Esports could learn a lot from the World Cup

There’s a good chance that you watched Germany best Argentina on Sunday. I did with a couple dozen other people at a local bar. And we weren’t alone: this World Cup is already decimating viewership records and Facebook and Twitter both announced they were the most discussed moments on their massive social networks. But you might also not have known that there is a $10 million pot on the line for the International tournament of Defense of the Ancients running concurrently to the World Cup, and that Sunday also marked the close of EVO, the largest fighting tournament in the U.S.

The wide gulf between these two worlds of sport is only a further sign of the gulf between essentially two different sides of the same field of play. But it speaks to a larger reality. Many, many of yesterday’s watchers were, like myself, fairweather fans who likely won’t be back for another four years. Why else would ESPN attempt to lure World Cup watchers into a post-game American match?  

But here’s the dangerous reality. The only way that you get 3 billion people on the planet to watch the beautiful game and Rihanna sending post-game laudits to the German victors is accessibility. Soccer is simply easier to understand than a game of DOTA or League of Legends. But Drew Harry doesn’t think it has to be that way.

After studying engineering and then working at MIT’s Sociable Media Group, Harry’s specialty is creating systems to have conversations while they’re shared activity. Specifically, he’s trying to merge two-channel communication environments where text and audio might run simultaneously. That’s meant tablet apps in the classroom and moderation tools to allow more seamless Q&A during conferences. “How do you have an inclusive conversation?” he asks. So when Harry found Twitch—the largest game-streaming platform on the planet, the fourth highest consumer of peak Internet traffic, and de facto online home of esports—he saw an opportunity. “It was right in my wheelhouse,” he told me.

If you haven’t used Twitch to watch a competitive match before, it can be overwhelming. Aside from the dynamics of the particular game you’re watching, there’s a chat box on the right hand side that allows people to comment on the action. But not all chat is treated equally. If the viewership for a livestream is small, then chat may feel like a friendly conversation at a local pub. “Chat is everything in the interaction with the smaller broadcasters,” says Spencer Nelson, data science lead at Twitch. “The small personality-based streams are more like sitting on the couch.”

Imagine hearing each individual person during the World Cup final at Maracanã simultaneously

But watch, say, Sunday’s EVO’s Ultra Street Fighter IV with over 100,000 others and suddenly that banter turns to deafening noise. Imagine hearing each individual person during the World Cup final at Maracanã simultaneously.

So in 2011, Harry developed a prototype called Roar to try to make visual sense of the madness. Roar simply adds a light visualization layer to chat allowing you to see the general “mood” of a conversation via the use of word clouds.

Think about it. What does a collective cheer “sound” like? Yes, Argentina’s “Vamos, Vamos” soccer chant and Kansas University’s “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk” both have lyrics, but with thousands of people singing simultaneously, you’ll only get the general sense that a cheer is happening, not the individual words themselves.  Twitch, of course, has its own game-specfic chants and taunts, but, again, for casual fans, parsing that noise is difficult.

Die-hard esports fans at this point might bristle at the idea that somehow Twitch should change to cater to those who are not part of that community. One of the biggest challenges in esports is that viewership is split between those who want to be entertained and those want to improve their game. No one who watched Dutch forward Robin Van Persie’s spectacular header in the World Cup opener would deign to think they could replicate the move themselves. And yet for esports fans watching a similarly impossible feat of strategy may be just as unreachable, but hey, at least you could attempt to implement it yourself with your Champion in League of Legends.

That perspective misses the point, Harry says. “The holy grail is getting people who watch but don’t play,” he says. And favoring fairweather fans has worked out well for those sports that choose to privilege ease of viewership is an arch value. The thirty million people around the world that watched the League of Legends championship last year are certainly a huge audience, but that’s only a bit larger than total viewership for the World Cup finals in the U.S. alone. It’s a long way to go from the billion people that watched the 2010 World Cup.

Of course, esports is newer, but that’s why projects like Roar are so important as translation tools. When the first televised football game aired in 1939, none of the visual cues were available to broadcasters to help fairweather fans figure anything out, like the score. But over the decades, more and more UI elements were added, including the first and ten marker in 1998, to make it easier for everyone to watch.

But the narrative, the ability to understand the stakes, are what’s important to viewers. 

Perhaps no televised sport benefited the most from a shift in perspective than poker. In 1995, inventor Henry Orenstein filed a patent for a “hole cam,” a small camera embedded in a poker table that would allow you to see the “hole cards,” the two down cards only visible to each player. Before the hole-card camera, viewers had no way of knowing what the players were holding during any given hand of a poker broadcast unless players chose to show their cards or were “all-in.” That change in visibility changed everything. Poker journalist John Vorhaus explains:

With the invention of the hole cam, we have the omniscience as an audience that we never had before. Now we’re watching a threat unfold where each player in the hand can be thought of as the protagonist. Suddenly, we can look at poker as an exercise in storytelling.

To a diehard poker player, there’s a range of information such as probabilities and frequencies that ESPN could show that might be more useful to them as players. But the narrative, the ability to understand the stakes, are what’s important to viewers. Harry shopped Roar around to some contentmakers who were excited, but unwilling to bear the high cost. “Making great content is hard enough that trying to be clever on the viewing experience side too is not that high on their lists yet”  he says.

And yet Harry is hopeful and experiments like Roar expand what’s possible. It’s a reminder that the esports of today will not be the esports of tomorrow. “Games are really special,” Harry says. “The feeling is magical.” Here’s to hoping that everyone can get a taste of that someday.

Header image by paulisson miura