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Where is the Innovation in eSports?

Where is the Innovation in eSports?

ESPN’s Colin Cowherd has drawn ire since criticizing ESPN 2’s decision to broadcast coverage of an electronic sporting event, a Heroes of the Storm match between Arizona State and UC Berkeley. And while Cowherd comes across as a typical old guard radio jock shouting “Nerd” into the heavens, his comments do raise the question of e sport’s role within the existing American sports media-scape.

For all the endless calls for legitimacy from e sports players and fans, there is an archaic streak in the tools utilized to transform computer gaming into spectacle. The way the events themselves are filmed and edited owes more to the aesthetic leftovers of sports broadcasting. The earliest examples of sports on film, like the Edison company reels of the 1903 game between Harvard and Yale, are understandably primitive. But moving image technology and sports photography developed alongside one another. The camera moved from the ground to the sky to capture omniscient views unavailable to spectators. Long distance lenses and film speeds evolved until even the arc of a ball in the sky could be followed from source to conclusion. Individual faces of both fans and players could be isolated, stabilizing the viewer through bursts of personification. A tool chest of stock elements emerged to best communicate athletic competition.

Yale vs Harvard, 1903

As with traditional sports broadcasts, e sports streams often cut between standard elements: crowd, announcers, game details and statistics, with the added disconnect between player and game. But applying traditional techniques to the cerebral efforts of e sports players can’t hope to achieve the same effect as capturing the movements of traditional athletes. Consider the enduring mainstay of sports cinematography, the slow motion replay. Distended through time, the already Olympian maneuvers of athletes becomes borderline classical in how the human body is revealed. Imperceptible moments of stillness, the transition of action from one muscle to the next across a forearm. Sport photography dwells somewhere between the arts of sculpture and documentary, best when framing an athlete’s entire body, balancing the beauty of human motion with the need to follow the narrative of the game. A medium shot of a person playing a video game, like those so frequently employed in e sports footage, isn’t necessarily boring, but can’t as easily reveal the competitive effort contained within. So what role could the lens play in the continuing evolution of e sports?

An event at London’s Copper Box Arena

It’s difficult to say what techniques would best visualize the experience of an electronicsporting event. But then again, no one is trying to find out. Streams seem content with borrowing a few traditional techniques from live sporting coverage, from shots of stressed out coaches to sweeping takes of the arena to demonstrate scale. Would zoom lenses reveal the unseen drama contained within a player’s pupils? Would frantic hands tell stories that no other image could express?   But even these speculations assume that gaming events need be translated through the same omnidirectional processes as broadcast sports. As much of a populist coup the arrival of digital competition on ESPN 2 might signal, putting gaming events on television is a capitulating to the limits of a pre-existing medium. A spectator in on online game is typically able to alternate between any number of viewing options, cycling freely from player to player. Yet even casual streaming services like Twitch offer little in the way of interaction, placing the viewer on rails better suited for television. The necessary innovation in live e sports might be in the creation of interactive platforms that allow as much interactivity as the games they showcase, with viewers free to alternate between angles and audio tracks, customizing their experience in ways that television and even traditional streaming services can’t offer.

With live e sporting events regularly pulling in audiences that would make cable networks salivate, the question isn’t how to get the networks to notice electronic gaming, but why their notice is important at all?  It’s possible that today’s e sports streams will one day look just as primitive as Edison’s silent footage. Electronic gaming events are so busy trying to mimic traditional sports broadcasts, they forget that even the most ubiquitous filming techniques were once innovations, developed to best translate athletic completion through lenses. So what are those innovations so far as e sports is concerned? The fact is that there are no rules. There are only habits.