eSports is either breaking through right now or on the verge of a breakthrough, depending on to whom you choose to speak. Competitive gaming as a spectator sport has been a pipe dream for many years - the first sponsored "eSports" events I attended ran on 1996's QuakeWorld - and on many occasions its proponents have claimed that a mainstream breakthrough was imminent. The popularity and the prize pools have ebbed and flowed but the dream has remained; eSports broadcast, attended and compensated like regular sports, the eye-opening South Korean model of televised games played by sponsored, slickly presented teams replicated around the world.
Each time a breakthrough has been forecast, it's been a disappointment - but this time is different. It's not just that the pressure behind the dam has built to breaking point, with more people than ever before interested in eSports; rather, it's that the mountain has finally come to Moses. Nobody in eSports is talking about televised matches any more; why bother, when your global audience can stream matches over online video services that are making TV executives lose both sleep and hair? Pushing to get eSports on TV at this stage would be like hitching a rising star to a weighted corpse. The barrier to entry to television is no longer of relevance; nobody needs a TV station's permission to reach an audience any more.
That's why this time, eSports is breaking through, or on the verge of doing so, for real. The amount of money involved has grown hugely - though as Take-Two boss Strauss Zelnick hinted at this week when he described eSports as "more a promotional tool than anything else", it's still a sideshow compared to the scale of the overall games business, which leads me to think that this is the brink of a breakthrough, not yet a breakthrough in its own right. What's more important than the money is the potential; the growth of the audience, the interest of mainstream sponsors and even traditional sports teams, and the expanding slate of eSports-focused games that work well in this competitive, spectator context.
"You cannot build a mass market business, let alone a mass market sport, a mass market culture, off the back of something that involves constant rape jokes, homophobic slurs and racist abuse"
What does eSports need to take the next step? Some of the challenges are technical - streaming video from games is easy, but streaming really interesting, easy to follow video of competitive matches, dynamically edited in real-time, is hard and will require new tools and approaches to get right. Other challenges are just to do with presentation; commentators are an enormously important part of any sport, and eSports' roster of commentators right now is hugely varied in quality, with many commentators being far too focused on community in-jokes and jargon, and lacking the skill or patience to effectively explain the sport to new viewers. (One model eSports may want to look to is the one followed by highly technical sports like Formula 1 racing, where a common commentary pairing consists of a former pro driver with a lot of in-depth technical knowledge, sitting alongside a more generalist sports broadcaster who can "interpret" the pro-level insights of the former driver for a broader audience.)
Those are tough challenges. Unfortunately, they're the easy ones, because the really thorny issues facing eSports as it prepares to attempt to leap the fence are rather more intractable; they're issues of professionalism and of culture. Birthed from a loosely organised system of gaming "clans" and a handful of entrepreneurial types (whose attitude to the eSports opportunity, bluntly, has often been rather exploitative and questionable), the eSports business establishment - its teams and leagues alike - has a problem with professionalism that it's slowly coming to grips with, but only with serious teething troubles along the way. Meanwhile, the culture around eSports - players, commentators and spectators alike - suffers from a toxicity that threatens to chase away sponsors, investors and teams alike. Barely a week or two passes without some fresh hell being raised over a player or a commentator using a racial, gendered or sexual slur during a high-profile competition, and while the vast majority of toxic behaviour is undoubtedly down to a minority with the community, there are plenty of others who provide cover - arguing blithely that describing someone badly defeated in a game as "getting raped" or calling an opponent a "faggot" are just part of the culture of eSports, as though "hey, anonymous people on the Internet say this a lot" constitutes an argument for the validity of anything under the sun.
The argument over what constitutes "eSports culture" and whether it remotely excuses being grossly offensive (it doesn't) is a moot point in many ways - for those who have decided that their right to shout "faggot" at people on the internet is the hill they choose to die upon, victory would end up being utterly pyrrhic, because without an improvement in professionalism and a shift in culture, eSports will be denied the success it has come so close to attaining. You cannot build a mass market business, let alone a mass market sport, a mass market culture, off the back of something that involves constant rape jokes, homophobic slurs and racist abuse. There's just far, far too much of the world that doesn't want anything to do with that culture; not just people directly impacted or targeted by those slurs, but decent people of all stripes who just find the whole thing childish, off-putting and grotesque. They won't get mad, or offended, or wage campaigns and start petitions against eSports; they just won't watch, won't participate, won't bother - and from the point of view of the leagues, the teams and the sponsors, that's absolutely the worst thing that could happen.
The companies with the most vested interests in the success of eSports know this. Riot Games, creators of League of Legends - arguably the most popular eSports title in the world right now - has gone to great lengths to fix the toxicity of its online community, and has also taken major steps to improve the professionalism of teams involved in League of Legends, recently courting controversy by suspending two professional teams from LoL tournaments for rules violations and poor treatment of players. Those suspensions were a wake-up call, and seem to have made investors in eSports cautious - though whether that's because they fear that Riot is too trigger-happy, or because Riot's actions exposed the depth of the problems at some eSports teams and forced them to do more due diligence on their investments, is a matter of perspective.
"There's a minority who failed Civics 101 and think their right to hurl racial, homophobic or sexist abuse at people over privately-operated Internet services is a free speech issue"
Blizzard, meanwhile, is rapidly becoming "the eSports company"; along with Starcraft, which was the backbone of the South Korean eSports scene for years, the company also operates Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, and now Overwatch, meaning that it has strongly eSports-focused entries in the RTS, MOBA, CCG and FPS categories - covering more bases than any other firm out there. Blizzard wields a lot of clout in eSports as a result, and it's signalled that it's willing to use that clout to fix the cultural problems that threaten to limit the growth of the field. This week, it teamed up with leading game streaming service Twitch to announce an initiative to clean up racism and other abuse from live-streamed events, following a torrent of racial abuse aimed at a top Hearthstone player earlier this month. How the companies will proceed is not yet clear, but if they're serious about this - and they should be, given that both their destinies are now closely tied to eSports' ability to grow its audience into the mainstream - then they'll be willing to consider not just enhanced moderation (which is good, and worthwhile, but easily overwhelmed by the volume of content seen in massively popular match broadcasts) but also some fairly radical changes to how they think about live chat and audience response in broadcasts.
There is going to be friction along the way. There is an entrenched culture that thinks - rightly, perhaps - that eSports has grown on its back, and believes - wrongly, definitely - that this entitles them to some ownership of where it now goes and what it becomes, or that their "culture", however toxic and abusive, deserves to be prioritised over what's good for eSports and desired by other audiences. There's a minority who failed Civics 101 and think their right to hurl racial, homophobic or sexist abuse at people over privately-operated Internet services is a free speech issue, and who will devote an unbelievable amount of time and effort to finding every loophole and every workaround that exists to permit themselves to continue exercising that "right". Eventually, if Blizzard, Riot and the rest of the people who want to make eSports truly huge are serious about their goal, they're just going to have to part company from those people and make clear that they're not welcome. It's not going to be pretty, at least for a while; but at the end of it, that eSports dream that made people's eyes gleam at QuakeWorld tournaments all the way back in the late nineties will be one major step closer to being a reality.