level of analysis demonstrated by people like Artosis and Day9, as well as the pro players who will engage in open and public analysis, must seem almost magical in nature. How can anyone bash these people’s understanding of the meta-game? Well, before I answer that question, let me ask one in return, just to clarify things a little:
Which meta-game are we talking about here?
There’s indeed more than one meta-game to Starcraft 2, and anyone who really knows what the word means would be aware of this. Yet our best and brightest minds continue to talk about “The Meta-Game”, and nobody bats an eye. Why? Most likely due to the fact that the Alpha Nerds set the agenda, and if even they don’t know what they are talking about, this will all propagate downward, as nobody wants to challenge the authority and/or seem stupid. It’s basically The Emperor’s New Clothes – Nerd Edition (and no, it has nothing to do with Boxer).
Then there are the discussions about balance and game design. Now, if some basement shoutcaster wants to put together a crappy show about balance, I’m just going to shrug that one off. However, when I’m forced to watch Artosis and Idra spew a bunch of crap about the balancing of Starcraft 2 for 30 minutes or more, making incorrect statements that they easily could have disproven with little to no outside assistance, I lose faith.
I mean, seriously, where were the screen captures of custom maps with modified unit parameters and simulated combat situations meant to prove or disprove a point about balance? We’ll get back to the “difficulty” of doing such things later (it’s trivial), but suffice it to say; making the effort required to find out if you are correct or not is seemingly less important to the best and brightest SC2 analysts than just talking shit in front of a camera.
I would have been perfectly prepared to forgive an iffy remark about balance made during a State of the Game or an MLG broadcast or something, because of the constraints of those formats. But when you put together a show that’s supposed to serve as some sort of deep dive into game balancing, you’d better bring it.
- Event Production. One of the stated goals of many E-sports pros has been to “grow E-sports”, and to make the watching of games such as Starcraft more accessible and enjoyable for beginning players, as well as people who don’t play the game at all. Though this is a noble goal, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of effort put into achieving this. There’s a lot of talk about creating hype, and making events trend on Twitter and stuff, and those kinds of things seem to have been successful to an extent. But ultimately, at some point, people will hit the brick wall that is tuning in to something like MLG “cold”, not really knowing anything about the game.
A little while back, the Penny Arcade show Extra Credits made a video highlighting the problems of E-sports as they saw them. One of the issues they brought up was that in order for E-sports to really grow, game designers would have to start designing games with spectators in mind, which the show stated would be revolutionary and ground-breaking for game creators. Now, this statement is false – designers have been designing with bystanders/spectators in mind since the first arcade games, via games like Guitar Hero where over 50% of the screen real estate can sometimes be devoted to non-playing onlookers, and of course modern E-sports-focused games. Starcraft 2 is actually a great example of a game that is totally packed with features that are meant for onlookers rather than players. Only some of these are ever actually used, though – which kind of excuses the misdirected criticism a bit. Most of the features that are then used are the pre-packaged ones that a dexterous spectator can play around with during a cast (such as zooming, hopping between saved camera coordinates, rotating the camera…).
Why hasn’t one of the big organisations, who do throw huge amounts of money at their productions already, found it in their budgets to put together some simple custom versions of tournament maps where the camera pans around, showing off the features of the map to beginning players and curious non-players alike? I mean, if you combine a bit of editor work with a bit of post-production, you can make Starcraft 2 sing better than most other games. In fact, many of the game trailers you will find on Youtube were put together with beta or retail versions of games, and then souped up in post-production. Imagine what you could do by combining the features of a Map Editor as powerful as the one for Starcraft 2 with some really good video editing, the likes of which the production crews of the big tournaments have already proven to be capable of. You’d be able to create cool trailers that quickly and effectively explain how general gameplay works, as well as individual maps. We’re talking about 30-second videos here, making the games much more accessible and interesting to most spectators than those audience shots we’re forced to endure between games.
Can I really be alone in having had this idea? Of course not – but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here.
- The Community. Finally, I want to touch on the community aspect a bit. If you head over to Teamliquid.net and hop into any thread on pertinent topics such as strategy or patch notes or whatever, you may or may not be appalled by what you find in there. The important thing to note, though, is that this random thread you’ve found is most likely representative of the community as a whole. It’s pretty much as good as it gets. And the presence of pro players in a thread seldom does anything to raise the average level of discourse. Is there some sort of highbrow forum where only the smartest guys in the room go to discuss the game and surrounding scene at a high level?
No, not really. Teamliquid is all you’re getting. Now, you’re welcome to be fine with it if you want to. Personally, I think it’s at the level of sports hooligans. Some of them are drunk, some of them are sober, but very few of them doing a whole lot to break the stereotypical mould of the socially inept, bigoted, quite idiotic nerd gamer. And very few, if any, exhibit a level of understanding of the game, or any of the other subject matters I’ve listed (event management, film making etc.), that go beyond that of the current casters and content producers on the E-sports scene. This may in fact explain the lack of self-policing in part; most people don’t know they are being fed a bunch of crap.
“Why is it still like this..?”
I’d like to think that I’ve painted with pretty broad strokes here; broad enough to allow pretty much everybody who’s bothered to read this far find at least something that they agree is unacceptably amateurish. So we come back to the question of “why” again. Or, to elaborate on the question: why is the level of proficiency exhibited by the pros of the Starcraft scene so low? Why is the quality of content not closer to par with that of other sports/subject matters?
The question is made even more pressing by the fact that most of what I’ve listed above could be fixed in quite simple ways.
Here are just a few reasons we could easily raise the quality of what we do in the community:
- There are people out there who teach public speaking and best practices for casters/commentators on television and radio.
- There are loads of highly skilled, currently unemployed game- and level designers who would absolutely love to do some contract work and, for example, create informative little cutscenes explaining the intricacies of the tournament map pool for use during broadcasts.
- Some of them might even consider being a talking head on State of the Game. If you’re going to be talking about games design and balance, having a pro in there should be a no-brainer, no?
- There are plenty of courses on rudimentary camera work and film making techniques for amateurs. There are even short workshops on basic journalism where they teach you how to make interviews that aren’t painfully embarrassing and don’t bore your audience to death.
- There are plenty of unemployed people working in web design, event management and broadcasting who would have loved to produce the NASL. I know some 16-year old kids who’d have put the production crew behind Season One to shame.
If you want to shorten the action points down to simply two, they would be:
1.) The people already in the E-sports business need to take steps improve
2.) E-sports needs to do its hardest to attract more and better talent
Most people in E-sport will probably claim that they are already doing this. I find this impossible to believe, and so should you. Not even governments are that slow to improve.
So again, why? Why is this not happening? Well, there’s more than one answer to that question, I think. First of all, I think there’s still too little money in E-sports. Looking at the meaning of the word “professional”, it basically means that you’re getting paid to do something. That said, in a capitalistic economy, there is the subtext of there being competition in the market; you’re supposed to be doing a job well enough for someone to want to pay you, rather than someone else, to do it. Look at the player market, just to provide a very convenient example of what true competition brings. If you’re a mediocre player, there’s really no place for you to get entrenched for very long. Just look at who was hot stuff just one year ago, and where most of those people are now.
That competition is for various reasons absent from the non-playing Starcraft 2 scene. I think the biggest reason for this is that there’s simply not enough financial incentive in the industry, and that it’s too hard to get your foot in the door for it to be worthwhile for a lot of talented people to be bothered. The people who are currently running the show are way too entrenched, and the subject matter is way too niche, for most financiers to be willing to take a risk by not having one of the already established names handling things for them, whether it be casting or producing material.
Or put shorter: what money there is in the Starcraft 2 scene has been dumped in the lap of a bunch of amateurs and semi-pros who feel little to no pressure to improve. At the same time, the people who would do a better job can’t be bothered to disrupt the status quo.
One wonders how many organisations and financiers are currently NOT dipping their toes in E-sports just because the level of quality output is so hit-and-miss, even when a lot of money is thrown at the producers. A few weeks ago, there were a set of tweets sent around by Tasteless and Artosis about a documentary film team soliciting funds to make some sort of movie about them. The biggest reason I didn’t donate was that I had absolutely no way of knowing whether it’d be NASL-quality stuff. They can give me all the Executive Producer credits in the world; I don’t want to put my name on something like that. This further lowers the chance of someone from outside the establishment doing anything disruptive; the payoffs are just too uncertain at this point in time for anyone to want to gamble on E-sports in its current state.
“Because Good enough is good enough – for me!”
There is no way around it: getting E-sports to the next level will require our current cast of high-profile casters and producers to either improve at their game, or to help others who are willing to do so to the forefront. Sadly, I think this is very unlikely to happen. The reason I say this is because of the nature of the mistakes; the outright bad quality of so much of the stuff we’re seeing out of the very best and brightest people in E-sports. Yes, we’re back to “why” again.
Here are what I believe to be the two real explanations for why we keep seeing such poor-quality stuff coming out of the Starcraft 2/E-sports scene:
1.) Intellectually Honest Incompetence or the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”; people simply not being able to distinguish “good” from “bad”. Basically, the people who cast and produce E-sports-related content of low quality actually think that their performance is excellent, and that no improvement is necessary. They may honestly think that the only difference between State of the Game and a talking heads segment on MSNBC is the subject matter. They may think Mr. Bitter would be inundated with job offers if he suddenly chose to cast Football rather than Starcraft 2. They may think that if Michael Moore saw Artosis work a handicam, he may call him up and offer him a job. All right, that last one might actually happen.
There is one big, glaring problem with this explanation, though, and that is the sheer number of people in E-sports producing mediocre content. Is it really possible that absolutely all of them have no real concept of quality? I mean, sure, some of them are no doubt blissfully ignorant and will remain that way even if the average level were raised; but that’s the whole problem. Until the average level is raised, we won’t really know the hacks from the skilled/talented people. So why, then, aren’t the skilled/talented people who are statistically guaranteed to exist, even among the establishment, working day and night to raise the average level of quality of E-sports-related material? Well, here’s where we get a bit confrontational and conspiratorial, with explanation number two:
2.) Intellectually Dishonest Incompetence or “Just Being a Lazy Dick”. The other explanation to why amateurishness permeates E-sports is that there really is little to no incentive to improve. The current level of skill on behalf of our casters, analysts, producers and so on is “good enough”; people are getting paid and have no interest in rocking the boat or upsetting the existing paradigm. I mean, let’s be perfectly rational about this and think about it in terms of behavioural economics: for all the talk about “improving and promoting E-sports”, there’s actually very little that our entrenched “stars” are prepared to actually do in order to achieve this. The payoff for an individual who goes and takes courses on subjects like film making, casting/commentating or game design is bound to not be very high; again, good enough is good enough. And if the current level of quality is acceptable to the people signing the checks, then the cost-benefit proposition for anyone thinking about improving at their craft is not very enticing. Also, bringing outside people into the inner circle of friends is dangerous at best. Who cares if there are better casters out there just waiting to be scouted and given a chance, or if the discourse around Starcraft 2 could benefit from having a professional game developer invited to State of the Game? Nobody who is already entrenched at the top of the food chain is going to risk diluting the pool of available money/casting gigs. Even if the size of the pool were to increase as a result of overall quality going up, there’s no guarantee that the distribution of funds would remain in favour of the people who are currently making the most money. So I’m pretty sure guys like Artosis or Day9 will do what it takes to remain the smartest guys in the room. Their careers, after all, are predicated on that.
As I already wrote earlier, the subtext that comes with the word “pro” is that one is getting money by being better than the next guy. For E-sports to really become big, it needs to become better in every way. And sadly, the people who are currently benefiting the most from the scene remaining stagnant are the very people who’d be best suited for raising the overall level – because as we’ve already established, outside disruption is very unlikely at this point. Unfortunately, this can only occur at the investment/expense of the already established elite of E-sports. If there’s something behavioural economics teaches us it’s that this is not very likely to happen on its own – no matter how much these people claim to “love E-sports”.
So what can be done then? Well, as consumers, we should continue to call a spade a spade, and vote with our wallets. When someone is doing something poorly, make sure you let them know, and do whatever you can to make sure they’re not getting paid when they mess up – give your money to the next guy instead. Keep supporting the very best people, organisations and tendencies, while boycotting and flaming the crap out of the… well… crap. And lastly, make sure to make a big deal out of disruptive things that you like. If some new caster pops up and totally mops the floor with the others, make sure to let everyone know and do your part in promoting him or her. If a show like MapCraft: State of the Terrain turns out to be educational and good, go overboard with praise to keep the producers motivated, and also try helping them reach more people if you can.
But what will absolutely never, ever work is waiting around for The Usual Suspects to magically take E-sports to the next level on their own. Because the sad truth is that no matter how much they claim to love E-sports and no matter how much they want to give the impression that they’d do whatever they could to help take it to the next level, they are in fact perfectly happy with the current, amateurish state of the game. No pun intended.