Esports will probably never "go mainstream"
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This is a topic that has sat on my heart for a very long time.
When I was in my first year of university (2016), the game Overwatch, by Activision Blizzard, was released. As someone who plays a lot of games, mostly CounterStrike, and enjoyed playing Starcraft II whilst I was in high-school, I immediately hopped on board and played a lot of Overwatch. When the Overwatch League was announced in November at Blizzcon 2016, I was very hyped. Finally, esports would have a league that could go mainstream. Teams would be based out of cities, giving the chance for lots of local fans to arrive. There was a plan for creating a second and third tier leagues to make sure there was a space for new talent to develop and be discovered, and finally there would be a way to ensure that all the players had enough money to go full time. And it seemed like a real possibility.
Both traditional sport and esport organisations clearly bought into the hype as well, with the Kraft Group and Stan Kroenke, as well as Cloud9 and Envy purchasing slots in the league for $20 million USD. Top broadcast talent was moving into Overwatch as well, as Montecristo and Doa (previously best known for League of Legends commentary) and Semmler (from CounterStrike) jumped over to the Overwatch League. The start of the first season of the Overwatch League in 2018 seemed to be a success as well, with enough viewers to rival CounterStrike's majors, and plenty of exciting games to watch. But everything seemed to come crashing down over the next few years.
The commissioner of the league, Nate Nanzer, left Blizzard early into season 2, leaving the league without its (arguably) most publicly-facing figure. This was followed by a large number of other Overwatch League staff leaving as well, as well as a meta (short for "meta-game") known as GOATS, which was so dull that player and viewing numbers dwindled. There's been a number of reports that teams are all "operating in the red", and much of the broadcast talent that went to Overwatch left at the start of season 3.
So what went so wrong?
I went back to playing CounterStrike in mid-2018, and have barely looked back since. There was a brief period in time where I played both Overwatch and CounterStrike at the same, but after the GOATS meta came into full force I lost almost all interest in playing. I have, on occasion, tried to watch the Overwatch League since then, but have found it increasingly difficult as new characters and mechanics were introduced. Sigma, Ashe, Baptiste and Echo were all introduced as characters in the short months after I stopped playing, and each time I was bewildered when I saw them. How did their abilities work, what made them unique, how did they interplay with other characters? The components of the game that I could only properly understand by playing were slowly falling away with each patch, and every time I tried to watch I'd find it difficult to tell what was going on.
I've found that I have much of the same problem with League of Legends and DOTA, both of which I don't play. They both have a massive roster of characters (especially in relation to Overwatch), all with at least four unique abilities and interplay with other characters that cannot really be understood unless you have personal experience from playing. In this sense, I can't be amazed by some element of skill which I can't even grasp. Was this particular combination of abilities really hard to pull off in tandem? I have no clue, I don't play this game. Was the interplay between these two characters such that someone who won really should have lost on paper? I have no clue, I don't play this game. Was this particular tactic a mastermind choice that completely ruined any chance that the other team had to win? I have no clue, I don't play this game.
Traditional sports don't really have this problem - in comparison it's easy to tell if something is difficult. Watching a player in AFL jump over four other extremely muscular players to snatch a ball out of the air is impressive purely off of the fact that I am human, and I know that I'd have no chance. Watching soccer players curl shots into the top corner of a goal is impressive purely based on it looking amazing and being a clearly difficult task. Impressive saves in by goalkeepers boggle the mind with their quick reactions and fast movement, and I would (I think) be able to tell that even if I had never played a game of soccer in my life. I wouldn't be able to discuss tactics much without either playing myself or watching an inordinate number of games (much like esports), but the barrier to enjoyment and watching apparently spectacular plays is much, much lower.
In addition, the ruleset by which interactions occur between players is much simpler in traditional sports. I think that the simpleness of a ruleset can be modelled by how easy it to describe the objectives of the game. Most traditional sports are, at their core, relatively simple: Do some objective more times than someone else. Soccer - put the ball into the opponent's goal more times than the other team without the ball touching your arms; Basketball - put the ball into the opponent's hoop more times than the other team; NFL - run the ball into the opponent's area more times than they do to you. These simple end objectives may have some complicating factors - different point systems depending on where you shoot from for basketball or the offside rule in soccer - but even these are simple and intuitive. Esports, on the other hand, is another beast entirely - try explaining how to win a game of League of Legends to someone without any context. The lanes and towers and inhibitors before even getting to the base add a layer complexity which is only made worse by the Baron and Dragon (especially now that there are different Dragon types). This is even further compounded by the skill system, the levels of the characters, the abilities and the concept of a "build". I can intuitively tell that destroying a tower in one of the lanes gets you closer to winning League, the reason behind Baron or any of the Dragons is a different matter entirely.
Even the (arguably) simplest esport, CounterStrike, suffers this problem to some extent. It's much more difficult to explain the roles of the Terrorists and Counter-terrorists and the "phases" of the game (pre-plant and post-plant) than it is to explain the basic premise of soccer, even though it is inherently impressive to watch someone land three one-deags, and easy to tell why winning a round with pistols against rifles is impressive. Whilst it is easy to see the skill in CounterStrike, understanding goals of the game is much more difficult than in traditional sports.
This is a problem that is inherent in video games. It is difficult to make massively replayable games without some form of guaranteed variation, which in video games comes from additional complexity to the goals of the game. Would it be nearly as fun to play League of Legends if there were no items and a much smaller roster of characters? For me, at least, the answer is no (although fans Heroes of the Storm might argue that the answer is yes). Would it be as fun to play Overwatch if there were no abilities and no characters? I certainly don't think so, the difference and interplay between the different characters are part of the core reason why the game is fun. The complexities of the interplay between characters and build selection is part of the reason why these games are so successful, even if it means to a casual audience that any high-level play is unintelligible.
And it's to that casual audience that esports has to appeal if there's any chance of esports "going mainstream". There will always be more people that don't play a game than those that do play it, and it's that audience that needs to be captured. How many people do you know that watch some sport and follow their favourite team and yet hardly play that sport? I'm a rabid Tottenham Hotspurs fan, and I haven't played soccer for years, and there's many others like me. Of my friends who watch lots of sports, hardly any of them play the actual sport, instead the watching of a sport is a past time to enjoy with friends, whilst at a bar, or eating dinner. It's a break from real life, and can be followed from afar instead of requiring continual re-learning as new content is introduced.
To this end, I say that esports will never "go mainstream". The things that make the games fun are contrary to the things that make the games easy to watch casually, and if the game is easy to watch casually but not fun to play, no one will play it anyway.