No play today

Sport and gaming are natural bedfellows, so why has cricket not embraced the opportunity?

gaming.jpgFill in the blank.

The venue was packed, the fans feverish having converged on Birmingham from far and wide. It was the end of the summer and they had come to indulge their passion for a craze that has grown exponentially in popularity over the past decade. For these 20,000 people this was the only place to be, all here to visit __________.

T20 Blast finals day, right? Wrong. Alright, I’ll give you half a point because I’m a benevolent quizmaster. Now re-read the above paragraph, this time with the following tacked on to the end. “This scene would be repeated for the next three days, bringing total attendance to around 80,000.”

A cricket event this is not. August’s Blast Finals Day sold out, a barnstorming way to round off the tournament in front of a capacity Edgbaston crowd. The four day event with a total attendance over three times that of Blast? That would be an event less than a month later just a few miles away, September’s Eurogamer Expo (EGX) at the NEC.

***

There is a not-so-quiet revolution going on in the gaming world. We are now in the 8th generation of video game consoles, in which Sony’s PlayStation 4, Microsoft’s Xbox One, and Nintendo’s Wii U have sold tens of millions of units worldwide: over 60 million in PlayStation’s case. These devices have improved in leaps and bounds during the 21st century; the first five generations of console supported graphics that look primitive by modern standards. Characters in PlayStation 1 titles most often resembled Red Dwarf’s Kryten rather than the explorers, combatants or ball-players that they were meant to be.

A step change came with the release of the PlayStation 2 in 1999. Suddenly the avatars, landscapes and vistas looked real enough for us to suspend the greater part of our disbelief. Games were now published on CD- or DVD-ROM, and the hardware reminded us of a sleek futuristic onyx skyscraper, rather than an over-engineered plastic lunchbox. The technology legitimised the hobby of bedroom gamers and catapulted it towards the mainstream.

To date, the PlayStation 2 has sold more than 155 million units; this makes it the best-selling console in history. It has ensured its own legacy by opening the floodgates itself for a more competitive market in which newer shinier models are available more quickly.

In the past decade, however, things have really changed. If gaming culture is Ed Sheeran, generations 1-5 of consoles represent his 250-small-venue-gigs-a-year phase. Now it has released +, / and x, and is filling stadia.

Literally.

***

The largest gaming tournaments are now played out in arenas in front of a live audience. Getting 80,000 fans to attend an exhibition is one thing, but live finals tournaments are also attracting crowds in the tens of thousands. Not to mention the millions of viewers poring over an internet stream. The laser-laden photos of the events look like The X Factor meets WWE meets Premier League Darts.

This is no longer gaming. Say hello to e-sport.

Usually at this point someone fires up the old is-this-really-a-sport argument. Who cares? If it looks like a sport, smells like a sport, and makes your arm hair stand on end like only sport can, then it’s a sport. Offer me this or a 0-0 borefest between Stoke and West Brom midweek in February and I’ll choose lasers every time. And this is from someone who has zero skill at games involving thumbs. My combined career goal tally across Sensible Soccer, Fifa and ProEvo? Zero.

While we debate the merits of e-sport, the industry has made its next million. Who are we to deny populism? In the music charts (remember those?) sometimes Bohemian Rhapsody ends up at number 1, sometimes it’s Mr Blobby.

***

Everyone has heard the urban legends. At least 35 divorce cases cite Football Manager as a contributing factor, that sort of thing. True or not, this speaks to the longer-lasting marriage of sports and gaming.

Madden, Fifa, Champo: our lifelong friends. If they were people IRL, this is how we’d save them in our contacts. These are the average punter’s vehicles for vicarious sporting triumph. Winning titles they may be, but they are not leading the pack. They suit up gamely, clubs scoring some PR points by signing professional gamers, but this seems like lip-service at best. Gaming hasn’t got into sport’s DNA.

Only a handful of sports titles appear in the league table of e-sport prize money. Whether they are marketing only to traditional sports fans, rather than using gaming as a way of reaching new audiences, is unclear. What is clear is that sport’s malaise doesn’t only extend to consoles.

Pokemon Go had its moment as the latest craze du jour last year. ‘Craze’ might be underselling it slightly, such are the staggering numbers behind the app’s success: over 100m downloads in no time at all (more per day than Tinder), 20m active users per day (almost as many as Twitter), nearly 45 minutes a day average usage time (50% more than Whatsapp). At the same time Angry Birds graduated from your iPhone to your local cinema after just under seven years

Cricket does slightly better in this space; Stick Cricket is on its skateboard clinging on to the T20 bus and the Indian market is awash with tappable homages to the IPL. What they lack is the intricacies of the game and a sense of its rich history. Console-based games may be complicit in this, but in the mobile world, cricket doesn’t stand a chance.

 ***

Give me two HB pencils, a compass (not that kind – Google it, kids) and a sheet of squared paper, and I’ll show you infinite possibilities.

Pencil cricket is the kind of sepia-tinged classic that makes men of a certain age sigh wistfully and stare into the middle distance. It lit up a million maths lessons and saved a sustained several generations through geography coursework. But it now has more in common with a stick and a hoop than a Pokeball. There isn’t even an app for that.

Even in the context of a sporting family struggling to keep pace with the gaming times, cricket is the poor relation. Arguably there has never been a truly great cricket computer game. There are titles that we love (International Cricket Captain – be still my beating heart!) but we do so in spite of their flaws. Perhaps cricket is just too complicated to model, the mechanics of a cover drive too intricate, the fixtures calendar too much of a melange to render into a gameplay narrative.

Let’s not run before we can walk. At the more basic level of gaming and its role in popular culture, cricket even lacks a widely-adopted fantasy league product. In an Ashes year too. Again, this is a result of the calendar and the international / domestic dichotomy. In a system in which the best players are almost worthless in a county fantasy version because they almost never play, where is the opportunity for today’s future fanatic to select his idols?

***

Most Canadian youths want to make it as a professional ice hockey player. The game is deeply ingrained in the national psyche, its best players treated like royalty. Yet for many of these wannabe Crosbys, the odds are stacked against them from birth. Hockey is a highly physical game; kids are registered in leagues based on year of birth, so those born towards the beginning of the calendar year tend to have a size advantage over their peers. Historically, 35-40% of Canadian junior players are born in Q1, versus 10-15% in Q4. The bigger kids get the best coaching. The talent polarises. A self-fulfilling prophecy endures.

The same may be true of cricket and gaming. The big money is behind football, basketball, NFL. Because of basic size, as well as geographical mix effects, it may just not be worth a developer investing in a bells-and-whistles re-creation of cricket.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. For games on the screen, read games in the playground and PE lessons. Cricket needs to punch above its weight; it prides itself on being a challenger sport. Isn’t it time to challenge?

***

Aged 12, I set up my first ever fantasy league for my schoolmates. It was a county cricket version. Looking down the list of players, I came across the entry Trescothick, M. He was 18 years old. He had a cool name. I picked him. He played well. My team did ok.

He is hands-down my favourite player of all time.

A few months ago, I went to Edgbaston for an ECB workshop and a Blast game. Browsing the gift shop after the match in search of some trinkets for the kids, I waded through baseball caps, key-rings and fridge magnets. In a dusty corner on the bottom shelf I chanced upon Owzthat! in a tin. I bought a t-shirt each for the the little ones, and the pencil cricket treat for myself. I keep on meaning to take it on the train in the morning with all the Candy Crushers.

I haven’t opened it yet.

 

This post builds on an article I wrote last year while at Two Circles. Have a read of the other posts. Amazing people doing amazing things.

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