In King of Kong – A Fistful of Quarters we witness the underdog, Steve, tackle the task of getting the world record score in the arcade classic Donkey Kong by practicing for hours a day and performing under pressure. The other side of the story shows a demigod of the arcade world, Billy, as he constantly displays a smug grin while maintaining his super star status from the comfort of his home. It really is a great story of a clash of titans that have mastered their craft to an uncomfortable level. By the end of the story, Steve’s works pays off and the audience is left with the knowledge that he successfully holds the top scores on Donkey Kong (live and recorded). Everything is right in the world – Billy and his goons don’t come out ahead, and the audience can stop feeling sorry for Steve. But what if he didn’t get the record? What if he just failed and I was just left there….cringing and feeling sorry for Steve, his wife, and his kids? Well, if that happened, Steve’s story would be like thousands of gamers around the world — thousands of gamers in the United States that all play the same game: League of Legends.
League of Legends is a notoriously addictive game. It has everything it needs to capture gamers and keep them playing the game. One of the biggest features of LoL is the immense professional scene that allows top gamers to make salaries and become famous like Billy Mitchell. But unlike Steve, most League of Legends players will never come close to becoming professional because they lack the work ethic and skill. The saddest stories are the players that come close to making it and end up failing; they put their money on the line, they move to a gaming house, take off college, and walk away with nothing…their dreams shattered. For young players that is a huge fear when trying to become the best. In Steve’s case, not as much was on the line, but he was clearly obsessed and had the risk of walking away as a failure who threw away valuable time.
Games can consume so much of an individual’s life. From the hours spend casually, to thousands of dollars gambled on the opportunity to become do what you love most, professional gaming is risky. When watching King of Kong, I couldn’t help but imagine the Steve that could have been: a sad, broken dude who obsessed over an arcade game. Steve is more than a character in a great documentary. He is a vivid example of what it takes to be a professional gamer; it’s hard; it requires countless hours of practice and dedication; you have to juggle real life with your dream; the chance of failure is high. In the end, you might fail….or you could play video games for a living….which is rad.
Competitive gaming remains a niche market. Tournaments held for games now have prize pools of millions of dollars, but this is nothing compared to the stakes of athletic competitions where professional players make millions yearly regardless of whether their team wins. This is the result of a huge number of factors, but several very important ones are illuminated in King of Kong.
The competitors in King of Kong are not the most charismatic: compare them to an athlete and anyone could tell which is which. This is a small part of the problem: society at large pays athletes so well partially because the athletes are admired. It is much easier to admire an athletic and charismatic athlete than a socially awkward gamer whose athletic skill lay largely in his (her?) fingers.
Another noteworthy obstacle to competitive gaming that exists in King of Kong but is not focused on is variety. There are so many games (even 20+ year old arcade games!) that interest in gaming is far too divided for gamers skilled in only a couple games to make any serious money. There are many high-paying competitive sports: maybe 10 that make a lot of money. In King of Kong a tournament held at Funspot has competitors playing in over thirty games. It would take an impossible number of competitors to fund professional gamers (people who play games for a living) for all these games, and nowadays there are far more games in which to compete.
A final problem is time. This problem will obviously solve itself, but in King of Kong it is obvious that more time was needed for a true competitive environment. Needing to show up in person to compete, for example, is a problem that has now been mainly solved: final rounds are still often done in LAN settings, but at least qualifiers can be done through the internet. Cheating through hacked gameboards is long gone: games are too complex now for that, and cheats are usually incredibly obvious.
Finally there’s the problem of making the games interesting to watch. Donkey Kong is clearly a competitive game, and the intensity with which it was played was interesting to watch in King of Kong, but only a select group of people could sustain interest in watching every second of every playthrough in the movie: it would be grueling. Games need to be appealing even to those not especially familiar to the game itself, just as anyone can watch and be amused by a game of soccer.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the day is not far away when professional gamers will garner as much attention and money as athletes. It will just take time and a shift of the industry, with lessons taken from sports and even, perhaps (but unlikely), from King of Kong.