Sport spectating has many aspects, and not in the least is the actual game itself. The key concept I want to talk about today is gameplay design, and how the gameplay of a sport can be made viewer-friendly. As hinted by the title of the column, the crux of the matter is the tradeoff between mechanics and strategy.
Gameplay, or how a player plays a game, comes down to two major aspects- mechanics and strategy. Mechanics are the physical definitions of the player, and the physics of the game. For example, if I am 6’5”, that is a mechanical fact about how I exist. If my opponent is 5’6”, I have a mechanical benefit over him within the context of, say, a game of basketball, for obvious reasons. Similarly, if he runs faster than I do, he has a mechanical benefit over me, albeit a different one. Much of sports revolves around the simple fact that one player cannot have all the mechanical benefits at once. You can’t be the tallest, fastest, strongest, and most elusive person, all at the same time. Additionally, mechanics can cancel each other out – being strong gives you more mass and size, which can slow you down.
Still, we sometimes see great sports players that seem to transcend mechanical facts. Going into high school, William Perry weighed over 200 pounds, was missing one of his front teeth, and was shy. But as everyone soon found out, he “could do flips off the pool’s diving board, could throw down a 360-degree dunk in basketball and could out-run some of the fleetest members of the football team.” After a shining college career at Clemson, Perry, now going by “Refrigerator,” was drafted in the first round to the Chicago Bears. Perry not only recorded 31 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and 5 sacks that year, but also rushed for 7 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was used, quite spectacularly, on fourth and short situations, either as a lead blocker or ball handler, and was one of the key players in the Chicago team’s first and only Super Bowl victory.
Perry is just one example of a fantastic player who seems to defy mechanical laws. Many more exist, especially in the highest echelons of the professional sporting world, but one thing has to be remembered in every single case. Take Adrian Peterson’s rushing career this year – 2097 rushing yards. He’s 27, not young by any means in the football world, and he had a season-ending MCL tear in December 2011, just eight months before the 2012 season. Despite rumors that he wouldn’t set foot on a field again, he ended up only nine yards short of the all-time rushing record. The thing to note, however, is that Adrian Peterson’s Vikings still had a 10-6 record, and lost in the first round of playoffs to the powerful Green Bay Packers.
The one thing that has to be remembered for every fantastic player is that they bring attention. The Packers knew that the Vikings had relied on Peterson, and with starting QB Christian Ponder riding the bench, would have to continue relying on Peterson. Peterson, who ran for 199 and 210 yards in previous meetups with the Packers this season, was held to only 99 yards. Packers’ defensive player Charles Woodson outlined the basic strategy for the Wild Card game, “Our main focus, whether it was Ponder or (his backup) Webb, was to keep 28 (Peterson) from getting off.” By shutting down Peterson, the Packers assured themselves victory.
The above encapsulates the second aspect of gameplay that I wanted to talk about: strategy. Strategy, in terms of a game, is essentially how a team or player plans to beat an opponent with superior mechanics. The Packers, fully aware that Adrian Peterson would be heavily featured in the game, planned to prevent him from rushing well – they made it their primary strategy. Of course, they prepared many other strategies for the game as well. Green Bay’s quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, threw for a hefty 274 yards, knowing that his skilled receivers would have mechanical advantages over the weak Vikings pass defense that allowed the 9th most passing yards during the regular season.
One thing to add to this concept, is that it takes mechanics to execute strategy. A strategy can be brilliant on paper, but if you don’t have the talent to pull it off, it is a bad strategy. Additionally, if the other team knows a strategy is coming, they can create a counter-strategy to negate your plans. Often, this comes down to a war of mechanics (i.e. an offensive lineman trying to overcome a rushing linebacker). The goal in this case for the attacking team is to pick which mechanics to attack. For the Packers, it was to throw every available man at Peterson, forcing the Vikings to rely on backup quarterback Joe Webb, who simply didn’t have the experience and talent to exploit a compromised backfield.
In summary, mechanics are the physical aspects of a player or team, and strategy is how an opposing team/player can attack or negate those mechanical benefits or hindrances.
Now that I’ve defined the concepts of mechanics and strategy, let’s talk some real world examples and where people get enjoyment from watching them. Some sports adhere to strictly mechanical competition. For example, Olympic swimming features participants who can use almost no strategy on the other competitors. You simply swim as fast as you can, in an attempt to beat the other swimmers. Enjoyment from watching these kind of competitions relies solely on the tension of “who is going to win?” In a game without strategy, the best mechanical player will always win, which is why often these competitions are done in ways to draw in fans of whatever region that swimmer represents (Olympics, college, high school, etc.). It’s great and exciting to know that the player who represents your country is the world’s fastest swimmer, but that’s about as deep as the enjoyment gets.
Meanwhile, a competition that features primarily strategy would be something like the world of competitive Chess or Go. The battle is never about how fast you move the pieces, or whether your pieces are “stronger” than your opponent’s. It all comes down to how well you plan your strategy, and how well your strategy is executed on the board. Enjoyment from watching Chess, as an extension of the nature of the game, comes from understanding the strategies that both players are utilizing. If you don’t understand the strategy, you have no idea what’s going on, and you might as well only read about who won in the newspaper.
Most sports, however, are a mix of the two concepts. And these sports are noted as some of the most popular for spectators. Take baseball, for example: you get to watch as the pitcher tries to strategically negate a batter’s strengths during the pitch (using his mechanical pitching skill), and once the ball is hit, it comes down to a mechanical battle of whether the team in the field can get the ball under control and in position to stop the runner. Keep in mind, fielders are making split-second strategic decisions – do they play it safe to prevent a big play, or make a risky throw to get the runner out? Every aspect of the game is enjoyable and simple to watch, and the strategic elements are easily accessed by the spectator.
All of the above brings us to my main point today. In fact, if you don’t really like football, baseball, swimming, or chess, but understand the words “mechanics” and “strategy,” you’ll be okay. Because this point applies to watching any competition, online or offline. It all boils down to this:
The enjoyment that comes from watching a sport, from a design standpoint, comes from understanding a strategy to meet a goal, and watching the team/player execute that strategy using their mechanics.
The implications of this statement should make a lot of sense. Take football, for example. In a third and long situation, the goal of course would be to get the ball downfield for a first down. Possible strategies lie in how they achieve this – do they pass the ball or do they run it, and how do they make that selection an effective one? Do they throw in a fake, or an option? Do they use a screen pass, a quick bullet, or a hail mary?…the moment you watch a game and understand the strategy the team or player is using, you become a part of that game. You know what is coming, and you know what to look for.
There comes a moment in the play’s execution that I like to call “the reveal”. The quarterback pulls the football back from the running back’s open hands. The batter changes his stance to bunt the baseball. This moment is a visual cue to the audience – it is the tell for what strategy the team is going to utilize. Sometimes it can be simple, such as the quarterback simply dropping back and looking for an open receiver. Sometimes, it can be complex (see if you can guess how this play ends):
Regardless, the moment you watch a game and understand the strategy the team or player is using, you become a part of that game. You know what is coming, and you know what to look for. You see the quarterback dropping back for a pass, you suddenly expect a throw to occur, because you know how far they need to get the ball. You know to watch the ball closely, and see if it lands in the hands of a receiver. Or, does the baseball player make a successful bunt, perhaps to allow a runner on base to advance from second to third.
There is a second, smaller part of the above declaration to state to help realize it: the strategy must be unknown until the reveal. Let me refer back to Adrian Peterson, the star Vikings running back. With a second-string passer on the field, everybody knew that Peterson would be the primary feature for their offense. So seeing multiple running plays being called becomes very boring – the defense knows it is coming, and prepares accordingly, while the audience gets to see the same type of play without any sign of stopping. Of course, when Peterson does break loose on a run, despite the defense’s best efforts, it is a real treat to see those mechanics. But from a design standpoint, there’s no strategy – just a person swimming laps better than those around them.
In other words, there must always be options for the player or team to decide between. The more options, the better, as limited strategic options means that an opponent has less scenarios to prepare for. The worst case scenario, of course, is when there are no strategic options available – an opponent can prepare a directed attack to target your strategy’s weaknesses. This devolves into a battle of mechanics, as you try to cover for your weaknesses while your opponent relentlessly assaults them. You have no options, and you must continue to hope your one and only strategy works out for the best.
This brings me back to e-sports. Because the more and more I think about these issues, the more I can see glaring issues with current e-sports titles from a design standpoint.
League of Legends is great from a spectator standpoint, but only if you know what’s going on. Knowing what is going on in League of Legends is a monumental undertaking, where you need to know champions, items, and builds. There are few and far between moments where very basic strategies are being employed, such as a ganking maneuver, that a non-player can access in that one moment. But for the most part, strategy in League revolves around the extremely varied nature of the game – there are many heroes, many items, and many builds that can be used in any given match.
As an additional note, a regular sport would negate some of this variety by having some basic rundown of what the game should look like before the game. Due to the drafting of champions done just before a match, spectators must rely on generalizations about a player (“he is a strong jungler”), rather than discuss and analyze deeper strategies or champion synergies. This further enforces either the viewers to be well-versed in the game, or forces the viewers to be struggling to glean whatever information they can out of the commentators.As opposed to a regular sport, where aggression is encouraged, and losses can be overcome, a couple mistakes here and there in SC2 can lead to an instant and unrecoverable deficit.
Meanwhile, StarCraft 2 suffers from similar issues. While strategies are difficult for a spectator to understand, there is also an issue from the “terrible terrible damage” design. Units doing high damage isn’t a core problem, but it is when one single engagement can end the entire game, especially when the game usually lasts at least 15 minutes. An issue of size becomes apparent – in regular sports, making a mistake like missing a block is negated by the fact that you have dozens of more blocks to make. Each play only lasts about ten seconds. Meanwhile, StarCraft 2 is typically played in 20-30 minute increments, and even with best-of-three rules, making a simple mistake like missing a forcefield on your ramp (akin to a split-second mistake like missing a block) can be hugely detrimental.
The end result of this design, where you can lose a game in a split second, has led to dramatic metagame changes over the last couple years. Strategies are more defensive and economic, while maps have gotten much bigger. It seems like players are starting to be scared of engagements, to be honest, for fear of losing their grip on the game. As opposed to a regular sport, where aggression is encouraged, and losses can be overcome, a couple mistakes here and there in SC2 can lead to an instant and unrecoverable deficit. Fifteen minutes of hard work, straight down the drain.
The reveal concept also rears its ugly head in SC2. In a football play, the time between the reveal and the resolution is fast – the quarterback steps back to pass, then he passes, then the ball is either caught or dropped, all within seconds of eachother. StarCraft 2, however, follows a much different pace, even with cheese. Player A puts down a spawning pool early, it gets scouted a minute later, and the zerglings finally make their way across the map to do damage in another minute or two. The spectators get to watch all of this draw out in real time – and that’s the iconic “surprise” build. Because of the long amount of time between the reveal and the resolution, the spectators either know exactly what’s going to happen (leaving the only potential surprise to be mechanical superiority), or they have no idea what is going on and are not engaged in the game.Fans don’t come to sports games to watch teams practice and prepare for “engagements,” they come to see mechanical brilliance, and the strategic depth to overcome those mechanics.
This kind of game design leaves the spectator wanting more. 12 minutes of macro is ridiculous, no kind of entertaining banter between caster can fill the obvious hole that is present in the current Protoss vs. Zerg metagame, and no spectator should be subjected to watching players simply preparing their army. Fans don’t come to sports games to watch teams practice and prepare for “engagements,” they come to see mechanical brilliance, and the strategic depth to overcome those mechanics. That’s why sports are so engagement-oriented, and why engagements occur so quickly – the most popular spectator sports feature player engagements at almost every turn. When a soccer player receives the ball, it is a matter of seconds before a defender rushes him to contest it, not minutes.
E-sports game design needs to encourage this type of gameplay. Each action must be able to be met with a rapid, proper reaction from an opponent, as mechanics and strategies clash on the playing field. And the spectators need to be able to come along for the ride. Can the current titles evolve and fit themselves into a sport that demands global attention? I don’t know. But I do know that game design in the e-sports titles we have now isn’t sufficiently catered enough to a spectating audience. There needs to be more player engagements, there needs to be less “macro time,” and games can’t be decided in seconds. And, at its core, the game design needs to give players options so they can build strategies. Nobody cares if somebody can play a bland, stale game with perfect mechanics.