MOBAs and the Rise of eSports

It was about a year ago today that justin.tv spun off twitch.tv as a separate entity. Justin.tv was one of the major desinations on the Internet for live streaming video, and gaming was a huge subsection of that. Twitch.tv was an attempt to rebrand and monetize that. Just recently, they announced they are getting an additional $15 million in investment funding from venture capitalists. 2 million individual people watched some or all of Evolution 2011 over the Internet, which was a record at the time. This year, people could spend $12 for a 720p high def stream of Evo 2012 (Standard definition streams were free). Large video game broadcasts regularly reach those viewership numbers. The term “eSports” has gone from a snide joke to something you can watch almost every week with millions of viewers. I think this increase in interest is due to two factors: Broadcastability of the game, and Presentation.

Let me talk about the first point by comparing eSports to something else we all know well: Sports. Just sports, without the e. Imagine that you are watching a football game on television. You see a large overhead view of the field as the players complete the down. After a play, the camera might zoom in for a close shot of a particular player, or other point of interest, but during the action, the entire field of view is shown. This is done to convey as much information as possible to the viewer, so that he or she understands what is going on. Of course, the viewer is not overwhelmed by the amount of information, because he or she knows the rules of the game, and knows what to look for.

I recall watching some broadcasts of competitive Halo 2 from MLG, that were shown on the USA Network. The biggest sticking point, as a broadcast event, was that you could only look out the eyes of one player at a time. There’s no overhead view in an first person shooter. Imagine a football game that was 100% helmet cam; I don’t think it would be very satisfying.

So we’ve established that eSports work when they convey as much information to the user as possible. Two genres come to mind that are natural fits: Fighting games and Strategy games. Fighting games convey 100% of the information of the ongoing match to the spectator. Strategy games can, in theory, but are limited by the inability to see 100% of the screen at once, due to the viewable size of the game screen. Then again, there tend to be only one or two interesting points of action at any time in a real time strategy game.

Riot Games recently broadcast its League of Legends United States finals from PAX Prime 2012, and they nailed Broadcastability and Presentation.

On the first point, and specifically, talking about the camera, League of Legends’ dedicated Spectator mode has a smart camera that automatically centers on where the game determines the action is. It can also be manually controlled or locked to a particular champion. The entirety of the game was broadcast using the same Spectator Mode that is already built into the game.

During the broadcast, the camera was controlled by a dedicated cameraman. Not to say the smart camera doesn’t work, but a real person making decisions says something about presentation. There were also times when picture-in-picture views of the players were overlaid over some of the information boxes of the Spectator Mode view. The producers also cycled through the various available data views, just like a regular sports broadcast.

The biggest win for Presentation was commentary. Commentary for eSports isn’t a recent addition, but it feels like one with the advent of twitch.tv. Various streaming groups that broadcast games in locations across the country, and the world, utilize one or two commentators. Bad commentary can detract from matches. I hate to use a local example, but in a recent Tekken Tag Tournament 2 tournament, the commentators did not take the match seriously, detracting from the viewers’ ability to enjoy the match. In contrast, the commentary for the United States finals was, in my opinion, the best commentary I have ever heard. It accomplished 3 things, and did them well:

It explained basic aspects of the game without being heavy handed. For example, when one team killed the dragon, Phreak, the commentator, said, “That dragon kill just gave every team member 190 gold, which they are going to use to…” This line is really good. It explains that a dragon kill benefits the whole team and explains how it does so without sounding like it is being read from a rulebook, and the segue into what they are going to do with that gold keeps veteran players interested.

The commentary completely described what was happening on screen. A League of Legends teamfight occuring at full speed can be a dizzying blur of particle effects and quickly moving characters. Even for veteran players, it can be hard to discern everything that is going on in the viewable screen area. Phreak did a great job of pointing out what was important at every moment, what each team needed to do to gain the advantage, and the individual moves that characters were doing, were trying to do, or should do. If there was one sore point, it would be that when the action got intense, Phreak spoke with much excitement and speed, which was great at conveying the atmosphere, but was hard to follow. Points for accurately naming every move that was used at a rapid fire pace.

The commentary also laid out the long term goals of each team. One of the most exciting things about watching sports is seeing if a team can execute on a plan. Without a plan, a sports game might as well be a non-serial set of plays. With something to build up to, tension is created. While the goal of each League of Legends game is the same, how that specific team composition is going to get there is the challenge. Having a live commentator explain what that team is going to try to, or want to try to do, gives viewers something to look for, to get behind, and become personally and emotionally invested in the match.

It also helped that they had a large, live, raucous crowd, and cameras trained on the players themselves, for flavor.

One can also argue that League of Legends, and MOBAs in general, were designed with eSports in mind. Some complain that League of Legends only has one map, but no one levies the same criticism against football. The 5 versus 5 concept, with an overhead view, is simply a superior spectator experience. With the right broadcast, and the right presentation, both veterans and uninitiated can enjoy the match.

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