Evolution 2010 Season Wrap Up - Part 2
A key moment occurred for me at this past year's Evolution Fighting Game Tournament during the screening of "Bang the Machine," the documentary about the Street Fighter scene circa 2000 that was produced by Peter Kang and directed by Tamara Katepoo. It was the first time it was shown at an Evo post Street Fighter IV's release and, in the film, there is a scene where Alex Valle and a bunch of his friends are watching footage from a Japanese tournament. And they all marvel that the tournaments in Japan are these big events held in city halls and such.
I've seen Bang the Machine, now, maybe 7 or 8 times and that moment never resonated as ironically as it did this past year. Here is Alex Valle commenting on how big these tournaments in Japan are, and we're watching it at Evolution 2010 where, that weekend, we had just whittled down well over 1000 entrants to the top 8 players in one weekend, making it the single biggest non-qualifier tournament ever run in the history of Fighting Games... probably even in the history of video games period.
And the next day, after Bang the Machine, thousands of people populated a room and tens of thousands of people had their browsers pointed at the live stream of Evolution 2010 and they all watched every move made by the top 8 qualifiers, cheering every victory from GamerBee of Taiwan, rooting for the People's Champ Mike Ross, going nuts over Korea's Infiltration locking people down in Akuma's "vortex," watching intently as America's top hope, Ricky Ortiz, took out opponents one by one, and, of course, rooting for Japan's very own Daigo Umehara as he took the crown. And it was then that I really started to think about how mesmerizing Fighting Games actually are to watch.
And that's when it hit me: Fighting Games could be the greatest eSport for this very reason.
Now don't get me wrong, here. FPS's (First-Person Shooter like Quake, Modern Warfare, and Counter Strike) and RTS's (Real-Time Strategy games like StarCraft, StarCraft II, and League of Legends) have been dominating the eSports scene for years. So it's rather ostentatious of me to call Fighting Games the greatest eSport when other genres have already obtained huge popularity and Fighting Games are currently playing catch up. So no, I'm not going to sit here and try to tell you Fighting Games are the greatest eSport around. It's simply not true.
What I AM going to sit here and tell you, however, is that Fighting Games may take that spot very soon. It doesn't seem long before Fighting Games become the most popular eSport in competitive video games.
There are always two sides of competitive sports, in both athletic ones like football and virtual ones like Street Fighter. There are those who play and, in order for a scene to prosper, there must always be the players who play. That's what I talked about last time: how to grow the scene by taking advantage of the recent influx of players and make sure we continue to craft new players for the scene.
But then there's the other half of competitive sports: the viewers. The spectators. The fans. And this aspect is just as important, if not more, to the continued growth of a competitive sport. You could have the greatest sport in the world, but if no one watches, it will never go anywhere. Yes, if you are an expert of your game, it is always fun to watch high level play no matter what because you are aware of things that are going on. But for a competitive game to prosper from a mainstream standpoint, it must be enjoyable for the casual viewer. And it's this area that Fighting Games truly shine. They are, by far, the best game to watch for spectators. And the reason for this comes from three main factors: Viewer Information, Tangible Action, and Balanced Pacing.
The nice thing about competitive sports on TV is that the viewer has MORE information than the actual players themselves at almost every point. It's hard to realize, when you're watching a full view of the basketball court, how hard it is for a player like Steve Nash to slip one of those no-look lead passes through defenders to his intended target. In football, as a defender, when you try to block the receiver from getting himself open for a pass, it's hard to keep track of where you are in relation to the receiver to make sure he doesn't double-back on you to sprint down the field for a long pass. In both cases, the viewer at home watching on TV has a bird's eye view of everything so they are aware of so much more than the players themselves, who can only see what's in front of them. And even in non athletic sports, like poker, the actual players have no idea what cards their competitors have, but thanks to the hole cams during poker broadcasts, viewers not only know what each hand is but the percentages of how often each hand wins.
FPS's and RTS's suffer from a very distinct lack of viewer knowledge. These games suffer from a problem where each player involved has their own screen and, thus, their own viewpoint that intentionally hides information from that player. What this causes is what I like to call "viewer blind periods" because these games usually are broadcast by displaying only one player's view at a time. So what ends up happening is that the viewers experience the same lack of knowledge that the player they happen to be watching at the time has.
Now, lots of things have been done to try and fix this problem. There are split screen views for FPS's that allow for multiple views being shown at once. There are also overhead map views which show where all players are as icons. There are even "spectator" modes where a cameraman can control a camera view around the entire playfield. That same concept exists for RTS's where a cameraman can view any area of the map without any "fog of war" (the term used to describe the blacked out areas you have not visited yet in RTS's).
However, all of these come with problems by default. Split Screen views are nice, but a viewer can't process all the action at once, especially if you show three or more views at the same time. It's simply information overload. Overscreen "summary" maps are good for knowing where all players are in relation to each other, but you have no clue what they are actually doing nor what they are seeing. The free moving spectator view is probably the best option for FPS's, provided some advancements are made (such as highlighting where every player is at all times so it's easier for the cameraman to find people). But for the most part, FPS's are broadcast watching one view at a time and that simply won't suffice. I was watching one FPS tournament on YouTube involving a team 5-on-5 battle and, while the view happened to be of one particular player's screen, I think 2 or 3 players were killed in a sudden crossfire... but it all occurred off screen! So there could have been the most epic kill ever, but we just happened to miss it. This feeling of "missing out" on something is really bad for viewers.
For RTS's, the free camera works very well but it still requires the commentator controlling the camera to know when to go back and forth and which player to focus on. He/she can still miss some vital action due to no fault of their own. Obviously, the skill of the commentator makes a huge difference in this department, and most of the top commentators are pro at what they do so, from a viewer standpoint, RTS's usually do not have as bad of a problem when it comes to viewer blind periods, especially since the action in RTS's is a lot easier to follow. But every once in a while, there can easily be three or four critical action points going on in the map at one given moment, especially in games like League of Legends where the gameplay just naturally leans towards three areas of conflict at once (due to the three paths players almost always follow), and you can only really watch one of them at a time. No matter how skilled a commentator is at controlling the camera, they can still only focus on one area of action at once, and jumping back and forth between areas too often can make for a dizzying experience for viewers.
The beauty of Fighting Games is that everything you need to know is confined exactly to one screen. In fact, there is almost nothing the players themselves know that the audience doesn't know in terms of information. Everyone can see who is winning in life. Everyone knows how much time there is left on the round's clock. Everyone knows how much Super Meter you have or if you have one, two, or no Barrier Bursts left or which Super Art you've chosen or which Assist Type was selected. And, most importantly, both characters that are being used by the players are always on the screen at all times and they are always doing exactly what the players are controlling them to do. There will never be a moment where you miss anything. It allows viewers to focus on the match in its entirety at all times, so there is never a feeling as if you're missing something. And that is key to the enjoyment factor of a casual viewer.
Let's face it: what people like to see are slam dunks, hard tackles, home runs, and amazing goals that slip through the fingers of the goalie. In other words, people want to see action. Even though there are purists who think dunks are meaningless and leagues that try to cut down on the hard hits, it's still what the people want. It's these things that I like to call "tangible action." People enjoy these things because something is not only happening, but happening in an extremely standout and exciting fashion.
That is not to say there is no appreciation for the subtle skills needed to play a game. Those who know the games well enough don't marvel at the actual alley-oop dunk, but marvel at how the player lost his defender off a fake screen and back cut. They enjoy the sacking of the quarterback as much as they enjoy the way the player slipped through the defensive line into the pocket to catch the QB. And landing the wicked combo against the opponent is awesome, but the top players know that it was in the previous round that the player figured out his opponent's tendency that allowed him to set up the combo opportunity in the first place.
But it takes a long time to get there as a viewer. And once you are there, you've definitely graduated from being a casual viewer to a hardcore viewer. But in the meantime, you need the "big plays" and the SportsCenter highlights to get the casual people interested and excited. Fighting Games provide plenty of "SportsCenter highlights." Many, many trailers for Fighting Game events and their respective DVD collections of matches, including ones I have personally made for Evo DVDs, take advantage of this.
These highlights are the "Tangible Action" for virtual competitive sports. They are very important for spectators and Fighting Games are full of these. FPS's actually contain a lot of these as well, so that is one of the biggest selling points for FPS's. However, RTS's definitely fall short in this area. The problem with RTS's is that a large majority of the action is what I like to call "Implied Action" in that you can't really highlight specific moments. I watched a match of StarCraft on YouTube and the audience got really excited over something that was implied: one player had managed to generate particularly powerful units so quickly that when the audience saw them deployed, there was a collective gasp and build up of excitement. However, the actual battle, which was won decisively by this player, was not the event that got everyone excited.
What this results in is a distinct lack of "moments" that can be focused on. I can't ever imagine an RTS game ever producing something even remotely close to the "Daigo Parry" moment that is so famous now in gaming circles. You don't even have to know the general details of what is happening in the Daigo Parry video, but you can tell something spectacular is happening. I've had many non-gaming people tell me they've seen the video and were amazed by it, even though they didn't really know what was going on. It's this Tangible Action that allows Fighting Games to appeal to a wider audience. I've also heard many stories of people watching the Evo stream and their significant others and non-gaming friends were able to be hooked by the matches as well. These types of moments are key to producing something that can become more enjoyed by the mainstream.
In the previous section, I spoke about a StarCraft match that I watched where one player won a decisive confrontation at one key moment. And although the audience was excited and I'm sure the match was a good match, that decisive battle was probably a good 5% of the entire video I watched. In actuality, the video was about 80% watching players build their resources, units, and bases. The next 10% of the match was the audience getting hyped about seeing the units about to collide. The next 5% was the actual face-off, and the last 5% was the defeated opponent giving up and conceding victory.
I know this is not particularly indicative of what a StarCraft match can go like at high levels, but the pacing is always an issue with me. Matches start very slow, and the viewer, if not already familiar with the game, needs to be very patient before anything really happens. So much of RTS's is the initial build-up, and the two players very rarely interact with each other for a good portion of the game. If you don't play RTS's at all, this initial phase of the match can be very tedious and boring.
(Scroll to 2:45 for match start)
And then add to that the fact that, after that one confrontation was won by the one player, his opponent almost immediately conceded the match! There was essentially no reason to continue fighting, and so the victory was pretty anti-climactic from a viewer standpoint. In fact, with many of these types of games, be it StarCraft or League of Legends, the victor is usually determined much earlier than the actual end of the match, so much of the final moments of a match are meaningless. Comebacks, therefore, are virtually non-existent, and comebacks are huge for spectators. Without huge potential for comebacks, there's little reason for players to remain invested in the match during late stages.
FPS's also suffer from rare comebacks. Because it's very hard to maintain momentum in an FPS, the player who gets a sizeable lead in kills usually wins thanks to the whole nature of spawning after being killed (being brought back to life in a random location or at a spawn point on the map). Once you kill an opponent, you have to start searching for them again and who finds the other first is usually a crapshoot. And in free-for-alls involving more than 2 players, it's very easy to just be caught off guard and killed by someone you didn't see. Momentum is the key factor in comebacks, and it's just too hard to keep up momentum in an FPS.
Another small problem that FPS's seem to suffer from is that the majority of the matches are spent looking for each other -- that is, the actual confrontation between two-players is almost always quick and brief with a kill resulting in a matter of seconds. Then, it's back to searching for the other player again. This means that viewers spend a lot of their time waiting for things to happen. Granted, the benefit of this is the tension: FPS's excel in the department of mounting tension and the release of said tension in these quick shoot outs (thus, successfully having those "moments" I mentioned in the previous section).
One of my absolute favorite things about Fighting Games is that, right when the round begins, there is potential action. And that potential never dies until the round is actually over. Yes, there are moments of turtling and long periods of players feeling each other out, both remaining at opposite sides of the playing field. I'm not saying that Fighting Games have constant action, but there is nothing inherently built into the game that causes lulls. Lulls are a result of the player's choices and decisions, but not an inherent part of the game.
In FPS's, you automatically have lulls when one player dies. In RTS's, you cannot choose to rush down and attack the opponent instantly (you can, but usually that will result in you losing). So these points of "non-action" cannot be prevented. Whereas, in many Fighting Games, you can have rounds where one player literally rushes down and defeats the opponent without ever letting up from start to finish. There are no forced mechanics that inherently generate lulls during a match.
And the best thing about Fighting Games is that they are never over. Ridiculous comebacks are practically synonymous with Fighting Games. Everyone's favorite and most memorable matches usually stem from this. This is a direct result of momentum, and Fighting Games live off of momentum. That's why you can never feel like you've won a round in a Fighting Game until you've actually won and, thus, must always remain on your toes. This allows the viewers to always maintain that hope of a comeback regardless of how bleak it may seem, which gives these spectators a vested interest in the match up until the very last moment. So there's rarely a point where it feels like you're viewing "filler" footage.
So what's the deal then? If I'm so insistent that Fighting Games are so great to watch, why are they less popular than FPS's and RTS's? Why are there more gaming leagues for those other genres than Fighting Games? Well, there are two main reasons. The first important reason is that there are more players for the other genres. And thus, naturally, that means they have a bigger audience to be spectators. If you had 100 people and 80 of them love playing football and 40 of them love playing hockey, naturally you have a better chance of having more people who love to watch the football event over the hockey event.
The second reason is that the concept of eSports is only JUST making its way to something accepted by the general public. Even a simple 5 years ago, I think people would scoff at the concept of video games being a huge competitive gaming market. But thanks to the improvement of technology and the awareness of game companies to provide things such as the controllable cameras or alternate views for spectators, we've seen huge strides in the production value of eSports and, thusly, the viewership. With this improvement in production value, it allows for eSports to obtain a level of professionalism and credibility that wasn't possible before. And the games themselves just look so much better. I don't think casual people would sit around a stadium watching Mario Kart on the SNES. But with how good games like Call of Duty and StarCraft and such look these days, it's easy to see why people can find themselves watching it.
So eSports are definitely still new. And as long as it continues to grow, more and more people will be drawn to it. And that is when, I believe, Fighting Games will take over as the most popular eSport. As more and more people become curious to see what the rage is all about and as more and more people start to watch games at events like Evo or WCG, I truly believe that Fighting Games will stand out immediately. They are a joy to watch.
And each year, as I see the crowds at Evo get larger and larger (and the streams for Fighting Games get bigger and bigger -- recent tournaments such as Seasons Beatings V, Southern California Regionals, and the Canada Cup all reached over 10,000 viewers at their highest viewer points), I can't help but think that Fighting Games will become the most popular eSport of them all.