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A new documentary asks: Will e-sports ever go mainstream?

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The TriBeCa film All Work All Play makes the case for spectator gaming

"Why do you like watching someone else play a video game?"

My fiancée, among other people, has asked me this multiple times throughout our relationship. She doesn't get it. Most people don't get it. But it's simple, really: skill.

I pride myself in my own video game skills — my first-person shooter skills, specifically. I'm better than my friends and my co-workers. I do well online, but I'm not the best, and that aggravates me. There was a time though when I wanted to be the best.

Then I found e-sports.

Professional gamers are superhuman, just like LeBron James and Sidney Crosby are superhuman — consistently capable of performing feats that seem impossible. There's one main difference with e-sports, though: most viewers understand what's happening in basketball and hockey. Even just visually, video games can be dauntingly complicated.

Professional gamers are superhuman

A work-in-progress cut of All Work All Play, a documentary that focuses on the rise of e-sports and some of the best competitive teams in the world, just premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival. All Work All Play profiles a few professional League of Legends teams as well as the programming director of the Electronic Sports League, Michal "Carmac" Blicharz. The film attempts to bring the viewer into the world of competitive gaming while constantly making comparisons to other professional sports by highlighting team changes, grandiose spectacles, intense crowds, and broadcasters.

The story of Carmac and his rise in the e-sports community is fascinating: learning about his rise from small LAN gatherings, where he and his friends would hustle other competitors to make a living; to seeing him with his adorable family as he plans for the future of spectator gaming, which was by far my favorite storyline in the film. Carmac's story is interwoven with the journey of select teams competing at ESL's largest and most prestigious tournament, Intel Extreme Masters.

All Work All Play

All Work All Play tried harder, and succeeded better, than any other attempt I've seen to make e-sports relatable and coherent — but it's still extremely confusing. I've played League of Legends (albeit very briefly) and have a general understanding of how the game works. I'll watch tournaments if they're on when I'm browsing Twitch because I like the intensity and the stakes. It's a rush even if the skill isn't super apparent to me because I know these players are the best in the world. Early on, an attempt is made to explain what League of Legends is and what competitors need to do in order to win. I followed along, but it went by so quickly that I can't imagine someone without any prior knowledge fully grasping the game's mechanics, and it reminded me why e-sports will always be a niche spectacle.

The basics of League of Legends are simple enough, but the difference between an average player and a world-class one is in the details: attacks, defense, abilities, upgrades, gold, strategy, teamwork, and so on. Mastering all of these mechanics and then executing them is what separates high-level players from everyone else. They're consistently able to recognize what tactics and abilities to use in any given situation at any given time. The time and dedication necessary to achieve that mastery is almost unfathomable, and even then, some top-level players are still better than others. But unless you've studied the game, you won't know why they're better, like you would when seeing LeBron dunk over three people. It's right here that e-sports become inaccessible to the masses, and All Work All Play doesn't change that.

The being said, the film tries, and in some instances succeeds, to establish familiarity. The intensity of the matches will seem familiar to anyone who has watched any other professional sport, thanks to some really solid editing work. A typical League of Legends game can last over 30 minutes, but best-of-five game series were run through in a few minutes, which made these sequences extremely watchable.

In order to truly understand e-sports, you need to understand the people, not the games

But in order to truly appreciate e-sports, you need to understand the people playing, not the games they're playing, which is All Work All Play's greatest shortcoming. It focuses on entire teams, but not the individuals within them, and that's an important difference. I gained new respect for game developers after watching Indie Game: The Movie because the filmmakers showed me lives instead of products. People are relatable. Niche games are not, unless you're already in that niche.

While e-sports will continue to rise in popularity, it will always be growing a niche segment — the mass-market appeal still isn't there. Plus, in order to survive, e-sports has to adapt as the games and communities evolve over time. Basketball hasn't changed much in the last hundred years, but competitive video games change all the time. There was Quake and Starcraft, Halo and Call of Duty; and now, LoL and Starcraft 2. Attention spans fade, people lose interest, and you're only left with memories of a game you used to like that no one plays anymore. I'll always watch because I appreciate the talent, but I expect most people don't recognize it and haven't had a compelling reason to care. Documentaries like All Work All Play, no matter how interesting or well edited, won't change that any time soon.

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