This year started with the gaming news that Blizzard bought MLG. With Overwatch in beta, Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm enjoying steady, casual game play, and Warcraft capping off its gaming legacy with a transition to a different medium, Blizzard is in an interesting place to double-down on its efforts to dominate the eSports market.
I’m skeptical of the prospect of Blizzard creating the “ESPN of eSports,” of course. The NFL doesn’t own ESPN. If they did, who would get prime air time when football and baseball season overlap? Blizzard is incentivized to promote their own products over the products of their competitors. I don’t think there’s anything wrong or shameful about that, but it should be pretty obvious that there is a glaring conflict of interest in Blizzard prioritizing between tournaments for Overwatch and DOTA2 (owned by Valve).
Games: Sports :: Art: Entertainment. (Remember the SAT? Wait, they removed the analogy section?)
I’ve written a little about the distinction between art and entertainment before. While they can overlap, they really have different goals: art wants to explore or express something about the world, while entertainment wants to sell something (usually itself, sometimes also a sponsor). Games want to be played; sports want to be won.
Games* are meant to be fun in themselves, and they are played well whenever they are enjoyed by the player. Features such as scores and objectives can orient the player within the game, and provide context and direction, but a game need not rely on these features to achieve delight. Playing a game is, at its core, an aesthetic experience**, and how well you are playing can be judged largely by the extent to which you are aesthetically engaged.
Sports might be fun to play, but their raison d’être is “play to win.” The joy of sports is derived from victory, not from the mere act of competing in them. Features like scores and objectives are core to the experience, and their absence would be disorienting and entirely destroy the endeavour. The activity itself doesn’t need to be enjoyable, and there are right and wrong ways to play. A good sport might also function as a good game, but it must function as good entertainment in order to be successful. A stronger delineation between games and sports would allow developers to understand and focus on the proper goals and objectives.
2016: The Year of the Mouse?
With the year starting with some esports hype, and steady growth in esports for the last 5 years, will this year be the year of esports? No. It will be a year of esports, but not the year of esports. There are still the same barriers for eSports that Extra Credits noted almost 4 years ago, and an ESPN of eSports won’t solve those problems. Indeed, a true ESPN of eSports (with even half of that level of cultural penetration) can only be possible after overcoming most of those barriers. The photo at the start of The Guardian’s article is pretty telling: the photo itself clearly captures a massive logo that reads “ALL-STARS,” and the caption calls it the World Championship finals in Paris (not to mention that the Paris finals were held theatre-in-the-round style, which the photograph clearly does not depict). It’s a simple, harmless error, but I think it reveals two things about the mainstream relationship with esports at the start of 2016: 1) no one knows about it (to catch simple things obvious to anyone “in the know”), 2) no one cares about it (enough to do simple fact-checking). Esports will grow this year, but I’m not sure how much or in what ways.
After thinking a little more about it, I need to add something: Blizzard has some incentive to promote any eSport, because eSports is still relatively new. The NFL doesn’t get as much value from promoting other sports because most people know about traditional sports, which have over a century of history. Perhaps Blizzard could promote competitor’s games on the theory that “a rising tide lifts all ships.”
*Philosophers of Language have talked about the difficulty in defining a “game.” Wittgenstein also outlined a theory of language that treats language as a game, in which words are pieces within the game, and their meanings are the moves a piece can perform.