The Sporting Stars of the Future Are 'Halo' Players, Not Footballers
The way games are now being made, with an eye on the competitive gaming community, the mega-shooter and its peers will ultimately steal the limelight from "real-world" sports stars.
Imagine if, instead of smeary re-runs of Wayne Rooney's jowls rippling against a Brazilian midfielder's shoulder, the average London sports bar screened live coverage of StarCraft II matches in South Korea, or a League of Legends tournament final in Texas.
Imagine if those of us who missed out on a download code for this December's Halo 5: Guardians play-test were able to watch luckier souls in action over a jar of Mr Wetherspoon's finest – the guttural shriek of the game's Energy Sword nicely counterpointing the wail of passing ambulances, the staccato of its Battle Rifle indistinguishable from the rattle of coins in the register.
Those bars would receive much more of my custom, that's for sure. Don't get me wrong, I'm not dead to the appeal of clawing at fellow rational adults for possession of gas-filled leather sacks. I can just about work out why Ronaldo's legs are insured for more than I'll earn in my lifetime. But the sports I've enjoyed have always been determined – shaped – by the video games I adore.
That's why, when the creaky roulette wheel of miscellaneous studies spat out a crash-course in fencing, 12-year-old me was first in queue for a place. After all, I reasoned, I'd been obsessing over Namco's pendulously adolescent-friendly Soul Blade for years, so I must be good at swords and stuff by now. That's why I can't watch Wimbledon without humming the theme to Mario Tennis.
Halo 5: Guardians , E3 beta trailer
And that's why I fell in love at an early age with hockey, the only sport whose players could survive a pub brawl with the cast of Warcraft III. True, playing hockey meant that all the bigger, sexually insecure kids would call you a girl; but what it loses in strutting virility, hockey wins back by arming everybody on the pitch with a vicious wooden maul.
And have you seen our goalkeepers? They're worse than Klingons. In my experience, at least, the job of a hockey goalie is to turn into Blanka from Street Fighter at the earliest opportunity, usually while screaming at defenders to stop fucking about and smash some ankles. So, Blanka doing an impression of General Patton, then.
I don't play the sport any more, but I don't miss it much. Perhaps that's because video games have stolen so much mindshare from "real" sport that pub chinwags about how to squish a Call of Duty sniper now seem almost as natural as chats about Bale's latest tap-dance in the opposing D.
Indeed, I think my introductory Wetherspoons scenario is teetering on the rim of outright plausibility. So does uncle Microsoft. November's Halo: The Master Chief Collection launched alongside the Halo Channel – a bespoke Xbox Live hub for both Microsoft's reliably dismal Halo TV spin-offs (the latest stab at this features Mike Colter from Million Dollar Baby) and an array of live broadcast and video curation options.
Worried that your synapses no longer cut it? Don't despair. You can spend your whole time as a Master Chief Collector just watching other people compete, be it a clash between pros sponsored by rival headset manufacturers, or somebody's sleepy Thursday afternoon grenade kickabout. And a few years from now, I suspect, more people will "consume" their games this way than actually play them.
Video games and sport have been close allies since games wallowed into the mainstream, of course. Annual FIFA, racing and NFL games are among the firmest of the industry's fixtures, quietly hoovering up millions of sales every winter.
The eSports sector isn't breaking news, either, though its growth from year to year continues to be vaguely terrifying. Nowadays, there are million dollar prizes, seedy sponsorship deals and actual university scholarships on the table for the owners of thumbs agile enough to wrestle a 10-kill streak from the capering chaos of Halo multiplayer. When a pastime is prosperous enough to have a match-fixing problem, you know it's Serious Business.
The trailer for Halo: The Master Chief Collection
Recognising that eSports is on the up and up, developers like Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare studio Sledgehammer now consult with pro-gamers when adding to well-travelled multiplayer modes. Symptoms of this range from more robust support for player clans, to new abilities aimed at tactical loopholes in previous games that were seized upon by the sporting elect.
This has led to some interesting tensions within multiplayer communities. Most of us cannon fodderites are, I think, glad that the eSports scene exists – it's nice to know that somebody can shoot a guy out of a cockpit in free-fall conditions – but the last thing we want is to be lumped in with those supernaturally slick bastards during a throwaway round of Battlefield 4. As a recent Guardian piece notes, it's a particular problem for emerging titles that can't muster the numbers or mode separation to keep people like Fatal1ty (overall earnings: £289,453.27) away from the average Joes and Josephines.
Still, if we can't beat them and we don't want to join them, we can at least marvel at their antics. Pro gaming is well on its way to becoming a mainstream spectator's sport, a festival of skill that players of all levels can savour and drink themselves stupid moaning about of a Saturday lunchtime. The biggest contributing factor is probably the warp-speed increase in online video consumption, via Twitch and YouTube. New video game consoles like PS4 and Xbox One are built from the ground up to accommodate this lust for gameplay on-tap, at least when they work as advertised.
But it's also a question of the body language of the latest games, which are increasingly outfitted and animated with an audience in mind, as developers warm to the idea that every aspect of every game should have a Spectate mode. Turning in a great performance no longer means just winning the match, but putting on a blistering show. These priorities are writ large in the use of parkour in a game like Titanfall – a school of traversal that seeks to cut down on travel time by dint of looking incredibly swish.
The Master Chief Collection's release also underlines this. The oldest of the four games it offers dates back to 2001 and, angelic HD makeover notwithstanding, feels it. Movement through the world is stately, as players trundle out to the spawning points for heavy weapons, like arthritic Golden Retrievers zeroing in on a dropped sandwich.
Halo 5 leans on many of the same structural principles, such as recharging shields for all participants, but it handles like ninja pinball on an exploding ice rink. In a series of dramatic departures from tradition, all players can sprint endlessly, double-jump, slide on their knees like antique rockstars, latch onto ledges and smash fist-first from air to ground.
Many of these tricks have been derived from other shooters, such as Crytek's ornately suited and booted Crysis shooters, but they also call to mind an ESPN highlights reel. When you see a quartet of space marines in moulded red alloy fling themselves onto the map in Breakout mode, it's hard not to think of American football teams leaving the sideline. When you double-jump to the lip of a platform in order to bowl a grenade through a sniper's feet, the nod is as much to slam-dunks in basketball as to FPS etiquette.
And when I use my suit thrusters to skip around another player's charge, slashing him with rifle fire from thigh to ear, it's hard not to think of my finest moment as a hockey player – that time I stole the ball away from a striker so artfully that he ran straight past me, then took an elbow-snapping swing at empty air. I doubt I'll ever fire up a real-world crowd like that ever again, so it's nice that video games are beginning to fill the breach.