Big Pic­ture Mode

Nathan Brown mulls over the prob­lem­atic world of eS­ports


De­spite the fact that I pil­fered the name for this page from Steam’s so­fafriendly user in­ter­face, it is not a col­umn about Valve, though I ac­cept it may feel like it some­times. The rea­son I bor­rowed the name Big Pic­ture Mode was that I wanted this page to of­fer a zoomed-out look at a par­tic­u­lar is­sue within the game in­dus­try, us­ing the breath­ing room of print to give a rounded per­spec­tive on com­plex mat­ters rather than a hot take within the hour.

So it’s no sur­prise that I’ve writ­ten about Valve more than any other com­pany, and al­most as much as I have about Street Fighter and fa­ther­hood. Gabe Newell’s com­pany does an aw­ful lot that is brave, fas­ci­nat­ing and deeply prob­lem­atic, for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons and from a mul­ti­tude of per­spec­tives. All of which is a long-winded and apolo­getic way of say­ing that, yes, I’m writ­ing about Valve again. And Street Fighter! If I can crow­bar a poop joke in some­where, we’ll have a full set.

Valve’s lat­est un­de­sired slot in the gam­ing press’s Top Sto­ries sec­tions came with a can­did ad­mis­sion from Crown Prince Gaben Him­self that his com­pany had dropped the ball. At a Dota 2 ma­jor in Shang­hai, panel host James ‘2GD’ Harding de­cided it was the per­fect venue to make a joke about his ho­tel porn. Newell, in an ex­cel­lent dis­play of the way Valve’s flat hi­er­ar­chy means he never has to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for any­thing, took to Red­dit to call Harding “an ass”. Harding had caused prob­lems in the past, yes, but was brought back on be­cause some Valve staff thought he de­served an­other chance. It seems he won’t get an­other.

The specifics of the is­sue aren’t that sur­pris­ing, but it does speak to a wider is­sue within eS­ports: pre­sen­ta­tion. We un­der­stand that games that are ex­pected to be a hit on the com­pet­i­tive scene are built ac­cord­ingly, with a vis­ual de­sign tailored to both player and spec­ta­tor, and a suite of fea­tures for tour­na­ments and livestreams. Game de­sign­ers are good at mak­ing games, but as Valve’s Shang­hai woes il­lus­trate, they don’t nec­es­sar­ily make good event man­agers. The big­gest chal­lenge fac­ing eS­ports right now is a set of broad­cast stan­dards.

What makes a good eS­ports host, apart from not talk­ing about wank­ing over a wheel­chair? What should they wear? Does a shirt and tie give a pre­sen­ter a ve­neer of le­git­i­macy, or make them look as if they’re go­ing to a dis­tant rel­a­tive’s wed­ding against their will? Most im­por­tantly, who are they talk­ing to? The big Street Fighter com­men­ta­tors change their style slightly for Evo ev­ery year, con­scious that the event’s pro­file brings a larger au­di­ence that might not know all the jar­gon. But they never quite dumb it down enough for the ab­so­lute begin­ner, and an­noy the cognoscenti by not get­ting deep enough. You can see why they do it, but then again, FA Cup fi­nals on TV never open by telling you which team is in blue be­fore ex­plain­ing the off­side rule. Valve’s tried to com­bat this in the past, with a begin­ner’s stream of its Dota 2 tour­na­ment, The In­ter­na­tional. I watched about half an hour, and barely un­der­stood a word.

Valve also had prob­lems in Shang­hai with its pro­duc­tion com­pany, which failed to sound­proof the booths in which play­ers com­pete, as is stan­dard else­where. Why? Be­cause com­men­tary is piped out across the arena, and if the play­ers can hear it they’ll get crit­i­cal info on what the en­emy team is up to. The so­lu­tion was to put the sta­dium feed on a five-minute de­lay, which must have been in­cred­i­bly off-putting for the play­ers, hear­ing the crowd go out of their minds while they’re fid­dling about in menus or scratch­ing their bums. But why should a knowl­edge­able arena crowd need com­men­tary any­way? I’ve heard the noise they make dur­ing a big team­fight, and no one’s hear­ing any­thing above that.

The very no­tion of sound­proof­ing goes against the spirit of the whole en­deav­our, I think. Live sport is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween player and spec­ta­tor, and there should be as few bar­ri­ers be­tween them as pos­si­ble. Why bother putting them in the room if they can’t be cheered on, or in­tim­i­dated, by the roar of a sweaty crowd? They might as well be sat at home in their un­der­pants. Valve might never again have to apol­o­gise for the colour­ful pro­fan­ity of a broad­cast host. It may never again work with so in­ex­pe­ri­enced a pro­duc­tion com­pany. But there are still lots of prob­lems to over­come – which I sus­pect is pre­cisely why Valve is so in­ter­ested in it. And if it keeps me in col­umn inches for an­other few years, I’m not about to com­plain.

Nathan Brown apol­o­gises for the lack of crow­barred-in jokes about baby ex­cre­ment. Nor­mal ser­vice will re­sume next is­sue

What makes a good eS­ports host, apart from not talk­ing about wank­ing over a wheel­chair?

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