Making a Better Spectator Game

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?

Other sports rely on their own solutions. Soccer (I’m American, you know the rest) is a remarkably simple game to watch and grasp, so it’s easier for someone unfamiliar with it to enjoy. A more complex game like football, which, like baseball, has lots of stops and starts relies on another idea. Speaking personally, betting money on the outcome of a game will usually turn me into a vile and obscene fan of whoever is about to make me rich. I don’t even have to like the team, I bet money on Alabama once. Once a person has a personal stake in the outcome of a game, they are going to care. The NFL picked up on this a long time ago and modernized the fantasy football system. Wikipedia suggests this idea in its description of Fantasy Football: “Fantasy sports players watch more game telecasts, buy more tickets and spend money at stadiums at a much higher rate than general sports fans” (“Fantasy Football (American)”, Wikipedia). For example, 55 percent of fantasy sports players report watching more sports on television since they started playing fantasy sports. You mainly do this to see how other players that you drafted are doing and to feed off the excitement of watching them score points for your private team. Most fantasy football leagues will have a buy in price that allows people to pool the money to be paid out as prizes. Off the top of my head, I’ve seen matches where someone paid $30 to join a full season and spent a Saturday evening screaming while his team competed for a $300 prize. The system has its pros and cons. The consequence of having people invest in their private fantasy team is that their allegiance to the actual team becomes a bit shakier. If your player is going against your favorite team, it’s impossible to not have mixed feelings when they get tackled or foul a play.

There is also a certain element of the unexpected that can make a sport appealing. A post by William Durant points out that the best part of ice hockey is the fighting. That’s not just from a casual viewing perspective. Durant writes, “A study by Rodney J. Paul published in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology found that ‘teams that fight more often tend to draw more fans'” (“Why Professional Hockey Is The Best Spectator Sport”, Helium). The empirical results were found to be true for both US and Canadian NHL teams and substantially magnified in the US cities. A more surprising result was that “fans prefer teams that win and have tendencies to fighting and violence, as opposed to high-scoring, low-violence teams.” Fighting in hockey is a penalized activity (though not too heavily), allowing players to engage in it for the drama and fanfare that ensues. Because they’re all skating on ice, players are a bit more accident prone and may accidentally smash someone’s face into a wall . . . and then accidentally kick them a few times. In a weird way, hockey is entertaining because everything is a bit more imprecise and subject to random events. Instead of keeping score or worrying about the outcome, you sit and wait for something crazy to happen.

Any video game is capable of being entertaining to watch while someone else plays. It’s just a matter of getting the person to care about events that they have no control over. A game’s ability to generate unexpected events helps to refute their expectations. An insanely lucky knife toss in Modern Warfare 2 or a slam dunk plasma grenade in Halo 3 is always going to get an experienced player’s attention. What holds these games back as spectator sports is that these moments are few and far between. A game could try to make up for this by allowing for betting or other ways to personalize the experience, but you end up working around the basic issue that Rossignol brings up about watching people play games. If they’re just going to sit there wishing it was them playing, you’re better off just finding a way for them to participate in the game.