Play it Before You Can Watch it – My Biggest Issue with E-Sports

It’s getting harder and harder to avoid the term ‘e-sports’ nowadays. Heck, you’re reading an article about the subject right now. Over the last 4 years or so e-sports has exploded in popularity and all of the glitz, glamour, money and scandal that follows ‘real’ sports is making its way into the electronic variety too.

This has given the e-sports scene an air of legitimacy once thought impossible. ESPN, proud broadcasters of mainstream sports, has leaned hard into covering competitive video game playing. The ESPN website now has an entire section dedicated to covering e-sports and its broadcast a number of events, much to the chagrin of its regular audience who were expecting to watch a rodeo, some badminton or something.

This may sound great and in theory, the combination of sports and videogames should be right up my alley. I should love e-sports! I don’t.

The problem, for me, is accessibility. I don’t understand what I’m watching. I can’t appreciate what the e-athletes are doing.

Take any real life sport and whether you enjoy watching it or not, you can appreciate when someone is performing at a high level. Not a fan of boxing? You can see when someone’s dodging punches and knocking other people out that they’re ‘good’ at what they do and it’s a real skill.

On the other hand, did you see that kick Ryu just did? Was that a good kick? Did it require a complicated set of commands or did ‘F1ghtL0rd’ just press the wrong button?

Sure, people that play the game will know what’s happening, but that’s the point. Unless you play the game and understand it to a high level, you can’t access it as an e-sport. Again, back to the real world sport analogy, I’ve never thrown or caught an American Football in my life but even I can appreciate what’s going on at a base level.

The base level of understanding for e-sports, what the layman will instantly be able to recognise, is what’s known as ‘Actions Per Minute‘, or APM for short. This boils down to how quickly someone can input commands into the game and, if you have no idea how the videogame works, will be the only metric you can possibly understand.

You might not think that this is a big issue, the people that are into e-sports are also into the games that are being played. DotA as an e-sport works because DotA as a videogame is so hugely popular. This is true, but if people want to keep writing about e-sports taking over the world and being on a par with real sports, the games being played need to be more instantly accessible and the skill being shown has to be instantly recognisable.

Take a look at the crowd inside Old Trafford. How many of those people have played an 11-a-side football match in the last decade? Probably less than 60% (being generous here), yet people can enjoy the sport being played. Could you imagine going to a DotA tournament if you’d not played DotA in the last 3 years, let alone never having played it? You’d be screwed! New characters and new items are introduced regularly and patches cause characters get ‘nerfed’ – you’d have no idea what was going on.

E-sports to me seems like an inside joke. It’s a community within a community and if you’re even remotely on the outside, there’s nothing to be enjoyed from it. It’s the total opposite of real sports where, sure, you’re not going to understand the tactical or more nuanced elements but you’ll be able to spot the skill on show.

When someone has to explain that ‘12FuryKing34’ just used Slardar’s ultimate on Huskar and this is impressive because Slardar has few Health Points, minimal Skill Nubs and lower Intelligence Souls, then it instantly become less impressive. Like someone having to explain why a joke is funny – it’s not funny.

All of this is fine, by the way. This isn’t me complaining that e-sports are being talked about or that they’re being shown on the TV. This is just me airing my concern that people who think e-sports is going to be ‘big’ or ‘break into the mainstream’ need to be aware of this very basic and very real concern.

Where real-world sports are innately accessible and the skill on display is often very obvious, e-sports will forever have an issue where the viewers of an e-sport will simply be a subset of players of the game. The Olympics draws in millions of viewers not because millions people know how to judge a diving contest properly, not because millions of people participate in dressage and not because millions of people have a cupboard full of fencing equipment, but because it’s easy to appreciate when all of these niche activities are being performed at such a high level.

I tried to watch a ‘Best Plays of League of Legends’ video on YouTube recently. I’ve played maybe 10 hours of LoL and within 40 seconds of the video starting the commentator excidetly shouted “what is happening!?”

That was my question exactly.



  1. As I read I kept thinking of Dota, a game I’m familar with and thought., “It’s actually pretty simple in concept. Someone could follow along with someone destroying things and taking down people on the other team.” Then I went to watch a LoL video at the end and thought, “What’s going on?”…and it dawned on me that you’re right. Mobas at least might need someone explaining what’s going on for people to even get it where in something like American football you know the guy getting to the other side is a good thing.

    However there are other games joining the E-Sports list. CoD for example is extremely easy to understand, people shoot other people and try not to get shot themselves. Those might serve as the introduction to E-Sports for those who are new to them such as myself. Then eventually they can dive into the deeper, more complex games.

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