Watching Video Games
As digital gaming lays claim to increasingly large numbers of players, it brings with it an increasing number of gaming spectators. More and more of us know the pleasure and satisfaction that sitting and watching a good buddy twiddle his thumbs at the screen can bring, the camaraderie that’s engendered while chatting with a group of friends and rolling through a favorite classic, or the thrill that can infect a crowd of avid gamers glued, rapt, to the participants’ screens at a tournament. At the same time, we’re also familiar with the eye-rolls, blank stares, and eventual desertion that have been elicited from other friends and family with whom we’ve tried to share the joy of gaming. Indeed, wide scale game spectatorship has not quite materialized the way many prognosticators have predicted, with coverage of gaming events limited to the web and a smattering of (mostly foreign) TV networks. Yet, with games making ever-deepening headway into the population, particularly under the banner of casual gaming, it is important to consider both the many challenges that stand in the way of mainstream game spectatorship, and why we do love to watch people play games.
The most obvious comparison to be made is between video games and sporting events. These games are spectator friendly and clearly capable of capturing a wide audience. In a recent article, L.B. Jeffries explored the mechanics entertaining the audiences of several sports. In a similar manner, I’ll examine three areas of significant crossover between digital games and spectator sports, features which are powerfully potent at keeping audiences engaged: 1) Simplicity, 2) Rare Events & Feats of Skill, and 3) Social Experience. In many instances of spectated video games, these features are denied to their audiences. However, perhaps games, tournaments, and networks which foster these elements might be able to tap into the same vein that fuels massive sports fandoms, and eventually achieve similarly sized audiences and prestige.
Many popular spectator sports are fairly simple games, or at least have fairly basic core mechanics. Even the inexperienced can figure out that players are trying to move the football down the field, or hit the ball and round the bases. The world’s most popular sport, soccer (known by most as football), is based on a simple premise: kick the ball into the other team’s net. This makes it a simple game for new spectators to apprehend, and has surely contributed to its nearly universal appeal and spectatorship. Contrast this with coverage of a World of Warcraft championship from the 2009 MLG PC Circuit (shown below). It’s pretty clear that to fully appreciate what’s going on, a spectator would need to be an experienced WoW player, while a newcomer would have almost no chance at understanding, let alone seeing, what is going on.
Another challenge is presented by First Person Shooters. Consider Counter-Strike. At its most basic level it’s two teams trying to kill one another. It seems as though it would be fairly easy for an uninitiated spectator to pick up, however, due to the game’s user interface and level design, it is difficult to transmit all of the meaningful information to a viewership in real time. Take a look at this Korean CS tournament. Its occasional map overview is very helpful for seeing players’ initial positions, but once the action heats up, we are cut into the individual player perspectives and it becomes difficult to determine who we are looking at, where the player is, and what the heck is going on. Moreover, whatever player-cam we watch, we end up missing out on everything that’s happening on the screens of nine other players. Even with the occasional camera angle of an entire room, it is clear that there is a lot of other significant info that is not making it to the audience.
But, I suppose that this makes sense. These games have been designed to provide an optimally challenging experience for the individual player looking at a single screen. It’s not surprising that the many screens of a full tournament team would contain far more information than could efficiently be transmitted to and consumed by an average audience. One could argue that spectator sports are still viewer-friendly, despite the audience’s inability to see each of the players’ individual viewpoints, however, in baseball, there is only one ball, and one is able to see almost the entire field of play and the ball in reasonable detail at all times. Very little extra information is lost to the spectator, especially when compared to how much goes unseen in a round of Counter-Strike.
Rare Events & Feats of Skill
Another facet that helps feed spectator sports is the anticipation of and waiting for an exciting rare events or dramatic feat of athletic skill. Fans endure long stretches of boredom as they wait for a baseball to be hit, a hockey fight to breakout, or a NASCAR crash to occur. Sports fans also attend in hopes of seeing highly skilled players play the game at a high level of proficiency, and perhaps, if they’re very lucky, even get to witness a fantastic play – a real expression of athletic prowess and creativity.
Digital games unravel the power of these potential draws in several ways. First, the way in which we humans traditionally interface with games serves to strictly level the playing field. Mario jumps just as high when your grandma punches the button as when Michael Jordan does. Certainly differences in player ability do exist, particularly with regard to reaction time, and perhaps increasingly with the current trend in kinesthetic and motion control, however, these differences tend to be far less drastic then those seen in the real world. Further, games are designed to allow their players to easily perform thrilling activities and tricks all the time. While not everyone can pull off hardcore Street Fighter combos, even a beginner can teach a chatty alien enemy a dramatic lesson, with a simple click of the mouse in Mass Effect 2. In games, players needn’t wait around for interesting things to happen, they can go make them happen themselves, anytime they want.
Finally, the spectacular events which occur in competitive games tend to fall into three categories:
1) Those that players feel they could do just as well themselves. The difference between the best gamers and normal players is often a quantitative one rather than a qualitative one. Players get headshots all time. The best players just get them faster. This impression leaves spectators feeling far less impressed.
2) Those that end up occurring so randomly and unexpectedly that they are lost in the massive influx of game data mentioned above, and only really appreciable (read “at all visible”) via playback. Many impressive happenings in games are a result of chance, and can be so random that it can take a full replay and investigation in order to determine what happened.
3) Those that are so complex that the casual observer may not even have noticed that they happened, let alone how the feat was accomplished. Take this infamous clip, for example. While it certainly is clear from the audience’s reaction (which presumably is quite familiar with the game) that the victorious player has done something remarkable, even experienced gamers who may not be so well versed in Street Fighter might not be able to make out what exactly the player did that makes this clip so thrilling. Can you tell?
Both spectator sports and digital games share this important feature: they are each something that can be enjoyed with others. Sports are, of course, social events with conversations, jokes, and food filling in the space between hits, crashes, rounds, plays, and fights. Spending this time with friends and family is part of the experience, whether that experience is a trip to the park, field, or arena, or a few hours parked in front of the TV.
This is a facet with which digital games actually possess significant commonality. Watching a live gaming tournament can be a thrilling experience, feeding off the energy of the crowd, doing the wave. Friends gather together to play at home, and can sit chatting, speculating, and debating for hours, mulling over the worlds inside and outside the game, and taking turns at the controls. This facet is also an element of competitive gaming, and it is one which does not translate well to the average internet or television viewer. The live thrill of the crowd does not quite make it through the web stream or cable. When watching these broadcasts at home, gaming spectators are doing just that - watching, and they begin to feel like maybe what they should be doing is playing.
It is here I think that the answer to the “Watching Games” quandary can be found. Digital games are meant to be played rather than watched, and many of their specific design elements have led to their being significantly better suited to the former rather than the latter. That being said, games are most enjoyably watched when at home with friends. The missing element in this equation is that of choice. Choice is, of course, the core element of video game design. Presenting the player with choices allows them to affect the system of the game, and creates meaning, engagement, and pleasure in the player.
While the exciting atmosphere of a tournament can provide the player with engagement in a live setting, it is lost in transmitted versions. However, gamers playing at home with friends and non-gamers are able to exploit and share many more of the facets listed above. Players share the social experience; can be educated instantly as to what’s going on; are watching more average gamers, and thus, don’t feel the qualitative/quantitative disconnect fostered by the most hardcore gamers; and rare accidents and particularly great feats can be easily pointed out, replayed, and explained. The choices made by friends can be inquired about, discussed, ridiculed, and praised. The audience can influence the choices of the players, cheering them on, booing them, or making suggestions. Spectators can view multiple full first person screens at once, allowing them to gain a better grasp of what’s going on, and if they begin to feel that they could do as well or better than what they’re seeing on the screen, they’re able to pick of a mouse or controller, and give it a try themselves.
Indeed, while having a good deal in common with spectator sports, there are also many elements of video games which make then poorly suited to be observed as spectator events. However, if the challenges of simplicity, rare events & feats of skill, and social experience can be overcome, particularly by injecting audiences with the power of choice, or at least the feeling or appearance of choice, digital gaming spectatorship may yet be just around the corner.