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Starcraft as a Spectator Sport

I enjoyed this article mostly because it explains there's at least *somewhere* in the US where interest in a mental sport overtook the interest in a physical sport--in a place usually known for caring about physical sports, no less. A bar.

The article also mentions "information asymmetry" (something we usually refer to as double-blind info around here) is a big part of the game's entertainment. That means each players knows something that the other doesn't. I very much agree that that's a source of great entertainment and you can see that exact same concept in my games Kongai and Yomi. And the reason I hit upon using that as a design tool is that it happens in fighting games too, it's just that the time-scale of the double-blind decisions is much shorter--just a fraction of a second. But that uncertainty of often having to make your move when you aren't exactly sure what the other guy did at just that moment is where a lot of the excitement of fighting games come from. StarCraft's double blind moments are much more prolonged, so there's longer to think about them and build suspense. Does he know the other guy is amassing a huge force just outside his base? When will he realize it??

That said, fighting games are practically made for spectating. You can see all the action on one screen (a wonderful property!), the matches are fast, fortunes change, and comebacks happen. Not having to cut from screen to screen like you do in a FPS or RTS makes for a smooth spectating experience. Furthermore, it's easy to "read" what's going on (a guy punched another guy several times and his lifebar went down) compared to all the unseen effects going on in WoW Arenas or Guild Wars. I've tried to spectate several type of games, but fighting games and RTS games have been the most watchable to me.

Maybe we'll see both genres (and other mental games, too) rise in prominence as spectator activities.

Reader Comments (19)

I agree. And I'm pretty sure you already know about James Chen opinions on this subject. Nice to know that more and more people are realizing that this is an actual possibility for competitive games.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterManu Gabaldon

Well, that's a love letter about SF4, a pretty horrific thing for a community to embrace. So like who cares about that post, shrug.

August 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

One thing the WSJ article fails to mention is how people can find/join Barcraft events. Since that might be of interest to people here they can check out:

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLogo

The aspect of having to switch from screen to screen to spectate is certainly true for FPS games, and it does hurt their watchability. Starcraft 2, however, is usually observed in spectator mode where the commentator controls the camera and can highlight important bits while explaining them to the viewer, which really helps the watchability.

It is likewise true that it's usually easy to read what is happening in an RTS game. Armies are shooting each other, dying, running away etc. Maybe certain spell effects are hard to read, but mostly I think Blizzard has done a fantastic job with having the visuals indicate the effects in Starcraft.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLadnil

Ladnil, yeah I agree with that. I was just saying being all on one screen is even better, but yes it's not so bad to switch the screen around in Starcraft given that it's a commentator controlling it. I've seen FPS games where a commentator controls the screen switching, but I usually get totally lost there because it's a 3D space we're teleporting around in (camera-wise). At lot easier to deal with when it's 2D map like StarCraft. Also, yes Starcraft is generally readable, like a fighting game, in that things attack things and they die, so even if you don't know the nuances, you can tell what is happening. Meanwhile, some matches of WoW Arena I watched, I know what the spell effects do and even I couldn't follow it.

August 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

What's your take on DotA-style games as a spectator sport? It suffers from many of the same issues as you mentioned, I'm just curious if you have any additional insight on this particular genre. Thanks.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterflush07

I still think fighting games are the best for spectating due to being on one screen and "readable" what's happening. RTS is next, and still good as covered above. Dota-style games are below that, imo. You'd think having fewer units might make them easier to watch than Starcraft, but the problem is the spell effects are often not very "readable." In those games and also in Guild Wars, sometimes the spell effects are working together almost like cards in Magic: the Gathering, which can make for very interesting gameplay, but because you can't "read the cards" and know their mechanics it can be hard follow. I mean it's not too bad though. Better than the disorientation of swapping between 3D cameras in an FPS.

August 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Heh, if the local BJs showed Starcraft matches I might eat there more often. I'd probably eat there every night if they showed good Guilty Gear matches.

I think 30 minute episodes of "Kaqn stomping random newbs" would be better than any reality show.

August 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheRealBobMan

I disagree with fighting games making for good spectator sport - if you're unfamiliar with the game, that is. The interactions are non-obvious, the double-blind choices happen so fast you'll miss them, and with the game's fast pace, the commentators hardly have enough time to explain any of that. I liked watching StarCraft matches before I liked playing it, but with SF, it was the other way around.

Sirlin, I think you're a bit too dismissive of SF4 sometimes. At the core of James Chen's post lies what I consider a valid point, namely that SF4 being popular means fighting games as a whole are more popular, which is a good thing. Were it not for SF4, I probably wouldn't be here, and wouldn't be trying to make a better fighting game. Admittedly, mine is a rather uninformed opinion, but overall I think SF4 (even with its poor design decisions and godawful netcode) did more to help than hinder the scene.

In other words: SF4 is not the game the FGC deserved, but the one it needed. *cue Dark Knight theme*

August 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpkt-zer0

I'm a student in germany with no tv. When I want to watch something, I start up some channel and watch competetive e-sports. I am pretty noobish in FPS, I'm halfway decent at DotA and played pve Guild Wars.
So I am not really competetive in any game, though I'm closest in DotA.
Oh and I'm nothing at fighting games :D

I can only tell you from my experience, but I feel StarCraft (II more than I) is one of the easiest things you can watch. Only other RTS can compete, like Dawn of War 1 or 2, or good old WarCraft 3. DotA is hard to watch if you don't know the game simply because it is 5v5. If you fixed the camera on a single hero and only watched one player it be easy - but just too boring.
You claim Fighters are best to watch because of fast pace and no screen movement. Honestly I watched some hours of fighting so far and really don't get anything at all. I never ever played SC2 but the commentator just explains to me what the players will do after seeing the first buildings. He will explain what strategies are good and I can watch the game unfold.
To have an easy to watch fighting game the speed should be set to about 1/4 of normal speed. Then the game should be paused before the start and the commentator should tell the viewers what interactions are usual in this matchup. Resume the game and wait for the first move. As soon as it occurs stop the game and tell the viewer what this move implies. What is special about this move, why did the player chose it? How can the opponent react? Then you can resume again and so on.
For me most fights usually go like this: Two guys stand in front of each other while the countdown for the first round runs out. Suddenly there is some movement, magically the other guy didn't get hit, some more movement than someone bleeds, flies through the air, gets even more beatup and falls on the ground. The game says something like COMBO XY 42% and I can see that one guy lost roughly 42% of his healthbar.

You think this is easy to watch ?

Maybe for you it is, you know the moves even before they are used. You know all viable options and some fake options that are not usually viable but may get through due to surprise. I know nothing and there is noone there to explain it, because the match is over before the commentator can explain the basics of the matchup to me.

If some esports ever gets big enough to get streamed in tv for masses of viewers I bet it will be an RTS. You can know nothing at all. Like "there are some bugs on the one side and strange shiny metal guys on the other" and before the big actions starts the commentator has explained what is special about Zerg vs Protoss on this map and how the players usually interact.

August 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLeartes


You don't need to understand what is going on in a fighting game such as Street Fighter to enjoy it from a spectators perspective. Fighting at its core is PRIMAL. Humanity has been watching people beat each other to a pulp since the Roman Gladiator days.

MMA/UFC is a prime example of a modern day Gladiator. I know a good handful of people who watch MMA/UFC that don't know a damn thing about Jujitsu/Kickboxing/Judo/Grappling. They've never taken a Martial Arts class in their life. When they watch MMA/UFC on TV do you think they know every little technique a fighter uses to breakthrough his opponents defense? No, of course not.

Street Fighter is the same. You don't need to know the exact spacing Ryu has to be at in order to use his Hadouken to zone his opponent and bait a jump in to punish with a Dragon Punch. All you have to do is kick back a can of Beer (read: MOUNTAIN DEW lols) and watch two fighters duke it out on screen.

Barcraft is neat but Bar Fights was off the hook. I was there for both events. Even the regulars were engaged with what was going on, unlike at this Bar where the local drunks were sitting there appalled by these StarCraft "nerds".

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScumm™


For me watching a fighting game matches can be exciting for like 20 minutes. Later it just gets boring because I have no idea about why somebody is winning. It's like a lottery. I just see some health bars accompanied by some flashy animations that are repeated over and over again. It's like baseball to me - I can see it once then it's as interesting as staring at a uniformly painted, smooth wall.

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPunkSkeleton

The problem with a fighting game as a spectator sport is just what Sirlin mentioned - the double blind aspect is over in a fraction of a second. There's no suspense. As someone who is a casual player of SF and MvC, when I watch pro-videos, I have absolutely no idea where the tension is in the match. What are the bluffs? What are the gambits? What are the amazing moves and what are the newb moves?

As a casual player of Starcraft, I understand the suspense of someone building a bunker right outside the other guy's base.

I think the amount of game knowledge required to understand the suspenseful moments favors RTS incredibly.

RTS also favors the announcer explaining it - "OMG!!! Will he notice the bunker being built?! If he doesn't, it's going to be big trouble! Oh, he does! Can he destroy it in time!?!? Here come the reinforcements!" vs. the same type of interaction in a fighting game taking half a second and the announcer explaning, "Oh, he hit him with the correct counter!".

August 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterApolloAndy


Your lack of interest in the genre has nothing to do with what I said in my post though. I don't like watching Golf (even for 20 minutes) but there are people who do; and they love every minute of it. My point was that your average random spectator can quickly grasp two opponents duking it out on a screen without knowing much about the game versus StarCraft where there's more build up and a deeper time investment to understand what's going on. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with StarCraft's just -- different.


StarCraft matches usually take a lot longer than Street Fighter matches. Because of this, commentators/announcers have way more time to explain things and build hype around what is about to go down. This is a luxury that StarCraft is blessed to have.

In regards to fighting games I believe that building hype/tension and explanations have to come prior to the match. Take Boxing for an example. Fighters hold a press conference before the big fight. They talk about it. Newspapers, websites, etc all build suspense around the pre-game trash talking and tension between the two opponents.

I was disappointed in EVO this year to be honest. Before Top 8 in SF:AE there were no interviews, no pre-game build up, nothing -- except for a video that included players/spectators talking about what EVO and the community means to them.... BORING.

This needs to change.

Imagine during a pre-game interview if Poongko had called out Daigo before they fought? If you don't recall, Poongko proceeded to PERFECT Daigo's Yun and win the match. See:

During Pre-Game they could have had a section called: MATCH UPS. Everyone knows Poongko plays Seth and Daigo plays Yun. They could have discussed what those two characters are capable of, even possibly show footage of the two characters and their moves just to get the audience (who doesn't play casually even) up to speed.


August 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScumm™

If I may I would like to add the following:

PunkSkeleton said:

"For me watching a fighting game matches can be exciting for like 20 minutes. Later it just gets boring because I have no idea about why somebody is winning. It's like a lottery. I just see some health bars accompanied by some flashy animations that are repeated over and over again. It's like baseball to me - I can see it once then it's as interesting as staring at a uniformly painted, smooth wall."

Couldn't we say that about ANYTHING really?

Fake example: For me watching a BASKETBALL game can be exciting for like 20 minutes. Later it just gets boring because I have no idea about why a whistle blows and someone stands at a line and gets to shoot some baskets for free. I just see some dudes running back and forth passing and sometimes shooting a ball through a net that is repeated over and over again.

Don't you see that what you're saying can be applied to ANYTHING? People watch cars go around in circles for hours. Yet no amount of hype, build up or knowledge will magically change my mind on how I feel about watching Nascar. You either enjoy it or you don't.

On the surface fighting games are two characters, two life bars, maybe a super meter bar, and a timer that ticks down to zero. Those two characters bash each other until one of them loses all of their health. How does one not grasp this?

However, on the surface, StarCraft has much more going on. There's multiple characters (units) who each perform different tasks, a timer, resource micro management, a much larger map that must be clicked back and forth to see what each player is doing, and more than one way to win. To me, you need to be at least either a casual player to understand this or simply live in Korea. : )

August 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScumm™


I actually think its harder to follow fighting games. Why things work is a lot easier in starcraft, why battles are won, and how people get advantages. In HDR for examples, a fight between guile and ryu is alot more complex to explain then then why a fight was won in most starcraft games. Why games are won isn't important, its the smaller interactions that need to be understood early on.

You start with small things, then move on to big things.

Why is guile zoning? why is ryu randomly throwing out sweeps then gets rammed in the head with sonic boom, cause he did the sweep? This is a complex interaction that requires understanding of hitboxes move recovery, etc. etc. There are alot of complex interactions going on all the time like this. A simpler one is a crossup, that can easily be explained, but alot of the interactions are not so easily explained.

Why did zerg only get drones till 7 minutes? well, he wanted a big economy. How did those lings do so well against those stalkers, lings are pretty good against stalkers, and he just had alot more of them. Its also alot clearer at WHY things happen in RTS. Of course there are more complex interactions in RTS, but the basic one can usually be told on the screen without that much information.

August 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJazzy


You're oversimplifying your answers with StarCraft because you play the game -- even if only casually. I could do the same thing with your Guile zoning question, and it's not as nearly complex as you make it out to be.

"Why is Guile zoning?" is similar to why Muhammad Ali would dance around his opponent throwing only jabs. The answer is controlling space and wear your opponent down in order to force him to get anxious and make a mistake. If you see a Guile player throwing countless Sonic Booms and your character has no way to win that projectile war, what do you do? You try to close the space by moving in (jumping, dashing, focus attack, or simply walking inch by inch while blocking). This is what Guile wants you to do. If you jump you eat a Flash Kick. If you get inside his space, you eat a back fist.

It's really not that complicated to figure that out especially when the Guile player executes a move (ex, flash kick) that makes it obvious as to why he's been constantly throwing projectiles. Again, the point was missed. A back fist to the face is primal. At a primal level you can grasp what is going on when you see a character throw a punch and the character get's KNOCKED OUT! You don't need to understand the exact spacing Guile has to be at to execute a Flash Kick in time to knock Ryu out of the air. Just like you don't need to know why Ali would switch his stance in order to execute a right hook to knock his opponent out. You see the punch, you see the opponent drop. The crowd goes wild. It's primal and it's universal.

Now if you're actually a trained Boxer then yes these are techniques that you would be wise to. You could sit down with whomever afterwards and explain it in detail to that person as to why Ali successfully got that right hook off. But my point is that it's not needed to understand this in order to ENJOY watching it from a purely SPECTATORS point of view. Most people just see the right hook and knock out that proceeds it. They don't understand all the techniques, training, etc that goes into becoming a professional Boxer.

Street Fighter is very technical but these technical nuances are for the professional to understand and master. At the end of the day, what the general non-playing audience see's are two opponents bashing each others brains out until someone gets KO'd.

StarCraft is very micro management based. Played at the highest level, the actions per minute are staggering. It's truly "speed" Chess if you will. There's so much going on that at a purely non-playing general spectator point of view it could be much harder to understand. Why is this one building that? Why are these units traveling over here on the map? Why did one match take 30 minutes and the other take 3 minutes? And so on and so on. StarCraft is like a good movie, there is quite a bit of build up before the climax. Street Fighter is more like a commercial. It's quick and to the point and you get what it's selling: FIGHTING

If you can't grasp what I have been repeating in my past 3 posts by now then you probably never will. To that, I say good luck and good games. : )

August 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScumm™


I'm not really a great player at either RTS or Fighting games (and infact, I don't even really know that much about competative RTS games); however, I personally find RTS games easier to follow for exactly the reasons Jazzy just said: It's easier to understand the basics of an RTS game. I'd almost go as far to say that Fighting games don't really have any interactions that can really be classified as basic. Almost every mechnic in fighting games has an exception somewhere, and a lot of the interaction is happen so quickly (as sirlin pointed out) that it's impossible for any spectator to cover even a quick explanation of what's going on. The strategy is almost too dense at any one moment.

That said, I WILL say that fight games are thus much easier to watch if one ISN'T concerned about the strategy games that are going on. As was said, fighting games are very visceral and hit at something core. Sometimes, I just want to watch two people beat the crap out of each other in interesting ways. For this reason, I think that the less flashy and more prone to tactic repetition a fighter is, the less entertaining it is to watch. Additionally, this means that fighters don't really need to be balanced, or have any interesting strategy to be a great spectator sport. So long as awesome things are happening in flashy ways, and two characters are duking it out, it's spectator gold.

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKitt

I totally disagree with fighting games as a spectator sport, but not for the reasons others suggest.

Spectator sports require commentary. It's essential to bring the layman into the actual game and show him what he's missing. This is the key element that separates SC from SF. Events in SC transpire over tens of seconds or minutes, while events in SF transpire over fractions of a second.

It is impossibly hard to commentate a Street Fighter match. If they slowed the game down about 3 times, it would still be almost impossible, and the game would be way worse for it. As it stands, SF is just not that great to watch, except for the players of the game. For casual observers or even fans who don't play, it doesn't have the same appeal. StarCraft does; even though I suck at SC, I can watch the game and know hey this is going on, these are the strategies being used and understand a lot because the commentary is good.

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAuspice
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