The Fourth Wall
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The Fourth Wall

Why would you watch someone play a video game?

3 ingredients behind the rise of esports

Photo credit: SteelSeries via Flickr

As designers at Axonista one of our missions is to get deeply immersed in the video industry, in all its forms. After all, your solutions can only be as good as your understanding of the problems.

Generally, we hear a lot of ballyhoo about what F.A.N.G. (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) are up to, what publishers are up to, and what the hottest new apps are.

But there’s one area that seems to be flying completely under the radar of most; esports and video game streaming. And the more we dig into it as designers of interactive video, the more fascinating it becomes.

So why would you watch someone play a video game? It’s a common question heard whenever this topic comes up.

And it’s a good question. After all, why would you watch someone else play a video game when you could be playing it yourself? Why would you watch a stranger on the internet, of all people? Surely it’s boring?

Reframe the question

Most people get stuck along this line of thinking and feel like it’s their fault for not ‘getting’ esports. To them, it feels like a foreign phenomenon that they could never understand. But it’s easier to understand if you follow one simple trick — reframe the question.

Instead of asking “Why would you want to watch someone play video games?”, ask yourself this:

“Why would you watch someone play any sport at all?”

Now you have a new perspective. ‘Any sport at all’ includes comfortable and familiar things like basketball and football (that’s ‘soccer’ to any Americans reading this).

Now ask yourself, why would you watch someone else play football when you could be playing it yourself? Why would you watch 22 strangers run around a field, and listen to other people talk from a distance about those strangers for several hours? Surely it’s boring?

It sounds almost silly, but abstracting traditional sports like this lets us draw comparisons with esports. This is the key to understanding why esports and video game streaming is so popular.

How popular? In January 2018 Twitch’s average audience-per-minute beat both MSNBC and CNN. Last month’s ESL One and IEM Katowice events saw almost 170k attendees turn up to cheer their teams on.

Ingredient #1 — The players

It’s disingenuous to say that a sport like football is 22 strangers running around a field. We support teams, but we follow players. Every fan has their own favourite players and their own reasons for feeling that connection. The advent of social media did wonders to bring players and fans even closer together.

It’s no different with esports, where leagues are improving year on year at bringing out more of the personality in the players. Live streaming platforms like Twitch reinforce this connection. Fans can watch and interact with professional players on a daily basis.

Imagine watching your favourite player train, being able to chat with them all the while. Image how much closer you’d feel to that player. Then the next day you’re watching them compete alongside the world’s best. This is the kind of relationship and bond that gamers have with their esports idols.

Ingredient #2 — The skill gap

There’s a thrill in watching stars like Ronaldo or Messi. They’re always a few steps ahead of everyone else — especially the viewer. This means they produce those incredible unexpected moments of skill that become tomorrow’s water-cooler conversations.

Regardless of the sport, if a player pulls off a new trick or strategy, you can be sure that amateur players will be trying to recreate it next chance they get.

The same holds true for esports. There’s a clear skill gap between the top players and the fans. Watching their skill and creativity under pressure is exciting. Especially because, as soon as a match ends, you can hop into a game with some friends and try those new strategies together.

Ingredient #3—The story

For most of us, sport is just a hobby. We play it or watch it because we enjoy it. Competitive leagues, and professional-level sports in general, do something very important for us. They provide a never-ending story and narrative to that hobby.

Playing a regular pick-up game with your friends becomes much richer if you have something grander to chat about. That big transfer news; that upcoming final; that dramatic comeback; that controversial decision… Sharing these moments brings us together.

This is the case whether you play football or DOTA. Game developers have recognised this and in the past year we’ve seen the arrival of traditional sports formats into esports. Leagues like ‘The Overwatch League’ have adopted traditional sport models and begun to weave that season-long narrative. It’s no surprise that the league has team owners from the NFL, MLB and NBA.

With any unfamiliar sport, there’s a learning curve to becoming a fan or a spectator. With esports that curve can sometimes seem more like a cliff!

Hopefully this short article has cleared some of the fog and confusion around esports. There’s lots of opportunity for exciting new products and experiences over the next several years.

Thanks for reading! Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Your claps are always appreciated.

Make sure to follow The Fourth Wall for the latest from our team of designers, bringing you their latest thinking on interactive digital media and products.

The Fourth Wall is a publication of Axonista

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The design of interactive digital media

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Ian Goode

Ian Goode

Two parts designer, one part developer.

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