What e-sports need to change if they want to go mainstream

Credit: Source: DOTA 2 International

About a month ago I wrote a post about e-sports coming to the Xbox One via the Major League Gaming app, and mentioned that I was going to use that event to introduce myself to e-sports. Unfortunately I found the Major League Gaming app to be pretty awful (I had to jump from stream to stream to find something worth watching but ever time I did I was subjected to an ad) so I gave up on the idea.

Last weekend I tried again. This time it was the 2014 DOTA 2 International, a tournament that led up to a $5 million grand prize. That was enough money to make the event interesting to mainstream media as well as people like me.

I didn't watch it all, but I did sit through three or four matches before drifting away. I got a glimpse of what people find interesting about watching videogames played as a sport, but I'm not sure I'm a convert yet. I did come away with a list of issues that I think e-sports organizers need to overcome if they really want to go mainstream. Some of these will be specific to DOTA 2, and I'm sure other games would have their own issues.

Let's start with issues particular to DOTA 2.

First is the fact that there's a real learning curve to being a spectator due to their being so many units to choose from. Most traditional sports have a handful of positions that you need to learn. If you want to get into football, to start you need to learn about the quarterback, linemen, receivers and running backs. As you get more into the sport you can learn about the difference between a fullback and a halfback but you can enjoy the game without knowing all that.

According to this DOTA 2 wiki there are 107 heroes in the game, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. As the teams chose their heroes during the International I just twiddled my thumbs as I had no idea what each one did. In addition to the heroes there are various items to purchase during the game (at least that was the sense I got) to add even more complexity. I absolutely appreciate how much depth this adds to the game but it makes a big barrier to entry for someone who wants to watch and appreciate a match.

Second, the action isn't focused. Most traditional sports revolve around a single focal point (often a ball, at least in team-based sports). Sure there're things happening away from the ball but for the people televising the match, they have a single place to point the camera most of the time. That's not true in DOTA 2. There are 5 players on each side and 3 "lanes" to move through, plus there are non-player units on the board too, and the action is continuous. At any given moment there can be 2-3 'hotspots' of action going on, and to try to show it all the commentators zip back and forth across the map at a dizzying pace. It's like covering the World Cup if soccer was playing with 4 balls at the same time.

It's hard to follow and keep track of what is happening where (at least as a neophyte). Maybe they need some kind of picture-in-picture mode so they can show more than one location at a time. Somehow making the 'viewport' more distinct on the mini-map might help as well. How about color-coding the towers to give the spectator a clue about what part of the map is being displayed? Also, give the spectators/commentators a version of the UI that doesn't have all the player controls that just take up space.

Now let's pull back and talk about esports in more general terms.

My first 'issue' was that I didn't know who to cheer for. That's a problem for any sport you're new too, but often you can start your fandom by cheering for the local team, or for your college team, or something along those lines. As far as I could tell the teams at the International weren't tied to anywhere or anyone in particular, or at least nothing more granular than country.

Beyond cheering for teams, most sports enthusiasts have favorite players. I'm sure dedicated e-sports fans do as well, but I was having trouble making a connection. Each team of 5 players was sequestered in a booth and for the most part you don't see them; you see their on-screen characters. And for each match a given player could be playing a different hero, so they're not even recognizable in a virtual sense, aside from looking for their nametags, which were hard to read in the heat of action (particularly if you were watching on a TV from across the room).

So you have a hidden person using a pseudonym to play any of 100+ heroes and the heroes can be anywhere on the field of play; how do you make a connection through all those layers? During the broadcasts I watched, they never interviewed any of the players to let you get to know them. Sports, at least to me, is all about people competing. For e-sports to thrive in the mainstream they need to bring the players forward somehow so we can connect with them.

Now it wasn't all bad. The commentators on the main stream actually did a pretty good job of being (and looking) professional and keeping up with the action, even if that did make them sound like auctioneers at times. The organizers set up a parallel DOTA Newcomers Stream (aka the 'noob' stream) to help teach spectators about the game. That was a really smart decision. And of course there was big money at stake which makes things all the more interesting to us capitalists. Oh, and most important they played on a set schedule so you knew when to tune in if you wanted to watch the event live.

When the 2015 DOTA 2 International rolls around again, I'll probably tune in. I still think e-sports organizers have an uphill battle. Not many non-physical sports have turned into mainstream spectator events. Poker is the only one I can think of off-hand and people still ridicule me for watching it. The thing Poker has that DOTA 2 doesn't is lots of exposure to colorful personalities. I think e-sports organizers need to find a way to put the players in the spotlight if they want to win the hearts of mainstream viewers.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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