What will it take for eSports and competitive gaming to become a mainstream spectator sport?

The notion of games as a competitive spectator sport has pretty much existed since the industry’s earliest days. Think back to our previous issue and the EGM Interview with Walter Day. Gaming’s self-appointed referee and scorekeeper started Twin Galaxies in 1981 to collect arcade high scores and, eventually, to host competitions that pitted joystick jockeys against one another.

Today, competitive gaming is a full-blown phenomenon. Major League Gaming events rake in millions of viewers worldwide. According to Adam Apicella, executive vice president of operations at MLG, eSports fans watched at least 54 million hours of online video last year—a 262 percent increase since 2012. Thirty-two million people watched the League of Legends Season 3 World Championship, with 8.5 million at one point watching concurrently.

But as impressive as these numbers are, they aren’t exactly Super Bowl or World Cup level. Thirty-two million is a lot of people, but as compared to the some 7 billion populating Earth, it’s a drop in the bucket—less than 1 percent. So, what does eSports need to do to continue its expansion?

In the early days, the biggest barrier for entry was the necessary equipment. In order to deliver footage of video games in real time, broadcasters needed powerful computers, special capture devices, an understanding of streaming and editing software, and a distribution platform like Twitch.

But these days, especially with built-in streaming technology on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, technology isn’t necessarily the issue anymore. Awareness is.

The Titanfall Dilemma

Even with only two maps to bounce between, the Titanfall beta proved just as much fun to watch as it was to play. Matches can be gripping, with action the likes of which no other shooter currently delivers. What’s more, Titanfall borrows ideas from two of eSports’ biggest names, Dota 2 and League of Legends. You would think, then, that Titanfall is lined up to be the Next Big Thing not just in gaming, but in eSports as well. Respawn community manager Abbie Heppe has made it clear, however, that competitive play wasn’t the company’s focus, though the team is “interested in what competitive players think when the game ships.”

According to Graham, what might ultimately hold Titanfall back in the eSports scene is the exclusion of the tools necessary to make a game digestible to an audience—things like a spectator mode that a commentator like Graham can use to freely move about. As far as he can tell, the eSports community is in agreement that Titanfall is “an incredibly fun game,” but without eSports-geared features, communicating the action becomes too restrictive.

“How do you present that when you don’t have the tools to switch between Player A and Player B?” Graham points out. “That’s where it becomes an issue. The action in Titanfall is incredible—there’s always something going on, the movement is cool, watching other people move through the levels is awesome—but the thing that separates Titanfall from something like Quake is that I can break my camera off and free-float, I can show a top-down view, I can switch between players, I can choose to automatically switch between a player once a player dies.”

It all comes back to the same question Graham’s been asking himself over the many years he’s been a commentator: how to make eSports more presentable. Titanfall may have all the makings of a spectacle to behold, but without the right tools, people like Graham can’t tell a multiplayer match’s story properly.

“I think that, in a lot of cases, you’ve got two different scenarios: You’ve either heard of Twitch, and you watch it, or you haven’t heard of Twitch,” Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham, a man often cited as the John Madden of eSports, explains. Reared on competitive Quake II matches, Graham is now one of the biggest voices in eSports and one of the most prolific commentators.

“I think that when a lot of people learn about Twitch, they quickly find whatever game they’re interested in, maybe a favorite player they know about,” he continues. “The discovery becomes much easier when you’ve got a whole different group of console-centric folks looking for this content on the device they’re also playing on.”

This sentiment is shared by Major League Gaming. “One of the largest obstacles we continue to have is educating and exposing a broader audience,” Apicella echoes. “In order for eSports to extend beyond the existing and growing community, I think we need continued world-class events, an array of premium content that both entertains and educates, continued exposure via mainstream traditional outlets, and ongoing support from game publishers, consoles, and consumer-facing brands.”

According to Graham, it doesn’t take much to garner interest. It’s just a matter of knowing the phenomenon even exists. In his globe-trotting travels to commentate StarCraft II competitions and the like, Graham says whenever he explains eSports to a newcomer, it’s hard for them to not be interested.

“I think one of our largest problems is: How many people actually know about eSports? I can choose to like or dislike football because I know about it, but [with] eSports, as it stands, there’s still such a large audience of people that don’t even know this competitive area exists.”

But if awareness is only one of eSports’ large problems, what are the others? Segregation, for one. Even with an increased awareness, eSports has to contend with a fractured audience. On PC, all players, regardless of their rig, are playing on the same platform. But while Call of Duty is available across all consoles, a top team on Xbox 360 or Xbox One can’t face off against a top team on PS3 or PS4. This, Graham says, is “a massive issue.”

“When you have segregation among three different platforms and three different communities, how do you actually expect to grow them all together?” he observes. “It’s a very, very convoluted ecosystem that exists in this console-gaming universe right now. I’ve been in this industry for 15 years, and I don’t know the answer to that. I see it getting worse and worse.”

Unfortunately, the likelihood of a cross-platform integrated future isn’t one he sees happening any time soon, regardless of third-party developers’ independence from manufacturers. And even if it did come to pass, first-party exclusives would remain an issue.

Segregation may not prove something soon remedied, but until then, there are plenty of other, smaller victories to win, and Graham believes the coming years will see two big ones. The first is a rise in domestically hosted events grand in scale and full of pomp and circumstance. The other is an increase in sponsorship, particularly the name-brand variety, driven by the escalation in popularity of eSports teams.

“2014, I think, is the year that Subway sponsors a team, Tylenol sponsors a team, whoever,” says Graham. “And getting sponsors [like] that will bring more legitimacy to the sport and also feed the ecosystem.”

In other words, through more sponsorship, professional eSports athletes—like traditional athletes—will be paid to be just that: a professional athlete. No worrying about rent or bills, no need to work a 9-to-5 to steal away time better spent practicing. It may sound a little odd now, but not many years ago, so, too, did the notion of millions of people all watching a StarCraft multiplayer match while a commentator breaks down the action doing play by play. Just look where we are today.

Originally published in EGM Issue 265.