Televised gaming in the West, in its current form, is broken. Dressed up in the ill-fitting clothes of existing formats and shuffled nervously around schedule arrangements, shows about videogames are the unwanted orphan children of broadcast entertainment, easier to pity than support.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. As we all know, videogames are a fluid, visually exciting medium; given the right treatment, they could easily transfer to broadcast. Take the whirlwind success of Texas hold’ em poker as a precedent. Many credit the advent of the televised tournament for deconstructing the stigma behind poker, updating its image and kick-starting a multi-million dollar industry around the game.
Televised gaming has traditionally been hamstrung by the inherent difficulties of the television production process. Adam Doree, Director of gaming site Kikizo.com and commentator on Games Night, a biweekly broadcast on the U.K.’s XLeague.tv, notes that “television is locked into a production process which just makes everything difficult – production standards and broadcast requirements, footage rights, location permissions and all sorts of bloated costs and hidden difficulties.”
This issue is compounded by the lack of desire among many in the West to take a gamble on gaming, seeing it as a young medium with a similarly juvenile fan base. Doree says, “There is still a perception by many grey haired bosses that gaming is not yet mainstream, and only as they are replaced does the process of achieving anything remotely cohesive become smoother.”
The most recent attempt to present videogames to a small-screen audience, the Championship Gaming Series, embodies a number of these issues. Despite the large financial injection (and doubtless excellent intentions) behind the televised version of the tournament, the format exists in a peculiar state of indecision, resulting in televised irony: a show about gaming that refuses to show all of the games it purports to cover. The show refers to the viscerally “slow” Forza Motorsport 2, for example, only in the past tense. This throws up another key problem with existing videogames broadcasting – that of spectacle.
Videogames are a notably open and porous medium. From forums where players praise and deride developers for their design decisions to the current wave of viral “beat the developer” achievements tucked away in a host of Xbox 360 games, gaming offers uncommon access between creator and audience. It’s not enough for gamers to be spectators even in the development process – they want to actively participate
This ethos extends to the living room as well; why watch when you can play? Assuming he or she owned the right hardware, everyone can engage directly with the videogames shown on television. So what is there that makes these images uniquely captivating without the need for interactivity? What gives televised gaming the edge over actually playing the thing, the pull factor that would yank the wandering eyes of both gamer and non-gamer to the TV set? As of yet, nothing.
There are two key elements that have been crucially overlooked in the vast majority of games shows, factors that make people sit up and take notice: an intriguing story, and the demonstration of extreme skill.
Story has never been best friends with videogames. Sure, they’ve had their trysts, their improbable days in the sun, and they’re certainly getting to know each other better; but few of these dalliances have actually proven capable of going the distance.
And yet, there remains something compelling about watching a game with a strong narrative thread played to completion. To surrender control and observe as someone else weaves their way through plot twists and character developments is very close to the experience of watching a movie, with the added bonus of being able to interject your own comments and suggestions and solve the puzzles and problems posed by the game by consensus.
I used to share a house with a friend I met through a similar interest in music. He had a battered GameCube and a smattering of titles – yearly sports updates and bargain-bin impulse buys, all. He was far removed from the common stereotype of a gamer. One night, sitting downstairs in front of the TV, I decided to boot up Resident Evil Zero. My friend wandered down shortly afterward, sat himself on the sofa and dedicated the next three hours to watching me shoot zombies and pop leeches, dishing out refreshingly un-gamer-like puzzle advice (“just shoot the door if it’s locked!”) and squealing, eyes hidden behind a pillow, where appropriate. It was a win-win situation – he knew he had neither the time or the skill to get through the game on his own, but was hooked on the fairly basic story. And I enjoyed the company, keen as I was not to be left alone in the dark with zombies.
Watching someone else play through a videogame can often be the gateway drug into a deeper interest in the medium. A friend and I recently found ourselves outlining the basic concepts and controls behind critical darling Portal to another, decidedly non-gamer chum. After a quick trip to the supermarket, we returned home to find her navigating her way through the corridors of Aperture Science. GLaDOS impersonations have been her forté ever since.
Titles like Portal and Resident Evil present a wildly different view of gaming from the outdated “you got the high score!” portrayal of gaming, which so many televised videogame events lamentably reinforce.. In the place of lightning-fast deathmatches and impenetrable beat-’em-ups, presenting mature, measured titles on established media could do wonders for the image of games, a positive reinforcement of values oft overlooked by those on the outside looking in.
Let’s be honest: It’s tough to appreciate a truly hard-fought Counter-Strike victory when you’re on the losing side. It’s even harder when you’ve got no affiliation whatsoever. A good team will regularly employ a lot of ducking, hiding, and “tactical retreating,” for the payoff of a couple of seconds of frantic gunplay. Then one or more combatants will fall down, becoming numbers on the scoreboard. The best CS units are terrifyingly well-oiled machines, brutally efficient squads of accurate-clickers – but you’d never know it from looking at them.
There are no physical feats of excellence, a distinct lack of razzle-dazzle. The finale to a number of these televised matches is as muted as a silenced M4A1, sputtering bullets against the brickwork on de_dust.
Yet again, it doesn’t have to be like this. We don’t have to know the intricacies of a game to enjoy watching it. An entire country stands as testament to this statement – South Korean networks dedicate countless hours of airtime to gaming. The best, the most determined, those capable of superhuman feats of skill and endurance are fêted as idols. The mouse click becomes the slam-dunk; the scroll, the full-court sprint. These are things that mere mortals cannot pick up and manage “on a good day.” They shock and amaze, even for those unversed in the concept of the Zerg rush.
And while South Korea is undeniably a product of unique circumstances, the desire to be thrilled and entertained is universal. YouTube is clogged with comments on the videos of guitar gods who can tap out DragonForce without missing a note without ever having touched a real instrument. We are enthralled by wunderkinds from across the oceans, hammering impossible rhythms on incomprehensible arcade machines; feats of perseverance and pure ability that have the power to captivate and enthrall thousands.
Videogame speed-running is another heretofore missed opportunity for broadcasters. Players commit themselves to busting a game open, approaching it in a non-traditional manner that can de-mystify even the most complex titles. These determined few set out to beat the game at its own game. Highlighting these skills on television would no doubt attract a legion of fans; it’s certainly easy to get caught up in the drama of a five-minute Super Mario Bros. play-through, judging from the YouTube view counts.
Unfortunately, despite the global hunger for entertainment, televised gaming still hasn’t been able to inspire and provoke in the ways it could. Hopefully, as both television and videogames mature and develop, they will put aside their differences and come together to offer the fantastic visual experience gaming is uniquely capable of: moments when you realize that your mouth is agape, your nervous system flooded with adrenaline, your hands twitching with imagined controller motions.
Richard McCormick is a freelance contributor to The Escapist. He occasionally adds to (extreme) work-in-progress www.dead-pixels.net, and can be reached for a chat at firstname.lastname@example.org