All my regular esports tournaments are on cooldown at the moment, so I’ve had my head peeked around the corner of Playerunknown's Battlegrounds for a bit. It’s good! I like getting into a new scene and deciding which team to support. I like how it gradually builds across the course of a match from something I’m not really watching in the background to the engrossing final fight. I like that the best way they’ve figured out how to quantify victory is to make them play dozens of matches in a single weekend and hand the reward to the best statistical average.
I could not be more creeped out by the eye-tracking that they sometimes put on the screen.
Sometimes, in a tense moment, they’ll overlay a viscous red shape to demonstrate where a certain player is looking:
I hate the way it gloops around. I know that eyes are gelatinous but is this really how they move? I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s latency in the program for my sanity.
Seeing it in this wide-open space is pretty bad, but it gets even worse when they’re inside.
Oh god there are so many windows. Next time a horror movie wants to do the thing where a face appears beyond the glass they should include this desperate flicking of someone trying to watch all of them at once.
I assume this is an ad relationship with Tobii, who are a company that sell the hardware for all kinds of reasons, including medical and market research. When it comes to gaming, it can absolutely be used to allow disabled people to play, but their website proudly declares that it is “not about playing with your eyes,” focusing instead on features like dimming the HUD when you’re not looking at it. More importantly, it claims to be able to help you “improve your gaming skills,” by analysing this aspect of your performance, including being able to “compare with the pros.”
I shared a clip of the Plunkbat stream with some pals to see whether I was the only one who found it unsettling. “That level of attempting to optimise human performance is creepy,” said fellow RPS contributor Nic Reuben, which is true. I also think in this context it shows how esports struggle to truly show off the optimal performances that translate into top players. Watching football or tennis, the performance is the game. The "e" of esports is an additional obscuring layer of character animations, digital battlefields and so on, plus the movements required are generally less noticeable.
Face cams, hand cams, and comms broadcasts carefully selected to avoid the swears all make common appearances in broadcasts as an attempt to give a window through that to connect observer and player. Eye-trackers might give additional information, for those who can parse them effectively beyond "Plunkbat man looks at tree to see if there's someone hiding there," but it feels more invasive. A face cam might lean voyeuristic if a player bursts into tears on stage, but you might see that in any entertainment where there's a camera pointed at a real person. Seeing exactly what a competitor is looking at is an escalation.
Or, as Nic puts it: “The eyes are personal, man. They’re so close to the BRAIN.”