This weekend, one of the biggest video game tournaments in the world took place. Evo 2014 was held at the West Gate Hotel, formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton and located right next to the Las Vegas Convention Center. While the venue wasn’t exactly the greatest in comparison to that of its previous holders, the action that the tournament (and its participants) served up was.
Evo is exclusively a fighting game tournament featuring the most popular fighters as its headline events with cash prizes and some of the best competition from around the globe. Although I grew up playing fighting games like Street Fighter, Killer Instinct, and Virtua Fighter I would definitely consider myself an outsider to the world of fighting games at this point. To actually be good, and I don’t mean big fish in a small pond good, an immense amount of hours have to be sacrificed to the fighting game gods in order to hone your craft and your own fighting style in mastering your favorite character. These are hours I just don’t have when I’m juggling a 40 hour work week, a relationship, and games and writing.
Fighting games and its community began to fall out of the mainstream in the United States in the early 2000’s as arcades closed left and right and the coin-operated machine was put out to pasture. The hardcore fighting game community remained, however; over time it expanded again and experienced quite the resurgence through its dedicated fanbase, the power of the internet, and streaming services like Twitch. During that time the community had developed it’s own lingo and jargon and grew exponentially more complex at its highest tiers of competition. Streaming services like Twitch and Ustream have done a fantastic job of growing and nurturing the fighting game fanbase by bringing in both the hardcore and a growing casual fanbase through the showcasing of big tournaments like Evo as well as providing access to top tier players through their own personal stream channels. In fact, these streaming networks have not only helped the fighting game community but given a level of legitimacy to the eSports movement.
If you’re one of those people that thinks eSports is a joke or a fad, I need only point to the fact that the X-Games has partnered with Major League Gaming to have the best Call of Duty Ghosts players compete in what is often thought of as the extreme Olympics event. The X-Games are broadcast on ESPN, which is part of the ABC family of networks which is further owned by the Walt Disney Company. If that isn’t enough to get your attention, I don’t know what will.
In order for MLG to truly grow and legitimize the idea of eSports to a significantly broader audience, it’s going to have to get more networks like ESPN involved. The reason why I feel that fighting games may just be that ticket, and the future headliner of eSports, is the drama. I’m not saying that other games don’t have tense and exciting moments but when you’re dealing with larger audiences it’s often better to have those moments be significantly clearer to the casual viewer. Games like StarCraft and other strategy games are incredibly deep and layered and can, at times, seem void of actual excitement to those watching it. This is also the case with shooters but to a far lesser extent as the action is far more visceral. The broadcast graphics added can help keep the audience informed to the context of the action but there are still multiple perspectives to take into account at once and following the skirmishes spread out over a match can be a little overwhelming. The person playing it might feel their heart racing but to the observer, the situation facing the competitors might not be obvious, especially if the commentary team does not do an adequate job of explaining and presenting the action as it happens.
Fighting games present the information to the viewer quite clearly, so clearly that the viewer doesn’t need anyone to tell them who is winning or in control of a match. As one player attacks and drains the opposition’s health points, that information is clearly presented to the audience. Where the fight takes place and how each player controls the arena is obvious to even the most casual of audiences. Most importantly though, fighting games have drama, and they have it in spades. You need not look for a finer example of this than the BlazBlue CP finals from Evo this weekend which showcased some of the most intense professional gaming I’ve ever seen. Audiences love underdog stories and epic comebacks. It is this level of action and presentation that makes fighting games one of eSports clearest champions to a wider and more mainstream audience.
As someone that is a pretty big sports fan, the fascinating thing about sports isn’t always the action between the lines but the storylines surrounding its competitors. These stories add to and feed into the drama that unfolds when people compete. This is probably best demonstrated in the Olympics where NBC will do an expose on the story of a competitor and their personal battles leading up to their performance. Whether it’s an athlete overcoming an injury in training or extreme poverty and hardship these stories give the audience insight into the athlete. The audience feels like they know the person/people competing, giving the spectators at home the ability to bond with them. As eSports commentary continues to develop its talent pool and finds eloquent, intelligent, and articulate voices for their events it will further legitimize the momentum MLG is gaining in its eSports movement and in turn should make their events more attractive to the big networks in the United States like NBC, ABC, FOX, and CBS.
Things change quickly in the world of technology and broadcasting and we, as a society, could be on the verge of a revolution in how entertainment is presented to us and accessed by us. In the meantime, I feel that the development of top drawer commentary talent and the support of the major networks is eSports biggest hurdle at this time. There are talented individuals already working in competitive gaming events, it’s the job of the organizers and promoters to seek them out and give them larger platforms to showcase their talents and make them household names. Like any grassroots movement it takes time to garner the attention of the masses, but make enough noise and people will start paying attention, and if the noise is worth listening to and the product worth watching, they’ll stick around.