Professional gaming fans gathered on Sunday to hear from some of their favorite competitive gaming hosts and discuss the future of eSports, and it's clear this rich world with its unique set of personalities has a challenge in making itself accessible to new audiences.
Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski is a competitive StarCraft player in his own right, has been a captain of professional StarCraft teams, operates a popular stream on the TwitchTV video game internet channel, and is a well-known match commentator in professional StarCraft circles. Stemkoski feels that a chief challenge of popularizing American competitive StarCraft play is how weak America's competitive gaming circuit is compared to the rest of the world.
Getting new players into the circuit comes down in part to making players aware it even exists. TwitchTV has made strides towards accomplishing that goal. Kevin Lin, TwitchTV's Chief Operating Officer, made a guest appearance on the panel to talk about the growth of Justin.tv, the parent site from which the gaming channel spawned, and how it led to the ability to support competitive gaming broadcasts.
Justin.tv was founded five years ago, around the time Ustream and LiveStream started, and Lin admitted they didn't know what they were doing. When the Jonas Brothers tried to use the site to livestream a concert, the 15,000 people who signed in to watch crashed the site. Lin and his crew started buying infrastructure so they could scale Justin.tv, but when 150,000 people signed on to watch the Jonas Brothers, the site collapsed again. TwitchTV is possible because now Justin.tv is properly set up to support up to 500,000 people simultaneously, which means they can stream eSports events.
Media bandwidth is a significant hurdle to overcome, but getting new fans to take advantage of that bandwidth means increasing the visibility of competitive gaming. Mark Julio of game peripheral manufacturer MadCatz is their Sponsorship Manager, and was heavily involved in the production of their Street Fighter branded arcade sticks that feature in the competitive fighting game circuit. Julio says his company would like to support competitive gaming in general. If the StarCraft and fighting game circuits were to join together, it might make it easier to draw eyes to competitive gaming as a whole.
Garnering coverage in the video game media is also a challenge. Giant Bomb's Brad Shoemaker is an adherent of competitive gaming, but doesn't know how to solve the issues of getting media coverage within the enthusiast press. “The question I haven't come up with the answer to is how do you get people who don't play the game interested in more than a superficial respect?” he said, speaking specifically of StarCraft. People who don't have a base understanding of the game are difficult to rope into coverage of competitive matches, because they can't appreciate the strategy and tactics being utilized.
Sponsorship is another challenge. When pro fighting game player Joe Ciaramelli accepted a sponsorship from the online pornography company Brazzers, it was considered by some in the fighting game community to be a major blow towards the growth of the sport, especially in light of the recent coverage of sex discrimination within professional fighting game circuits. “That's kind of crazy,” said Markman. “I mean, the fighting game community doesn't have a lot of sponsored players. It's where eSports was years ago. I guess a lot of people who are enthusiasts watch screens, and fans were egging [Ciaramelli] to get a sponsorship from Brazzers.”
“You can be raw and uncensored and unfiltered without being exclusionary,” said Shoemaker, in reference to the sex discrimination within the fighting game community, and Markman thinks the controversy was a wake-up call.
Panelist Geoff Robinson, a competitive StarCraft 2 player, asked whether the fighting game community didn't want to bring sponsors into the game and widen their audience. “There's a group of people who don’t want to lose what they built up, the grass roots, the raw edge of the fighting game community,” Markman answered, even though he thinks those people are in the minority. Markman respects that TwitchTV has a separate channel for the fighting game community, which is taking a step to bringing them into the larger eSports world.
Yet another challenge is the lack of any unified league structure. Whereas professional sports have their World Series or Super Bowl which officially crown a best team every year, professional gaming has a disparate set of leagues and tournaments that don't produce a “best StarCraft II player” or a best team every year.
Major League Gaming host, JP McDaniel, feels that Blizzard's plans to create its own tournament could fill that void, and illustrated the point by mentioning the victory of Canadian StarCraft player Scarlett's victory over one of the top Korean players in a recent tournament. The victory was a huge deal in the competitive StarCraft community not only because Scarlett was an unknown, but also because she beat a Korean player. Those sorts of events create the storylines and big names which are important to a competitive sports scene.
Robinson added that positive commentating is really important. Stemkoski's match commentary is noteworthy in part because when players make mistakes, he takes a classic sports commentator approach and explains the mistake, but also acknowledges how difficult what the player attempted was. That sort of commentary highlights what's cool and impressive about competitive StarCraft players. Robinson thinks commentators are the flag bearers of eSports.
We spoke briefly with Marcus Graham, known as DjWHEAT in the StarCraft 2 commentating and streaming community, about the lack of accessible routes into the eSports world. He told us that a lack of resources prevents the creation of “101-level” material to help rope new fans into eSports, as the people dedicated to eSports necessarily direct their attention to the fans who are already on board. This is the biggest challenge facing the popularity and growth of eSports in the future.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. In addition to feature writing and event reporting for G4, his work has been published on Kotaku, Ars Technica and Gamasutra. His weekly column First Person runs on The Escapist, and you can follow him on Twitter: