These days nearly anything can be turned into compelling television, depending on your point of view. The Food Network makes cake-baking downright suspenseful.
But never before, at least in the United States, has a major (non-cable) television network broadcasted a video game tournament as a sporting event. CBS, home of The Masters and March Madness, did so this past Sunday when it aired edited play from the World Series of Video Games tournament, which was recorded last month in Louisville, Ky.
Coincidentally, Nielsen Media Research, the TV ratings folks, launched last week Nielsen GamePlay Metrics, the first service of its kind to electronically track video game console usage and games played on PCs.
Something is going on here.
For a while now, gamers and game manufacturing companies have been saying that gaming is mainstream. Americans bought nearly $13 billion worth of video game systems, games, and software last year — more than they spent on the Hollywood box office (about $10 billion). Consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Xbox, and Sony Playstations are invading living rooms and, to some extent, are connecting to televisions for non-gaming activity.
For the most part, traditional networks and non-gamers have barely paid attention to gaming. As The New York Times notes (article), “gaming has been considered an odd, insular subculture, territory of teenage boys and those who never outgrew their teens.” But as the Times points out, the first generation of gamers are flirting with middle age and may be more interested in gaming tournaments on television than they are in golf.
“Who knows, in 10 years we could be looking back on this as a very significant moment,” says Rob Correa, senior vice president for programming at CBS Sports.
Maybe. Maybe not. Gaming is traditionally a hands-on experience, a participant sport, but if producers can make cake-baking interesting to some, why not gaming? Not everybody plays baseball, or golf, or video games, but they enjoy watching others. Following video game play would be no different than following a baseball game or golf tournament: There’s a story line, players, statistics, good guys, bad guys, challenges, the thrill of competition, the agony of defeat.
Gaming information will be presented differently, like any sporting or entertainment event. Instead of balls and strikes and outs, there will be a health meter and digital fuel gauge. Leaning the rules to Guitar Hero II or Friday Night Round 3 (boxing) probably will be a lot easier than understanding the scoring on American Idol or figure skating.
Meanwhile, in the wings, there’s Nielsen and its GamePlay Metrics. For now, Nielsen gauges console usage (Playstation 2 accounted for 42 percent of console play in June) and PC game play (World of Warcraft was played four times more than any other game during the month), but it’s not a stretch to see Nielsen more involved over time.
Nielsen, like CBS, wouldn’t be getting into gaming if it didn’t think there was a future there. For gamers and non-gamers alike.