North American Scrubs

I originally wrote this post for a more gaming-oriented blog my friends and I created, Bloglomerate. It is exclusively concerned with the game Dota 2. I’ve reposted it here to ensure it lives on in case Bloglomerate is discontinued.

Swag Sorceror: Why are NA teams such ass all the time – do we just not promote as much? Who does one even talk to to figure out what would be helpful to make the community grow – get more people to watch and spend money on games?

The reason NA sucks at Dota and League is because of internet cafes. Net cafes have always been and still are way, way bigger in China, South Korea, SEA, and all over EU. Home desktop computers didn’t take off in other countries the way they did in the US, and that’s because of population density. Also, broadband adoption and good connection quality has only recently become ubiquitous here. South Korea had 100mbps connections well over 5 years ago.

Net cafes matter a fuckload because that’s where amateur teams form and competitions take place. Cafe owners have always been happy to host these things because that’s an enormous amount of business for them. Spectators and players and all of their friends come together and trigger the feedback loop that gets everyone amped up about the matches, the tournament, the game as a whole. There’s a reason kids in the Philippines stood outside in the fucking rain to watch TI3. It’s because it’s always better to watch together in one place than separately, alone.

There’s also a training and experience factor. You’ll hear pro players say over and over again that playing at LANs is way more intense than online. Zero ping, learning to communicate more forcefully amidst more distractions, playing on unfamiliar setups. Net cafes offer experience with all of that. Many American players don’t see their first LAN until they’ve already hit pro status. Arteezy had never been on LAN until this year. EternalEnvy’s first LAN was Dreamhack Winter 2013. Admittedly they’re both Canadian, but the same situation applies there as it does here.

While population density is a big factor, it’s also a lot about about money. Practically zero working class families in the Philippines or Vietnam have been able to afford a computer capable of running modern games. Icefrog doesn’t keep updating WC3 Dota just out of novelty’s sake – there’s literally millions of people that (STILL) play WC3 Dota because you can run it on a potato. For CIS and SEA, net cafes are the only point of access for many, which makes them much more central hubs for competitive gaming.

For China/South Korea, raw square footage for living space is the more dominant factor. A desktop + monitor + keyboard + mouse + desk + chair is a lot of space to consume in regions that have basically run out of room. That’s why consoles are vastly more popular in Japan than PCs, and it’s why arcades still live on there. As an aside, I have no goddamn clue why Dota has zero presence in Japan. Likely for the same reasons that they have no major competitors in StarCraft or the FPS genre.

The last thing is pretty unrelated to net cafes, but the acceptability of children living with their parents well into their 20s is also significant. Very, very few gamers have been successful enough to maintain independence. Living with your parents removes an enormous financial strain, makes it less likely that players need to keep a part or full-time job to keep eating, and provides stability. That’s just not how America rolls.

To approach another question: how one would go about promoting esports, getting involved here in America.

Personally I think it has to start with a caster. Great teams competing is meaningless if over 80% of viewers can’t engage with the game. Venue, prize pools, production value – all of that is useful for short-term attention, but if you want people to stick around for more than five minutes, you need deeper engagement. It’s true of sports as a whole, but eSports and Dota in particular differ a lot from traditional sports because there’s no ball to watch and an absurd number of goals, many of them transient or invisible. Kill score and gold/xp difference are the only immediately obvious measurements of success or advantage, and nobody wants to cheer and clap for a graph. There’s millions of people that would enjoy the shit out of Dota if they could understand it better. For that 80%, the big moments are what really allow them to get excited about the game, and it’s up to casters to grab the audience and shove their face into the awesomeness that’s playing out.

The Play is pretty cliched at this point, but the fact is that LD and Lumi were about as essential to the popularity of that clip as Na`Vi’s play. I guarantee you that if any other (currently popular) caster had been there, it would have just been another good clip among many.

Probably my favorite clip from TI3. LD does such a good job at managing all the different points of interest in the engagement.

I could (and probably will) write a separate essay on why these exemplify great casting, but the point is that tons of big plays are happening in all manner of competitive games. It’s up to the caster to create that headline, the sound bite that gets spectators to go find their friends and jump up and down and demand they watch the madness. The great casters know when something really special is happening and that it’s time to go fucking nuts. One of my biggest issues with many popular casters is that they overreact constantly. They only have two modes: on and off. What you really want is a more even distribution, favoring the calmer side. Otherwise you exhaust the attention span of the viewers.

Casters are important to the players, too. When I cast those LoL tourneys I got some messages from the players who were excited just to have somebody hyping up their game, regardless of how little I contributed in analysis. It helps them feel they’re being taken seriously. Prize pools help with that too, but realistically those are more about press and attracting investment. Together, though, It changes the conversation from “these are passionate hobbyists” to “these are professionals at work”. But the effect of prize pools is a topic for another day.