Aug 192011

In an earlier post, I wrote about NE-SE, a new e-sports organization that was trying to encourage players of all levels to enter their tournament – so that they could raise the cash necessary to pay the ~$50k in prizes that they committed for a live finals. However, I got one critical point wrong – they are charging $20/person as an entry fee, not $10/person. That means the payouts are what I had described ($498,560 per tournament), but what they take in is $1,024,000 instead of $512,000. That makes it a spectacularly good deal for the tournament organizers, if they can get enough people to sign up.  Unfortunately for them, especially at $20 instead of $10, you can be pretty sure that they’ll get nowhere close to the numbers to make their scheme work. And with the numbers this much in their favor, I’m really surprised that Blizzard endorsed them.

That being said, I’m definitely a big fan of e-Sports in general. If you haven’t heard the term, it generally refers to competitive gaming and while I suppose it could refer to any competition between people, online or offline/LAN, it’s usually used in the context of professional individuals or teams competing against each other. In North America, e-Sports is still in its infancy, though it’s grown rapidly over the years. South Korea has had a robust e-Sports scene for a decade, ever since the original Starcraft established the phenomenon a dozen years ago.

In Starcraft 2, the best players in the world still hail from South Korea, without question, and the premier league – the GSL (individual) / GSTL (team) – is played there. North America has several organizations trying to establish themselves, but at this point in time, Major League Gaming (MLG) seems to quite clearly be the best. While MLG got off to a bumpy start, the most recent event (MLG Anaheim) was great to watch – and was the first event I tuned into a good bit of live, sending me over my Rogers bandwidth cap for the month. Europe has high level play a well, but I’m less familiar with it. Some bars in North America have even started airing live games from the GSL/GSTL on certain nights of the week (a phenomenon known as Barcraft)!

Beyond top-level professional play, the online nature of the game has given rise to other interesting leagues – like the After Hours Gaming League (AHGL), which features 8 high tech companies (this season, anyways) battling it out. The AHGL started at Facebook, but expanded to 8 other companies, who are competing for the charity of their choice… and a significant amount of pride, since some of the companies are fierce competitors. Fortunately, three of my favorite tech companies are currently in the lead:

On one Youtube broadcast I was watching recently, one of the commentators (HD Starcraft) said that with games being so much more interesting to watch than regular sports – a comment I actually agree with – that e-Sports was really the future. That, and a bit of analysis on the chart above, are actually very interesting topics…

If you’re not already a fan of e-Sports, you’ll probably dismiss the idea of e-Sports overtaking regular sports as fanatical nonsense – and that’s probably a correct assessment as to what will actually happen. But it did make me ask why I don’t watch or follow any traditional sports, except a little tennis and perhaps the Olympics, but I do find time to watch things like MLG. What makes e-Sports, around Starcraft specifically, so compelling to me?

  1. The level of skill on display is simply mind-blowing.  Of course, it’s possible to marvel at most professional athletes. Usain Bolt ran the 100m stunningly fast in the 2008 Beijing Olympics – 9.69 seconds, and boy, is he fast. But that’s not just fathomable (for non-sprinters, anyways), many of us could do the same thing if you just gave us 5 or 10 extra seconds. By contrast, I’m decently fast (by non-gaming standards) with a mouse and keyboard, but generally top out at an average of 90 actions per minute (APM) when playing competitive 1-versus-1 games.  Professional gamers are all generally in the 200-300 APM range, with some doing 300+ APM; it’s like them running the 400m in the time it takes me to run 100m. More impressive is the degree of multitasking going on; even watching a game without having to control a thing, it’s often tough to follow all the things they’re working on executing in parallel. It’s a battle of mental ability, and the gap between average, good, and great in mental terms is so vast that it makes our physical capacity seem so close that you’d think we were all manufactured at a single factory.
  2. You often don’t know who is going to win.  Nothing is more boring than baseball in the 9th inning when one team is leading 8-1. Yes, I’m sure that there have been miraculous comebacks, but the game is often over long before its over, to the extent that even fans who paid for seats will leave the stadium to avoid a traffic jam later. In other sports, like basketball, there are relatively few “deciding moments” (short of the last few shots in a close game) in which the game is resolved, but can go either way. There’s games like this in Starcraft as well, but the game is so complex than it’s often hard to gauge who is going to come out ahead in an engagement; miraculous turnarounds are quite possible, and “base trades” – the e-Sports equivalent of playing hockey with 8 pucks simultaneously with no stoppages and having a scenario in which both teams give up almost entirely on defense and send their entire teams to score as quickly as possible on the opposing goalie – are not uncommon. This rapidly shifting dynamic makes the games very interesting to watch.
  3. The game itself is incredibly deep. Most sports have fairly simple rules. Sure, there is American football which seems to have a decent level of strategizing, but on the other hand, there’s baseball. I’m sure baseball fanatics will point out any number of optimization strategies and decisions that get made in baseball (like whether to walk a dangerous hitter for the other team, when to bring on relief pitchers, what series of pitches would be most effective), but the game is 5% strategy and 95% execution. Starcraft is vastly deeper, and being a mental game based on limited information, a huge part of the game is controlling the flow of information – or in many cases, intentionally misdirecting your opponent.
  4. The “meta-game” is constantly evolving. Tennis used to feature a lot of chip & charge, but in the recent decade or so has become much more focused on baseline play with drop shots being relatively rare. There’s still a marvelous amount of skill in positioning over the course of a point, but like baseball, 5% strategy, 95% execution, and a fairly well known set of viable strategies. By contrast, because of the depth that a mental game that’s not bound by the physics of a fixed court and equipment can provide, players discover new strategies over time and come up with better ways of coping with popular strategies. The Koreans that showed up at MLG Anaheim left many North American players dumbfounded when they went with a style of play that the North Americans simply hadn’t seen before and couldn’t figure out how to cope with. At every major event, you might see marvelous new play that redefines expectations. What’s cool about that is that if you log on to play some games yourself later in the day, you’ll see people instantly trying to incorporate those new approaches into their own game.
  5. There are a huge number of variations on how a game can go. In every sport, both teams get the same number of players, the same equipment to use, and play according to the same rules. The game is played on a well-defined court/field (sometimes with minor variations, like grass vs. clay vs. hardcourt in tennis). Almost all of the rules are the same every time you play. In Starcraft, players can use one of three totally different races based on personal preference, meaning there’s six potential match-up combinations; there’s about 8 maps that can be used in a given format; and players start at random locations on the map, with certain positions dictating a different style of play (e.g. if you’re close to your opponent, which you don’t know till you find him, then there’s less time to build up an army before the first conflict is likely to break out). And that’s just the initial conditions – players can take it in any direction from there.
  6. It’s extremely fast paced. Games can easily be decided in a clash of forces that takes mere seconds. Other times, it seems like one player crushed another’s army and should have the game – till you realize that the “losing” player had sent side attacks to destroy the vulnerable workers during the chaos of the main clash, and now has such an income advantage that they’ll be able to rebuild and take the game. Whatever happens, games are about 20 minutes on average – and if a player commits to a risky early pressure strategy, it can be over in much less than that. So while curling has a good amount of strategic depth, it certainly makes up for that with its slow, deliberate pace of play.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that it’s so dynamic, so deep, and requires such incredible skill in strategy and in execution, that to me it is unlike watching any sport.

Following up on the point about skill, take a look at the standings from the AHGL (each team played each other team once).  Yelp beat nobody. Facebook beat only Yelp. Dropbox beat only Facebook and Yelp.  Twitter beat only Dropbox, Facebook, and Yelp. The top four teams went 4-0 in their games against the bottom 4 teams.  Microsoft lost to nobody, and the 2nd – 4th place teams went 1-1 against each other. But that’s how it goes in e-Sports; because outcomes reflect differences in mental abilities that aren’t capped by the confines of our physical bodies, the range in skill is much greater, and even with all the variation and dynamism I described above, your odds of beating a player in a higher tier is very low.

Note I’m talking here essentially about Starcraft, which is very specific among games. Personally, I feel it’s the only real candidate for widespread e-Sports adoption. Violent first-person shooters that involve putting a bullet through the heads of other human-like, human-controlled players get enough negative press as is – they’re not going to become prime time TV. They have some depth, but personally I don’t find that they compare. If you want to see sports or racing games, you’re going to watch the real thing instead. Fighting games have a dedicated community and also have decent depth, but are so heavily execution focused that it’s hard to imagine people who don’t actively play appreciating the difficulty of what’s even happening.

Do I think regular sports are getting replaced anytime soon? Sadly, no. While I’d love to see that, so we could get some TV channels like in Korea that cover Starcraft all the time, the reality is, it takes a major time investment on the part of the viewer even to understand the basics enough to know what’s really going on when watching a game. Few people (but hopefully enough) will make that investment, which is very worthwhile in my book. But by contrast, it takes no depth of understanding to appreciate that Usain Bolt is well ahead of his opponents at the finish line. And much as I’m alone in writing ~2000-word blog posts like this one (vs. 160-character tweets), I’m alone in craving ultra-high complexity e-Sports over the traditional, easily understood variety.

 Posted by at 8:12 am

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