ESports: One Era Born, Another Killed

This week, Momochi, one of the best Street Fighter V players in the world, announced his intention to become a teacher of Street Fighter. He’s not the first. Justin Wong started giving lessons in the same game back in 2010. One of my friends, a devout Street Fighter fan, took him up on the offer. He was excited by the prospect of learning a game from one of the best (Justin Wong is a ten time Evo champion in Marvel VS Capcom 2 and one of America’s strongest fighting game players). “I’m being taught by Justin Wong. I’m being taught by Justin Wong!” he said. His lessons with Justin didn’t end up making a significant difference—he was still far too enthusiastic to jump in for a combo, inevitably dying from taking multiple anti-airs. But I suspect the futility of the lessons were less important as the fact that he was being instructed by a man who has become, in gaming terms, something of a celebrity.

Two video game celebrities, Daigo The Beast Umehara and Justin Wong square off
Two video game celebrities, Daigo The Beast Umehara and Justin Wong square off

Any older gamer is liable to scratch their heads bald with confusion as they ask themselves, “What happened while I was busy chasing the top score on Donkey Kong?”

Back in the Nineties we were chilling in sweaty arcades mashing out fireballs not because we wanted to take Street Fighter II and other games seriously, rather because games were inherently not serious; they were escapism; pure, simple minded fun.

No more. In a world where League of Legends tournaments are watched by millions and where players are paying to learn a game as though it were a trade that would elevate their standing in life, we’re at risk of seeing the fun side of games represented by no one but Nintendo.

cute yoshi plush toy

That might sound like an exaggeration, but consider the difference between the best selling games of 2014 and that of two decades prior, in 1994. Last year, the bestselling games were Call of Duty: Ghosts, Watch Dogs, Destiny, Grand Theft Auto V and Call of Duty Advanced Warfare. 1994? Donkey Kong Country, Sonic The Hedgehog 3, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Sonic & Knuckles, and Warcraft… oh, and Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros.

The titles themselves, however, are only half the story. There’re also the tournaments.  My own experience with tournament has been with fighting games, like Evo. Attending EVO2K14 as a player is a gruelling three day marathon that could well lead you to the hospital. Seriously. A friend of mine who runs tournaments ended up with a nose bleed that didn’t stop for about 5 hours because of the amount of stress he was under both running the tournament and competing in it (this was not at Evo, but rather in Toronto).

And then there’s the infamous online messages. The less said about that the better. No, KillerPsycho93, I do not want to give you my address so you can come here and sort it out in person. I’m sorry I mashed Shoryuken. Let’s just put it behind us.

angry-video-game-kid

The gaming industry was like a playful kid back in the Eighties and Nineties. It just wanted to have fun. Your biggest concern was trying to avoid the red shell to win on Bowser’s Castle. Today, gaming is more like an angst-ridden teenager: angry, not entirely sure of its place in the world, and far more concerned with how it looks than what it actually does.

As with all teenagers, however, eventually we have to grow up and we have to get involved with the real world. Gaming’s trying to grow up in numerous ways. There are those games that aim at high art and culture, of which I suspect Journey may well remain the best example. There are those games that apply gaming to other industries, like America’s Army, with which the American government managed to introduce young players to a realistic military lifestyle and even went so far as to actively use the game to recruit them (for more on this see my article in GamesTM). And then there are those games who make gaming a profession, A.K.A the esports bunch.

Personally, I would have preferred it had the artistic arm of gaming been the one to take off. Gaming still has a heck of a lot of potential in art and culture (just look at Shadow of the Colossus, One Chance, or Miasmata). But there’s still a long way to go before the likes Abraham Lubelski embrace games as an art form and so, for now at least, the Esports arm of gaming is the one that will lead us into the new era. But here’s the crux: if ESports takes over gaming, most game developers are going to be dead and buried.

The nature of a sport is entirely different to that of a game. You can play Hungry Hungry Hippos one moment and the next be nabbing Pies (Cheeses?) in Trivial Pursuit. Not so with sports, at least, not if you genuinely want to be good at them. The average person can’t master one sport let alone two. And that’s precisely what people are trying to do. Take a gander at LoL. It’s the least game like game there is. LOL players take hundreds of hours learning the ins and outs of the game. Where years ago they’d play Herzog Zwei for a couple of months and then move on to Supremacy, now they’re playing League of Legends for two months and then repeating until two months becomes five years. That’s fantastic for Riot Games, who have twelve million active online players, but what about all those other games that seek to challenge League of Legend’s throne? It’s not easy persuading players to leave a game they’ve taken five years to master.

league of legends tournament
league of legends tournament

The same is true for fighting games, where sales continue to plummet and less and less games are made. Sure, we might be nearing the release of Tekken 7 and looking forward to Street Fighter V in 2015, but compared to ten years ago the genre is on its deathbed, with a meagre 3% of ideo game sales coming from the genre. New fighters are rare. Before long, the two kings of the genre, Tekken and Street Fighter, will rule the genre undisputed, because players have invested so much time into mastering one game that the idea of abandoning it for another isn’t fun, as it used to be, but a serious sacrifice not to be taken lightly.

Over the past four decades the movie industry has seen a death in creativity. In the 1980s, eight of the top ten grossing films were original screenplays where only two were sequels. By 2011 those numbers had been reversed, with  8 of the 10 highest grossers being sequels.  Likewise with gaming. Last year, seven of the ten highest grossing games were sequels. The numbers speak for themselves. It’s inevitable that the more we grow attached to one game or movie, the less we’ll be willing to pick up another.

The rise of video game tournaments and Esports is taking the industry in an exciting new direction, but it’s also the death knell for those many developers who might not have been number one, but were making number two look good. In an industry where we’re obsessed with mastering one game, were at risk of losing all others. Esports and competitive gaming might be the birth of an era in gaming, but it’s also the death of those fun years where we were willing to play a game, have fun, pit it down, and carry onto the next.