Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Little Esport That Could

I’m about to gush over a pro gaming community.  3 years ago, if you’d told me that I would be playing a game that I’m enthralled with, and I would find that game by watching a professional level version of the game, I’d have face palmed you and walked away.  Voyboy and Team Dignitas had just destroyed the integrity of the WCG Grand Final for League of Legends and done so with impunity beyond outrage from the LoL community at large (  To me, that event put “esports” at the same level as professional wrestling.  If we can’t trust the results, we might as well pre-determine the results and make the entertainment value about the journey to those results.  It turns out, I would be dead wrong, not because the big esports organizations have learned from real sports, but because a small game that was never designed to be a sport, a passionate community, and great casters made me care about at least one professional video game community.

The game is The Binding of Isaac.  The Binding of Isaac is equal parts Legend of Zelda dungeon running and Robotron 2084 arcadey goodness.  The player plays as Isaac.  Isaac is about to be murdered by his mother on orders from “God”, and what follows is a bunch of levels lifted from Isaac’s anxiety fueled visions.  It is a bullet hell masterpiece; I’d been looking for something like this for years to fill a chasm in my video game library.  Most remarkable of all is that I’d never know about The Binding of Isaac if it weren't for BoILeR and Balls of Steel.

How I got to BoILeR is rather roundabout.  A twitch streamer named Crumps ( was streaming Chrono Trigger, and I’d been playing the DS version of the game, so I thought I’d stop in and watch.  After that, I watched a MLB ’14 stream; subsequently, I gave him a follow.  Not long after, I received a twitch message that Crumps has gone online with something called BoILeR.  My curiosity peaked, I went to the channel to see what BoILeR was.

BoILeR stands for Binding of Isaac League Racing.  The 5 o’clock news version of BoILeR is this: 2 people play The Binding of Isaac under race conditions with a distinct rule set.  The first player to complete the game gets a “win”, and matches are best of 3 wins.

Crumps is your BoILeR master of ceremonies and the only play-by-play guy.  You can tell a couple of things from watching Crumps call a BoILeR match.  First, you can tell immediately that Crumps is a top level Binding of Isaac player.  There are no 20 minute rambling monologues describing every conceivable build that can complete the game (looking at you, Day9).  Crumps identifies what has happened, what the effect on the player is, and what the effect on the game is with knowledge that only an expert player would have.  That said, the presentation of the match is not so filled with esoteric jargon that the newbie is caught having to play catch up to understand what is going on.  Second, the informative yet understandable style of the play-by-play indicates that Crumps has watched a professional sporting event, noted why the good sports broadcasters are so effective, and applied those lessons to his broadcasts of BoILeR. Since it is apparently verboten for an esports caster to be a good sports broadcaster, I implore all broadcasters involved in esports regardless of experience to watch a BoILeR and take copious notes.  You’ll be better for it; subsequently, your product will be better, and esports in the general sense can stand on its own merits vice having to rely on entitlement, netdecking, and gamers’ collective lack of self-esteem as the source of esports’ popularity.

Balls of Steel ( is a second Binding of Isaac racing esport.  The basic concept of BoS is the same as BoILeR.  2 people play The Binding of Isaac under race conditions with rules that are slightly different than BoILeR.  Finishing the game constitutes a “win”, and matches are a best of 3.  Play-by-play is done by Cobalt Streak and Richard_Hammer.  Hammer holds The Binding of Isaac 7 character speed run world record, and Cobalt Streak had a long undefeated streak in BoILeR and had a deathless streak of over 300 kills.  There is plenty of knowledge here for Binding of Isaac players of all experience levels.  The style of the play-by-play for a BoS is more raw than it is for a BoILeR, but that is to be expected given there are twice as many commentators in a BoS than a BoILeR, Crumps is a sports fan and trained as an audio engineer, and Cobalt Streak and Hammer are trying to build a brand while commentating on races.

It might sound inconsistent for me to give BoS a relative pass on the play-by-play style after being uber critical of esports casters in the past and present.  Remember, in all things in gaming, we grade on a curve.  The Online CCG, or RTS built by a multi-billion dollar enterprise should be better designed when compared to a flash game with a development team of less than 10.  The MOBA designed specifically to be a spectacle of esports should be better designed than a game that had no ambitions of being an esport.  The esports broadcasts with huge production budgets and dedicated arenas should be more professionally produced than 2 independent esports casts with no budget to speak of beyond what’s in the casters’ pockets.

It’s deeply ironic to me to say that The Binding of Isaac is better designed than LoL, DotA2, Starcraft 2 and Hearthstone as both game and esport. Any MOBA played at a professional level should be contested under All Random conditions; likewise, RTS games at a professional level should always be contested as a Random v Random.  Given a professional environment of “AR” games, the well-designed esport MOBA would need to be designed such that any character could fit any ‘role’ with inherent abilities and item builds separating tank from damage dealer from crowd controller.  This would induce professional level players to know as much of the game as possible.  Similarly, an RTS contested as a Random v Random forces the same knowledge base out of players.  There might be some concerns about short term luck swinging a match.  To that, I say this: If a best of 3, 5, or 7 isn’t enough games to smooth out deviations based on short term “luck”, then the format of esports is insufficient to determine who the best player or team is at a given game.  The Binding of Isaac is item based, and items are procedurally generated.  That certainly means that it is possible for short term luck to swing an individual game; however, race conditions force decisions on players that can and do snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Death in The Binding of Isaac means starting over at the beginning, which means any player is only a couple bad rooms on the last level away from going from way ahead to far behind.

This, in turn, results in Binding of Isaac races being compelling from beginning to end.  It is true that it can be slightly boring to watch both racers endlessly resetting their game until they get a good starting item in a BoI race, but is the first 10 minutes of a LoL or SC2 match any more compelling?  Is the 5 v 5 tickle fight in the mid in a LoL match more interesting than a BoI racer with a dwindling life pool rushing to the final boss?

Similarly, the production values of BoILeR and BoS are better in a relative sense than the esports broadcasts for LoL, DotA2, SC2, and Hearthstone.  Casters working for Valve, Blizzard, Riot or MLG shouldn’t need to go into business for themselves to advertise their own personal brands, since the “sport” is vastly more important than the people broadcasting that sport.  The Binding of Isaac, on the other hand, doesn’t have MLG, Riot, Valve, or Blizzard behind it, and the casters are donating their time away from their individual streams in order to provide commentary on BoI races.  In such a situation, it is perfectly acceptable for casters to advertise their personal streams in an attempt to get more personal revenue that they can reinvest in BoI racing.

If you haven’t checked out a BoILeR or a BoS, I strongly recommend you do.  They are great fun to watch.  I would have never imagined that an “esport” would attract my interest to such a degree that I am playing a game obsessively based on its competitive variant, but here I am, thanks to BoILeR and Balls of Steel.

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