Jim Rossignol brought up an interesting point in his book This Gaming Life concerning a curious issue with most video games: the multiplayer ones aren’t very good spectator sports. There are a lot of reasons for this, including Rossignol’s claim that it’s because we just wish we were playing the game ourselves. There’s the inherent barrier to understanding what’s going on in the game. During a lecture at the Art History of Games Conference in Atlanta, Henry Lowood noted that one of the closest matches that he ever watched involved a flame shield trick so complex that even the Judges didn’t understand it until several replays. It’s also not just about appreciating the player’s skill. Consider this Halo 1 Tournament. Top player comes in at 50, next highest is 31. Not even Wil Wheaton can make the match entertaining. It’s just some kid dropping headshots with a pistol from across the map. A video of a tournament played with Halo 3 is a bit more engaging because of the teamplay, but it still seems to boil down to who can rock the battle rifle the best. They’re all very skilled, so watching it gets repetitive.
All of these issues exist in real spectator sports, and people resolve them in a couple of different ways. Take a spectator sport like baseball. What would make someone think it’s boring? Long lulls between activity, tight regulation of player choices, and potential lulls between anything exciting happening. A post over at the Brainy Gamer details one of the ways that diehard fans remain engaged: keeping score themselves. Michael Abbott writes, “We’re talking about two simultaneous experiences: playing a game and thinking about playing a game. Scorekeeping enables you to keep a close eye on both. Even though you are only watching the game being played, you are heavily invested moment by moment in real time. You are not detached. You care about the live event unfolding, even though you can’t control it” (“The Joy of Keeping Score”, Brainy Gamer, 27 June 2008), which is, in a nutshell, the problem that one is grappling with when trying to make a spectator sport entertaining. How do you get someone interested in an event that they have no control over?