The Writing On The Wall

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

– Traditional Christmas Song

Strange times for fans of e-sports across the globe. After collectively having complained about the lack of mainstream interest and big money investment, it has finally started to arrive… But was it everything we hoped for? A first glance might give you that rush of optimism, like looking across a bar to see some good looking girl smiling at you… A second look and you realise that you’d never made eye contact at all but rather she was instead gesturing to someone stood behind you. As he makes his move you try not to look, muttering into your overpriced flat beer and vowing to hit the gym as soon as you wake up tomorrow.

The analogy is more appropriate than you’d think. You see, what a lot of you deem as being e-sports doesn’t seem to have been widely accepted by the masses. It’s not reported on with the same fervour as certain titles. The number of people flocking to try and “support” it (I use the inverted commas because a more accurate use of language would be “leech off” it) ensure a self sustaining stream of events to enjoy and content to discuss. For those who are interested in the lesser titles in the e-sports hierarchy the bad news is the woman wasn’t looking at us either.

And there’s the rub… As expected e-sports is starting to become more mainstream but the room at the table is becoming less and less for a significant portion of games that make up the rich tapestry of e-sports. Whereas before it felt that there was enough room for all, even if the hierarchy of who got the biggest portions was quite clear, now it seems most games are going to have to go down to the local soup kitchen while the remaining few quaff champagne and suck foie gras from a plate full of swan anus. Or something.

Since as I’ve talked almost exclusively in metaphor and simile let’s get down to the facts. There’s a lot of titles that are in the shit and it’s not going to get any better. E-sports has become more mainstream but in doing so the term now only applies to a select few titles, the rest being left behind in the less impressive realm of competitive gaming. The sponsors will move with the numbers but, as always, it’s not just a numbers game… These days, it’s the type of numbers. If it was purely based on numbers Counter-Strike would still remain at the table as the grandfather of team based FPS titles. There is no respect for the elderly in this company, no matter how many of you might think otherwise.

Indeed the whole team based FPS genre is looking in grave trouble, an anachronism to different times. It seems ridiculous to me because given that the RTS and MOBA titles are dominated by metagame and lack visceral excitement, an FPS title shows off an individual’s skill immediately in understandable terms. Prediction, reactions, precision… The kind of traits you can appreciate in other sports, REAL sports. I still think to a large degree that there’s a significant percentage that are simply “ooohing” and “aaahing” at what is little more than a digital fireworks display, oblivious of what the information on the screen actually means but joining in with the crowd anyway, but I am wrong on rare occasions. Whether people actually get it or are just pretending to doesn’t change how marginalised some of the titles that have played their part in e-sports history being left behind while the bigger ones continue to grow to the point where they overshadow everything else.

The evidence has been there for a while. I remember distinctly being excited about PC Gamer writer Richard McCormick’s editorial in response to Kotaku. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Richard, nor have we collaborated on anything but I have followed his work and know him to be a bona fide e-sports enthusiast, someone who knows what Counter-Strike is, knows the difference between Quake and Unreal Tournament, understands class balancing in TF2… What I read did disappoint me a little and here’s why.

“E-sports is currently the healthiest it has ever been. There’s always the fear that these are famous last words, the things inscribed on the gravestone in two years time when the sponsorship deals dry up, but I’ve been to the future and I can tell you that’s incorrect. Here, I brought back facts to back me up.

Fact one! We’re currently blessed with a set of triple-A quality games that at an early stage in development set out to be sports. These games – with StarCraft II, League of Legends, and Street Fighter IV leading the charge – were tested to the ninth plane of hell, and came back near-perfectly balanced (quiet with the “imba!” chatter). Previous e-sports darlings weren’t. Counter-Strike was a great mod that got lucky. Blizzard never knew StarCraft would explode in the east like it did. And Quake III – while it has the best claim – didn’t benefit from the on-the-fly game adjustments today’s internet connections allow.”

I’m not sure I agree with the idea that certain titles failed because they were bad products. Not do I feel certain titles got lucky. Yet, for whatever reason, it clearly feels like we’re seeing something of a cull as the media show less interest in those that are believed to have had their time, and tournament organisers move away from supporting games that were once a staple of their service. While the likes of CoD4, CS:S, 1.6, TF2 and the rest struggle to get any prize money thrown their way, or even just a steady stream of events to compete in, we see a $1.6 million tournaments for DotA 2 and for console Call of Duty, not to mention the money that is thrown at competitive SC2.

Which is another point entirely but one worth considering… That the FPS titles that enjoy the most lavish attention bestowed upon them are on console also boggles the mind. How can you appreciate anything competitive with such a clear and distinct skill ceiling? Still, it happens and the march of MLG continues along with its console focus, SC2 not withstanding.

Competitors and enthusiasts from some titles have been reduced to the status of the e-sports underclass and it’s not always applied sensibly. For example, Heroes of Newerth being eclipsed by League of Legends is not something that can simple be explained by the latter being supported by a massive and wealthy company in the form of Tencent Holdings PLC, nor by it being a simpler iteration of the game. It has to be accepted that more people prefer it, regardless of whatever arguments stand up to scrutiny. As such it will go on to rub shoulders with DotA 2 in the near future, having major tournaments of its own and being covered in the mainstream. Heroes of Newerth will not and in a few years will likely only be remembered as a successful project for S2 Games that enabled them to make something else.

Starcraft 2 continues to be the big draw and there are so many in e-sports who have turned their back on the games and communities they came from in order to grab a slice of that pie. Shoutcasters with no background in the game whatsoever spend days and nights learning the metagame like a teenager cramming for exams in a desperate hope of winning over the fans and getting to the big show. Others just out and out fake their personas in order to stoke their cult following… And of course, be careful what you create because if you think these people are using SC2 as anything other than a stepping stone to the next thing, that they would turn down a mainstream broadcasting job to remain in the e-sports industry, then you’re deluded.

The inherent bias is clear to see in the behaviour of organisations such as the ESL. On the one hand you have CS:S players, owed money for close to a year, being lied to about its whereabouts and the timescale within which it will be paid. On the other you have personal reassurances being issued to SC2 players that their money will be sent to them in a timely fashion and competitors having their flights paid for ahead of existing winners from “lesser” games being rewarded.

This is the state of e-sports as it stands. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the game you love is probably going nowhere. That’s OK though because as I’ve been saying for a long, long time you need to be a fan of e-sports as a whole or you’re only going to end up disappointed anyway. The shame, as I see it, is that the people that have made icons out of players of certain games and have used their considerable influence to set an e-sports agenda simply couldn’t have been more inclusive.

For FPS fans we’re now left in the dubious limbo of hoping CS:GO succeeds, or that CoD can get its act together and produce something that can be competitive. Certainly, as impressive as BF3 is to play casually it’s not going to take off as an e-sports and EA don’t seem to care much about whether or not it does. Which isn’t to say caring can make or break a game anyway. Bethesda cared about BRINK having e-sports potential and look what happened to that.

For now though it’s clear who the winners are. For many games the iceberg is looming. The question is whether you’re going to bail out or go down with whatever ship you’re sailing on.