I've spent years trying to get interested in professional competitive gaming.
I watched MLG Halo 2 tournaments. I devoted hours to deciphering byzantine StarCraft and Dota 2 broadcasts. Most recently I lost a chunk of my weekend marveling over incredible fighting game performances at EVO 2013. Bit by bit the appeal has clicked, and I've found myself enjoying and appreciating the competitive gaming scene.
But no one has done it as well as my most recent discovery: BOILeR.
BOILeR stands for Binding of Isaac League Racing. Edmund McMillen's action-adventure roguelike, The Binding of Isaac, is a single-player-only game. It was never intended for competitive play. But BOILeR makes it work.
players could receive any of nearly 200 items on each floor
The idea is simple. In each event, two players load up a tournament-standard save file for The Binding of Isaac. They start at the same time and race to see who can be the first to make it to a specified location — during the regular season, they're aiming for Mom's Heart, what was the initial end to the game before any updates or add-ons were released. In the finals, they'll go even further to some of the more masochistic end bosses that were added to the game.
Now in its second season of competition, BOILeR regularly pulls in thousands of viewers for each match and has over 30,000 subscribers to its Twitch channel.
There are a lot of things that set BOILeR apart from the average eSports event, but one of them is the randomized nature of Binding of Isaac. The maps are randomly generated each run, and players could receive any of nearly 200 items on each floor. They could find themselves without the keys needed to unlock an important door or faced with a curse that makes a floor double its normal size. Bad luck is just as likely to take players down as bad skill.
Initially this element of chance sounds like it would stymie the fairness necessary for a sport to be competitive, but again, BOILeR makes it work. Rather than a single race, each round is played to best of three matches, giving players some room to recover from a poor run. And more than anything, the randomization forces truly skilled Binding of Isaac players to demonstrate that skill in less-than-ideal situations.
As I've watched season two of BOILeR progress, I've found myself shocked over and over again at talented racers making the best of items that I had assumed were useless. For example, multiple runners in season two have made great use of the bean, an item that causes Isaac to fart a cloud of gas that poisons nearby enemies. I rarely find a use for this item in my own solo, non-speed-run playthroughs of Binding of Isaac; seeing it used to masterfully take down bosses in a high-pressure setting is astounding.
The constantly-changing items mean that it's virtually impossible for any race to be the same as one that has come before it. There are common build orders in StarCraft and expected hero progression paths in Dota 2. In Binding of Isaac, though, there are no guarantees. Every match is an edge-of-your-seat affair, because any item could pop up at any point and change momentum.
If you think that the randomization doesn't allow for skill to shine through, look at BOILeR's top player, Cobaltstreak. He took the first season by storm, winning the grand finals without losing a single round. Six weeks into season two, he is still undefeated. That's an awful lot to credit to luck alone. Think of it like poker, another game of chance that has become popular viewing, revealing deeper and deeper layers of strategy below the surface. Luck is an element of Binding of Isaac, but it's not all there is.
make no mistake: BOILeR is eSports
Cobaltstreak also provides an example of something BOILeR has that eSports in general need much more of: stories. They have the undefeated champ. They have the infamous "Valentine's Day match" from season one, wherein racers PrincezzxDiana and TehMorag were locked in a brutal four-hour race. They have MagicD250, who found a fatal flaw in the League's very limited ruleset in the very first match they ever broadcasted, forcing them to come up with a solution on the spot.
As someone just coming in during the second season, I wouldn't know about any of these stories if not for Ryan "Crumps" Crumpley, the founder, caster, and sole organizer of BOILeR. In addition to setting up the league and giving it a high-quality broadcast look, Crumps commentates over every single match-up — that's 15 every week during the current second season.
He's an incredibly talented commentator at that. Despite a tendency to get caught up in the ups and downs of the Twitch stream chat from time to time, Crumps is careful to describe every item that is picked up, to clarify rules as necessary, and to try explain why the racers are making the choices they are as they happen.
Between Crumps' explanations and Binding of Isaac's simple 2D graphics, BOILeR has an ease of watching that's more in line with traditional spectator sports than the complicated UIs of the most popular competitive games. It's easy to follow, and the game leaves breathing room to explain what's happening. But even with that caveat, Crumps is one of the best eSports casters I've ever had the pleasure of listening to.
And make no mistake: BOILeR is eSports. It's easy to write off because it isn't the size of something like the MLG and EVO or because the game was not created with competition in mind. In an early match of season two, Crumps responded to a chat member calling it eSports by sheepishly asking, "What else would you call it?"
I'll do him one better. Not only does BOILeR qualify as eSports, but for my money it's the most entertaining bit of eSports programming around.