Not Ready for Prime Time
A Protoss army of slinky devastation moves in with an impressive array of armed death, and the struggling Zerg defense of gangly roaches is quickly divided and isolated by forcefields that give the overwhelming advantage in the match to the aggressor. The specifics aren’t important, and even if you know nothing about StarCraft II, you could glance briefly and see clearly that the advancing force is poised for victory. It might even be called inevitable at this point.
And then the game stops, freezes in a fixed moment in time, the data stream suddenly ended as the losing player known as Idra ejects, unceremoniously, from the game. A game that had begun with some implied taunting, and a rather blunt expletive, now ends with no sense of love lost between the players. This unceremonious disconnect is a breach of custom and propriety in a largely civil community of professional gamers. It smacks of a temper tantrum, and the sudden cessation of all action from the cacophony that came a moment before feels abrupt, strange and amateurish.
This is the Major League Gaming circuit event from Dallas, and I am watching it all happen online—my first time spent at all interested in spectating professional games. It has been a rocky event, one I’m glad I didn’t actually spend any money on. Defined in many ways by unending technical issues that have left the event more often unwatchable than not, this has been a rare stretch of stability. And the games I finally was able to watch were highly entertaining, the kind of fare I’d have liked to spend a lot more of the weekend enjoying.
Then, as commentators DJWheat and Day deconstruct the strange events that had just transpired, the feed suddenly ends—the discussion literally ended mid-sentence. For a moment I think the tech has failed again, but then the site assures me, and perhaps some number of thousands of other viewers that the stream will resume tomorrow. This is how they have chosen to end their broadcast day, and I can’t help but feeling like the MLG had just rage quit in the middle of its own show. The sudden cessation of the broadcast feels abrupt. Strange. Amateurish.
E-sports remain a concept that I do not fully subscribe to as viable. The efforts struggle to establish credibility, not at all unlike how gaming itself has struggled to be perceived as a legitimate form of media. There is no comparing the broadcast of a video game tournament to that of a major sport, or even to a better analog like a poker tournament or a really fancy spelling bee.
I understand and sympathize with the logistics of broadcasting an event like this. There are a lot of moving parts involved in staging a major tournament that’s been designed to attract the highest profile gamers across the planet, and then to actually be able to deliver that kind of experience on demand. I presume this is why the MLG secured ten million dollars in new funding, to begin to take that critical next step toward legitimizing e-sports.
So the unmitigated disaster that has been the user experience for the MLG’s first major event of the year, is an eye-rolling disappointment to say the absolute, very least.
Users who tried to follow the very first games of the 2011 season were met by a site that ceased functioning altogether. Bad certainly for those, like me, with a disposably casual interest in watching games of Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops and StarCraft II; downright offensive to the many who had dropped $10 on a pass that was supposed to be providing HD video (an effort that was abandoned entirely by the third day). The event had kicked off with a plea to get MLG trending on Twitter—event organizers should be glad they never achieved this goal, considering the vitriol that populated most #MLGDallas posts over the next 3 hours.
As if that weren’t all bad enough, efforts to reinforce the stream on Saturday and Sunday remained insufficient, and again I spent more time actually trying to connect that watching any games. This was only compounded by further issues with Battle.net, well beyond MLG’s control, that impeded play at the actual event as well as any efforts to broadcast when the stream was actually working. In short: If it could go wrong in Dallas, it did.
I’m not pointing all this out as any kind of rant or screed against MLG. After all, as a brand new interested party on the e-sports scene, I don’t have a dog in this fight, but unfortunately for MLG, their efforts stand in stark contrast to the work being done by organizations such as the Korean GSL, which put on a nearly simultaneous event flawlessly. When it comes right down to it, Korea doesn’t just know how to play StarCraft, they know how to produce an event around it, stream it to watchers half a world away and make it look like something made by people who actually have experience broadcasting to an audience.
The contrast between the two is almost uncomfortable to any depth. Though it is heartening on the one hand to see that e-sports can be shown in a way that makes for good viewing, it is equally disappointing to realize that the only place that seems ready to meet the challenge is serving an overseas market, not just because they can cobble together the technology but because they are putting on a show that can appeal to a broader audience.
Where Korea’s GSL had practiced presenters, professional presentations and pyrotechnics—all the important p words that go into making must-see-e-tv—the MLG Dallas broadcast teams universally lacked even the basics of direction, cohesion or polish. The stream would go live, some things would happen, and then it would all just collapse into darkness again. I might as well have been watching well intentioned people slapping together community theater.
This is all well and good if the goal is to serve a small, niche fanbase. When all you really care about is analyzing the relative merits of a 3-gate build with fast expand that transitions into a colossus push, then you probably don’t care that the fancy trappings and slick presentation are missing. You already know who’s who and what the stakes are, because you’ve watched every shoutcast on YouTube. And if that’s the audience, then MLG can probably cobble together a broadcast well enough that meets their needs, and lounge comfortably in the longstanding obscurity of e-sports.
To stop there, however, seems like missing such a substantial opportunity. After all, if there’s one message MLG organizers can take loud and clear into their June broadcasts from Columbus, it’s that there are people ready to tune in and pay good money for a high-quality broadcast. It’s going to require hiring experienced broadcasters in front of and behind the camera. It’s going to require continued investment and corporate partnerships/sponsorships. It’s going to require a hefty investment in infrastructure. It’s going to require a complete overhaul of the technology. And it’s going to require a level of organization that begins to approach what is happening overseas.
Unfortunately, the debacle of MLG Dallas leaves me intensely skeptical that Western e-sports is remotely prepared to offer a professional broadcast experience.