Why eSports Will Never Be Sports, From an eSports Viewer

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If you haven’t heard of Blizzard’s Overwatch League, their attempt at a shiny new crown jewel of eSports, then you’re not paying attention. Or you are paying attention, and the targeted advertisements didn’t hit you because you’ve never tweeted the words “Video games.”

The new league, now over two months old, has just completed its first “stage” and given away its first cash prizes, a total of $125,000, to the teams topping the first five weeks of play. The cartoon-y first-person shooter’s attempt at an organized league has been the most “sports-like” attempt at competition I’ve seen yet from a video game so far. Teams are associated with cities. They have their own in-game “jerseys” for the Overwatch character roster. They have…well…uh…hmmm. That’s actually all that the OWL has that makes it any more like a traditional sports league than an organization like League of Legends’s League Championship Series (LCS) or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s ESL Pro League (ESL).

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Each team’s “jersey” is displayed on the in-game characters through a unique “skin” colorway.

There are failings in eSports that I believe will keep the format from ever catching on in the United States the way that traditional sports did, and watching hundreds of hours of LCS and now five weeks worth of OWL matches has only cemented my position. This is not a judgment of people who watch eSports, or of the value of eSports themselves. It’s a list of reasons that eSports falls short of the traditional sports product, and (sometimes) things they can do to fix the problem.

There are no home teams to cheer for

“But didn’t you just say that the OWL has teams associated with cities?” I did! I did say that! And that’s a huge step in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean anything when all the teams still play all their games in Los Angeles. No one in Cleveland would like the Cleveland Browns if they were terrible AND didn’t play in Cleveland. No one is flying in from Florida to see the 1-9 Florida Mayhem, but they might grab a beer and watch a game if it’s just around the corner. Accessibility is an quick way to build a fanbase for a bad team.

Note that the other eSports have it worse. When you have to choose between cheering for Optic Gaming or Cloud9 in the LCS or ESL, what reason would there be to not choose the team with the better record? There’s no built-in associations to lean on for a casual or first-time viewer.

Nicknames suck

Sports are the ancestral home of the nickname. From Albert Pujols “The Machine” in the MLB to Giannis Antetokounmpo “the Greek Freak” in the NBA to Doug Martin “Muscle Hamster” in the NFL, the nickname game is alive and well. So where did eSports go wrong? Early on, eSports settled on using the players’ self-assigned nicknames as their official league identifiers. Huge mistake. Some of the nicknames make the league seem incredibly casual and amateurish. I’m only in my early twenties and I cringe when I hear players called “ShaDowBurn” or “Grimreality.” If eSports want to be taken seriously by an audience of people older than 14-18 year-olds, they have to take themselves seriously and start using players’ real names.

No youth leagues

This borders on ironic, since generally speaking video games are “for kids,” but in a competitive video game environment children are actively discouraged from participating. This makes sense. A college football team would also try to get out of playing with a 10 year old. They’re not ready to compete at that level and listening to them talk about memes and youtubers would be super annoying. Traditional sports have leagues specifically for kids, where they can learn the fundamentals of the game, plus teamwork, sportsmanship, and social skills. Until eSports can offer that, they’ll be an awkward niche at best.

Americans aren’t the best

The London Spitfire just defeated the New York Excelsior in the OWL Stage 1 playoff to win $100,000. Both of those teams are composed entirely of Korean players. In fact, three of the top five teams are (those two, plus the official Korean team, the Seoul Dynasty). The last five consecutive LCS world champions have been Korean teams, and no American team has even come close. There’s nothing wrong with this. But eSports can go join soccer in the box of things that people in other places like, because Americans only want to watch themselves win.

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The London Spitfire roster is entirely Korean and their owner, Jack Etienne, is an American.

Terrible spectator tools

This might be the biggest problem on the list. ESports are absolutely awful to watch. Imagine a football game where the only camera angle is a tight shot on the quarterback. You see him take the ball, drop back, and throw, and then…the camera stays on him. Maybe he gets hit. Maybe he raises his arms in celebration. Maybe he shakes his head sadly. No matter what, you missed the interesting action happening offscreen because you were stuck in a bad forced perspective. That’s the eSports viewing experience.

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I think we were all thinking it. Now, I am also a huge dork, but even I’m like “hmmm, no, that’s too much.” Imagine all the time and training it takes to become the best in the world at something, basketball, tennis, trapeze, anything. Now imagine all that time was spent alone in front of a computer. That’s not a great recipe for being well-adjusted. Until there is a player who can be the cool, charismatic face of their eSports league, professional video games will not attract a general audience.

If Antonio Brown walked on the Field at Heinz Field doing this, I’d call him a dork too.

None of this changes the fact that I’m excited to see what the OWL can do in the eSports arena. I think with a concerted effort to make eSports more accessible and familiar to a casual viewer can save professional video games from being stuck forever in nerd no-man’s-land of mild internet popularity.

Dream Streams: Brawl in Cell Block 99

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Service: Amazon Prime

Warning: This one is not for everybody.

If you don’t like violence, this isn’t for you. If you’re not a fan of grisly, gruesome images, this isn’t for you. If you ate something in the last half hour, this one isn’t for you.

Everyone else, stick around

Brawl in Cell Block 99 starts with Vince Vaughn going full-on Street Fighter bonus level and beating the absolute shit out of a car. If the title of this one didn’t warn you about the type of grit you were in for, watching a man dismantle a small automobile with his bare hands will. It’s brutal and hard to watch, which is a statement that can be repeated for basically every major scene in the film.

Credit Vince Vaughn for dominating this movie. He portrays BCB99’s (oh yeah, I’m still making my own abbreviations) main character Bradley Thomas with such an intense, powerful energy that he feels completely in control of every scene, often in spite of the actual power dynamic of the characters. It’s the kind of performance I’ve never seen from Vaughn before, but I hope to see again. Maybe if he had brought some of this character to his True Detective role, Season 2 would have been watchable. This movie is what that show could have been.

The crown jewels of BCB99 are the fight scenes. I touched on them earlier, in that I announced that they are brutal and difficult to watch. These aren’t Marvel superhero movie punches, by any means. They have real, visceral results. But I wanted also to mention the choreography of these scenes. It’s impeccable. They didn’t turn a gritty crime film into high-flying wire-fu. They kept the action grounded, which I think was the right decision even though I went in expecting The Raid : Redemption. Now, say what you will about the realism of Vince Vaughn taking as many hits as he does without faltering. God knows I want a guy with a Tapout shirt who trained at an MMA gym twice to argue with me about movie fight scenes. Compared to other movies in this genre (crime-fight? punch-drama?) the fights in BCB99 stand out as exciting and well-performed, and ultimately that’s what matters.

If you like scalp tattoos and exposed bones, check this one out.

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Review: Black Panther

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Marvel Studios/Low Upside Design

At its core, this is a movie about a guy with a stressful new job trying to win back his ex-girlfriend.

Or I missed the point.

Director Ryan Coogler and his cast and crew have created an incredible journey through a whole new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one that is equal parts stylish and substantive, entertaining and important.

Taking it from the top, and including only the most minor of spoilers, tying the story of fictional Wakanda and Black Panther into the very real world of 1992 Oakland was a wonderful choice. It instantly grounds a fictional story about a faraway land of borderline magical technology within a greater world of real struggles, a theme that is repeated through the film and is central to new King T’Challa’s internal struggle to realize Wakanda’s place in the world. Further, the opening scenes establish the tradition of the Black Panther in Wakanda, which later expands to how important tradition is to the country in general. The consistency in world-building stands out in this special slice of the MCU.

Speaking of standing out…Black Panther has an incredible aesthetic. I mean, it’s to be expected, thanks to the rich cultural traditions of Africa that Wakanda draws on for inspiration. Integration of this tradition with both futuristic elements and modern urban style is what makes Wakanda, and Black Panther’s art direction, so unique and special. This extends past the visuals to the soundtrack as well. Jared Kleber, CEO of lowupside.com and hip-hop reviewer extraordinaire, already reviewed Black Panther: The Album on our site a few days ago, and he was spot-on in his analysis of the sounds and influences. I want to add to his review and say that this musical “tradition” extends to the Black Panther original soundtrack. The soundtrack is composed by Ludwig Göransson, who scored Coogler’s films Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), as well as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Like the visuals, the music is a seamless blend of traditional and modern.

Traditional and modern. This diametric opposition is central to the film, and to T’Challa’s character (performed excellently by Chadwick Boseman). The two opposing forces of Wakanda come to a head within him as the new king. It falls to him to decide Wakanda’s place in the world, and whether to maintain the status quo, or to expand his country’s influence. He sits at the eye of this storm of voices, a new king, unsure of himself, and by the end of the film is able to assert himself as ruler and lead his people. This transformation is more important to the story than any overdone superhero origin.

This metaphorical “storm of voices” is literally what might be the best reason to see the movie: the cast. Top to bottom, the actors and actresses deliver. Standouts for me are Michael B. Jordan as the antagonist Killmonger and Letitia Wright as Shuri, the princess of Wakanda. Jordan delivers some of the most powerful lines in the film, and brings a performance so strong that you truly believe that he thinks he’s the protagonist of his own story, even despite all the killing. Wright nails teenager, royal princess, and superhero-level technological genius in equal measure, and on top of that has some of the best moments of comic relief in the comic book movie. Other strong performances include supporting performances by Angela Bassett as the royal matriarch and Sterling K. Brown as T’Challa’s uncle, but none of the cast is lacking.

Overall, this is a film that knew how important it would be to the people it was made for, and it came through. Representation is important. On top of that, Coogler and company delivered arguably the best Marvel film to date. Black Panther is a celebration and a triumph, and deserves both the praise and the hype.

See it.

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This Can’t Be Good: Highlander

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Photo: © Cannon Films

 

On the surface, there is no reason why I should dislike Highlander as much as I do. I mean, I love swords. I love Queen. I love Sean Connery.

Everything in life that you love will eventually betray you. That’s the true lesson of Highlander.

I’ll start with a problem so obvious that they threw in a line to explain it: Christopher Lambert’s accent. Saying you’re from “lots of places” doesn’t even explain it away in the first place. None of the other immortals have that problem. I don’t buy it. He’s lived in the same house for 200 years. I start adopting people’s speech patterns if I see them more than twice in a week.

“But this isn’t a talking movie!” you say, you being one of those people who somehow gave this steaming pile a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes. “It’s a sword fighting movie!” And you are technically right, because they do fight with swords in the film. Technically. However, these fights move with a speed and fluidity comparable to a game of Mortal Kombat controlled by two 90-year-olds in a nursing home who have to keep asking which button does what. JUST MASH THE X BUTTON GERTRUDE, C’MON.

I would say that the movie is just dated, but it came out three years after Return of the Jedi and the duels in that movie hold up fine. This holds true for other aspects of the movie too. At first I thought that maybe in 1986 it was cool for the climax of your movie to be a man getting attacked by cartoon demons, but I think that was actually probably pretty stupid then too. Same for the scene where two grown men run on a beach.

And finally, the ending. We find out the “Prize” that everyone fought all their immortal lives for, which it turns out is losing their immortality in exchange for the ability to read the thoughts of every person on earth. This is, without question, the worst prize ever conceived. I don’t want to hear your busted-ass gross thoughts. I want to literally LIVE FOREVER. Plus now for the rest of his (mortal) life he’s gotta lie to his wife about how it’s cool he’s going to die.

Terrible deal, no thank you.

Don’t watch this movie.

Dream Streams: John Wick Chapter 2

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© Niko Tavernise

 

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Service: HBOGo/HBONow

John Wick just wants everyone to leave him alone.

I think he deserves a break, honestly. There’s only a certain amount of bad things that can happen to a man before he’s entitled to just take a step back and breathe a little bit. I think the last straw here was some entitled mobsters blasting apart his nice-ass house. (If his second dog died in the fire I think he would have wiped out the population of the Earth. An extinction-level John Wick event.)

JWC2, which no one has ever called it until right now, is the rare type of sequel that does the exact same things the original does while framing them differently enough and executing them well enough that it seems fresh and new. Both John Wick films are unabashed gunplay porn, but in Chapter 2 there’s a distinct effort to make Wick the hunted in addition to the hunter, leading to fight scenes with a more natural, improvisational feel.

Much like its predecessor, JWC2 (has it caught on yet?) is unrelentingly stylish. I’ll admit the unique subtitles aren’t used as well as in the first film and at times the film looks like it nearly overdosed while mainlining neon, but I will always be partial to an action movie that attempts to be bold with its choices.

I hope everyone leaves John Wick alone and the sequel to this is Keanu Reeves drinking hot cocoa in a mountain cabin with no problems. But since that probably won’t happen, I can only hope that the inevitable Chapter 3 is a fitting capstone for a John Wick trilogy. Please god, don’t let the franchise steer towards pumping out paint-by-numbers cash grabs and die unloved like Die Hard and Terminator and Predator before it.

Finally, in summary, one final point: JWC2 is the abbreviation we should all be using and I refuse to compromise on that.