Why growing an audience out of players alone is bad
Growing e-sports is going to be difficult. We’ve reached a “saturation point,” I’d like to call it, where everyone who plays an e-sports title is more or less aware of the e-sport’s existence. League of Legends and StarCraft 2 already link directly to tournaments within the client, and streaming to Xbox and other gaming platforms is really taking off. Players know that e-sports are around, and can watch them if they want to. And companies have been doing great jobs in creating that kind of atmosphere. So, what’s the problem?
The problem is, where do we grow from there? After my last article, I had a discussion with EnderSword on Reddit about player to spectator conversions, and he argued that it is much more efficient for companies to try to convert spectators out of players, than out of non-players. I’d estimate about 5 to 6 million people own StarCraft 2, and the highest SC2 stream had probably anywhere from 150-200,000 viewers. Lots of room to grow, right?Based off of recent sc2ranks data, less than 400,000 people have played StarCraft 2 in the last 30 days.
Wrong. Based off of recent sc2ranks data, less than 400,000 people have played StarCraft 2 in the last 30 days. Filter that down to 14 and 7-day periods, and I’d make the assumption that roughly half those people play regularly. And this is players of all skill levels (~60% silver and bronze leaguers). Now, my numbers are pretty rough, but I’d still say that of all people in the world, those that play StarCraft 2 actively at a high skill level number around 150,000-200,000 – the same as our viewer count.
Suddenly, marketing to players doesn’t look so good. If you require your spectators to understand current strategies, to know builds and counters, and to understand who the players are, you are aiming at a very small audience (and you are requiring them to do a lot of work, simply to watch your game). Now, I know for a fact that many e-sports spectators are not active, highly skilled players. Many, including myself, are casual viewers who don’t play much.
And here’s where the problem rears its ugly head. I am a casual viewer, but to stay up on the metagame and current builds, I have to really work to follow the game. Casters often directly relate the game being played to popular builds on ladder (many of them are players), which is meaningless when you don’t play on the ladder, or near the skill levels of the people playing. In order to keep up, I need to watch tournaments constantly to be aware of all the builds and strategies being employed. Wouldn’t it just be better if the game was made so you didn’t need a working knowledge of all the strategies to understand what is going on?
It’s a market largely depending on having your audience being familiar with playing your game. It brings up issues like, what happens when another game becomes more popular (League of Legends), and what happens when the game changes massively (Heart of the Swarm)? Will enough people come back to StarCraft 2 to keep rising viewer numbers? Building a business model around those types of questions is risky.
How to grow a non-player audience
The alternative, logically, is to market to people who have not played the game, even to those who have never played a video game. Suddenly, your population is huge, but it does come with additional challenges.Non-players have a challenge when watching an e-sports title: How can they respect a player building and controlling an army, when they have never done so themselves?
For example, most sports are comprised of actions that most people perform on a regular basis: Running, throwing, kicking, etc. Now, I’ve never actually thrown a football 50 yards downfield, but when I watch a football game, I can relate to my past experience of throwing anything, and respect what the player is doing. Non-players, then, have a challenge when watching an e-sports title. How can they respect a player building and controlling an army, when they have never done so themselves?
There’s no easy answer. Not many people have cast spells recently. I think, when an e-sport does become popular to non-players, one of the aspects it will have is a similarity to familiar activities to those non-players. Characters will be humanoid and move convincingly, and physics will more or less be true to real life. While these features do take away from the creative vision of the game designers, they do set up boundaries to be creative within (i.e. how do we make this unit look like a Zerg, but still human-like so that people know what it is doing?).
Still, there is a precedent for a large population becoming familiar with the strange and inhuman. Many millions by now can recognize what a Jedi is by the familiar lightsaber, and will accept the inhuman powers a Jedi possesses. The problem is accessibility – it is extremely easy to watch a Star Wars movie, but a random person picking up StarCraft 2 and playing it with an understanding would be a large undertaking for many. Hence, a large amount of people becoming familiar with StarCraft 2 is not a likelihood that has a high chance of happening, unless they have a reason to.
Therefore, if we want to grow our audience, we need to give non-players a reason to learn and become familiar with the game. And we can’t do it within the game. Saying that Spanishiwa was revolutionary for popularizing no-gas expand builds means nothing when you have no concept of what it takes to play the game. So what does the industry need to do?
Well, the answer unsurprisingly brings back the Star Wars analogy. If Star Wars was just a film about space wizards killing aliens, it’d have been shot down and society would have moved on. But Star Wars instead focused on the familiar elements by telling a similar story with real-world themes. Small-town losers with big dreams, brash leaders with romance in their hearts, and the fight against evil are all common themes to our lives, and Star Wars simply painted that story onto an unfamiliar background. By tying in the familiar to the strange, audiences grew to embrace the unfamiliar and in turn, Star Wars has become an ingrained part of our society.
We need to advertise e-sports not in unfamiliar terms to those who play the game (“Player is the best at macro”) and instead advertise with the human elements. One clear example of this is the Evil Geniuses Kingston HyperX commercials. The Veyron commercial is shot almost perfectly for a non-player. They even use “nerd language” Big-Bang-Theory-esque to create humor. IdrA’s casual disregard of the Kingston employees shows a kind of arrogance that any audience member can appreciate.
The key is, you don’t need to know the game to know from this commercial that IdrA is a good player, and is arrogant. And you can build on that storyline in the narrative you portray to your community, in IdrA’s interviews and tweets, and in how he acts on stage during tournaments. Obviously, IdrA has stepped back a bit from that role, but who can forget the “leather gracket” era?
Similarly, casters need to cater broadcasts to non-players. For example, mentioning a build order is more or less the same as talking about how a lineman angles his body going into a block. This kind of information is informative, but only really interesting to those who study other line blocking styles, not something for the average viewer. There needs to be more descriptive casting, and the screen needs to be filled with aids in determining the state of the game, who is winning, who has more money, etc.
Now, a lot of the above is how media can portray the game. But the games need to change as well. I’ll be back next week with an analysis on how gameplay can be changed to better serve a non-player audience.