The announcement of START, a new eSports network by YouTube and IGN came across my desk this morning — and by “desk,” I mean “Twitter.” It’s interesting, to say the least. Gamers have been trying to make their hobby/”sport” as legitimate as mainstream sports for years now, and this is potentially a major step forward. I’m not as gung-ho optimistic about the future of eSports as some people are, but it’s certainly something I’ll be keeping an eye on.

My skepticism regarding eSports as a mainstream venture is mainly founded on the basis of lack of familiarity by the public at large. While it’s true that a niche of gaming fans — already a niche in its own right — would probably love to see competitive WoW or LoL or even Huttball, the prospective pool of viewers is relatively small to start with. And unlike traditional sports, or even most TV programming in general, developing the ability to watch and properly enjoy a video game takes a fair deal of time and effort, something a lot of people probably aren’t willing to do for their entertainment.

Yes, this was on TV once

Take two examples of “games” attempting to become “sports”: Magic: The Gathering and poker. MTG‘s World Championships were broadcast on ESPN2 in the latter part of the ’90s, and if you remember watching them, count yourself among the few. Even as someone who knew a fair deal about the game and didn’t have to have the basics spelled out to him, the high-level strategies and general speed of the game, which often outpaced the announcers’ ability to describe it, led to a less-than-stellar TV product, which is why you don’t still see Magic on TV.

Compare that to the explosion of poker, specifically Texas hold ’em, in the early parts of the last decade. Virtually everyone in America has at least some basic knowledge of poker hands and strategies, and a brief one-minute primer on Texas hold ’em was sufficient to indoctrinate unenlightened viewers (of which I was once one) to the game. Also, the action was usually slow enough that the commentators could take the time to explain the action thoroughly. Those factors combined to make for better viewing and an overall product that was easier for the general public to absorb.

How does this apply to a potential eSports network? Will fans of particular games tune in to see their game being played at a high level? And will there be any chance of luring in players from other games to watch something they wouldn’t normally play? Or will it be a novelty, like my experiences watching Magic on ESPN2, that will lose its charm quickly, even for players familiar with the material?

The man quoted in the article, IGN Entertainment President Roy Bahat, says that the channel won’t just be pro-caliber gamers 24/7, but will include

things that convey the emotion of being part of the video game world.  Some of it is going to be competitive gaming and eSports. Some of it could be things set in a game world that use the game characters in a funny or dramatic way. Some of it is just going to be comedy that anchors in the world of games. One of our concepts is basically two guys who are working at a game store and it’s a comedy where they play off of each other, basically. So stuff like that where the references are anchored in the world of games, but it’ not necessarily talking about a game as an information thing.

So, the video-game equivalent of Clerks? With Chinese gold farmers Choi and Quiet Frog?

Coming to you live from Madison Hexagonal Garden!

Bahat also mentions a reality TV-type show where developers compete to create the next great indy game and that the network won’t have “information shows talking about games,” which is nice because GBTV has totally cornered the market on those 🙂 It’s good that they’re seeking alternate programming and not just concentrating on the hardcore aspects of the hobby, so they won’t be relying completely on people picking up on high-level gameplay. Still, one has to think that will be the cornerstone of the network, and if they don’t get that right, the entire venture will sink.

It’s possible that, being a more visual medium, video games and eSports will have a better chance of succeeding where Magic: The Gathering failed. Explosions draw in more people than playing cards just about any day. Even so, there’s a lot going on in a typical game, even something as simple as a 5v5 PvP battleground and it’ll be impossible for one camera to cover it all. My suggestions would either be to incorporate lots of cuts and replays, to get a wider view of the action, post-action highlight shows, a la SportsCenter, or, if it’s possible, the ability to choose whose point of view to watch from. Though I haven’t ever checked it out, I believe does this sort of thing with some of its college and pro football broadcasts, offering views from various angles of the stadium or concentrating on certain players or even coaches. Whatever the case, we should all be rooting for START to help continue the effort to bring our hobby into the mainstream. Me, I’ll be anxiously awaiting the announcement of START8, a.k.a., “The Ocho.”

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