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?