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(Note: I originally posted this to reddit Smash Bros, and am putting it on the blog for posterity.)
The game has been out for over a year. During this time, it’s widely accepted by the community that Pac-Man is bottom tier. Try as people might, no one can seem to do anything with him.
EVO 2016 rolls around and it’s by far the biggest Smash tournament ever for any game in the franchise. All of the big names are there, but one by one they fall to a mysterious masked challenger who, unbelievably, is 4-stocking everyone with Pac-Man. Strangely, he appears to be much older than the average demographic for Smash.
Upon reaching the finals, the man removes his mask and reveals himself to be Billy Mitchell. Somehow, the skills that made him the first person to ever beat the Pac-Man arcade game have translated to Smash 4 almost perfectly. At this point, people are discussing if everything they knew about the game was wrong.
However, there’s another unidentified challenger in a hoodie who, while falling to the lower bracket early on, has been tearing it up. In the finals, he also reveals his true identity: Steve Wiebe.
Upon sitting down, they both set aside their mains and go straight for what counts the most for their pride: Donkey Kong mirror match. Gamers young and old start to watch. Just after the first set, people are declaring it the greatest finals ever in any competitive game, let alone Smash.
At EVO are both the crew for a new The Smash Brothers documentary, and the director of The King of Kong. The next day, they announce their collaboration for a sequel to The King of Kong in the Smash realm. The film is released internationally and is so successful, it turns the esports documentary into the most popular genre ever.
In a recent video interview by Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham about the world of eSports, djWHEAT espouses his beliefs on how eSports can grow, and that in defiance to the doom and gloom that surrounds declining numbers in games such as Starcraft II there is steady growth in both the idea of video games as sport as well as streaming. One of the frequent criticisms I see from people towards djWHEAT’s philosophy is that for most people, eSports as a whole doesn’t matter, and that if their game is the one that’s doing worse, then little else matters because they are not going to jump ship to another game just because. However, I feel that this view is something of a shortsighted misunderstanding on djWHEAT’s viewpoint, and one that limits itself not only to an unfortunate a favored game vs. an evil usurper context, but to an ephemeral present too narrow in scope.
When I hear djWHEAT talk about how the growth of one game can benefit eSports as a whole, and that people leaving Starcraft II for League of Legends or other games is not such a bad thing, I do not interpret it as this idea that the games don’t matter, that they’re just interchangeable within this structure of the competitive gaming scene. Rather, it has more to do with increasing the presence of eSports as a concept to the point that it gets as close to a commonly understood idea as possible, not just among gamers but among non-gamers as well. While one can argue that there will always be economic limitations to how much eSports can grow, this does not mean that there is a limit on growth in terms of exposure and acceptance. The more people know about competitive gaming, whether that’s through friends or family, or seeing matches online, or through playing the games themselves, or even just from a random guy on the street, the greater the opportunity for eSports to never truly fade away.
The scene might wane. It might become a fraction of what it was. However, establishing a cultural foothold by just having enough people positively experience eSports through games—whether it’s Starcraft, Street Fighter, DOTA, Pokemon, or something else—creates a mental and emotional connection more difficult to take away than money and eyeballs. If we look at Japanese anime, for example, there are certain titles (again, such as Pokemon) which, regardless of how you judge their quality, made the idea of anime simply better known and more acceptable to a wider range of people than just an existing hardcore fanbase.
I find that djWHEAT’s vision is one for the future beyond the myopic squabbling we see now, one where the ground is more fertile for the potential growth of new eSports-capable video games in a way which does indeed benefit everyone. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Starcraft II is fated to die out in a year, that it is on a downward and unrecoverable spiral. In light of this scenario, I want to give two alternate realities where this could be happening: one is where Starcraft II is the only game in town, the only game people consider competitive in any way, and the other is where Starcraft II is but a fraction of a complex milieu of a society in which eSports is known and accepted.
In the first, when Starcraft II goes, so too does the notion of competitive gaming, and if ever some game developer wanted to make their own Starcraft, they would have to start from scratch in more ways than one. People would see Starcraft as an anomaly, something which fell with no viable alternatives, and the creators of this new game would have to convince people all over again that this was a worthwhile notion, that people enjoy spectating games just as much as they enjoy playing them, and that there are positives to creating a competitive video game for the benefit of viewers.
In the second, on the other hand, when Starcraft II dies out, the notion that competitive gaming is viable would still be part of the public consciousness. It may not have ended up working for this particular title due to some combination of reasons, but future game developers could look at it and ask, “Where did it go right, and where did it go wrong?” When they go to try and get funding and support, they can point to other games which have been successful, games which companies might even already know about as eSports, and say, “We know what mistakes Starcraft II made and we can adjust accordingly. And, as you well know, there are plenty of examples of this model working.”
In both cases, there is a chance for a new and better spiritual successor to appear and grab all of the fans who once supported that game, but where in the first reality a single company would have to struggle just to introduce the idea of competitive gaming, in the second reality the notion of eSports would be accepted enough that there wouldn’t just be one company trying to create the next Starcraft (or any game of your choice), but five or maybe even ten companies, all eager to re-capture and even improve upon the things that made it so widely viewed and adored in the first place. The potential would not only always be there, but it would be so visible that it would continuously inspire game creators, as well as players, casters, everyone, to seize that opportunity.
Essentially, what djWHEAT is advocating when he says that the growth of one eSport is beneficial to all is not simply the product of a “let’s all get along” mentality. Instead, it is based on the idea that the more “eSports” becomes a solid concept in people’s minds through exposure, the better chance future games and gamers will have of fostering and being fostered by that positive environment, an environment which benefits all competitive games past, present, and future, whether a game’s life span is 50 days or 50 years.
As an avid watcher of professional Starcraft I constantly hear of all the strengths and weaknesses of various video games as spectator sports. Starcraft, for instance, has tons of strategic depth and is also visually clear in many ways, but often times the complexity of a given player’s battle plan requires a commentator to explain it in detail, and differentiations in individual army units can be confusing for someone who’s never had experience with similar games. Compare this with soccer, where “kick ball into goal” is clear as day, or even fighting games, where life bars and graphical depictions of punches and kicks tell the story. So with all eSports, one issue is always, how far removed is the game from reality? If it’s too abstracted then it becomes a game mainly for the devoted or hardcore, which is fine, but spectatorship is the question here.
This got me to thinking, what about Pokemon? While Pokemon is pretty far-removed both in terms of its menu-based gameplay and the sheer number of Pokemon and attacks and the complex rock-paper-scissors chart that makes up the 17 types, I wonder if Pokemon can get around all of this by just being so internationally famous that a possible majority of people under a certain age have had some experience with Pokemon, be it through the video games or the anime or their friends/relatives telling them about how Rock beats Flying. If it’s a common-enough experience, then maybe there’s not as much immediate need for realism or explanation.
On top of that, Pokemon has always been quite robust when it comes to strategy, to the extent that not only have there been multiple tournaments over the years (see the recent Pokemon Video Game Championships for example), but there have been a number of sites dedicated to exploring strategy and tactics in Pokemon, whether that’s Smogon or predecessors such as Azure Heights. These forums manage to bring together the very young up to people well into their adulthoods.
Granted, there are a number of drawbacks and setback that could stifle Pokemon as eSport despite its popularity and penetration. The first is that it’s likely Nintendo would never entirely support a competitive Pokemon scene which fuels people’s salaries, especially because part of the appeal and atmosphere in Pokemon has to do with empowering players to feel strong and special and to bond with the Pokemon they catch and train. Ideally, a competitive version would just allow you to customize your Pokemon (and there have been online simulators over the years which allow this), but I doubt Nintendo would ever approve of such a thing themselves. The second problem is that Pokemon’s strategy and difficulty is purely in the mind, whether that’s coming up with ideas on the fly or memorizing statistics, and while plenty of games have those elements the fact that Pokemon is turn-based means there is no physical rigor involved. No one will mention someone’s fabulous micromanagement. No one will be impressed by 400 APM (actions per minute) when the game really only takes 1 APM.
In any case, while I’m not terribly optimistic of Pokemon Battling becoming a career, I still would like to think that some day there may be a game that is so commonly known that it’s a matter of course for it to enter a competitive realm accepted by many. I mean, more than League of Legends even.
I guess the only thing to leave you is an actual competition video of Pokemon, to see what people think.