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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.

[h=3]eSports On the Rise[/h]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."
[h=3]D&D and Competitive Play[/h]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.
[h=3]The Rules of the Sport[/h]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.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 

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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.
 

schneeland

Explorer
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.
 

Wiseblood

Adventurer
Something akin to it was in the book Califonia Voodoo Game. It was a mix of D&D, LARP and Amercan Gladiator/American Ninja Warrior. If rules can be predictable it could work, people watch world series poker after all.
 

Mallus

Hero
If you made a D&D-themed MOBA or some other form of competitive multiplayer video game, then yes.

But regular D&D games facilitated through electronic tools like Rol20? No.
 

Dragonblade

Adventurer
I don't think 5e works for this style of play. eSport D&D should probably be based on a revised 4e, and be sort of a tabletop version of Overwatch, that pits party against party in arena style dungeon maps with interesting terrain effects and traps, or against a DM running monsters XCrawl style.

However, DM intervention is challenging to make neutral and fair as not all DMs are able to make the same effective tactical decisions. I think you need monsters to be governed by some form of AI to guarantee the experience is the same for every party and you are truly testing party tactics against the game equally.
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
You would need to remove the variable of human judgement, bias, and error as the DM and replace it with a more controlled, less fallible opposition. And much more tightly balanced ruleset, like 4th Edition. Remember Lair Assaults? Or whatever they were called. That could work. Or something like Pathfinder Adventure Card Game playing against unique scenarios and randomized decks.
 

Berghammerzg

First Post
I wouldn't mind watch some old school D&D, 1st and 2nd edition. but the rules where so in depth, and a lot was DM3 discretion. I would tune in once or twice, but would much rather just play then watch.
 

Considering the money involved in eSports, the subjectivity of the game could make things pretty dicey (pun not intended).

As far as entertainment goes, there’s a world of difference between someone focused on “winning” and someone focused on being entertaining to the audience. Not saying they can’t go hand-in-hand, but getting competitive players with Geek & Sundry-level performance skills isn’t likely.

Plus, sustaining people’s interest in a match that could last four hours isn’t going to be easy. Apparently, the average League of Legends match runs 20-60 minutes. D&D takes a whole lot longer.
 

Koloth

First Post
"Player 3 has thrown the challenge flag. Let's watch as the referee reviews the video replay to see if the DM blew the call on that last fireball spell."
 

Pauper

Explorer
Not to knock the writer, but the responses here just solidify the old saw about how the answer to any question asked in a headline is always 'no'.

--
Pauper
 

pedr

Explorer
NASCRAG (at least the time I played it) appeared to be competitive D&D for people who are terrible at traditionally competitive D&D! (That’s a compliment!) It felt pretty subjective - for the better - and couldn’t easily do an objective team vs team large scale “televised” format.

Now British children’s TV in the 80s had a broadcast team-competitive D&D/LARP-style game: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knightmare

And upon considering this idea, I wonder if a model far more like Strictly Come Dancing would be more entertaining: audience voting, judges critiquing performances, team elimination over multiple sessions? One of the strengths of the “RPG as passively consumed entertainment” streaming growth seems - to me at least - that people are experiencing a very character and/or story focused mode of RPG play - and, with things like CR, becoming fans not so much of the gameplay (the way sports fans are fans of the skill and drama of the game itself) but fans of the characters (and players/actors). Which might be, in some ways, like being a pro wrestling fan - where the entertainment is both the “mechanical” wrestling matches and the broader event and between-events experiences.


Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I don't think 5e works for this style of play. eSport D&D should probably be based on a revised 4e, and be sort of a tabletop version of Overwatch, that pits party against party in arena style dungeon maps with interesting terrain effects and traps, or against a DM running monsters XCrawl style.

That could be quite cool.

There used to be a gameshow using the Total War video games and big screens. Two teams with a army each. It was an awesome idea, but the tech wasn’t quite there to make it an immersive gameshow. I reckon they could do that better now.
 

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