Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

Publication date: 29 April 2013
Originally published 2012 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 29-Apr-2013.


You can watch cricket on TV. Golf. Baseball. Lawn bowls.

But not Quake, not StarCraft, not Call of Duty. Not even Counter-Strike.


Now and then a game makes it to mainstream TV - or at least to some minor cable-TV channel. South Korea, of course, has a cable-TV game channel, "Ongamenet". That channel occasionally covers something other than StarCraft, presumably to signal to the audience that it is safe to go to the bathroom.

Other "e-sports" shows have popped up from time to time, too, but they're still extremely uncommon, and usually embarrassingly terrible. Everybody knows you should just find a live stream on the Web, or download replays, or if you're lucky enough to be a fan of a current top-ten game, watch a match with commentary on YouTube. For a lot of games the only commentary you'll find is players chatting with each other, though:

Actual broadcast or cable television coverage of games remains a non-starter.

This is weird.

Anybody who's played competitive video games knows there are plenty of them that'd make for great TV, if you covered them in a similar way to "physical" sports. Multiple views of the action, slow motion, knowledgeable commentators.

You'd think TV companies would be quite excited about this, because it'd be way cheaper than traditional sports coverage. "Reality" shows are so common today largely because they're so cheap to make. Umpteen game companies, not to mention purveyors of sugary beverages, vaguely cheesy crunchy things and weird pointy glowing computer input devices would probably want to buy ads during game-TV. And "normal" people would probably find game-TV quite interesting.

I mean, if you like watching snooker, you'd probably like watching Frozen Synapse.

If you like football, you'd probably like Monday Night Combat, because that's kind of the whole point of that game.

And then you could proceed to Team Fortress 2, when sufficiently caffeinated.

(This doesn't really have much to do with real TF2 gameplay, but how could a show all about funny griefing not be an instant hit?)

And if a live, televised, world-class game of Natural Selection 2 can't find an audience...

...then I don't want to live on this planet any more.

A huge number of games, from football to chess, are an abstracted form of a military engagement. Computers let us play genuinely realistic military simulations, which could make riveting TV.

A new war movie every weekend! Battles lasting for days on end in historical settings or out in space out in space, with cameras hopping around to wherever the action currently is, or dissecting recent hectic engagements! Screaming infantrymen covered with napalm, at whom it is morally acceptable to laugh!

(There actually is apparently going to be some kind of Eve Online TV show, but it won't be telecasts of warfare. And, occasionally, there has actually been TV coverage of computer simulations of real-world sports, like the endless series of John Madden American-football games. The more I try to think about this, the more my brain seizes up.)

I don't think multiple "cameras" and slow motion and so forth would be a major problem for broadcast games. You can't do fancy stuff like that in the actual game clients, but you can take a recording of an FPS match and turn it into a TV show by just playing through it and dumping video to an editing program. It may be impossible to rewind a replay, but you can rewind video whenever you want.

This is time-consuming for one person in a bedroom to do - the amount of editing work that goes into even a "simple" multi-commentator Let's Play sort of video like Shamus Young's "Spoiler Warning" series is surprising. But it's well within the reach of a very small business. Add a few more computers and standard TV-production gear, and you can do live coverage of any game that allows multiple flying spectator cameras.

It's not hard to find commentators, either, though you might have to filter out a lot of squeaky-voiced teenagers convinced not only that they are the world's greatest expert on their favourite game, but also that they are the only player of said game who is not flamboyantly homosexual.

Everything is easy for the person who doesn't have to do it themselves, of course. If I put down the cheerleading pom-poms for this games-as-TV idea, I can think of several serious problems with it.

A mode in a game client that helps broadcasters do their job, for instance, is also likely to be a godsend for cheaters. It would also not be acceptable for The Big Game to be called off half-way through because someone tripped over an Internet cable.

The rapid turnover of games could be a problem, too. Few games flow on almost unchanged from version to version like the John Madden series. StarCraft 1 may seem to have been king of the twitchy actions-per-minute RTS hill since time began, but that's only in comparison to the lightning rate of change of the computer industry in general. StarCraft feels a million years old, but it came out in 1998. The first Fallout feels like gaming prehistory to us now; it came out in 1997, the same year as Total Annihilation.

(For comparison with real sports, international one-day cricket started in 1971. The first basketball shot clock, turning that game into the frantic race that's so great for TV, was introduced in 1954. If you're now in the mood for more jarring comparisons of Computer Time with Real Time: When the 9/11 attacks occurred, the iPod did not yet exist.)

So maybe the strange and mercurial world of video gaming isn't something the existing media companies can cope with. Maybe widespread game TV will be via online video services only. I don't care, as long as it ends up on the TVs of the world's general population.

Umpteen YouTubers are ignoring traditional TV and making their own shows, sometimes of very high quality, about whatever they like. To do the same with games, you don't even need a camera. And there are more and more lounge-room appliances, from game consoles through to Raspberry Pis, that can seamlessly turn online video into a normal sort of TV-watching experience.

The broadcast-and-advertisers framework that supports traditional TV is withering away. We're starting to see its artificial constraints on program types and schedules and durations fade as well, in the same way that the withering of print media is liberating writers from having to come up with something of exactly the right length for every deadline, no matter how crappy the result. (Many such writers are of course also being liberated from having a job at all. This is not always a bad thing.)

So perhaps it doesn't matter that games aren't on TV. They're on the Internet, and that's where everything'll be soon enough.

I'm not ashamed to say I've spent significantly more time watching Supreme Commander replays than I've spent playing the actual game, and I've derived considerably more entertainment per minute from them. Almost infinitely more entertainment, per production dollar, than real-world Formula One has ever offered me.

Join me, and demand a digital revolution in couch-potato-ing!

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