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Elementary writers open up about featuring esports pros, streamer murder plot

by Gabriel Zoltan-Johan Feb 13
Thumbnail image courtesy of Elementary Writers

A darker side of esports will be getting the prime time treatment on CBS this week.

The network TV giant will be airing an episode of their modern-day Sherlock Holmes show featuring a murder mystery in the streaming scene, and a few familiar faces from the world of esports.

Airing Feb.19, the episode is about a streamer who is killed in front of thousands of viewers. Sherlock and Dr. Joan Watson have to jump into the world of esports to find out who killed the man, and why.

During their investigation, they come across a gaming team that will feature five real-life professional players.

Optic Gaming's Tarik "Tarik" Celik, Street Fighter player Arturo "Sabin" Sanchez, Team Misfits' Ryan "The Moon" Coker-Welch, Super Smash Bros. Melee player Hendrick "DJ Nintendo" Pilar and Team EnVyUs' Jason "Jkap" Kaplan, are all featured in the episode.

The show's writers told theScore esports they're avid gamers and esports fans, with producer/writer Jeffrey Paul King describing himself as a Super Smash Bros. player. He was also a creative consultant on Red Bull's Leffen documentary. Fellow producer and writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe said he's more of an MMO guy, getting into the experience through World of Warcraft Arena and branching out into Hearthstone.

You've taken the approach of painting a very real picture of the industry and culture around esports. Is this an approach that's important when portraying esports on screen?

Wolfe: Well, we're trying. The audience will judge if we succeeded. I think in general TV shows do what works for their story first, then worry about reality later. But we do try to be as accurate as we can on Elementary within that limitation. I can't speak for other shows, but I think as esports becomes part of the public consciousness, it will be portrayed in a number of different ways. Accurate or exaggerated, sensationalistic or sympathetic, seriously or comedically, as the needs [of] each particular show dictate. But that's true of anything.

King: Like any new cultural phenomenon, it will take Hollywood time to get things right in its portrayal of esports. That's to be expected. Look at the way computers and hacking were treated in the film "Hackers." It's laughable now, but back then, the general public didn't really know much about that stuff. It's the same here. But as esports becomes more and more a part of the culture, I think you'll see better and better representations thereof. All you can hope is that people are trying their best to do it right.

In making episodes that cover emerging or niche markets or trends, does this ever have to clear any sort of consent of an executive producer or director?

Wolfe: Well, I'm an executive producer, so I consented. Actually there's a whole team of executive producers, including our head writer, Rob Doherty, who gets final word on everything. Another of our E.P.'s, John Polson, who supervises production in New York, directed this one and he certainly contributed as well. Television is a team sport.

King: Our boss is fascinated by emerging niches and cultures. We've done a bunch of episodes that touch on brand new technologies or cultures. His biggest concern is always that we do our best to get it right and that it helps us tell a compelling story. We try to avoid doing any kind of "stunt" storytelling; that is, using a niche market for nothing more than the attention it will garner. We want to use it to help us tell an awesome story.

You mentioned the lack of regulation and the exploitation of younger people hoping to go pro was a draw to writing about esports. Do you think those issues are the only ones that make writing about esports appealing?

Wolfe: I read about a couple of incidents online, but there are a lot of things that could be ways into stories about esports. That was just the one that caught my attention and one that works well for a mystery show. But I can see doing stories about the camaraderie, the competition, the sudden money and fame, five-seven young people living and working together 24/7/365. I think it's a rich area for stories in general.

King: I remember reading about all the gambling controversy about Starcraft 2 in Korea and thinking, "Wow, this is really the wild west." It does lend itself to telling stories of a nefarious nature. That said, it's not the only interesting thing about esports. I'm really drawn to anything that asks people to use their intellect to compete against each other. I think that lends itself to compelling conflict and drama. I've always placed esports closer to chess than to basketball in my interpretation of where it sits within the spectrum of competition.

What other genres of film or TV would you like to see explore the esports scene in the future?

Wolfe: Honestly if I were a comedy writer, I'd do a sitcom about a team house. Bill Prady, if you're reading this, call me.

King: I think comedy is the next frontier for esports. As serious as it can get, esports is still incredibly silly. Look at Smash Brothers. You've got grown men beating the shit out of each other with Princess Peach. It's totally ridiculous. But that's why I like it so much. As serious as esports gets, it's still fun and it's still funny.

What do you think esports has to do to branch out in the entertainment industry?

Wolfe: What remains to be seen is if there's a way to package the competitions to make compelling television for the average viewer, the way poker and MMA managed to do. I'm no expert in televising sports though. But I bet there are plenty of experts working on that right now. If they succeed, I suspect eSports will be the "next big thing."

King: I think the next big step for esports is to move off the internet and onto the television. Right now, it still feels like most of the fans are young men sitting at their laptops. But if you start to transition to a more traditional model — selling the rights to tournaments to TV networks and offering more typical coverage, then I think the general public suddenly starts to see it in a different light. Look at Poker. It was a total niche thing until ESPN started covering it like it was football. Ten years later, it's hugely accepted and widely popular. It's time for esports to make that same jump.

Elementary has had easter eggs involving esports in the past (Hungrybox and Silent Wolf). What's one other easter egg you haven't written in yet that you would love to do in the future?

Wolfe: Oh, us TV writers are always throwing in little things when we have a chance, but I don't keep a comprehensive to-do list. In past episodes, we've dropped in references to cartridge games, paper and pencil RPGs, MMOs. I snuck my guild names into episode 319 for example, as well as the names of my characters and my own gamer tags. Jeff has put in the gamer tags of his Smash Brothers friends. But this episode also includes a shout out to my friends' TV writing podcast "Children of Tendu," for example. So it's not just gaming.

King: As for easter eggs, I've always wanted to put PPMD into an episode. He's such a lovable legend in the Smash Brothers community — as a fan, I've always wanted to show him some love.

What are the other quirks that the show covers? Do you believe they intersect with esports in a meaningful way?

Wolfe: This episode covers live-streaming, social media, commercial sponsorships, and online activism as well, among other things. Those aspects of our culture have a natural overlap with eSports, which is what I look for when constructing an Elementary episode... a few interesting areas that can be woven together to make a good story. There are some other things going on as well that speak to the modern human condition, but I don't want to give too much away. They may not link to eSports as naturally, but that's the fun of it.

Part of the theme of the episode is unintended consequences and unexpected connections, something which we hope viewers will enjoy. At the end of the day, of course, that's always our goal. To tell a fun story while exposing viewers to new ideas and new trends. The story comes first, but we do want to do justice to the ideas and areas we cover. Hopefully everyone out there will enjoy our foray into eSports.

Gabriel Zoltan-Johan is a News Editor at theScore esports and the head analyst for the University of Toronto League of Legends team. His (public) musings can be found on his Twitter.

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