Focal Points and Esports — Consider Your Viewers

I enjoy watching sports with friends and at live events. But it wasn’t until a good friend of mine pointed out what I should be looking for while watching that I started to enjoy watching sports more. Before being told what I should be focusing on, I didn’t really enjoy watching sports as much. I knew the basics of basketball, but I didn’t really get what was going on during games. But now I at least understood enough of what was happening so that I could better understand some games and begin to enjoy myself. “If you’re not sure where to look, just follow the ball” was an easy way to approach watching sports. From there, I could get excited at a breakaway or a long pass or a particularly impressive home run. But for esports, it’s a totally different experience because I’ve played the games. I know firsthand what to look for in Overwatch, or which hero is doing what move in League of Legends (ok, maybe only 75% of the time for LoL). But get me watching a match of Dota 2 and I’m way more lost. I know the basics (much like my initial knowledge of football), but there is no easy information for a brand-new spectator to get an idea of what is going on or why which things are important to be following. This is especially true if they’re new to the game genre.

There are tons of articles and forum threads talking about why esports aren’t being taken seriously in mainstream media or why they’re not as popular as traditional sports, and while there are industry and access reasons for this, a huge issue is the way esports aren’t easily accessible to a viewing audience that maybe doesn’t know the ins and outs of that particular game. Players are incredibly important (they are the lifeblood of the game after all), but in an age of Twitch and the rise of esports, we can’t forget about designing an experience to help new viewers understand.

Bringing in new viewers (who aren’t necessarily players) is hugely important to making esports more accessible and to spreading their reach. Many players are viewers before they are players (from watching trailers to watching friends/streamers play), and understanding what appeals to viewers will help broaden not just the audience of players of esports but the audience of people who attend events, tune into Twitch streams, and become the lifeblood of esports as a potential mainstream entertainment industry. One of the ways to bring in new viewers (and players) is to examine your game’s UX (user experience) from an uninformed viewer’s perspective and not just the player’s.

There are many ways to go about this but an easy one is a focal point, a central thing for both players and viewers to focus on. This can come in the form of a static place for events to unfold (a capture point or goal post) or an objective that most conflict will revolve around. In sports, this objective is often a ball of some kind (“follow the bouncing ball”). In most sports, there are only one or two positions where goals can be scored, but the only time those positions become relevant is when the ball is near them. There are few reasons to look away from the ball.

In esports, it doesn’t need to be a ball. In fact, one of the coolest things about esports is how non-traditional these types of games can get (like Cursed Hollow in Heroes of the Storm). But, I’ve found that the more similar an esport is to a traditional sport, the easier it is for newcomers to get into watching it. This is most likely a combination of both pre-existing knowledge of these sports and the ease of understanding where to look. There are few things going on in a sports field other than the athletes and the ball/objective between them. Esports that aren’t analogous to an existing sport have a harder time when it comes to viewer UX, which is a difficulty that is also incredibly exciting! It’s a chance to really show people something new and unlike anything they’ve seen before.

To talk about this a bit more, I’ve broken down some popular games into three different difficulties for viewership. In the interest of understanding, I’ve found that calling a game “easy” or “hard” is better, since this isn’t about good/bad design, it’s about making things easier/harder for new viewers.

Easy

Rocket League

Soccer + Rocket Cars = A+

Rocket League is one of my favourite examples of an easy-to-understand game. The concept is simple: soccer with rocket powered cars. And that helps a lot with the understanding. Both players and viewers can follow the ball to know where to look for exciting plays. Like I mentioned earlier, basing a new game on an old sport really helps with new viewer understanding. It may be rocket cars, but new viewers know exactly what they’re supposed to be watching already.

Street Fighter V

Ow.

If Rocket Leauge is soccer, then Street Fighter is boxing. But, you know, with fireballs included. Like boxing, viewers can focus on the fight as a whole or on the individual players, but since there is little else being fed to viewers, following what is happening is relatively easy.

While this clip is confusing at moments, I want to draw your attention to the use of camera whenever a player uses a special move. It’s near impossible to miss that something is happening on the screen in this game because the game emphasizes what you should be looking at with flashes of light and sound effects. Especially during a super move. It’s flashy, exciting, and even if the viewer doesn’t know how it happened, it’s easy to understand that someone just got a mega beating (plus it also looks really cool).

Medium

Overwatch

Overwatch Contenders — Selfless vs Faze Clan

Overwatch is an interesting esport to consider in terms of viewership because each map has a central objective for both teams. Conflict revolves around securing a certain point on the map or pushing a payload. On the surface, this is wonderful for viewers and new players. There are colourful and distinct character designs, central objectives for all players and lots of lights and sound effects to know that someone is doing something. But, because there are 12 players of varying movement speeds, rapidly decaying/growing health, lots of projectiles, and special abilities, it can be very difficult to understand what’s going on. Sometimes there’s just too much happening on the screen and knowing what to focus on can be a bit of an obstacle. It’s also especially disorienting when the spectator camera switches from third-person to first-person and back again. Blizzard has been improving the viewer experience with a camera that moves from a first to third-person camera to help clarify who and where we’re looking at, but the focus was clearly designed as player first. This isn’t a bad thing, but I think the way Overwatch pulls in new players is with their (great) character design and the fanbase’s enthusiasm, which is a perfect environment to attract a lot more viewers (and potential new players) to the game.

Counter-Strike

The anticipation! The suspense!

As a funny counter-point(strike?) to Overwatch, Counter-Strike doesn’t have a focal point in the same way. There’s a clear objective though: plant/disarm the bomb or eliminate the other team. As a player, this is really straight forward. As a viewer, I think it’s easy to understand but not always to follow. It gets to be even more difficult for viewers, since a first-person camera is often disorienting (and can cause motion sickness).

But the pace of Counter-Strike is relatively slow. There’s a lot of creeping around corners and waiting for someone to pop out of cover. Viewers are given the ability to see through walls, so they’re aware of the dramatic irony of when a player is sniped as they cross a doorway. There is also a minimap to quickly reference player positions, and thrown grenades leave temporary trails in the air to show their trajectory. All of these small, viewer-focused things make watching competitive CS more viewer friendly than other first-person shooters, like Overwatch.

Hard

Dota 2/League of Legends

Someone is dying but I don’t know how.
Dragons. Dragons? Dragons!

I put these two games together because they have a lot of similarities in how they handle the MOBA genre and I feel like they both struggle with similar spectator issues. MOBAs typically have 5 players per team on a large map. That’s 10 different things to pay attention to at the same time. Teams usually split up their players into 3 different lanes and then 1 player wanders around the map going to kill creatures in the jungle of the map. So not only are there 10 different players you could follow, but each one might be somewhere very different on the map.

Then there’s how each player has a minimum of 4 different abilities that might be unleashed. Or a ridiculous number of items that they can buy/sell throughout the game. MOBAs are complicated games and were never designed with spectators in mind. And that’s okay! Well, it’s okay for the giants of the genre. But for newcomers? It’s a lot harder to immediately access.

So what can esports learn from League or Dota in terms of growing a larger viewership? It’s a lot to do with the quality of the people you have broadcasting your game and the tools available to them. Most of the understanding for viewers comes from the casters and camera crew being really diligent about where to focus the camera’s attention. Cameras can be used to help create a focal point for viewers to zero in on, and then they can begin parsing for relevant action and information.

Parsing what’s being shown for information is a little bit different in each game. League’s mantra for most of their life has been “clarity.” It’s easy to distinguish characters from each other and the camera angle allows for more attention on the character models, which allows for easier character distinction in group fights. The health bars are team coloured in both games (red/blue for League, green/red for Dota). But the health bars are a lot thinner in Dota, which makes it harder to distinguish team members in group fights. This can look a little more pandemonious in Dota, making it harder for new viewers to parse and understand the action. The camera work in League tends to be smoother, as well. There’s always a slight drift to help keep viewer eyes aligned with the direction the action is going. Dota, by contrast, is a lot more erratic and harder to focus on.

So why, with all these problems, are they some of the most popular games on Twitch? Part of the reason is that they have such a large and active player base who are used to the noise. That and they were some of the first onto the scene, making them established games in the current esports industry. But I think to the average non-gaming (but sport watching) individual, these games are the epitome of “what just happened?”

In Conclusion

With esports growing exponentially in popularity and the recent broadcasting of EVO 2017’s Smash Brothers 4 Grand Finals on Disney XD, beginning to consider how non-player viewers’ understanding and experience is hindered or helped can help make esports more mainstream viewing experiences.