The E-Sports Charade: Part One

Guild Hall

You must defeat your foe’s Guild Lord to win in GvG

“We are seeking/pursuing/enthusiastic about…

ESPORTS!”

I used to watch Guild Wars 2’s Hall games and GvGs in the game’s observer mode whenever I had been out of the pvp game for awhile. (Let’s say months.) This was a way for me to see what builds were being used and how people were playing. A few months ago, I watched a couple of top 25 guilds battle it out in an extended GvG. One team was using an effective split build, going around the central area and in the backdoor with a Elementalist/Monk and a Dervish to take down NPCs and bleed-n-burn down the other team’s Guild Lord. The split strategy, rather common in the first Guild Wars, forced the other team to either split their own team up, move the batlte to where the split was or try to win while allowing their NPCs to die.

My first guild would revert to this strategy whenever we were losing and at times it worked. When being pushed back at the flag, we would send off two or three warriors to take down as many NPCs as they could and then fight the team’s Guild Lord all by themselves. When it worked, the other team was pretty pissed. We “ganked” the GL or we “ninjad” the win. The truth was that this was early on in the game’s life, before split builds became more popular and accepted. Honestly, we were just making it up as we went along. On the other hand, the true split build exists in a way so that larger group left behind can survive for extended times versus a numbers disadvantage. It wasn’t until the Factions expansion came along that these sorts of builds started to appear more commonly and in a more intelligent fashion. The Assassin’s teleport ability and the Spirits of the Ritualist provided both the ninja ability to sneak in and the delaying strategy of limiting damage to a group of people.  These things, along with new skills for all the professions, made split builds a more viable tactic. When the “Victory or Die” rules came in, taking out NPCs early meant even more in regards to your team’s chance at winning a GvG match.

As far as we know, this sort of game will not be appearing in Guild Wars 2. ArenaNet has devoted all structured PvP attention to their Conquest mode. The Conquest mode is the hot-join game players see when they hit “Play Now” on the PVP tab of their Hero window. When you hit the Play Now button, you literally do play then and now. The game ports you directly into an already active game. It’s sort of like joining a random game of Team Fortress 2. This, along with the instant boost to max gear and level, makes the GW2 structured PvP game very easy to get into. Before getting into my polite little rant, I’ll clarify what Conquest mode is like.

Conquest mode is your common resource capture point ruleset and map. There are two maps showcased so far and both have three capture point spots, along with team size limited to around five or six per side. The PvP community hasn’t exactly been thrilled by this. There was a capture point game in the first Guild Wars but it was not popular, and garnered nowhere near the interest that Guild vs Guild or Heroes Ascent/Hall of Heroes did. To be honest, it’s always been tough for Capture Point maps and rules to be taken seriously as true tests of teamwork and skill by PvPers. I’ll get into why that is later, but I feel the next thing I should address is why the community is stuck with Conquest when it doesn’t seem to want it.

The True Heart of E-Sports is Corporate

From a broadcasting and sponsorship perspective, there were a few problems with the original Guild Wars PVP game. One, the depth of builds and skills was something that required a devoted interest in the game by the audience. As well, many spells weren’t all that visually apparent. By this, I mean what was going on in a sixteen player battle wasn’t easy to tell by just watching the battle from afar. You could see a Monk get interrupted by a spell, but unless you were watching the castbars of the other team, you couldn’t tell where it came from. Often, it might be a Mesmer on interrupt duty. It might be a Power Block skill or it might even be the product of some hex being triggered. Sometimes you had Rangers with interrupt skills. To understand the action on the field, you had to know the way the game was played and you had to switch around to look at people’s skillbars and guess at their basic build, come to a general idea of who would be doing what and then try to comprehend the overall battle.

This is difficult for a broadcaster to easily translate into the sort of  vibrant, excited wave- flow of phrases that any new audience can understand. On top of this, since there are eight players on each side, there’s a lot of names to remember and many important events that happen, namely the important moments involved which shift an ebb and flow of multiple players reacting and responding.  The game also featured spikes, which were synced attacks meant to make any health bar go from 100% to 0% in the flash of an eye. There is no way for a broadcaster to be able to ancticipate these spikes without listening in to the voicechat feed of both teams. In this way, a broadcast of Guild Wars almost needed a broadcasting team, and then audio from both team’s voice chats to fully visualize what was going on. These things made the first Guild Wars very demanding on broadcasters and it did not translate well into the sort of flashy entertainment package that a company can easily sell to someone who was an outsider to the Guild Wars PvP world.

This is before we even consider the complex rule sets of winning a Guild versus Guild battle. The basic point is to kill the enemy Guild Lord, but map differences, flag captures and NPCs still alive in a draw matter as well. The GvG maps were not small either and the game demanded you follow the whole map with the roles of split builds and flag runners.

Now consider how easy it can be to tell who is winning or losing in a fighting game match being broadcast. Maybe you can’t see all the technical skills being used, but a landed punch and a decreasing lifebar is visually telling all by itself. A fighting game match lends itself to excited reactions and concentrated commentary. There’s a major combo landed or a counter, and the game involves all of two people. This is far easier to broadcast and market than your average MMORPG and their corresponding llist of skills, builds and players.

So the braodcasters concern is the company’s concern. They want something that will draw an audience as large as possible. The game companies want broadcasters to support their game, because having their PVP put out there helps sell the game and gets money flowing their way from the various other companies associated with the event.

Sponsorship

Broadcasters aren’t the only money involved in the E-Sports game. Accessory and hardware companies help support E-Sports by sponsoring players and tournaments, and for this sponsorship, they get their logo and gear advertised with the tournaments and their products associated with high level play and high level players. Like any company, the E-Sports sponsors want a good deal. They want as high an exposure they can get for the lowest cost to themselves. In this way, sponsoring teams of eight players plus alternates can be pretty expensive for the companies. The truth is the more players they sponsor, the less they gain from their sponsorship. A sponsor gets just as much publicity from sponsoring a two player team at a tournament and getting their logo put on a sponsor board as they do sponsoring an eight man team.

Of course, sponsoring five players is much more cost effective than sponsoring eight. So the more the team size shrinks, the happier sponsors are. MMOs will always be more costly because they often rely on team structured PVP and Guild identities. Still, by going towards Conquest and smaller teams for their tournaments, ArenaNet is working to appease. possible E-Sport sponsors. And by providing the Capture Point map, they appease the broadcasters. Why?

Conquest gives a readout of points scored and points attributed to players.

Tiny  Battles and a Scoreboard

Capture Point maps and small teams create a situation where players must split up and keep moving. I mentioned split squads and tactics in this entry’s opening, but these split situations in a Capture Point map are different. A GVG split squad is organized to split, a tandem or a trio of players who know they will be sticking together and have builds that support each other as a split squad. The splits in Capture Point demand singular splits and multiple splits. Basically,you go where you’re needed on the map. You cannot rely on someone on your team to always be with you, so your build must prepare your character for life as a solo survivalist.

What the Capture Point ruleset creates is the One on One fights familiar to fighting game fans. When you have a skirmish at a capture point, the broadcast can focus on that particular fight and those particular players. They don’t have to worry about the build of each team or interacting builds, but instead, the broadcasting team can focus on what one player is doing versus the other player. This includes the camera, the announcers and the studio guy in charge of directing the action. These small skirmishes are the sort of spotlight situations that work for television and streams.

Also, the Conquest game mode has a running score at the top of the screen, so that no matter where the action is going on, the viewer can get an idea of how the overall battle is going. People understand points even if they don’t understand how those points are being made.

This doesn’t mean the work being done towards making Guild Wars 2 an E-Sport will succeed or even that fans should want the game to become an E-Sport in this way. In fact, I think any MMO player should be worried about their company talking about E-Sports.

Why For You Mad At E-Sport?

The problem with the whole reasoning and explanation of ArenaNet’s situation is that nowhere along the way did the consumer and the playerbase become an important factor. Everyone involved is seeking to profit off the performance of the PVP community, but that player community isn’t being considered in the design of the game. At least not considered at the same level of importance as the sponsors and broadcasters.

Despite being accommodating to a supposed audience, there is something very anti-consumer about the E-Sports pursuit. There is also a patronizing view of the audience, and I would argue an exaggerated projection of the real value of competitive gaming to the public.

And worst of all, all the planning and pleasing comes tumbling down if the playerbase rejects your PVP game.

That’s the issue I will be getting into with Part Two of this discussion.

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