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What is the Future of LAN Gaming?

In this analysis, we follow the evolution of competitive gaming culture across consoles, genres and eras and posit hypothesis about where it may go and what might change as technology and social connections change.

Gaming is (almost) always more fun when we do it together.   Since their inception, console platforms have made playing together easy: four friends, four controllers and one T.V. could entertain my friends and I for days on end (I am thinking Super Nintendo’s “Super Bomber Man” and “Secret of Mana,” circa 1993) – or much later, a split-screen team of friends united against another faceless group playing Bungie’s “Halo 2” somewhere else in the world.  Playing with friends has made the gaming experience good times for all.

PC gaming's cooperative past is a bit different; there have not been many hugely popular games on the PC for which multiple players could, or would want to, gather around a single PC to all play together, there was “Myst,” and…“Worms”?  Luckily, computers have always had superior customization and networking capabilities, so PC gamers have been setting up LANS and playing against other players for years before the first networked console was rolled out.  However, the nature of a PC’s single screen and single "control" caused PC’s to take a different evolutionary path than console platforms.

For PC Gamers to play together, they have typically needed to “Bring Your Own Computer” (BYOC) to a LAN party at a friend’s house, spend time at a cyber café (a.k.a. a PC Baang as the South Koreans call them), attend a BYOC LAN tournament, or simply accept that their teammates and competitors would be sitting by themselves in different rooms around the world, connected by Ethernet cables and headsets.

Parallel to the growth of LAN gatherings and the development of cyber café culture, broadband Ethernet became more accessible to consumers, thereby enabling console and PC game developers to begin rolling out more effective matchmaking tools that allowed gamers to easily play pick-up-games and more competitive matches online (a boon for those of us that needed to find fresh victims…beating your friend 50 times in a row at Goldeneye 007 will put a strain on the relationship…).  

The new online services, such as Blizzard’s battle.net, enabled new PC gamers to start playing the way LAN-partying hardcore gamers had been playing for years (with other people).  Hardcore PC gamers, on the other hand, adopted the newer online systems, but kept playing in LAN tournaments and other local gaming events as well.  The tremendous growth of the gaming industry, the growing interest in games as competitive sports (eSports), and the desire to get out of one’s own house and socialize kept the LAN scene growing right along with the online scene. 

There were economic reasons for the growth of LAN gaming as well.  The growth of the video game industry was also fueled by the emergence of new markets; markets in which consumers could now afford the leisure time to play games, but could not necessarily afford the cost of purchasing a PC or console, LAN gaming also continued to grow because not everyone has access to broadband internet, making the cyber café the method of choice for many gamers.  In addition to the economic benefits of cyber cafes, LANs and cyber cafes remain great options for gamers because meeting up with people to game together is, well, social, and for every gaming troll that lurks in the darkness, there is a gamer that is a normally functioning member of society.  Additionally, in dense places like Seoul, South Korea, you simply want to get out of your tiny apartment and go to a PC Baang to hang out. 

Seoul is known for being the “most-wired” city, it is a dense place with super high speed broadband connectivity, but, even in Seoul, the mecca for eSports, competitive gamers will choose LAN play over online play, because a competitive gamer will always prefer to play with the negligible latency that only a LAN can provide.  Over the past fifteen years, driven by pro LAN tournaments in places like Seoul, there has been a rise in gaming related entertainment.  24 hour television networks have sprung up in the United States, the Philippines and South Korea among others.  Professional Gaming Leagues have come and gone, with those remaining adding an air of prestige and an actual salary to the title "Professional Gamer.”     

But, PC LAN gaming might all be coming to an end.  To many gamers’ dismay, there appears to be a growing trend around the gaming industry of destroying LAN gaming culture.    As an anti-piracy measure, Valve’s Steam platform requires players to connect to Valve’s online Steam servers even when playing on a LAN.  Valve was able to strike a reasonable balance; limiting piracy while also continuing to support LAN play, however, the requisite internet connection to Steam has adversely affected more than a few LAN tournaments when the Steam service was unreachable.  Activision Blizzard followed up by releasing the PC version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 without the ability host dedicated servers, which instantly kills any possibility of LAN play.  Just recently, Activision Blizzard released Starcraft 2 without any LAN support as well (this despite the fact that South Korea goes nuts for pro Starcraft LAN matches).  The South Korean Starcraft 2 tournament series, GSL (www.gomtv.net), must play out pro matches, in which the two competitors are sitting not more than ten feet away from each other, without a direct LAN connection, instead the competitors must connect to battle.net just like everyone else...

It is estimated that the well-known US league, Major League Gaming (www.mlgpro.com), receives upwards of 500,000 unique visitors a month and hosts successful live LAN events, including having sold out such large venues as Madison Square Gardens.  But, what will become of leagues such as MLG and the popular South Korean Starcraft leagues if LAN play is no longer supported?  If new games and platforms continue to require internet connectivity even when playing on a LAN, or continue to not provide LAN support at all, one wonders what the future will be for LAN tournaments.

In 2010, GetGosu (www.getgosu.com) announced its intention to democratize professional gaming by making online pay-to-play tournaments available through its secure platform.  Bridging the gap between amateurs and professionals, GetGosu intends to be a playground for gamers currently playing on the pro-gaming circuit, as well as for those looking to break out.  Online tournaments have much less overhead than on-location tournaments, which is great for amateur gamers trying to go pro, because many gamers cannot afford the travel and lodging costs that inherently come along with attending a LAN tournament.  Additionally, the lower overhead for the LAN event is beneficial to tournament sponsors that can get a better return on investment.  Get Gosu supplements the big gaming leagues, while making it realistic for amateur gamers to start monetizing their skill and well-spent gaming time.

However, a purely online eSports scene really flies in the face of the traditional spirit of eSports; that of the BYOC LAN event where hardcore gamers can congregate, socialize and compete with optimal network latency.  Despite the ability for game developers and companies like GetGosu to roll out online matchmaking and eSports solutions, there should still be a marriage of online and LAN play.  By eliminating LAN functionality, game companies are basically saying “we are only targeting and marketing to customers with broadband,” which is a sane strategy because it represents a customer base with buying power, but you are alienating the hardcore gamers (who are your best customers, albeit only a small fraction of your customer base), and you are also hindering the growth of gaming in emerging markets by putting up greater barriers to entry (i.e. you must have broadband to play this game).  If anything will appeal to a company like Activision Blizzard, it would probably be the thought that they are missing out on the free advertising that eSports provides their games, and that they are missing out on potential sales from customers that do not have broadband.  If you are worried about software piracy, take a cue from Valve and require validation with an online service like Steam, but do not remove the ability to LAN entirely.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict the future viability of PC LAN events.  It remains to be seen which way the game industry will ultimately head when it comes to providing LAN support and whether or not "professional gamers" will be happy with the outcome.  It seems that game companies, in the interest of anti-piracy protection and mass market appeal, are turning their backs on not only the hardcore gamer and competitive LAN tournament scene, but also on the cyber café and basement LAN party that make you understand: “Gaming is (almost) always more fun when we do it together.”

Mentioned in this Article:

GetGosu Tournament Gaming, an online pc gaming tournament platform enabling secure, scheduled and sit-n-go tournaments for real cash prizes.  Learn more at www.getgosu.com

GOMTV.net provides live and archived online eSports coverage of games such as Starcraft 2 and Warcraft 3.  Learn more at www.gomtv.net

Major League Gaming is a professional gaming league with franchise locations through North America, learn more at www.mlgpro.com

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