Blizzard: UFC-style reality shows could propel eSports into the mainstream

StarCraft 2 maker on the tipping point for professional gaming.

With the emergence of hit video game streaming websites such as Twitch.tv and in-client tournament viewers, eSports is booming. But while hundreds of thousands visit packed venues and millions tune in online to watch their favourite professional StarCraft, League of Legends and Dota players and teams battle it out, eSports is yet to hit the mainstream in the west as it has done in South Korea. Some believe it can. Some believe it can't. Some believe it shouldn't even try.

But what does Blizzard, creator of StarCraft 2 and one of the major forces behind the global eSports push, think? According to StarCraft 2 design production chief Chris Sigaty, eSports "absolutely can" and he has a few ideas.

The biggest eSports organisation is Major League Gaming, and in 2012 it saw an impressive 334 per cent growth in live online viewers. Its 2012 Pro Circuit drew more than 11.7 million unique online viewers over the four Pro Circuit Championship weekends, up from 3.5 million for the 2011 season. The online broadcast of the Spring Championship in Anaheim, CA, in June, reached more than 4.7 million unique online viewers with an all-time high of 437,000 peak concurrent viewers.

But true mainstream popularity still eludes eSports. Sigaty believes getting eSports on TV would help. He said if eSports was to find its way onto the box, viewers would stumble upon it as they channel surf and immediately sense the excitement. "That's where that conversion happens."

Barcrafts - where fans gather to watch StarCraft in bars - already do this to some extent, although they remain sporadic events. "When there's a Barcraft for StarCraft 2 and people are sitting around in a bar - and I've experienced this directly with others - and there are some folks watching a football game, they glance over and they come up and ask questions," Sigaty said. "They ask, 'what is this?' That happening through other forms other than just internet streaming would be helpful."

Sigaty has also seen evidence of eSports' immediate, attention-grabbing appeal at BlizzCon, Blizzard's (sort of) annual get together for World of Warcraft players. At BlizzCon, StarCraft 2 pro matches are shown on huge monitors, and it often turns the heads of those who have never played the sci-fi RTS before.

I feel we've been extremely close. It's done much better than I had hoped with StarCraft 2 but there's still an additional tip that can happen

lead producer of Starcraft 2

If television is such an obvious next step, what's the stumbling block? Sigaty said advertisers still don't quite get eSports, or at least aren't as convinced by professional gaming as they are by other sports such as football.

"Ultimately what needs to happen from my perspective for eSports to take that next step or hit the tipping point is the realisation by advertisers that it does have the viability of other sports, that it's worth putting the same sorts of investments they do into other sports into this," Sigaty said.

"I feel we've been extremely close. It's done much better than I had hoped with StarCraft 2 but there's still an additional tip that can happen."

Assuming a mainstream western TV network does take a punt on eSports, what format would the programming take? There are many options. In South Korea matches are shown during prime time and millions tune in to gawp at the drama. That's an unlikely first step in the west, but there are less ambitious alternatives.

One of these takes inspiration from UFC, the mixed martial arts brand that has seen tremendous growth in the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK, over the last decade. The Ultimate Fighter, currently broadcast on FX, follows the journey of a dozen or so professional MMA fighters who live in a house in Las Vegas for a season as they compete for a contract with the UFC. The series, which began in 2005, is credited with propelling UFC into the mainstream.

"Getting these fighters together in a house and watching them learning their martial arts and trials they have to go through to get to their fight, to make it to number one, that sort of programming, people would eat it up about a pro-gamer and StarCraft 2 or whatever," Sigaty said.

"That I think ultimately would be where we would see the really significant tip."

Getting these fighters together in a house and watching them learning their martial arts and trials to make it to number one, that sort of programming, people would eat it up about a pro-gamer and StarCraft 2

There is a school of thought among some quarters that the popularity of many of the games that are played as eSports are held back by their own design. That is, they are too complicated; you need a deep understanding of their mechanics to enjoy them as a spectator.

StarCraft 2, for example, can appear a bewildering cacophony of darting units. Fans of the genre understand the strategies employed by professional players, but for many others your average StarCraft 2 match is an impenetrable fortress that neither calls for or desires understanding, punctuated only by the occasional high-pitched screech of a commentator.

Sigaty accepts there is still work to be done in this regard, but insists StarCraft 2 is one of the more accessible eSports games.

"That's one of the areas we do need to work on, and I don't mean us specifically, although it's something we have in our plans," he said. "If you've ever watched poker they usually have this breakout where they say, 'poker's a game played with five cards and a flush beats this and a straight beats that...'"

Sigaty thinks quick explanations could be slotted into streams to help newcomers with the basics.

"Take a high level view: StarCraft is a game. Think chess in real-time - something quick we can give to any partner or anybody who's running StarCraft matches and they put it in the stream every once in a while.

"That's all you need. And then work on convincing the person who's flipping by in this theoretical version that, don't worry - yes, there's a lot going on - but just focus on: they have more units or less units and they're taking territory. Look on the map and that's it. Don't worry too much about all the specifics because the specifics come over time. Ultimately there a bunch of units fighting against each other and one is losing more. You can sense that enough.

"In other games, things like World of Warcraft even, you don't understand what this beam is doing shooting out from one character to another. It's much more difficult from an ability level. But because you can see the units living or dying and moving on, even though you don't know what those units just did you can see they're winning and you can get caught up in the excitement quickly.

"So it would be helpful. We do have some work to do there, and the community has some work to do there. But ultimately I don't think it's required you have that deep knowledge. That's the fun part. You start to get that deep knowledge over time."

For now, eSports will have to make do with its heavily internet-based audience - although going by projected growth for 2013, the continued success of games such as League of Legends and Dota 2 and organisations such as MLG, few fans will worry.

"It's the same with most sports, even soccer or football," Sigaty concluded. "At first they're kicking the ball and you can see they're going to kick it in the goal, but when you start to realise how much work goes into passing and keeping players spread out and working on particular ways to score a goal, that deeper appreciation is very similar in my mind."

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