Are we eSports now?
I have so much that I want to say…
I came into pinball from an eSports background. Namely Starcraft. While I was never much of a competitive SC2 player, I’ve followed the Starcraft scene for a very long time. For those of you who aren’t up on your eSports history, Starcraft II was released in 2010 and is unanimously considered to be the game that ushered in the modern era of eSports. It was the #1 game on Twitch from its inception until 2012 or so. Being the early trend setter, Starcraft II had a number of growing pains that ultimately resulted in it losing the top spot and almost folding completely. But it survived, and today it is an active scene with a strong community to support it (and the game is better than ever!). Comparing pinball to the Starcraft scene obviously isn’t a 1:1 comparison, but there are definitely some lessons to be learned from the history of Starcraft as a modern day eSport.
I guess I’ll start with the prize pools. I think pinball is getting the distribution right. I was having a chat with an FGC friend earlier today about those prize distributions from EVO. My premise was mostly: “How can you say that out of a tournament of thousands of people, only the paying the top 8 is okay?” He said something along the lines of “What, do we want to reward people for being bad?” This opinion is wack. My first Tournament was PAPA 19. After watching Robert Gagno win, I looked up the prize pools, and I was shocked to see how little he actually won. Coming from Starcraft, where the prize for the World Champion, whether it be the one crowned at Blizzcon or the IEM World Championships, was basically fixed at $100,000. $10,000 was a typical prize at a small professional tournament. It seemed so weird to me that the winner of PAPA could win such a lowamount. But then I remembered that I won money in D division. My friend won a few hundred dollars for placing near the top of D. I remembered that I just watched @scoutpilgrim win a thousand dollars. It was the first time that had ever won some money from gaming, and my competitive gaming resume is very long. To this day, I have only ever won money from pinball. The prize distributions in pinball go so far down the line, I’ve never seen
anything like it.
Starcraft was the exact opposite for a long time. Skipping most of the finer points,
Koreans are generally viewed as superior at Starcraft due to the game’s long history in
South Korea, where it is recognized as a sport by the government and has been a staple of
Korean entertainment since the early 2000’s. People have gone to jail for fixing
Starcraft matches in South Korea. When SC2 exploded in popularity, Korean players began
flying to overseas tournaments en masse. The saturation of good players at every
tournament, coupled with very top heavy prize pools, resulted in a number of the
“foreign” (non-Korean) players basically being crushed out of existence. Because they
could not make ends meet playing the game professionally, they simply fell beind the
Koreans. Blizzard attempted to fix this by making leagues for EU and NA players, but
stupidly didn’t prevent Korean players from choosing to participate in the EU/NA leagues
instead of KR. Eventually, Blizzard got it right, and created a unified league for the
foreign players, with Koreans prevented from entering. Finally having something to play
for and some solid prize money to win, foreign players who were once clawing for peanuts
in the top 32, are now able to take on Koreans, and win! A Finnish player recently won a
Tournament in Korea, beating some of the best players in the game all the way to the
finals. There is serious debate as to whether or not he is the best player in the world
Blizzard invested in the foreign Starcraft scene and planted plenty of seeds, some of
which now cast a massive shadow. Likewise, Pinball prize distributions (around here, at
least) almost universally invest in the up-and-coming players. By giving the newer
players legitimate tournaments to play in, as well as something to play for, interest and
investment in competitive pinball increases. Over the last few years I have seen plenty
of the people that I played with in D divion make increasingly bigger waves in the upper
eschelons of competitive pinball. That’s awesome, and I hope the prize distiributions are
never changed. Keep investing in the next generation of players. I’m all about junior
divions and women’s tournaments. The scene will only grow because of them. This was not
an argument for region-locking IFPA state championships.
Presentation is another aspect of Starcraft eSports that has evolved over the years. If you watched a recent professional SC2 game, it would look completely different from the way the game does when you play it. At first, the playable UI took up too much of the viewing area and information was not easily conveyed to viewers. Eventually, a community member developed a specific UI for use in professional games, called GameHeart, and it was an instant hit. Blizzard had the creator make them an official version of the UI, and decided to keep him on full-time after that. Nowadays, the SC2 observer UI conveys almost the entire game state of both players to the viewer at home, in a way that doesn’t feel overloading. Timers announce when important upgrades are about to complete, and the UI even has convenient spaces for each player’s series score.
Presentation for pinball has historically been a challenge, and I’m not entirely certain how to improve on all of the issues that make the game inherently hard to watch. I do agree with earlier posts, that the current standings of each player, as well as game order, who is currently playing, and current scores, should probably be on screen at all times. I’m not saying what’s currently being done is bad, but that we can probably still
improve in this area. I would also like to see tournament banks include a couple of spectator-friendly games. TRON LE comes to mind. Not only does TRON look nice, I think the way the game flows is also spectator friendly. If you have ideas, please don’t be afraid to share them with the community. When it comes to improved presentation, almost nothing can hurt.
Someone earlier on mentioned the issue of commentators not knowing the game in question
being a problem. While I can see where they’re coming from, Starcraft casters are put in this position all the time, and have developed ways to deal with it. Instead of saying “yeah, I don’t know a thing about this game.” it can be rephrased as something of a self-deprecating joke. “Because I’m bad and don’t do my homework, I don’t know how to play this game at all. I’m excited though, because I’m about to watch Keith Elwin teach us all how to play this game.” KME is the all-knowing pinball deity. Instead of the viewer scoffing at your incompetence, you and the viewer can relate as bad players and are about to discover this game together, by learning from the best player in the world/state/city/tournament. Obvious roadblocks to this always being done well are that commentators are often just eliminated players but hey, it’s never going to be perfect.
This situation can also just be avoided from the start by having @scoutpilgrim cast literally every game of competitive pinball, ever. Problem solved.