As a video game critic, I’ve been exposed to more games than the average player. I play games that were masterfully crafted by the best in the industry. Games that are lethally boring and riddled with bugs. I play fast-paced games that test my reaction speed. I play slow games that require critical thinking. Violent or passive, indie or big-budget, I’ve had my fair share of experiences. Yet despite all the games I’ve played throughout the years, there’s one type of game that I always find myself coming back to: Esports.
The term esports denotes a very loose category. Its definition has changed in recent years, but most games classified as esports follow a similar convention: They are always competitive multiplayer games contained within the duration of a match. The rules are flexible enough where players can employ several different strategies to win, and matches take place on predetermined “maps.” They typically do not have narratives or worlds to explore, and if they do contain characters there is very little development. Esports span many genres including fighting, real-time strategy and first-person shooting. Currently, games like Fortnite, Overwatch and League of Legends dominate the esport scene.
Though I try to diversify my gaming palette, I routinely find myself coming back to Overwatch, even though the game is now over three years old. There’s something timeless about esports that just doesn’t apply to traditional games. Like traditional sports, esports are constantly in flux. No single match will ever be the same as the last. One person’s approach to the game might be completely different than another’s. But does that make esports necessarily better than traditional games? I would argue that esports are not fundamentally superior to other games, but their design is more impressive.
The medium of video games is different from other art forms, and its most unique feature is interactivity. Unlike passive artforms such as music and film, the player is involved in the art and actively engages with it to reveal its meaning. What the player can and cannot do affects their experience with the game. In essence, the manipulation of interactivity is game design.
Now apply this logic to an esport. The designer crafts interactivity to fit the confines of the game. The designer must consider the objective, the many ways the player can reach that objective, and, most importantly, how other players will either assist or inhibit them. Since the game is meant to be competitive, the designer must make everything balanced so no player has an advantage over another player. Because the designer doesn’t know how the player will interact with the game, making an esport is the art of creating affordances rather than curating an experience. Designers aren’t telling the player what to do or giving them a straight path; instead, they are hinting at what is possible and letting the player figure it out.
Compare this to a traditional game where the objective is clear and the level can only be beaten one way. Even if there are multiple approaches, the experience is linear. The player interacts with the game as the designer intended and follows the path created for them.
There’s nothing wrong with a traditional game. In fact, many of my favorite games are traditional narrative based games. For instance, take God of War, which won Game of the Year in 2018. Critics hailed it as a masterpiece and many considered it a perfect example of how sophisticated video games have become. The game had narrative complexity exploring themes such as fatherhood and grief.
Yet despite all the acclaim, if one looks at the actual design, God of War is simple compared to games like Overwatch. The experience is mostly linear, with the player following the story and interacting with the game mostly through fighting. Narrative games like God of War are essentially interactive films. The focus is on the story with the interactive elements only serving to augment the experience. Narrative games can easily be movies and still retain their artistic message. In contrast, esports have to be video games because the message they convey is exclusive to the medium. The art is the interaction between team members and their opponents, requiring the viewer to be active to appreciate its beauty.
All games are valuable and the message they share has merit regardless of the genre. However, esports garner respect because their design is most true to the medium. Games are meant to be interactive. I will always consider games that encourage interaction to be masterpieces.