For the last few years whenever I've given a talk about e-sports, I led with this video. When I first saw it back in 2011 I was struck by how evocatively it captured the scene, especially spectatorship. The cheering, the edge-of-your-seat feel, the public performance and passion, even the interplay between audience and competitors - I love how it conveys something powerful about e-sports fandom and spectatorship.
While on-site tournaments continue to flourish, other outlets are emerging for e-sports enthusiasts to watch competitive gaming. In the same way the internet extended gaming into networked play, it’s now fostering distributed online audiences. In the past fans had to do things like track down replay files or share videos. It could be tough to find stuff and was a pretty insider activity. No longer. With the live-streaming boom being developed by outlets such as Twitch.tv, avid fans can now spectate hours everyday. E-sports spectatorship is sitting right in the midst of a media shift where online streaming and “second screens” are becoming more common.
As I write this post, I have a live-stream channel of a tournament going in another window. I, along with 56,000 other people, am watching top Starcraft2 players go head-to-head in real-time (the winter championship of this tournament garnered 2.6 million online viewers over a weekend). Alongside the video is a chat window with other viewers talking about the match. Some are gathered in bars (dubbed “barcrafts”) watching these feeds together. While weekends are prime tournament time, everyday you can watch gamers of all levels playing and regularly chatting with their audiences live. That’s the stuff that puts some real teeth in the often tepid “social TV” tagline.
Serious questions remain though for these new e-sports broadcasts and the future of spectatorship. While easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all, researchers like myself who have an interest in the critical study of gaming (and media more broadly) have a lot to dig into. Key intellectual property issues lurk, debates around what economic models will actually make this viable for all kinds of broadcasters, and what new genre conventions will be sustained are just a few. Access and bandwidth concerns persist. Yet the online audience boom continues. If the last decade has been about the growth of e-sports, the next one will likely be about the rise of spectatorship, offline and on.