Patrick “Sabo” Flannigan and James “Primetime” Mattone have a civil discussion about Civilization’s potential as an esport, from how broadcasts can be structured to the theoretical meta of the game.
James “Primetime” Mattone: Team Liquid recently picked up Stephen “MrGameTheory” Takowsky, with the intent that they will expand to a full Civilization team. I didn’t know much about the Civilization competitive scene, but when I researched it, this dude is like the Michael Jordan of Civ. Multiple #1 leaderboard standings, countless records broken…And this entire esport has developed its own small community. Which begs the question, is the world ready for Civilization as a mainstream esport with Team Liquid being the cornerstone?
Patrick “Sabo” Flannigan: It’s a remarkable step for a major organization to delve into a relatively small space. There is a competitive Civilization scene, but it’s underdeveloped. At present, Civ is not supported by any major leagues such as ESL or MLG and you’d be hard pressed to find a formal outlet for competition outside of a few select ladders and self-organized tournaments. As great as the game is, the scene is still too small.
Primetime: True, even though Civ Players is pretty much bumping with a great community, it’s not to the scale of League of Legends, Halo, or even down to the newer kids in Overwatch and Rocket League. That’s really the first hurdle it has to climb; how can it carve out a niche in the esports market with newer games coming in and taking their share? Civ has been around for a while, and Fireaxis is one of those developers that delivers to the fans (I can’t recall the last time they had a virtual barbarian mob at their door, or any time for that matter). Fireaxis pretty much has to work with Team Liquid to step up production quality for these initial tournaments the team is holding, and then from there, hope that a bigger fish bites.
Sabo: Carving out a niche is going to be the challenge because Civ violates one of the basic tenets of esports: the game must be easy to grasp. Although games like DOTA and Counter-Strike are made up of infinitely complex decisions and strategy, it’s simple enough for a casual observer to understand. So simple, that TBS has found moderate success broadcasting the tactical shooter game to the living rooms of America.
The appeal to playing Civilization lies in its intricacies. I fear those complexities may be the barrier that prevents the sort of mass viewership that major esports titles have enjoyed. And without mass viewership, it will be difficult to fund a world-class event.
Primetime: I can compare that to some niche sports I’ve broadcasted. Lacrosse was not an easy sport to pick up as a fan, let alone as a broadcaster, especially when professional, collegiate and high school leagues all have different rules. Trying to explain to fans who you know a lot more than you the faceoffs, penalties, two-point circle and other rules is hectic. If you are a fan though, you are pretty much hardcore, but there are a good amount of passionate fans who love a game that isn’t as simple as hitting a puck into a net, or shooting a ball into a hoop.
Another sport that is even more confusing to a casual sports fan is field hockey, with its free positions and green cards… Sorry, I just had a traumatic flashback to my days when I did sports full time, what were you talking about?
Sabo: Sounds terrifying. What about the length of a typical Civ game?
James: RIGHT! The game length! I think that opens up a great opportunity for commentators to really go in-depth with fans and try to bring the game down to a sixth grade level. A lot of Civ fanatics will already feel the rush of the game at hand, but esports fans can possibly learn from matches while watching to enjoy it even more.
Take something like Chess or Go, it’s deemed as a slow game, but there is so much strategy involved that commentators explain while the game is happening or in breaks. Go is the better example, because there are so many tactics and gameplay mechanics involved that if you watched a game silently with no context, it’d be a complex nut to crack for the average joe. Same thing with Civ in a way, except that it’s actually pretty simple to pick up, but difficult to master. Therefore, broadcasts that mirror that of a “slower” game that is pretty informative yet exciting should be the way to go here.
Civ is going to be for the thinking person, the one who wants to learn about an awesome game, and if this is broadcasted, it definitely has to do some handholding if it hits the mainstream.
Sabo: It certainly is a game for color-commentators and analysts to shine, which has my brain spinning with all sorts of ways to spice up a broadcast.
James: HE’S GOT THE GREAT LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA! OH MY GOODNESS WHAT A MOVE! SCIENCE IS FLOWING AND A GOLDEN AGE IS BORN!
Sabo: But there is another element for me that is lacking in Civ: tension. The matches that I most enjoy are built by rising tension punctuated by brilliant moments of skill. And that extends into strategy games like League or Starcraft. I can certainly picture some of that tension with the more militant victory conditions, but will fans and casual viewers experience the same excitement over a cultural victory? For me, the answer is no.
Primetime: But don’t you think that in order to get those other victory conditions, there has to be some battling involved? Or how about this: would it not be better to do a military victory, because that’s pretty much the quickest path to winning a game in Civ? I wouldn’t imagine people going for cultural or science victories, right?
Sabo: You’re probably right, but that brings up the concepts of meta and balance. If the pro scene shifts towards a fast military victory meta, or any other single approach, then it severely limits the game. One of the best features of Civ is the ability to win the game in various ways. From an esports perspective, that sets up for a number of interesting storylines not at all unlike hero preference or map selection in other titles.
Primetime: I completely agree there. I mean, while I do pick fights, I usually don’t go for military victories in Civ, and some leaders are better suited towards fast cultural or science win conditions. This first tournament that Team Liquid is holding will definitely answer that question of what win conditions and the feel of watching competitive Civilization, because that’ll be the first time that many will see the game on a larger stage. Who knows? Maybe they will bring in a turn limit, or a boost to science or culture that really pushes players to either fight or get left in the dust.
Sabo: Esports, just like traditional sports, is a spectator experience. Prizes, sponsorships and tournaments hinge on a large viewing audience. For some games, like Overwatch this is automatic. As I load the front page of Twitch, Civilization VI, a newly released game only has 7,800 viewers. That’s less than Skyrim, Destiny and even Chess. Clearly it is going to be a long grind to compete with League or Hearthstone, both of which sport over 100,000 live viewers as I write this.
We’ve already discussed some of the hurdles that Civ must surmount to compete in the space. How can the game grind to the top of esports with such a small following from the start?
James: It’s ultimately up to Fireaxis here. Most of the games you mentioned (save for Skyrim and Chess) have their developers constantly engaged in promoting their game as an esport. Getting more professional teams on board would be a start, but consistently offering the opportunity to watch professional Civilization, for example in an in-game launcher or from purchasing a DLC that also benefits a prize pool, will be key to grinding Civ up to the top. A strong content creator community would not hurt either, and there should be definite encouragement for both pros and already popular creators to make Civ-related content.
And honestly with that, if it is anything like those MLG Civ montages are like, then we are definitely in for a treat if this hits the mainstream.
What do you think of Civilization being a mainstream esport? Would you watch a Civ tournament on Twitch?
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Patrick “Sabo” Flannigan is one of the first esports casters, starting with TsN in 2001.
He currently writes about esports, continues to cast and hosts This Week in CS.
Follow @patflannigan on Twitter.
Image Credit: Halo Waypoint