Three Lane Highway: what it means when games become sport—and why you should care
We've always had a complicated relationship with e-sports. By 'we' I mean not just PC Gamer but PC gamers: I think it's fair to say that the paradigm shift that e-sports represent hasn't always been widely understood or accepted. That makes sense—it's a form of gaming that the majority of gamers will never participate directly in, and this is a hobby that is defined by participation.
An attitude I've heard a few times is that the lure of e-sports is drawing gaming in an undesireable direction. That competition precludes fun, or that the notion of games as sport is a creative blind alley. I disagree with these ideas but I see where they come from. We're talking about a subculture within a subculture growing to the point where it dominates large parts of the discussion. Gamers can be prickly about both exclusion and pretension and there are times when e-sports embody both. What I want to explore this week is why I think the concept of sport is something that we should be getting excited about. I'm going to use Dota 2 as my main example, because that's what I know, but everything I have to say applies to the hobby as a whole.
When a game becomes a sport it sheds its status as a commercial entertainment product. It still generates money, of course, but the relationship between the player and the game is crucially different. When you start treating games as sports, you go from being a passive receiver of entertainment and become an active participant in a kind of test. Whether you're playing competitively or watching tournaments, you're engaging directly with the systems of the game in a way that demands concentration and knowledge.
There's an argument that runs along the lines of "why would I watch a game when I could be playing one?" This misunderstands something about sport. If you can watch a sport, you're almost certainly more intellectually engaged than you would be if you were playing a scripted game. The act of physically participating is secondary, to me, to the stuff that happens in your brain when you watch a set of game mechanics operating in a competitive context. That's what a sport is: a set of rules resolving into narrative.
You can't understand a sport without understanding game design. If you're capable of following Dota 2 or football or whatever then you know something about the way that systems create drama, even if you wouldn't frame that knowledge in those terms. That's really cool, because it makes it easier to perceive the corners that other games cut in the name of providing you with entertainment. When you've seen what a game can achieve with a simple set of rules, it becomes far harder for games without the design integrity of a sport to sell you a fantasy.
When a game becomes a sport it not only stops being commercial, it becomes unrateable. We're used to placing games on a review scale that is designed to assess how well they deliver on their promises. You can't do that with a sport, because it's not an entertainment product—it's an algorithm for creating entertainment. A sport isn't good or bad: it simply is, and that's alien territory for most gamers. I appreciate that I'm writing this as a guy who reviewed Dota 2—but when I did, one of the things I considered was how good the game was at turning gamers into sports fans. In effect, how good it was at making its eventual score irrelevant, and itself indispensable.
So, Cool Thing About Sport #1 is that it frees us up from always seeing games as products being sold to us. Instead, you get to see your hobby entirely as an interaction between players—which might be you, or might be somebody you're a fan of—and an external system. It's about people, not marketing, and as a result you're more likely to take something meaningful from your relationship with it.
Cool Thing About Sport #2 is an extension of that idea. Sports don't have designers or owners, they have stewards. Valve didn't create DotA, and while they're capable of making significant changes to the game's identity they don't ultimately own it as a sport. The community does: from the StarCraft and WarCraft III modders that created it in collaboration with each other to the casters and analysts that drive interest to the players themselves. As a game it has no single point of origin, and this is something that it has in common with the majority of traditional sports.
Blizzard's games make for an interesting counterpoint to this rule. Technically, Hearthstone and StarCraft II do have specific designers and specific points of origin. Start seeing them as sports, however, and it's important to note that neither are based on original ideas: they're both expressions of the ongoing lives of their respective genres. What StarCraft fans get out of watching StarCraft they could get out of other real time strategy games, for example, if sufficiently competitive alternatives existed. Their preference is for a particular instance of a publicly-owned idea. Blizzard are the premier steward of the competitive RTS, but not its creator.
So why is all of this important? Because it's how games escape from familiar patterns and gain a cultural permanence that they can't achieve as commercial products. It's how we break out of a marketing-lead mode of thinking about games and start to perceive our hobby in more human terms. Sports are about effort, achievement, feeling. The fantasies that they encourage aren't oversold by marketing and underdelivered by overworked developers. They're real, and I'm just about as excited by that word as Twitch chat is.
None of this precludes the existence of other kinds of game. Scripted entertainment will always have a place, both as a form of entertainment and as a creative field to be explored. But man, guys. I roared along with a few thousand other people when a Swedish twenty-something controlling a giant red man slam-dunked a wolfguy and some kind of elemental bear-cow and it was among a dozen other similar experiences that surpass anything else I've ever felt about a game. I desperately want other people to get access to that feeling. The rise of e-sports won't be marked when we get Dota 2 on TV, or when the International prize pools top $20m. They'll have risen when we think of them as a separate hobby—when 'entertainment games' and 'digital sports' exist as related but distinct ideas. Perhaps we're there already. If so, I know where I'd rather spend my time.
To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.