Could D&D Ever Have an eSport?

eSports -- game competitions facilitated by electronic systems -- are largely known for their multiplayer video game competitions. But with the rise of Dungeons & Dragons' presence on Twitch and the D&D Adventurer's League, an eSport for D&D isn't that far-fetched.

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By Denny Sung (CEO) - GLOBAL MULTIMEDIA SCHOOL, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108140853

eSports On the Rise

The rise of eSports, particularly in the video game arena, is accelerating rapidly. According to Newzoo, eSports had $660M in revenues, $485M in brand investment, and 191M global enthusiasts in 2017. The ingredients for a successful eSport are outlined by Kat Bailey on USGamer.net: a game that's easy to grasp but deeper than it looks, a balanced game, freely accessible, capable of building tension and punctuating it with dramatic moments, a strong community, and a big prize pool.

With a rules iteration history of several decades, D&D has most of these points covered. Thanks to the release of the Basic rules, the Fifth Edition is free. Any player can attest to D&D's ability to build tension and create dramatic moments. It's also accessible to a broad audience, and due to Hasbro's renewed focus on Twitch, that's now a reality. In fact, Hasbro's CEO recently claimed there are "millions of views on Twitch around Dungeons & Dragons."

D&D and Competitive Play

D&D has always had a competitive streak. Many of co-creator Gary Gygax's published adventures were adapted from tournaments that were played competitively at conventions, like Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and Tomb of Horrors.

Thanks to its wargaming roots, tournament play was well-established by the time D&D came along. Tournaments were associated with wargaming conventions. The first large-scale D&D tournament took place at Origins in Baltimore, MD on July 25-27. An estimated 1,500 attended, with 120 participating in the D&D tournament. But how to judge the winner of a game where "anything can be attempted?" The success condition was defined as a revenue target, according to Jon Peterson in Playing at the World. Mark Swanson, who attended that first tournament, wrote a detailed account in Alarums & Excursions #4 of his game (refereed by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax's son, Ernie):
All fifteen of the characters were nameless, pre-generated, and assigned to players in alphabetical order: to ensure that the trips to begin on equal footing, Gygax needed to mandate an identical party composition across them all. The luck of the draw landed Swanson a feeble Magic-user. In Swanson’s group, only four of fifteen had any prior experience with the game, which means that those other eleven Origins attendees had pre-registered for a baptism by fire— and furthermore suggests the Gygax family’s personal tutelage introduced many wargamers to Dungeons & Dragons that weekend. Any ardent fan of early Dungeons & Dragons would find the scenario of the tournament immediately recognizable. From the moment Swanson reports, “We were to loot a tomb, hidden under a hill,” one suspects that Swanson faced an early incarnation of the classic deathtrap module the Tomb of Horrors (1978).
The proto-Tomb of Horrors did not impress Swanson:
From the whole experience, I deduce a couple of lessons. 1) Don’t run D& D as a tournament. 2) Always shatter plaster unless you are in the dungeon of nasty-minded people such as I who might put poison gas behind it. 3) Play a Gygax game if you like pits, secret doors and Dungeon Roulette. Play a game such as in A& E if you prefer monsters, talking/ arguing/ fighting with chance met characters and a more exciting game. Of course, the game may not have been typical, but Gygax can defend himself. I felt no real desire for a second, similar game.
This experience would set the tone for a "Gygaxian" style of play in which the DM's job was to thwart players. Gygax's tomb was likely so antagonistic to accommodate a tournament environment. As Peterson puts it:
For the eleven newbies who accompanied Swanson’s party into that funhouse, however, this session calibrated them to the play of Dungeons & Dragons, and it carried the authority of the game’s inventor: many later dungeon masters followed this deathtrap precedent.
It didn't help that some of the first published adventures were designed for tournaments, further cementing a DM vs. player-style of gaming. These scenarios were offered to large tournaments and multiple DMs for a fee, which helped blaze a trail for later scenarios published for the mass market:
Owing to the need for several tournament referees to administer dungeon explorations simultaneously and impartially, each referee worked from a common set of written instructions crafted by Gygax, copied and distributed to all dungeon masters. Following the precedent of Bob Blake’s post-game sales of his GenCon IX tournament dungeon, TSR later allowed the Metro Detroit Gamers group to package Gygax’s maps, encounter charts, character sheets and related instructions to tournament referees as a sixteen-page loose leaf product in a zip-lock bag to offer for sale. They called it the Lost Caverns of Tsojconth, and advised buyers to “use this dungeon for your own tournament or for a new exciting dungeon for one Dungeonmaster and six players.”
D&D's tradition of competitive play has continued to this day.

The Rules of the Sport

The National Society of Crazed Gamers (NASCRAG) ran D&D tournaments from 1980 through 2011, and has sinced moved to Pathfinder. There was also a D&D Championship Series, which ran from 1977 through 2013. In 2016, Wizards of the Coast brought the Series back, using the D&D Adventurers League rules.

D&D has the rules, has the community, and has a long history of competitive play. It just needs a platform to make eSports feasible. The rise of online play platforms like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds makes this more feasible than ever, and actual play podcasts and YouTube videos can capture the action in a wide variety of media. In fact, Roll20 took over an eSports team (Team8):
It’s a mildly unorthodox thing for a company like Roll20 to up and jump into esports, but there’s a lot about it that just made sense. We don’t do much advertising (‘cause you all do such a fantastic job of telling your friends about us!) and we feel like the friendly Heroes community might occasionally enjoy taking a break from winning and losing to make more friends on Roll20 in the same way we’ve enjoyed exorcising our competitive Diablo’s in “HotS.”
Of all the existing gaming platforms that might launch an eSport, Roll20's experience makes them a likely candidate. For a glimpse at what a transmedia competitive game might look like, Open Game Master offers a tantalizing possibility.

Will D&D ever become an eSport? Perhaps the answer is that D&D was the original eSport before there were video game tournaments. It's just taking a while for technology to catch up.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Kramodlog

Naked and living in a barrel
Nah. DMs are too different from one another. And even if it is the same DM who plays with all the different teams, his performances won't be the same like a computer program would do.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Nah. DMs are too different from one another. And even if it is the same DM who plays with all the different teams, his performances won't be the same like a computer program would do.

Doesn't that argue against tournament play also? The DMs are all supposed to follow the published adventure, but DM variety is inevitable (and sometimes, unfortunate).
 

Tyranthraxus

Explorer
Yeah dont see it either. I think Competitive D&D also brings out .... something bad in a lot of gamers too. D&D at its heart should always be a cooperative game.
 

The main question is: do people want to watch competitive D&D? My impression is that what draws people to D&D streams is the drama, the narrative, and the occasional fun and goofiness; the "gameplay" part seems much less important (on the Critical Role subreddit, there's quite a number of people that could not care less for the D&D rules). I don't want to rule out that there could be D&D eSports, but I personally wouldn't watch it and I know nobody who would.
 

The closest I could see would be an 'arena circuit' where you essentially take a group and put them in a hyper-combat environment like Gauntlet or something.
 

neobolts

Explorer
D&D moved away from competitive a long time ago (IMO for the better). It works as entertainment, but not as a sport. (And unless a virtual tabletop is used, not even sure what the "e" would be to make it an eSport.)
 

Think about all the little mistakes that are made at your table, too. Did you forget that creature's Lair Action this round? Oops, didn't roll a concentration check for each hit! Oh, yeah, Haste also provides advantage on Dex saves...

Easy to handwave or rectify mistakes in a collaborative game. But mistakes like that, especially as a DM, in a competitive environment have a good chance of costing someone a 'victory' or whatever criteria are being used. Can you run a perfect game in front of an audience for high stakes? I can't.
 

Kramodlog

Naked and living in a barrel
Doesn't that argue against tournament play also? The DMs are all supposed to follow the published adventure, but DM variety is inevitable (and sometimes, unfortunate).

It would probably be more controversial if it were televized and there was a critical mass of viewers. Just think how referees are critiqued thanks to TV replays. Maradona's Hand of God is famous for a reason. Imagine a DM fudging a dice or a player fudging one and note getting caught when playing, but getting caught on camera.

You might say fudging dice rolls is not possible, but it is just a quick example I've came up with, not the fundamental problem with televized D&D tournaments.
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
I think watching hard core 1e style tourney gaming would be more fun that what I see today on youtube, players trying to overcome some ridiculous death trap dungeon, but even then I doubt it would hold my interest for long.
 

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