March 7, 2007

Not all hobbies are meant to be professional events. Competitive cross-stitch just doesn’t have the same mass appeal as a good hockey match. Professional hockey is entertaining to me because it’s difficult to organize a pick-up game of hockey. Few people own the requisite equipment and possess the skills necessary to make up two well-matched teams. With the advent of online multiplayer, competitive video game matches are phenomenally easier to organize. I can start a match whenever I want.

Major League Gaming, like any other professional league, schedules its events for certain places and times. If I can play a good match of Halo 2 from my couch at 2:00 AM, what reason is there for me to travel to Charlotte, North Carolina and compete against people in the same room when online multiplayer works just as well and is more convenient?

Major League Gaming is hoping that the possibility of prize money and the chance to be known by a ridiculous name like Fatal1ty will be enough to entice willing participants to try to turn their hobby of choice into a money-maker, sucking all the fun out of it along the way.

Is the world ready for Major League Gaming? Maybe. We’re willing to watch other people play baseball, football, hockey, tennis, and golf. Hell, I can watch the miniature golf championship, lumberjack competitions, and giant men pulling fire trucks with their tree-like legs if I have enough variations of ESPN. If South Korea is any indication, there’s a market to be exploited in televised gaming.

The question, then, is not whether Major League Gaming could be successful, but what must be done to make it so? The G4 television network, devil’s work that it is, is an object lesson in how to televise gaming incorrectly. Arena, aside from taking screen time away from such shows as Call for Help and The Screen Savers, failed to excite viewers. It’s just not fun to watch teams of gamers with stupid names rack up the frags in a game of SOCOM 2. There’s a good reason, too. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to actually see everything that’s going on during a match. From my perch in the cheap seats of Wrigley Field I can see both teams and their performances. In a split-screen game, even a one-on-one split-screen game, I can see either, or sometimes both, participant’s point of view, but there aren’t seats. There isn’t a single vantage from which the game can be viewed as a true spectator. Where does the audience sit?

When watching a Street Fighter Alpha 3 match, the audience sits in the same place the combatants do, and all people can watch the match as it unfolds. Nothing is hidden. If Ryu unleashes a hadoken, I won’t miss it because I was viewing the match through Cammy’s eyes, but when I’m watching that SOCOM 2 match, my impressions of the fight are colored by my position.

Viewing position is only one of the obstacles that Major League Gaming will have to overcome if it’s going to be successful. Other stumbling blocks are certain to exist. Two that I can think of are these: why would I watch somebody play a game when I could be doing so myself, and will anybody look up to professional gamers in the way they do sports figures?

Video games separated themselves from books and movies through their interactivity. A narrative is more gripping when you’re in control of the main character’s actions. MLG is going to need to give us a new reason to be interested in the struggle between multiple Spartans of varying colors. The struggle of one gamer to win a pile of cash just isn’t going to cut it. I’d rather start up a game of Halo 2 on my own Xbox in my own living room and defeat Spartans myself. To be certain, TSA’s speed runs of various Legend of Zelda games are entertaining, but I’d never pay to view them, and I only watch them when I can’t save monkeys in Twilight Princess‘s Forest Temple myself. I’m sorry Fatal1ty. You may kick ass at gaming, but I don’t think I’ll ever replace my posters of Michael Jordan and Troy Aikman with Fatal1ty and D34thF4rt.

All these things aside, I don’t want to see Major League Gaming succeed. The video games industry is already a money maker. Its niches have been found, and those niches are interactive storytelling and personal competition. Major League Gaming offers exactly zero of those things. Gaming is viewed as dorky enough. Don’t turn it into the next professional wrestling. The fewer idiots on my television using corny pseudonyms and trash-talking one another, the better. We’ve already got enough idiots, thanks.