Muses: E-Sports and the Future of Competitive Gaming

The concept of competitive gaming is a very recent one – only in the past 10-15 years has it even really existed, and even less time for anyone to really take it seriously. But it is exploding – every year companies are pouring more and more money into it. And, ever since watching one of the Starcraft 2 tournaments at Blizzcon a few years back, I’ve been addicted to watching it. Recently, we have had a development that is, in my eyes, the single biggest and most impactful change in the history of E-Sports.

Starcraft: The “First” Pro Gamers

Starcraft was really the first major player in the concept of competitive gaming. This is where it all began, around 10-12 years ago. Arguments could be made for organizations like CPL and games like Quake 3 Arena, Street Fighter 2, and Counterstrike… but it wasn’t until Starcraft struck it big in South Korea that we started having the level of consistent, repeat competition that is required for it to really be called ‘competitive gaming’ as opposed to just a tournament with a prize.

It wasn’t until Starcraft’s first exapansion, Brood Wars, was released in 1999 that the necessary environment for the birth of the ‘E-Sport’ was created. You see… when the Koreans took to Starcraft like they did, suddenly there was a tech-savvy audience that was obsessed with it. They were willing to play it constantly, and watch it when they weren’t playing. Channels like Ongamenet and MBCgame in Korea ran leagues and created a somewhat organized scene… and organizations like MLG began to form outside of Korea.

The Next Step

Once it had reached the level that it did in Korea – where pro Starcraft players were achieving celebrity status in the country, and organized teams began forming to help structure the training process – it exploded elsewhere. The Major League Gaming competitions led the charge, but it only took a few years for others to get in on the action. Fighting Games formed EVO, Starcraft had the GSL, NASL, and others… and more recently events like the IGN Pro-League, Dreamhack, and others have begun holding more general gaming tournaments featuring a variety of games.

All of this helped to get a level of notoriety – at least among the gaming community – for the concept of competitive gaming and E-Sports. People like Mike “Husky” Lamond and Joe Miller have made a life off of commentating these games and advocating E-Sports to the world. Yet, despite this dramatic growth, it has still seen a tremendous amount of disdain among the general population… and there are two really strong reasons for this.

What Is Holding it Back?

To put it quite simply, what is preventing E-Sports from becoming truly mainstream is the lack of true formality, and the attitude of the people involved – both fans and gamers.

Don’t RageQuit, Noob

The attitude needs to change, folks. I’m a gamer, I understand the terminology, I understand the balance – to an extent – and I am able to do my research to get a good understanding for the games. Most people aren’t(or just don’t want to, let’s face it). These ‘most people’ are the people that we WANT to be paying attention. We want people who aren’t gamers to tune into the latest GSL, MLG, or Dreamhack tournament and have a blast watching these players compete. Yet we are preventing them from doing so. If I go to a hockey fan and make some uneducated, but polite comment… he isn’t going to call me a noob. He’s likely to explain it to me. Now try doing the same thing on the Battle.net Starcraft 2 forums, the Team Liquid forums, or heaven forbid, the DotA forums… you’ll be lucky if even one person has bothered to explain the problem in the first 5 pages of replies. The remaining 40-80 posts will all be people laughing at you for your lack of knowledge. Wingspantt of gaming website TopTierTactics has written rather eloquently on this subject as well.

This Has To Change. If we ever want competitive gaming to be taken seriously, we have to learn to not treat people like garbage. The same goes for the pro gamers… it is not uncommon to watch, at the end of a ‘regular’ Starcraft 2 match between two pros, one of the competitors comment on how badly balanced something is and then go on a swearing rant and then forfeit the game early. You are doing your job. You are being paid for this – you’re sponsored, you’re getting tournament winnings… act professional. You are a pro. Smack talk is obviously expected in any competitive environment, but it needs to be kept in line, and kept respectable.

Lack of Organization, Organizations

Pro-Gaming has generally been the sort of thing you either play your best and hope for an invite to a tournament, or you put your name in as interested and participate in a qualifier and hope you get in. It is quite literally open to anyone – provided you’re utterly and completely amazing at the game – to join. This was fantastic for helping to get it off the ground – getting it to the point it is at now. But where it is now… this is harmful as it removes a lot of the impact seen in real sports. Imagine if the NFL took any football team that could get together a team of guys and win a few games? Hard to imagine, right?

But that is exactly what E-Sports are like right now. There’s no consistency, there’s no formality. Companies organize tournaments, and that’s that. This limits the level of rivalries often seen in competitive athletic sports. It also limits the level of fanaticism you can get out of the fans. People come and go, teams really don’t have an ‘identity’, and it just doesn’t work.

League of Legends: The Model for the Future of E-Sports

Riot, the developers of League of Legends, have recently begun taking huge steps that are, in my opinion, exactly what E-Sports needs. Up until the last year of play, League of Legends was much like other competitive e-sports. But this season, they’ve changed things.

The Attitude Problem

League of Legends is notorious for having a terrible community. Comes with the territory of having a free to play, high skill ceiling competitive game, some would say. Riot, on the other hands, isn’t willing to leave things there. They’ve somewhat recently begun an initiative to reward players for not being a negative contributor – ‘toxic’. People who exemplify the way games should be played can be given ‘honor’ by the people they play with or against. While, naturally, the impacts of this system are small and hard to see, it can have a huge impact in the long run. The addition of positive reinforcement can go a huge distance towards getting people to want to play well – and I don’t mean skillfully. I have, as a regular participant on their forums, noticed a significant improvement even in the quality of forum posts. Not to say ALL the posts – there is still way too large a share of trolling on those forums, but improvements have been seen. A good start.

But the real key element of Riot’s tactics… they have begun taking pro gamers to task for their actions in the only way that makes any sense: removing them from pro play. It started back in December when Christian ‘IWillDominate’ Rivera received a permanent ban on his League of Legends account and a 1-year ban from the professional League of Legends competitive scene, thus effectively killing his LoL career. Riot didn’t try to hide this, in stead they came to the forums and posted the details in a big thread entitled IWillDominate Tribunal Permaban & eSports Competition Ruling. In it they spoke of his persistent ‘toxic’ behavior and his negative contributions to their community. This wasn’t the only time this was to happen, as Ilyas ‘Envision’ Hartsema and Damian ‘Linak’ Lorthios also received 1 year LoL suspensions only 3 weeks ago.

Riot is doing something very important here, they’re forcing their pro players to actually be professional. Now, obviously, it’s a slow process and they can’t just ban anyone who does anything unprofessional… but it is very important to see them taking the first steps in trying to bring some reputability to one segment of gaming role models out there. Afterall, if pro gaming ever does become mainstream – the pro gamers will be celebrities. They’ll be the people gamers look up to… and it’s important that we remove the ones that make us all look bad.

Providing Structure

Far and away the most critical thing that Riot is doing; however, is the organized nature of competition they’re bringing in. They are treating the League of Legends E-Sports scene as a real competitive environment. They have a competitive season and at the end of that season, the top teams participate in a qualifier tournament to determine which teams are this season’s ‘pro teams’. The winning teams of the qualifiers are then the only pro teams that are permitted to participate in the official League of Legends tournaments held by Riot throughout the year. They have even created a handy little League of Legends pro-gaming website which can be found here.

What this does, naturally, is to place the E-Sports teams into the same place that professional sports teams have been for decades. People get to know the teams, every team will always be in every tournament. These teams will develop long-standing rivalries over the year. There will be players you come to know. It provides formality and structure – which is utterly imperative for E-Sports to continue to grow. No longer do we just have each tournament with its own cast of characters… now we have an entire year of stable teams.

I hope that Blizzard, Valve, MLG, and others can begin to learn from what Riot is doing in structuring this, because I think we haven’t seen the pinnacle of what E-Sports can become… and I, for one, hope to see it evolve into the mainstream form of competition it so richly deserves to be.

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