For our first installment of “Office Hours,” a series of interviews with prominent personalities on Cornell’s campus, Sunspots writer Bruno Avritzer sat down for a chat with Computer Science Professor Walker White, Director of the Cornell Game Design Initiative. In the interview below, which has been edited for clarity, White shares his thoughts on the global popularity of eSports, their potential as spectator sports and comparisons between certain video games and sports like football.
So the first thing I wanted to ask you is about your opinions on eSports, the phenomenon. Why is it sort of limited in the USA, compared to Europe or Korea?
I think some of it is just the cultural acceptability of it. Some of it is because there’s lot of professional sports already in this country and therefore that limits the TV market space for it. If you think about it, what makes these things successful or not is not the people who play it but the people who watch it.
Yeah, of course.
And certainly in a lot of the Asian countries this is more acceptable, and more importantly there’s a market for it, right? There is a market in this country for people watching eSports, but it’s a relatively small market, and when you look at the opportunity costs of a station, are they going to play eSports or some other sport? It’s probably not worth the cost for them. ESPN has tried several times to do something with televising eSports, and it’s never really been commercially viable with the overhead and the number of people who watch it. If anything, the rise of eSports in the US has been because of Twitch, because now you have a streaming/viewing platform where it’s sort of financially worth it to do these eSports because it reaches a broader market.
But I mean, it’s not like eSports wasn’t trying. In the 90s, ESPN2 was trying to play MTG (Magic the Gathering, a.k.a. Magic) tournaments online like they would play poker tournaments. But a large part of it is that you need a critical mass of people who can understand the lingo, because if you’re going to be a fan, you have to be able to look at it and say “oh, this is a good play, this is not a good play,” and sure, the commentators help a lot – there are really good commentators in eSports – but in football or basketball, programs exist in every single high school in this country, so anyone who’s never even played these sports can generally look at these things and go “oh, that looked like a good play” or “that’s not a good play.”
If anything, the shooter games are sort of easier in this regard. They’re a lot more visual, so you can sort of see things that are cool and interesting, but then they also have the problem that you only see something from a very limited player’s perspective, so that gives you no idea of how a game is going at a time. You look at a game like basketball or football or whatever, and you look at the entire field, and that gives you an idea of where things are, and I’m not just focusing on an individual player. That, I think, is one of the reason why the mmobas (massively multiplayer online battle arenas, like League of Legends) are very successful, because you get that same type of thing in the mmobas.
Sure, but let’s just take the example of Hearthstone, which you were on the fence about [whether it’s really an eSport] before. It’s sort of borderline in the sense that you don’t need that much knowledge to go into it.
I agree, but now the question is are card games interesting to watch, because, as I said, ESPN2 tried to show MTG, and there’s really cool stuff in there for people in the know, but why is poker so popular? I mean there is a lot of strategy to poker, and if you watch you are in the know, but what people really want is they want to see people win long shots and they want to see people get hosed, and it has nothing to do with the strategy there. So poker is sort of an outlier and it’s an outlier for very, very specific reasons. Card games have never really been popular from a viewing perspective. It really is these sort of action, strategy-type games, starting with Starcraft going into the mmobas that for some reason has the possibility of getting a wider audience than just the people who play it.
I mean Hearthstone is fine, but Hearthstone, if you think of it as an eSport, it’s closer to the Magic model. So Magic had tournaments in its business model from the very, very beginning. We had Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias come here and talk, and I’ve talked to them about the origins of Magic and how it was created, and they had tournaments from the get-go, but they didn’t care about viewers. The purpose of tournaments was to create the notion of seasons, which is another big thing that’s coming here, and the beauty of a season is that it allows you to pull out things and add new things, and so instead of paying for a game once…
You’re paying multiple times.
You’re paying multiple times, right. And so seasons were in Magic’s business model from the very beginning, and that has nothing to do with viewership, and Hearthstone’s the same way. So Hearthstone’s an esport in the sense that it’s built into their business model of cycling cards, but they could care less if they have viewers because that’s not.
I don’t know, I feel like that plays into their long game a little bit.
Yeah, but I don’t think it’s very successful. They are really screwing the game up a lot, right?
Well I don’t know about that. It’s sort of hard because nowadays, right? You see more and more people getting into Hearthstone who are like not the type you expect to be into eSports at all.
Yeah, but you’re going to see a lot of people defect from Hearthstone to Gwent, and that’s going to be interesting.
I haven’t tried Gwent, so I’m not sure if it’s a defection, or maybe playing both?
So this is a well-known thing, right? Anything that has a continuous revenue model, people are only sort of whales (big spenders) of a single game at a time. So sure, I might play both, but it means that one of them’s being downgraded, and I’m probably spending a similar amount of money overall. Somebody’s a loser here.
You’re definitely right about that. I think there’s just some question of the profit models of the two in relation to each other, and how much you can still get out of the customer who’s doing both.
I mean there’s some of that. They’d like it to be a viewable game, but it’s not the number one priority to be viewable, right? It’s just that it helps to be viewable, when things require a lot of not just thinking or strategy but reaction time, because another thing about viewing the sport is, you know, “Wow, these are people doing things I can’t really do,” right?
It’s like admiration a little bit.
It’s admiration, right. Some of it is a combination of all these, right? I mean, why is football popular? Because when people watch football they don’t necessarily identify with the players, they identify with the coaches.
I’m not really a big football person.
So the whole notion of fantasy football is if I were a coach and I were directing my players, how would I do them differently? But football’s a really unusual sport in this regard.
I understand what you mean. I think that kind of goes into the point you’re making before about mmobas being the best in this, because you’re kind of like the coach in that sense.
That’s right, it captures a lot of the things that made football successful as a viewing sport.
That’s kind of interesting, because football is primarily successful here in the United States, but mmobas are successful over the world.
I’m not an authority, but it’s very possible that what you’re seeing here is that football is a certain type of thing that makes it popular, but it’s not popular elsewhere because people don’t grow up with it in their schools like we do, and that what mmoba is doing is giving them an alternative exposure to this type of sport that they don’t have in their countries, whereas for us, well, we don’t need it because we have football.