EVO 2018 is here, and if it’s your birthday in the next few days (like myself)—or you just happen to have a free weekend—you might be opting to take advantage of that fact to enjoy a nice few days of fighting game tournaments. Whether you like DragonBall Z, Guilty Gear, Injustice, Super Smash Bros., or another recently released fighting game, chances are it’s going to be at EVO and you will be able to watch it. In fact, EVO has at least 8 different main fighting game tournaments happening during this year’s event that viewers will be able to enjoy, featuring players from around the world all testing their mettle against each other to see who will become the grand champion in only three days.

But for all the good that EVO represents as an eSports tournament being fun, competitive, and structured in an easy to understand manner. It also represents all the problems existing with eSports as a whole; viewers don’t know the competitors, may not know the games well enough and most certainly don’t know how anyone got there.

The Lack of Story

Perhaps the biggest issue facing eSports as a whole is who the players actually are and their story. Part of why we enjoy sports is that they are designed in such a manner that they naturally tell a story, we see game after game of players competing against one another, forming their story along the way. We can most obviously see this when sports stories work their way to the big screen and focus on not only the games themselves but the story behind the players, outside of the game. An article by Fallon, Saving the Story, best surmises on how this builds a story:

To get any kind of narrative, beyond playing announcer and following along with events in the moment as they occur, you have to go back to previous matches and games; you have to widen your gaze to a season. That’s the first place where any kind of story might be developed beyond the blow-by-blow frenetic moments of each match. Football films, for example, almost never just look at the events of one game. The Rocky films are the same way. To build a story, to even have the makings of a narrative beyond the rote accounting of what takes place inside one game — to know these people beyond the numbers of their jerseys, you must go beyond one game or one match.

When it comes to EVO and eSports as a whole, we simply lack this unless you are the most fervent of fans. Do you know who the top Street Fighter V player is right now? Do you know the best Overwatch team at this very moment? Do you know who is on that team and are you invested in their story? The answer for most is, no. This is because there is no consistent, easy, or simple way that allows normal folks to follow the supposed stories happening behind these teams or players. I don’t know what Guy57XxX1337Combos does or who he is, I don’t know what character he normally plays as (or doesn’t) and why when he is facing against Girl43CCCOMBOKILLER and choosing the characters that they are, why it matters. It simply doesn’t exist in any standard way to easily follow unless you go actively looking for it, and in a bit of a chicken and an egg sort of way, because it’s not easy to follow, most only tune in when it is easiest: the finals.

Take Football or your equivalent sport depending on where you live in the world, and ask yourself, When’s the next game? What is the name of a player? What is something you know about them besides sports? Chances are, you can most likely answer these questions even with the most minimal knowledge of the sport itself. Part of that is thanks not only to the popularity of the sport but in large part, to the simplicity in following it. When do most games of football happen? Sunday. When do most eSports games happen? I wouldn’t even begin to know and many others wouldn’t be able to answer as well. There is no obvious place to look to keep track and generate interest across a season, thus no opportunity to generate an interesting story. This means that all the story in the competition that comes from EVO, needs to all happen at EVO, resulting in nearly all of that narrative being lost year after year as the tournament only takes up a small portion of the year. If there is no story and no narrative, one of the primary reasons to watch a sport that is lost and must rely on the other aspects more heavily to make up for it.

The Game

If there is one aspect that eSports have an advantage in compared to more traditional sports, it’s the game itself. Being human, we have a certain set of limitations that are all too familiar. Conversely, in a video game, many of those limitations of what can happen in the real world, now within a game are significantly removed, opening up a larger variety of complexities and dynamics within the game itself. But this greater potential comes with a cost, especially from a viewership perspective—most don’t know the true meaning of what is happening because it is foreign.

I personally always make a point to at least watch the Street Fighter championships (though it’s not my favorite fighting game series) because it is always a good spectacle to watch. It’s paced at a speed that makes the combat easy to follow and its visuals are visceral enough to draw you in. But then, there are moves that happen that I don’t understand, and I am left scratching my head in how that move is significant. Unlike in a traditional sports game, where if I don’t know the rules I still know what is physically possible, a video game doesn’t have to abide by those same rules. If I am unaware of how soccer is played, I still know what is possible in terms of a human and their ability to kick a ball. In Street Fighter, I don’t know what that black aura surrounding Ryu’s fist when he punches means and how it affects the other player. In Dragon Ball FighterZ I don’t know what “Sparking Blast” is and what exactly it does in terms of a match. All I know is that it happened, but its significance is lost because there is a lack of context to pull from and the only way to understand that context is to look it up or to have played the game yourself.

This creates a huge disconnect for not only fledgling eSports viewers but those who are new to watching a game in its entirety. They are left confused, in the dark, and ultimately, have less interest in watching because they don’t understand what is happening. To make things worse, the only way to truly understand what is missed is through three outlets:

  • Rely on the commentators to explain
  • Play the game itself
  • Research the mechanics of the game

Relying on commenters solely is a gamble, depending on the venue or the type of commenter, they may not explain the details that a new viewer would need on a match. Playing the game and researching it puts an undue burden on the viewer as only those with initial interest will find the value in putting in the time to enjoy watching the show.

Regardless of the scenario, there is an additional barrier that exists when it comes to eSports that doesn’t exist in traditional sports. The increased need to search for additional information, be it learning about the players, their story, or the game itself—all because of how they are presented and the possibilities that games allow reinforces the barrier present. EVO has always been an enjoyable tournament to watch, but it also is a prime example of the current issues and limitations that eSports face as a whole. We need more story, we need a better way to follow players and tournaments, and we need easy ways for new fans to be born by finding ways of explaining the game and exposing them to the fun of high-level gaming competition. To accomplish all this, we can’t just rely on major tournaments as the sole marketable events for eSports to take place. There need to be seasons, structure, and better ways to understand the game and the players that compete in these fantastic displayers of gaming skills.

Until that happens, we will continue facing the same problems over and over, a large group of potential and less invested viewers wanting to understand and enjoy the competition more, but not knowing how.