Trends are things that tend to come and go. Grunge rock, professional hockey teams in Atlanta, McRib- things that exist for a short period until wiser heads prevail. And so it was my thought that Esports would be the next trend that would end up immortalized in a few consecutive high school yearbooks and be gone.

Then I saw an article saying that Esports created almost $1 billion dollars in 2018.  https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/07/the-explosive-growth-of-esports/

I was shocked. But there’s more, Colleges are offering Esports scholarships. Television stations are broadcasting Esports competitions. Professional sports are creating their own Esports leagues. The International Olympic Committee is considering Esports entry into the games.

Folks, billion dollar industries generally tend to be more than trends. And historically, they don’t just go away.

THIS is a billionaire. WTF

If you’re like me, you may be wondering “So what exactly are Esports?” Esports are contests played by professional video game players. Note to my Mom and Dad- remember when you said I was wasting my time with video games because that won’t pay the bills so I should read books or play sports? THANKS FOR NOTHING.

Now understand that I am not in my teens or 20’s, so my understanding of Esports is at best very rudimentary. Personally I find it fascinating that people will go to arenas and watch Esport gamers play Madden football or FIFA Soccer where they’re controlling video athletes instead of, you know, staying home and playing the games for themselves. Then again I do watch sports on TV when I could be, you know, out there playing the same games. So I see the parallels- people enjoy watching excellence, no matter what it is. Which still doesn’t explain NASCAR.

Esports is a perfect topic for World Wide Sports, but with my lack of organizational or industry knowledge I am far from the perfect authority to educate or inform anyone. So I reached out to someone who may be better versed to pick their brain and who knows a thing or two about the video game industry and video games themselves- Nolan Bushnell.

Nolan Bushnell is an icon. I don’t say this because we live in an era of celebrity worship and superlatives being handed out like Pez. After all, there may be a large part of this audience that doesn’t specifically know who Mr. Bushnell exactly is, but are unknowingly well versed in his legacy. Let me help out with a very short resume:

  • Pong
  • Atari
  • Chuck E. Cheese
  • Catalyst Technologies
  • Etak
  • ByVideo

You may be asking what these all mean. I’ll help connect the dots. Pong was the first commercially successful video arcade cabinet that launched the arcade cabinet industry. Atari was the original must have home video game console and the template for today’s Xbox and PlayStation, plus everything in between. Chuck E. Cheese was the combination of food, fun, and games that Dave and Busters, Jillians, and many others have since imitated. Catalyst was the first business technology incubator in the US, and maybe the entire world. Etak was GPS before there was GPS. ByVideo was the Amazon app except in the early 1980’s. The man is a combination of a futurist, inventor, capitalist, and visionary. Thus, icon. 

Think I’m exaggerating? Understand that in the sports world I’ve interviewed All Stars and Hall of Famers. There is no Hall of Famer in sports that was as much of a game changer since Babe Ruth…who in fairness would also have been an awesome interview. That’s the level we’re talking about here.

I spoke with Mr. Bushnell about Esports, and not surprisingly he was incredibly well versed on the subject. I was pretty much the equivalent of first grader attending class at Harvard. We had a wide ranging conversation that ran about 40 minutes and I was surprised at how long he tolerated my ignorance, but also marveled at how in touch he was with emerging technologies and how he was still sitting in the driver’s seat for how we play games today and also in the future. He listened to the subtext of my questions, and gave answers that were thoroughly developed and highly thoughtful.

Regarding  my main topic of Esports, Bushnell was surprised at the speed in which they have grown. He expressed excitement in watching video games as sports, and how tournaments fostered that excitement. He was also certain that Esports will develop little leagues just as baseball, football, basketball, and soccer have done. That’s an inclusive and wholly untapped concept – creating organized sporting opportunities for the non-traditional athlete. But Bushnell wasn’t done with just that idea.

He then discussed something that was mind blowing- the mixed reality of virtual reality with human interaction. He talked about the “Turing Test,” which many consider the basis for the origin of artificial intelligence. For those not familiar, here’s the concept- Alan Turing was a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence back in the era around World War Two. Turing wanted to know if you could create a computer that could have a conversation with a person, with the person leaving convinced that he or she was talking to another human and not a computer. Can artificial intelligence be as real as base reality?

Bushnell mentioned games like such that are already available, such as the VR Roller Coaster game (I’ve played that and happily did NOT need a sick bag) and the VR flying game (of which I would entirely need that sick bag), but then teased the next level of VR- the combination of VR and athletic performance. The creation of a real life avatar playing on an Esports field, instead of manipulating pixels and polygons with a controller. Base reality wrapped inside virtual reality!

Imagine a fantasy draft where there are no teams to choose players from, just players to use to form your own virtual lineups that compete in actual contests? It would be like the movie Tron from the 1980’s with their deadly discs and light cycles, just without the fatalities. And he’s already started this ball rolling in working with ModalVR.

ModalVR (https://www.modalvr.com/) has already created competitive virtual reality sports games. Two such examples are Ping and Infinity Racer. Ping basically is Pong, except that participants are the bumpers for the game, and the game mirrors their movement. Infinity Racer makes you move your body to navigate obstacles as you compete against up to three other contestants. And as Mr. Bushnell shared, VR gaming is still in its infancy, or as he said “We’re in the Pong phase of VR.”

Bushnell did point out three of the biggest drawbacks of the world of Esports. The first one is that the games are in “walled gardens,” meaning that there are IP addresses created specifically for events that do not allow for open competition. He felt that to be powerful, there needs to be an ecumenical or unifying aspect to Esports, rather than a “Big Brother” approach that limit participation and talent. Limiting competition to just a few people in a room on a specialized server instead of opening up games to the masses will actually filter out talent instead of allowing new talent to be discovered. Think about when you play on line games at home and how some players just dominate your game- why aren’t they allowed to throw their hats into the ring?

Next up is the most generationally glaring aspect of Esports- it’s a young person’s game. Like, REALLY young person’s game. As a person ages, their reaction time slows. Most Esports games are twitch muscle related games. Unless you’re the Waco Kid, as people age their twitch reactions decrease. This would also create another barrier to entry to Esports. Bushnell offered up a potential solution to this potential segregation- and missed economic opportunity: have strategic games enter the Esports world. Strategy gamers are more cerebral and would encourage play by people who gain wisdom with age. This already happens with chess tournaments. Why not electrify that world?

Could this be an Esport?

Lastly, Esports athletes will almost always have short careers. As Esports gains popularity there will be a greater supply of new entrants and a quick phase out of “career” gamers. Think of this in comparison to other professional sports. It may be harder to root for your favorite team if the longest tenured player had just about a 5 year career. Unless they’re a phenomenon, think about how barely accomplished any traditional professional sports athlete is after five years in their game. Would Tom Brady matter? Or Alex Rodriguez? Or LeBron James? This small window for excellence generally means that Esports as a league will be a nice supplement to professional sports leagues, but will have an impossible task to replace them because you will never grow with a player, or relate to their era because their era may be 12 months.

We also spoke about the “gaming scholarships to college“ aspect of Esports. If the game is for young people, why waste your prime earning years doing something as mundane as, you know, getting an education? Couldn’t that come after with just a portion of your professional winnings? I really enjoyed his answer- this direct quote is fantastic:

“Colleges are becoming bloated, expensive, and stupid.”

If you look past the annual 7% rate of inflation for college tuition (two to three times the rate of actual inflation), the majors being offered to keep students interested in college have almost no bearing on the world that they’ll eventually become adults in. As for Esports, if you compare college athletes to professionals, the college athletes are rarely as good as the professional level. This lets a player that maybe has reached a plateau as a gamer gain an education as a person because they’re good at Call of Duty or some other title.

That college convo led us to an area I wasn’t expecting- Bushnell is a very proud Papa. As a father of eight, he must have infinite patience- lucky for me and my often awkward questions. Bushnell was well aware of the concept of “New Collar” employees- people with natural skill sets that need little to no college education to be successful in a given field- because there’s a few in the family. Three of his sons followed in his entrepreneurial footsteps and started their own companies: Coin Door Crew, Polycade, and TwoBit Circus. (https://polycade.com/, https://twobitcircus.com/)

While Bushnell has a fantastic optimism about the future of video games in general and Esports in particular, he has no actual idea as to what that future looks like. In his opinion, games have gotten better and better over time, which totally emasculated my question about games over relying on visuals as a crutch to poor gameplay. He did, however, give me an amazing compliment about a question I asked on programmers creating artificial intelligence that he called metaphysical and unique to his career. So suck it, gaming mags!

One area that Bushnell does see clearly is the combining of technologies to create multimedia gaming experiences. A very cool sounding project that he’s working on is called St Noire (https://www.st-noire.com/), which he described as a “Clue” like board game that centers gameplay around an Amazon Alexa, combining board gaming, interactive hardware and Non-Player Characters. Instead of using game cards to collect clues, you interrogate the Alexa, which has a thousand hours of recorded dialogue. Think about how few people you’ve talked to for a thousand hours in your life- that’s a lot of replay value! The quality of your questioning will help you figure out who is the criminal before your opponents.

https://www.amazon.com/St-Noire-Powered-Murder-Mystery/dp/B07P693BG1/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=st+noire&qid=1555811945&s=gateway&sr=8-1

The multifaceted approach to gaming clearly does not end there. Another combination he sees as key to the future of gaming is the combination of Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence, but that conversation is the genesis for a follow up article. You can’t help but come away inspired after a conversation centered on possibilities and ideas.

Totally dope.

I had to ask if any classic Atari games would have made great Esports games outside of the obvious Pong (and its “Grueling Algebra”). He felt there were a lot of titles that fit that bill, specifically naming X and O Football. Imagine a time when a football game could exist without a professional league and professional union endorsement? And yet folks, it happened- you can look it up!

I also offered that there hasn’t been a game with a different take on “shoot ‘em ups” since Outlaw and Combat. He agreed on the later, but not the former. Combat would be a great Esports game, in my humble opinion. Cuts right to the chase without game ruining lag- the existence of such was also part of our wide ranging conversation.

So, what were my takeaways? Nolan Bushnell is a patient man. I am not an engineer and hardly had a grasp on programming ever, so he took time to explain processes like how to build an arcade cabinet, or why lag exists, why Microtransactions are really freedom of choice, or how branch narrative works for both gaming and for Netflix. Also, he’s the first person I’ve met besides myself that’s read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi without having it assigned in a college class.

But also, this is a pioneer that’s not only NOT resting on his laurels but is trying to forge new and exciting paths. His vision for the future of gaming is wide open, but it surely incorporates artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality as its core elements. After all, he is still an active gamer. In the face of PC, mobile and tablet gaming, he is surprised at the resiliency of console gaming. Unlike the average Esports athlete, he is still competitive after 50 years in the industry.

Our wide ranging conversation led me to further explore the idea of people enjoying just watching video games, which led me to my second phase of research- I studied my own kids.

My daughter had a friend over, and her friend was playing the Sims, which as far as I can tell is a one player game. My daughter was all in for watching, offering ideas, laughing at the results…but she wasn’t actually hands on playing. My son has Kingdom Hearts for his console, but he prefers to watch Kingdom Hearts videos on Youtube. I wonder if their upbringing was part of this behavior, as they watched me playing RPG’s while they were growing up and just think it’s normal to spectate, or was this something more akin to the sedentary lifestyle that’s acculturated as soon as a child starts school and is praised for sitting still in one place and is reinforced by the isolation provided by personal media accounts that are self indulgent without being interactive save for the attention. But that’s a discussion for a different piece, for a different day.

My last phase of this experiment was actually watching Esports. And….it did nothing for me. But there was an infectious atmosphere that was clearly visible in the crowd, which reminded me of watching a concert DVD. Yes I’m hearing the music, but the people at the show had a WAY better experience. It also reminded me of the Islanders- Maple Leafs piece that I recently wrote: if you weren’t at the game, there was no way to truly get it.

Which maybe finally led me to “get” Esports.

This journey started with learning about Esports, so I should have come up with some deductions on the topic. My take aways on Esports? Get used to it. Not only is it not going anywhere, it’s going to evolve. There is already sports betting available for Esports, which is a sign that a competition has truly arrived. It has a TV deal. The gamers take it seriously. The audience is into it. It’s fun. It’s harmless. It’s accessible. You can set up an ad hoc version tournament your own home and play pretend Esports. It’s not cost prohibitive. It’s something friends have been doing for ages on their own. And it’ family friendly, so it will play anywhere. Which explains why it’s a billion dollar business.

So if you get a chance, check out an Esports competition the next time it pops up on your TV. And if it doesn’t keep your attention? Turn it off and hit up a game of St Noire, or if you’re West Coast head out to TwoBit Circus.