As the 2012 Summer Olympics passed, they were unsurprisingly accompanied by a renewal of the debate about competitive video game playing; some advocates of it said that the skill required makes playing certain games comparable to other Olympic events, or indeed more skill-based or worthwhile than an event like trampolining, rhythmic gymnastics or dressage. I am personally not opposed to people choosing to compete at anything; if it requires skill there is no reason not to try and become better at it. However, this does not mean that I consider “professional video game play” to be viable as an international sport, for the medium as a whole is prevented from being so due to its very nature.
Firstly, there is no standardisation in video games; even within one genre of games. Not only are there multiple competing titles in a genre, each title itself is highly iterative, and often part of an ongoing series which consistently revises itself based on feedback from players. Some traditional sports change their rules from time to time, but often not as dramatically or frequently as video games. This iteration is partially necessary owing to the business model of games; consumers are eager to constantly move forward and purchase the latest installment, and companies capitalise on this. Introducing an unchanging, “sport edition” of a series would effectively stagnate it; people serious about playing the game would buy that and no others because there would be no point in buying non-standard versions. To be blunt, the impracticality on a business level of stagnating what is currently a fine money spinner for game companies means that there will not be the standardisation needed for competitive gaming to be official. Similarly, the progress of computer hardware will be unaccounted for; one cannot stagnate that yet it advances far too quickly (even in terms of console cycles measured in years) to standardise for sport purposes. Sporting equipment like bicycles and footballs may change event-on-event, but never to the extent of computer technology or franchise entries in games.
What is more, even if one “standardised” game in a genre could be decided upon as the competitive standard, the joy of games is in the variation within a genre; two shooting games, or fighting games, or strategy games may require the same skill base to play at a fundamental level, but differ wildly in terms of individual rules. It would be impossible to find one game that epitomised a genre in a medium built on iteration and fine technical differences between titles. The utter absence of any regulatory body for games as well makes standardisation still more unlikely; the main groups assuming this mantle at the moment either are players or companies linked to the production or playing of games, meaning there is little impartiality. Any kind of “professional gaming” entity would have to be so broad-church and inclusive of niches that picking a representative form for, say, the Olympics, would be fruitless.
This leads on to the second stumbling block; the fact that skill at games is technical and intricate rather than simply understood. A player’s preference for one game over another similar one boils down to small things that particular game does well – nuances of control, or balance, or even simply aesthetic – as much as the fundamental rules differences (many of which are not immediately clear without significant understanding of the game). T20 cricket and Test cricket are obviously different despite being both cricket and using the fundamental rules (batsmen, bowlers, wickets, fielders). Comparing, say, Battlefield and Call of Duty is similar in that one uses large teams and vehicles and the other small teams and skill-based rewards, but selecting one over the other is mere personal preference. In the fighting game genre the differences become even finer; the entire genre shares inputs and mechanics but at the same time it is vitally important for a player to specialise if they want to compete. A cricketer used to 20-over games may also play Test matches, both to a high standard. Someone skilled at Street Fighter would be unlikely to be able to compete at Guilty Gear yet to a non-specialist observer, there is the same degree of difference between the two. So thus each different game franchise is its own distinct sport (even if it is impossible to tell the difference when spectating outside of aesthetic) and there are far more game franchises with equal merits than variations of a sport. There are three fencing swords. There are at least five major first-person shooter franchises each with an even claim to competitive play. A gaming regulatory body selecting one over the others – or even creating their own “sports standard” game – would effectively be claiming the others are not worthy, and there is too much money in the industry – and dedicated consumer support for all the variants – for that to ever happen.
How, then, does this relate to skill? The answer is that skill at sport is easily visually communicable to a spectator. Even if someone has no real understanding of football tactics or strategies, or the definition of tiki-taka or parking the bus, it is easy to spot a good football team and understand why they are good at football; they retain control of the ball, they score goals, their goalkeeper saves shots. Similarly a good golfer is easy to understand; they hit the ball and it lands in favourable positions. A skilled video gamer, though, is less easily comprehended; while it is easy to see who wins any given match, it is harder to understand without much deeper knowledge why that play is good compared to others. It is not, especially in fighting games, obvious why some tactics are held to be good. The aim is certainly to hit your opponent more than they hit you, but the measure of skill in a fighting game works on an invisible level of frame-timings, animation cancelling and knowing when to do what – things that cannot be easily communicated to someone not well versed in fighting game “rules.” Appreciating skill at physical sports requires only understanding of the goals of that sport, be it scoring goals, touchdowns or birdies. Appreciating skill at games requires understanding the minutiae of the rules otherwise the experience is more superficial.
This is because there is a significant disconnect between the physical act of playing a game and what is depicted on screen. This is not to belittle the reactions, dexterity and speed of thinking that is needed to win, but instead to highlight a significant difference. A game of football requires kicking a ball to other players, being able to react to an incoming ball and kick it precisely. The actions – moving the feet and body to receive and move the ball – are 1-to-1 reflected in the aims – to move the ball around. In a fighting game, the actions are performing quarter-circle and similar movements, reading the opponent’s screen position, avoiding attacks by recognising their animations and similar. This is not reflected 1-to-1 in the on-screen action, which is generally a highly stylised martial arts bout. Thus comes the problem; what is being watched? The spectacle on the screen, which requires significant prior knowledge to “decode” into a display of skill over something that may as well be an automated demo that someone wins, or the actions of the players (which are pressing a few buttons and recognising visual patterns at speed)? Putting it like that appears to demean the physical dexterity needed – for anyone can press buttons but few can pass a football like Pele – because what counts, the mental acuity, and the in-depth knowledge of the game’s rules and current state, cannot be communicated to spectators.
Games are thus curious; skill is required to play them, for sure. Similarly dexterity, strategy and learning of a set of rules. However, the result is a two-part thing which is highly problematic; to a viewer not already familiar with the connection between input and output, there is too great a disconnect between the two. And therein, I think, is the third issue; games are a lot of empty spectacle to disguise not a lot. Competitive games tend to be largely contextless tests of skill dressed up in the themes of war, or martial arts, or sports. How then to commentate it? A tennis commentator may say Murray serves an ace, or Federer’s shot was out. A games commentator may say one player’s air-strike was off-target or another’s sniper rifle shot went true. That’s almost a sense of dishonesty in the commentating; the player did not really fly an aircraft, or shoot a rifle – they moved a cursor on screen and identified the pattern that denoted their opponent’s avatar. I talked in the past about the difficulty of talking about actions performed in games, and the problem returns doubly here – describing on-screen action simply does not accurately account for the skill at the game being displayed, it does it through the lens of the game’s theme. Saying the Ryu player blocked all the hits of the combo sounds exciting, and accounts for what was on screen, but does not explain how the player did it. Saying the batsman hit a ball to the boundary means just that.
None of these arguments devalue competitive gaming; I do not mean to disrespect people good at games, or claim that there is no legitimacy in competing at any skill-based endeavour. Some tests of skill require more endurance or ability than others and so are more interesting, but there’s nothing wrong with a group of like-minded people getting together to see who is best at something. That said, when a game developer claims competitive video game play will see the Olympic Games within a generation, I am compelled to disagree simply because at this point, the medium is entirely unsuited to becoming a professional or mainstream competitive sport.