Recently, I was given the opportunity to ask Sundance DiGiovanni, the CEO and founder of North America’s largest eSports organization, Major League Gaming (MLG), a few questions regarding console eSports and the future of gaming.
Jack Gardner: If console manufacturers had their hearts set on getting in on the growing eSports industry, what more could they do than the features the PS4 was announced to have (i.e. accessible streaming options, partnership with a streaming service, increasing the amount of competitive titles available, integrating social media, etc.)?
Sundance DiGiovanni: In addition to all of the great technology and features planned for PS4, in order to have a strong eSports presence it really comes down to the games themselves. Titles need to have competitive settings built in and a strong community following to be successful in the eSports landscape.
He’s not wrong. Many recent games billing themselves as the next big thing in eSports have failed or been only marginally successful. Tribes: Ascend and Heroes of Newerth are perfect examples. Both games are free-to-play, relying on microtransactions to make money for the developer, which would seem to guarantee a large user base because who doesn’t love a free game? However, despite holding tournaments with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, neither have found anywhere near as big a following as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, StarCraft 2, or League of Legends. The bottom line is that not many people are interested in watching professional gamers play a game that isn’t popular and that lack of interest kills eSports potential.
Jack: What can developers do to create games better geared toward eSports (in terms of casting, recording, content distribution, etc.)? Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’s eSports features seem to be the best consoles offer. Can developers do better or are those what we can expect from future console releases?
Sundance: Activision and Treyarch did an incredible job of developing Black Ops 2 with eSports in mind; that is why we are featuring it on our MLG Pro Circuit this year. They connected with the eSports community, attended our events, listened to what players wanted out of a game and even brought on Pro Players to consult on the feature set. They were dedicated to making the game work and they should be a model for other game publishers looking to create a successful eSports title.
Now that we have seen just what is possible when you create a video game from the ground up with eSports in mind, we can reasonably expect to see other titles aping the features in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Being able to stream while in-game with no additional set up is an incredible boon to gamers looking to go pro, as they can look over their matches and see where they need improvement and also make names for themselves online. The functionality brought to viewing and shoutcasting these matches is nothing short of incredible: Players can commentate the action, switching between an overview mode, map, first-person perspective, and listen in to team chatter.
Jack: How will having built-in streaming and viewing features in the PS4 and possibly the next Xbox affect eSports and do you believe that this is at least partly a response to the massive growth we’ve seen in the competitive gaming scene over the last few years?
Sundance: In the last two years, online viewership of eSports competition has increased dramatically largely in part to streaming technology. It has become easy and seamless to stream on a regular basis, whether you are an individual player or an eSports organization like us. Having built-in features will make eSports even more accessible for aspiring competitive gamers looking to make a name for themselves as the barrier to entry will be even lower.
Throwing some statistics out there: From 2010 to 2012, MLG saw its audience grow from 1.8 million to 11.7 million, a growth of about 636%. In 2012, more than 15 million hours of MLG eSports content was streamed to viewers. None of this growth would have been remotely possible without the ability to stream via services like Twitch and Ustream. As Sundance said, having the ability to stream built into the console will allow more people to enter the streaming arena and make a name for themselves. This isn’t limited to professional gamers, more people could popularize themselves as game commentators, also known as shoutcasters, as well as broaden the audience of eSports viewers.
It also eliminates many of the difficulties inherent in streaming today. It is expensive to stream. You need a high-quality internet connection, a powerful computer, a subscription to a streaming program, and (if you are streaming games on consoles) a capture card. None of that comes cheap, either. Having these all built-in will be a huge boon to future streamers and hopeful next-gen competitive gamers.
Jack: MLG has a history of making gaming partnerships with companies like Microsoft. Do you think we could expect to see MLG or other eSports content making its way onto consoles in the form of apps or built-in functionality?
Sundance: MLG has a long standing relationship with both Microsoft for Xbox LIVE in the form of pic packs and video, as well as PSN. I think we will definitely see eSports content increasing its footprint within the console world.
That’s a good sign. Currently to watch eSports content of any kind on consoles you either need to use an internet browser or watch big tournaments after the fact using apps like YouTube. Neither of those alternatives are very appealing to most people, who opt for the much simpler alternative of viewing on a computer. The biggest ray of hope for those who were hoping to easily watch eSports on their televisions was a Twitch streaming app exclusive to the Xbox 360. It was announced last year, but since then it seems to have disappeared from the public light. What could have happened to it?
Jack: Do you see Sony’s partnership with the streaming service Ustream as significant to eSports on consoles? Why do you think they didn’t partner with the more gaming oriented Twitch streaming service?
Sundance: It's great to see Sony embracing streaming. Hopefully we will see it crossover into eSports efforts on the console, but for now it seems to be a broader initiative. As far as why they picked Ustream over Twitch - I really can't speak to that. I wasn't involved in the decision making process.
The fact that Sony partnered with Ustream over Twitch certainly seems to indicate that they are aiming for a wider array of people interested in streaming for various reasons. However, it does seem like an odd decision, given that Twitch has made a name for itself (literally made a name for itself, changing from Justin.tv to Twitch.tv to cater to the gaming crowd) by focusing on streamed game content. Our theory: It could be that Twitch was already partnered with another company. Remember that Xbox 360 exclusive streaming app from Twitch? Remember that after the announcement that it existed, it promptly went completely dark, but the company insisted it was still being worked on? Remember that both the PS4 and the next Microsoft console are both expected to launch this holiday season? It is highly likely that the reason Sony wasn’t able to get Twitch on-board as their streaming service is because Twitch was busy creating services for the next-gen Xbox, which would certainly explain why not much has been heard about it recently.
What do you think of eSports or the next-gen? Let us know in the comments!
Also, enjoy one of our favorite MLG StarCraft 2 moments below: