The Major League Gaming season of 2011 began not with a bang, but a whimper, reminding those of us who were skeptical about the future of e-sports in general that our concerns were not without merit. The slap in the face to MLG fans that was Dallas, however, ended up being the exception to the season and not the rule. Follow up events in Columbus, Anaheim, Raleigh, Orlando and Providence were not only professionally executed, but each seemed to build on the success and momentum of the one before.
By the end of the season, I had gone from being a serious critic of MLG to an active and excited subscriber. In every conceivable way the broadcast of the fall finale in Providence a few weeks ago was better than the rough attempts of late spring and early summer. It was the sort of broadcast that could make you begin to become a believer in this seemingly fledgling venture of gaming as spectator event. It engaged me on the same competitive and excited level as other sports.
The reality, though, is that E-sports is more than 15 years old now, and though it has experienced what is arguably its best year ever, it’s hard to say that it is much further along, at least in the sense of Western mainstream popularity, than it was five or ten years ago. As much as I may have come to enjoy watching e-sports, I still find it hard to imagine a reality where it can gain a mainstream audience — which is, by the way, very good news.
Frankly, I’m not sure mainstream popularity should be a goal. For anything. Ever.
If there’s one thing I can say about the “mainstream,” it’s that it usually tends to take things I like and make them much, much worse. Mainstream success only gains the attention of those who would seek to corrupt and profit, marginalizing something that was worthwhile and reducing it down to its most meaninglessly titilating parts, all in an effort to get you to buy Tide detergent and the latest square hamburger from Wendy's. Imagine for a moment an MLG broadcast with only three or four actual matches shown, and none of them broadcast in full, the action broken up every 15 minutes by Cialis and Buick ads.
The charm of e-sports in its current form is that it is entirely geared toward fan service. Regardless of the quality of the final execution, I have no doubt that the first and foremost priority for the organizers is to create an event that actual gamers want to watch. The commentators are not restrained from being “our people” and are selected as much for their credibility and knowledge in e-sports as their ability to be good on TV.
There is really only one sport I can think of that has beat the odds and walked the thin line between niche sport authenticity and the glimmer of mainstream success, and that is poker. Poker is a deeply cerebral game, where much of the action occurs in the expressions and subtle feints that usually wouldn’t seem to make for great television. One year I watched the entire World Series of Poker Main Event broadcasts on ESPN, something like a 20 hour total endeavor over several months, and what I began to realize is that if I were a real and true fan of poker I wouldn’t want to dance from table to table as the broadcast did, only catching the big all-ins and river draws. As an outsider this effort seemed like what the real thing must be, but I can imagine now being a real fan of poker and thinking that even this was a thin shadow.
The reality is that the game of poker happens on the small pots, on the pattern of pre-flop betting, on the tough folds and small bluffs for what seem like chump change. None of that makes for particularly good TV.
Even in the best possible examples, what I am left with is a broadcast that is at best vaguely close, but still marginalized because the real meat of the game doesn’t sell cars. StarCraft via something ESPN2 (much less basic cable or network television) would be meaningless: quick glimpses of the big battles and all-in cheese games, but never that slow build of intensity in a drawn out Protoss versus Protoss first game that sets up the big finish.
I’ve made the mistake before of wishing for mainstream success, and too often I have been cursed with my wish. In this case, it’s not a mistake I intend to make again. I have grown very fond of e-sports over the year, which is exactly why I hope it never goes mass-market.