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Spectator Esports: Can Casual Gamers Be Hardcore Fans?

Spectator sport is a term often used to describe games like baseball, soccer, and basketball. It’s a relatively simple idea — these are games that it’s possible to enjoy watching even if you’ve never played them yourself. If you surveyed the audience at a football game, I’m sure you’d find plenty of people who played when they were teenagers. Some might even be active in intramural leagues. But crowds at traditional sporting events are also full of diehard fans who simply enjoy watching the game even though they’ve never actually played it.

Think of it this way–how many people watch MMA and regularly beat the shit out of their friends for fun?

In America, our “national pastime” isn’t playing baseball, it’s watching it.

When it comes to esports, however, casual gamers aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.Will we ever reach a point where esports events will enjoy the same universal accessibility and cultural ubiquity as football? In five years, will I be able to strike up a conversation about Cloud9’s terrible Pro League season with people whose gaming experience starts and ends with Wii Bowling?

It’s possible, but a shift of this magnitude will almost certainly take longer than most in the industry are willing to admit.

No Filthy Casuals Allowed

The competitive gaming industry has seen massive growth in recent years, and the data specialists at NewZoo estimate that the global esports market will generate over 1.5 billion dollars in revenue by 2020. The audiences that tune into esports tournaments on Twitch are largely made up of gamers who have invested significant time into playing these titles. Of course, some viewers are simply curious to see what the buzz is about, but if you’ve ever attended an esports event in person, you’ll have noticed that there’s a distinct lack of casual players in attendance. This makes sense, at least to me–you don’t buy tickets to The International because you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about, you buy tickets to the International because you really love playing Dota.

Barrier to Entry: How Accessible Is Too Accessible?

Almost every fan of competitive gaming wants to see the industry succeed. Only a few old-timer holdouts resent the fact that esports is becoming more mainstream.

When it comes to talking about “spectator esports,” no title is more accessible than Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. To roughly quote colorful Dota personality SirActionSlacks about the remarkably broad appeal of CS:GO, it’s because the game is fundamentally simple: “Man have gun. Man see man. Man shoot gun. Man kill man.”

With the debut of ELEAGUE on TBS last year, esports made a triumphant return to cable television. The ELEAGUE production team were careful to avoid repeating the disastrous mistakes of the CGS, DirecTV’s short-lived attempt to bring Counter-Strike to mainstream audiences in 2007. And the CGS was truly a disaster. The geniuses at DirecTV decided that it was easier for mainstream audiences to understand the game if the action was broadcast from a third-person perspective. They changed the game’s economy system to try to make it more exciting. CGS even altered the format of Counter-Strike to lure in mainstream audiences–games had only eighteen rounds instead of the iconic thirty that we know and love today. I could go on, but you get the idea: the CGS sucked major ass.

With ELEAGUE, however, TBS refused to change anything about Counter-Strike for a shot at wider appeal. In every game that was broadcast on TV, the casters made sure to mention that players couldn’t see the outlines–only spectators can see through walls. Every few rounds, you’d hear the casters carefully slip this information in, along with other nuggets of information to add context–getting kills with an SMG earns you $600, When ELEAGUE hosted a CS:GO Major in Atlanta and broadcast the grand finals on TBS, the balancing act continued. Appeasing an audience of hardcore, casual, and first-time viewers is no easy feat, but over 1,026,000 people tuned in on Twitch alone–the ELEAGUE Major Grand Finals broke the site’s record for highest number of concurrent viewers.

Are MOBAs Too Complicated For Casual Audiences?

Counter-Strike’s accessible gameplay is an exception in the esports landscape.

Last week, I hit a milestone. I’d finally logged 500 hours in Dota 2. I downloaded Valve’s popular MOBA after tuning into TI6, but I didn’t install the game because it looked fun. I installed Dota because I was absolutely irate that I had no idea what was going on and I wanted to understand.

It’s been seven months since TI6. I’ve watched countless YouTube videos and professional games. I’ve read guides about laning. I’ve studied farming efficiency and practiced last-hitting in an empty lobby. I’ve spent more time learning about the game than actually playing it, but it’s only now, after hitting 500 hours of playtime, that I’m able to watch a game on Twitch and feel like I understand what’s going on.

I’m still painfully aware of the fact that not only am I still terrible at Dota, and I know that I’ve only scratched the surface as far as game knowledge goes. League of Legends, while not as complex as Dota, presents the same barrier to entry for first-time viewers.

To make matters worse, frequent gameplay updates in MOBAs mean that you’ve never really learned everything about the game. I can explain baseball to someone in fifteen minutes, and I hate baseball. But imagine if the rules of baseball changed multiple times throughout a season–all of a sudden, the player at bat can tackle the umpire to let their teammates steal a base, but this is only allowed during innings with an odd number and only when you already have two strikes.

Other games present different obstacles to drawing in casual viewers. My partner likens the experience of watching Overwatch to “walking into a Las Vegas casino as a drunk fourteen year old.” It’s overwhelming–the game is too colorful and shiny, and you don’t know who anyone is or where they’re going. And this is a game that Blizzard specifically designed with casual players and audiences in mind.

The spectator experience for almost every major esports title is far from perfect. And while we’ve seen massive growth in recent years, game companies are a long way from addressing these issues. Truth be told, they might never have to. Maybe the esports audiences of today will grow old with their favorite games.

J.P. Corner is the Executive Editor for Esports Edition, and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Literature from Bard College. He wants to make the world of competitive gaming a better place for everyone.