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Will the Growth of eSports Be a Game-Changer for Fans?

What happens when a geeky thing like watching people play videogames goes mainstream?

Enrique Espinoza / MLG

“I used to say I wanted it to be mainstream, but I’ve completely changed my mind.”

That’s Chris “Wife” Fabiszak, a commentator and former pro player for the Nintendo videogame Super Smash Bros. Melee. He spoke to Re/code backstage at an eSports tournament over the weekend, not long after co-hosting the play-by-play on a nail-biting series of games.

“I used to think I wanted it to be like the ‘real sports,'” Fabiszak said. “Recently, a good friend of mine said we should start using our real names. … How often am I asked, why am I ‘Wife’? Am I gay? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It can get tiresome explaining yourself over and over again.”

(The backstory of Fabiszak’s pseudonym: In the mid-2000s, he was part of a two-person Smash Bros. team called The Newlyweds, so named after a reality show on MTV at the time, “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica.” Friend and teammate Kevin “Husband” Dassing played as Marth, a male character from Nintendo’s Fire Emblem games, while “Wife” played as Princess Peach from the Mario franchise.)

“I thought about it for a couple days,” Fabiszak said of the naming debate. “I like that we came from that [silly names]. Let’s keep doing exactly what we’re doing, just bigger. Why not?”

The businesses around professional competitive videogaming, though, may have a real incentive to grow up — even if only a little bit. Thanks in large part to the rise of livestreaming games online, eSports are big business now, drawing in millions of viewers who spend as much as 20 hours every week watching other people playing videogames.

It’s easy to tell amateur and professional games in traditional sports apart, but videogames are, ultimately, entertainment products made for consumers. A stadium full of screaming hardcore fans, with millions more watching at home, is both an advertisement for the game itself and an inducement to third-party advertisers: These people love this game. Wanna put your logo right over there?

Game companies like Activision Blizzard and Riot Games have whole teams of employees focused on finding ways to make games fun to watch as well as to play. And eSports leagues like the organizer of this past weekend’s tournament, Major League Gaming, partner with those companies to advance the competitive angle.

“We definitely want to broaden that awareness,” Kim Phan, Blizzard senior manager of eSports, said. “Accessibility to total non-players is part of the goal.”

Blizzard’s current best-known competitive game, Starcraft II, had an obligation to stay true to the first Starcraft game, one of the first eSports and something close to a national religion in South Korea. But a new game, Heroes of the Storm, was specifically designed to have shorter rounds than competing games in its genre, the clunkily named multiplayer online battle arena, or MOBA.

Rounds of the two best-known MOBAs, Riot’s League of Legends and Valve’s Dota 2, typically last at least 30 minutes, and can go as long as an hour. An average game of Heroes of the Storm, by contrast, is supposed to last 20 minutes.

“At the end of the day, there’s a lot of games that are competitive, but not all competitive games are viewable,” Phan said. “Being able to watch the game and follow it, that’s what makes a true eSport.”

It’s one thing to tighten the game time or to tweak a map on which a game is played. But all involved seem wary of changing the games too much, or in ways that players might see as an excuse to walk away.

“I don’t know if broad acceptance is a goal,” Call of Duty commentator Ryan “Fwiz” Wyatt said. “Sure, we want to continue growth, and we have to have broad acceptance in order to continue to do that. … I think some of the older generations might find it harder because they weren’t around gaming into the multiplayer days. There’s kind of a stigma of the fat nerd in the basement.”

This idea of an out-of-touch bogeyman — generally imagined to be older but part of the media establishment — recurred throughout my interviews for this story. This may be because past efforts to cram games into traditional broadcasting constraints, like the TV channel G4* or a now-defunct partnership between Major League Gaming and the USA Network, never clicked.

“Ten years ago, if I wanted people to watch eSports, I probably had to convince an executive to let me put it on TV,” Starcraft commentator Sean “Day[9]” Plott said. “And there’s not that many TV stations. They are the figures of authority there. So what you saw was content that was not quite bent to be community-suited content.”

Livestreaming on sites like Twitch, however, has turned the viewers into the authority figures, Plott said.

“The content producers are not really in control,” he said. “It is all the audience. Putting on events in the modern media landscape, it’s like being on “Master Chef.” MLG is just a cook on a cooking show, and they’ve got to prove to the audience, who’s the evil judge who loves to shit on bad quality. But if it’s delicious, they’ll go, ‘This is absolutely fantastic.'”

Riot Games’ director of eSports Whalen Rozelle concurred.

“It’s not something you can force, going mainstream,” Rozelle said of League of Legends. “If we were to try and throw ourselves on TV and make all these big deals with traditional mainstream events, it would seem forced.”

Instead, Riot tries to turn players into sports fans “organically,” Rozelle said. Encouraging the regional tournament scene and hosting an annual world championship that this year will travel around southeast Asia gives fans of the game a chance to meet face-to-face over a shared interest, and maybe bring family or a significant other into the fold.

“The reasons going mainstream is good is about growing the ecosystem of the game,” Rozelle said. “By being more mainstream, having greater awareness of the sport, that allows larger sponsors to get on board. … In Korea, major corporations have realized this. Kids there grow up aspiring to be eSports athletes.”

This, really, is the golden ticket: Making eSports as mainstream everywhere as it is in Asia. Nothing in the West right now can compete.

However, content complementary to the games, built around the human stories of the players, may be moving the needle. MLG coaches its top players on how to talk to the media; Valve produced a well-received documentary about Dota 2 last year; and a four-hour fan-made documentary, “The Smash Brothers”, has effected a sea change in the Super Smash Bros. competitive community, Fabiszak said.

“It used to be, everyone played,” he said. “If I walked into a tournament and I had never seen your face, I could beat you, guaranteed. … You came to play, and a couple dozen people watched finals, but nobody came just to watch. But now they do. You’ve got fans, autographs, selfies … it’s a whole different world.”

* G4 is owned by G4 Media, a subsidiary of NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, parent company of Re/code.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistook the name of Riot Games’ eSports director. He is Whalen Rozelle.

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