The Truth About The Kotaku Clash

If you have even the slightest involvement in e-sports then it was more than likely brought to your attention that a “journalist” over at Kotaku, Jen Schiller, had mocked not only the subject of an interview on the Alienware portal, David “Zaccubus” Treacy, but also e-sports as whole. In the ensuing hysteria most people overlooked that she had actually committed a far worse sin from a journalist perspective and that was to deliberately misinterpret the content to which she was referring but had also told a fib or two as well. Still, the e-sports community has never had its priorities straight.

If ever the power of the press, even at this level, needed to be pointed out what followed the 300 words piece was fairly remarkable. E-sports luminaries took to the Twittersphere waving 140 character placards about their disgust at the piece. By the time a hastily written apology, which wasn’t really an apology at all, was issued PC Gamer had picked up the torch and run a piece by their talented reporter Richard McCormick about how he fell in love with e-sports. A summary of DreamHack followed, a clear attempt to show that e-sports is not all about chronic masturbators cooped up in their bedrooms begging their parents to renew their WoW subscription for just one more month…

Kotaku also came out and solicited people to tell the other side of the story, what was great about e-sports, and the usual publicity whores all clamoured to extend their fifteen minutes and go for that all important click through link. The purity of PC Gamers motives couldn’t be denied but it was typical to see the fact that those beating the loudest drums were those that were making a comfortable living from e-sports, meaning their protests smacked more of self interest as opposed to any genuine love from the scene. Still, those people will tell you that the two are interchangeable, that they earned the rewards their passion dictated. Judge for yourselves.

Now, I’m not defending Schiller who, frankly, managed in 300 words to come across as an idiot and made the fatal error of choosing cheap gags over quality content, misjudging just how many of her readership would not enjoy effectively being talked down to or being called strange for pursuing their interests. No, I can’t defend someone who sits in a privileged position and then abuses it in such a fashion. However, what she did inadvertently do was simply express an opinion that is probably held by the majority of people, something we’re all already aware of even if we choose not to acknowledge it.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love watching people who are better than me at video games play them for money, especially when I don’t know those people.

Oh wait. No I don’t.”

There in a nutshell is the reason why e-sports has yet to break through into the mainstream. It’s a fair summary of the level of dismissive prejudice that the average person out there would display if asked if they wanted to watch a television broadcast regarding competitive gaming. And if that remains the case it’s not the fault of people like Jen Schiller who are simply extensions of that ignorance. The people in e-sports have to shoulder a large part of the blame for that.

There’s a variety of reasons. First and foremost has to be the fact that whenever the opportunity has presented itself, the format has been completely wrong for a television audience. The e-sports purists demand that there must be no changes, no concessions, a “love our game the way we do or fuck off” mentality that is completely unrealistic. When the inevitable clamour to the middle ground is over what you always end up with is something that satisfies neither parties, not the true e-sports enthusiast nor the casual viewer looking in and trying to figure out what all the fuss was about.

The Championship Gaming Series has a lot of reasons to hang its head in shame. It was awash with petty corruption, full of mercenaries treating it like a bank loan they’d never have to repay and almost everyone above player level saw it as a stepping stone to better things (i.e away from e-sports and into a real industry). It threw money away like it was a remake of Brewster’s Millions. Starring only cunts. The one thing they did understand though was that to package it right for TV there were going to have to be some changes.

People moaned about the “cheesy” player biographies or the fake rivalries that were played up via a series of wrestling style promos. Yeah, trying to turn players into actors isn’t always going to work and the focus was often too mawkish for my taste. Still the idea is right… Let’s get to the know players, let’s get to know their background and what’s wrong with focusing on rivalries and encouraging them. Once you cross the threshold from LAN to TV it has to be as much about entertainment as anything else.

David might have been critical of these type of tactics but in reality this is what is required to make it in the mainstream. Present the games in all their glory and some might get it, dumb it down a little and you increase those odds. Throw in a few characters and some hand-holding explanatory videos between each section of the TV show… Well, hell, you might just convert a few people. His praise of MLG may be warranted but for me it smacked more of e-sports politics than genuine admiration. You’d have to have been living under a rock (Jen Schiller thinks you actually do) to not know about the problems they’ve had during their broadcasts. It’s something that they evidently don’t have a sense of humour about, as James “2gd” Harding found out mid-broadcast. Still they put on a good show, even if it’s one that would do little to ensnare the outsiders. This is a standard e-sports error.

For example, I consider myself, for good or ill, to be e-sports focused to the core. I’ve written about a wide range of titles down the years, making the somewhat foolish decision to support CS:S, and even I struggle with the way some things are presented to us. I’ll watch a HoNcast VoD, replete with Breakycpk’s jackhammer delivery as if he was the e-sports equivalent of John McCririck “THINGSAREHAPPENINGEXPLOSIONSTHINGSAREHAPPENINGANDTHETHINGSJUSTHAPPENED”, and even having played the game many times I’m at a loss to understand exactly what is going on. What chance an outsider? Same for Starcraft 2. If you’d have told me a complex real time strategy title, with an ever changing meta-game and a wide variety of tactics, would become THE mainstream e-sports title, I’d have said you were mad. People generally like simple things. Surely an iteration of Counter-Strike should have more instant appeal but apparently I’m wrong. Even with all the high production values and informative WEWANTTOBECELEBRITIES shoutcasters, a broadcast still leaves me reeling and I know if I wanted to fully understand it I’d not only need to play the game but do a bit of research too.

If that’s the case for me, what chance has a newcomer got? And what do we do to make e-sports more accessible to the people that don’t understand it? Not a great deal it seems. I can understand it to a certain degree. Make radical alterations to the game and it ceases to be the same thing you know and care about… MR9 over the standard MR15 format in CS:S is a good example of this. It removes a large part of the tactical elements but at the same time it pretty much also removes the need to explain the importance of pistol rounds, the boring dead time of eco rounds, the terminology that comes with economy management and it makes the games shorter (which equals better if you’re a newcomer with no attention span). Striking the balance can be difficult and ultimately it’s down to presentation and explanation, two things that are done in a mostly amateurish fashion in our fledgling industry, even when people have resources at their disposal.

I too could write an impassioned piece about why I love e-sports and see it as having a bright future. Certainly the latter part of that statement is factual. Its success is inevitable, even if it’s impossible to predict what titles are going to be the flagships for the next generation (who would have thought Quake would be in some sort of decline?) of players and viewers. Yet the reality is that might convert a few open minded people who stumbled across it. I’d heard so many great things about baseball before I went to the US and was always told that I had to see a game live to truly appreciate it. As I sat there swilling beers and munching hotdogs watching athletes that definitely hadn’t been abusing steroids attempt to smash balls out of a park I can’t say it made any more sense to me, or was any more exciting, despite a grinning idiot nudging me in the ribs all the way through. I’m sure there’s things that could be done to change that. Plonking me down in the middle of the stands, feeding me liquor and letting me figure it all out for myself was not the way forward. So I imagine it is for people outside of e-sports.

I’d much rather address the people that don’t do enough to promote e-sports as a whole, the people that are divided by some tribal instinct either by game or by promotion. I’d much rather talk about why we continually drop the ball and allow people to blunder their way through things. I’d much rather talk about how people in the e-sports business generally ascend into positions of authority not due to talent or qualifications but mostly through longevity and networking. As such when it comes to trying to successfully package the product that we know CAN work, we generally mess it up and have to wait for another opportunity to come by. Until attitudes and, dare I say it, some of the people changes this trend won’t.

All Jen Schiller really did was voice the commonly held opinion. A big part of that misconception being the norm are the people working in e-sports itself. It was good to see a rare positive response from the e-sports community, galvanised by a gripe. It was even better to see PC Gamer get on board, a real ray of light in the gloom. Then again, for the e-sports luminaries, it’s easy to get yourself some cheap headlines by attacking someone’s attitude. It takes a lot more effort to genuinely try and change it and to make the changes necessary so it is no longer the norm.