Esports, at the end of the day, is young(ish) people playing video games competitively. In the midst of its lightning fast development as an industry, it becomes extraordinarily easy to lose sight of this. When you’re trying to explain what esports is to someone who isn’t in the space though, this fundamental idea quickly manifests itself as a huge barrier to understanding. How do you take someone who has hardly touched a video game to a place of appreciating the play of esports pros?
I think it’s a lot harder than people might think.
A classic route is to try and contextualise the gravity of professional play through the spoils of player and team’s efforts; it’s a good mediator of the ‘weight’ of an action. If a team plays in a tournament and wins millions of dollars, it’s not that far of a step to say that their pursuit was worthwhile. After that, depending on the size of the gain, for most people it wouldn’t even be a stretch to say that it’s a magnificent achievement worthy of romanticisation. It’s a fantasy for anyone to stand on a stage with a big cheque in one hand, a trophy in the other, and in-front of screaming fans.
But that moment of victory, and the amount USD next to a players name isn’t why the average fan watches. That point of watching your favourite, or at least, a respected player or team becoming washed away in victory is just a cherry on top. The transient appeal of a team winning on a big stage is a warm fuzzy feeling after a hours of cresendo’s, crashes, late nights, and refreshed Twitter feeds in getting to that point.
We show people who don’t know esports the confetti cannons and big stadiums in the hope the scale can validate the pursuit. And it does. But it doesn’t take us any closer to making people ‘get’, or maybe more accurately, understand and appreciate the play that gets someone there.
The real appeal and addiction lies in having your model of a game or team stretched, broken or proven correct in the heat of the moment. Watching the battle between two highly disciplined and trained entities clashing on a field that you to are comfortable is the cake underneath the cherry. A player being overwhelmed on a stage after winning is one thing, actually being overwhelmed behind the glow of a screen in your room while they play is another. The size of the tournament, amount of fans in attendance and level of sponsorship pale in comparison to that impossible ‘oh shit!’ moment when you see a big play live.
Trying to take people who have never played a video game to that point is nearly impossible. They simply don’t have a reference point to build a model from.
Nearly any human alive could be watching a Basketball dunk contest in the 90’s, see Michael Jordan jump from the free throw line, slam the ball down through the hoop and say ‘oh shit!’. We’ve all jumped before, most of us understand the distances involved in achieving such a feat and we can all appreciate the athleticism. The model for watching traditional sports exists for almost everyone at some internalised level, it’s a physical, tactile, body-orientated pursuit.
The same though, cannot be said for some of esports greatest plays. Xpeke backdooring a nexus with Kassadin, or Coldzera jump no-scoping two players to turn a game around hardly have this same impact on most people. They just don’t have any idea what’s going on or even that internalised sense of ‘geez, that’s not easy to do.’
This problem is compounded when you consider how specific the required reference points are to appreciate an esports moment. While the average person might be in-awe of MJ’s dunk, this might be amplified more-so by someone who has played tennis and has a sense of how difficult it is to move across that much space quickly and accurately. The same can be said for someone who played Rugby Union at an amateur level watching an NFL game and understanding the impact of tackles or accuracy of passes.
The esotericism associated with each of the big esports games is so deep that a large part of understanding one game doesn’t translate to another. You could take the most avid CS:GO fan, and put them in the seat of a League of Legends tournament and you may as well have your weird uncle who likes collecting bottle caps in the same spot. Even as someone who has watched both of those games for years, I have no idea what is going on in a Super Smash Bros, Dota, Hearthstone and less so, Overwatch tournament.
While esports will always boil down to people playing video games professionally, most people who play video games still can’t ‘get’ what's happening in esports. We can get validation, an understanding of ‘why’ people play, and a shared appreciation for the raw effort involved, but unless you bring someone into the fold fully, those ‘oh shit!’ moments are selfishly for the community who can truly understand them.
In a way, I think this is what still, and maybe always will, give esports it’s niche, subculture-y, unique vibe. There’s a clear barrier to entry and it’s not for everyone. For those wanting to make money out of the space by bringing in mainstream audiences, this is probably very frustrating. For the fans and communities around their games though, it’s a rewarding sense of having made it ‘in’. When you do appreciate those big plays, and let out a quiet squeal in your house at midnight while watching a stream, it’s a layered moment.
You’re appreciating competitors who few know exist let alone understand, and entering a very specific community. At the same time, the response is immediate because it probably shows something you previously thought impossible. At once you are being rewarded for having understood the variables at play but also being humbled in showing something you didn’t know.
It can become addicting to broaden your understanding and continue to chase these moments. The more you look to learn, the more you realise you don’t know. And while it is still people playing video games, the deeper you go, the more you realise it’s something profoundly more than that. It’s an incredible feat to extract a life-altering level of meaning out of simply watching people play video games, and it’s definitely not for everyone, nor should it be. But don’t let the scale of trying to understand a new game thwart you of your own ‘oh shit!’ moment. It’ll come eventually.