Here's the Thing


A monthly glimpse into whatever gaming bugaboo Rob’s got on his mind.


This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #87, the Rebellion issue. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


I can never decide how to feel when the topic of eSports and competitive gaming comes up. I hate how some people scoff at the idea of videogames being taken seriously, but I also can’t help rolling my eyes at just how overblown and cartoony these events tend to be — most likely out of being desperate to be taken seriously. Hell, the other day I caught some of an episode of CSI New York that involved a Big Video Game Competition (obviously sponsored by Microsoft what with all the Gears of War 3 fellating) and I wanted to be mad at the ridiculous depiction of Professional Video Games, but I couldn’t because they do get that absurd.

Here’s the thing: despite the love or hate any of us might have for pro gaming or whatever you want to call it, it’s going to be sticking around for a while. Not only have the venues been getting bigger (and more crowded), but it’s begun to take hold of mobile platforms as well.

Granted, a couple of floundering attempts at mobile MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas – think League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients, to name a couple) isn’t exactly a ton of progress, but there’s a different sort of competitive scene developing on phones and tablets: playing for prizes. It’s a concept that’s been around in various forms for a while, but it’s been creeping into various app stores over the past few years. And I’m not talking about slot machines or video poker, either. I’m talking about video-gamey videogames.

[pullquote]There’s a different sort of competitive scene developing on phones and tablets: playing for prizes.[/pullquote]

The first time I became aware of it was with iWin, which has released a handful of games on mobile platforms that are essentially middle-of-the-road, inoffensive and unremarkable puzzle and card games. What makes them stand out is the fact that players can wager real money against their opponents and potentially make a tidy sum in the process.

There’s a dedicated app called Sparcade that acts as a sort of hub for this kind of competitive gaming on mobile. Much like iWin, it allows players to bet either in-game currency (sort of like a practice mode) or real world money every time they play against another person. A surprising number of games (Pac-Man, Tetris, etc.) have been designed or tweaked to be played competitively. Matches are played asynchronously, with each player given the exact same scenario to complete. The challenge comes from having the skill to eke out the highest score using what you have at your disposal.

I’ve started to see more of this type of thing in competitive social games, minus using real money. There’s a number of these things, where you can have a one-on-one match against Facebook friends or random strangers and bet things like tokens that are used for purchasing various in-game items before the game begins. Again, these aren’t simply casino games made digital — these are more typical videogames with their own betting elements.

The rise of eSports has been surprising and, I’ll grudgingly admit, impressive. The name or concept might still make some folks giggle, but it’s come a long way and still seems to be going strong. What’s weird is I actually find myself thinking that the mobile side of all this will probably be the one that lasts the longest. It’s not quite the same as console and PC competitive gaming, but it is perfectly tailored to the platform. You don’t need to have every player online at the same time, each game plays much faster (great for killing a few minutes here and there), the bar for entry is incredibly low and it merges somewhat casual gaming (already super popular on mobile) with gambling — or at least the sense of gambling — which is also super popular with a pretty decent subset of users. I mean casinos are still common for a reason, right?

I’m curious to see where it all goes from here, even if it’s not something I’ll be participating in myself.


Rob Rich has loved videogames since the 80s and has the good fortune to be able to write about them. Catch his rants on Twitter at @RobsteinOne

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