New eSports titles?
One year ago, eSports used to revolve around only five well-established titles: CS:GO, Dota 2, League of Legends, StarCraft and Hearthstone. Nowadays, it seems like some other video game developers are trying hard to include their newest releases into this list. But do we really need it?
eSports has turned fifteen years. Over this time, the industry has left tiny internet cafés and moved to brightly illuminated stages, transitioned from merely symbolic trophies to multimillion dollar prize pools. It stopped being a boring geek hobby and instead, became a large profitable business. From this perspective, a big number of companies willing to board this passing money train seems no more surprising. Thus, new Blizzard’s shooter Overwatch, Electronic Arts’ Battlefield, as well as a few other game franchises are queuing up as the candidates to become eSports titles. But it is not that easy.
Any kind of sports, first of all, needs to attract interested audience in order to develop. None of the well-known Olympic disciplines appeared out of nowhere. On the contrary, all kinds of Olympic sports running the gamut from boar-racing to football were initially popular with some audience. The simple reason for it is that unpopular kinds of sport fail to gather a sufficient number of athletes for a fully developed competition, and their tournaments rarely pay off. Therefore, it is logical to conclude that any sport needs to be recognized to begin with, or else it will quickly disappear.
Main eSports titles went through very similar phases. In the late 90s competitive StarCraft stepped into the stage of the most active development, establishing itself as a predecessor of today’s eSports movement. The StarCraft players were the first to sign long-term contracts and receive salaries. Since most tournaments were hosted by outside organizations and not developers of the game, there was a real competition for the audience between these two sides. At the same time, we can’t forget that Blizzard, StarCraft’s developer, did absolutely nothing to turn their product into an eSports title, so game began its competitive development only because of the community.
CS 1.6 had a similar story: it grew from amateur mode Half-Life which brought in a huge numbers of European and CIS gamers in early 2000. Five years after that we witnessed the rise of WarCraft’s modification Defence of the Ancients, now known as DotA. Other few years later League of Legends had to face the same problems, and even though the tournaments were conducted straight after its release, developers provided their support only after the game received needed popularity among the audience. As for Hearthstone, 40 millions of its users only prove everything above-mentioned.
But how did these games become the eSports titles?
Any kind of sports can be characterized by a number of features: it must be easy to master, yet difficult to become the best at. Less rules, more competition. Luck and random must have little or no influence on determining the best player. The matches of one of the most watched sports, football, are regulated by only 17 rules. The game requires only a ball and an improvised playfield and the victory always goes to team that scores the highest number of goals .
eSport titles meet similar requirements. CS:GO is a great example of the game that perfectly fits all the criteria. To try yourself in it, you'll need only a PC (a playfield) and the game client (a ball). The team that manages to score the highest number of rounds wins, and there is almost no random: the weaponry always deals the same amount of damage, whereas recoil is unique for each weapon but never changes from game to game.
Relative ease of game process is another important point. For instance, the number of ways of attacking bombsite in CS:GO is relatively small, as well as the variety of safe and aggressive positions, which is also limited. Neither T side, nor CTs can rely on playing randomly. On the contrary, by creating a well-defined plan of action the quality of attack or defence improves. In Dota 2, similar algorithmic role is played by hero draft.
Overall, the game must include necessary features to stay interesting but be overall limited in options not to depend on random. Battlefield 4, for example, has a few features that prevent it from developing competitively (e.g. jumping hitbox animations.)
Overwatch doesn’t look any better from this perspective. Maps are too disbalanced, and the number of heroes can become a disadvantage of the game after all. It seems more than possible that competitive Overwatch will eventually become the game where two absolutely identical teams battle against each other, and with a present hero-pool this scenario will most likely turn out to be fatal for the game.
Format issues will most likely become another problem on the way of new games. Players will hardly leave a competitive CS scene to play Overwatch, even if the game will feature the same 5x5 mode with a bomb plant and other things. The game Heroes of the Newerth, for example, was far ahead of WC III Dota years ago but despite that couldn’t bring in desired audience. Nobody wanted to transition from one game to another just because of graphics and built-in communication means, and one of the most important reasons for that was almost complete similarity of game process.
In order to make players notice and like the new product, one thing out of two must happen. The original game must be left without developer’s support, which is, indeed, an illogical thing to wait for, since neither Riot Games nor Valve will ever let go of their main sources of income. So the second option is left: the game must offer something fundamentally new.
For Overwatch, it is a playing process, combining the format of shooter and MOBA. For Battlefield, it is an opportunity to use quite big maps, new techniques and additional devices. You must agree that both options look quite solid, but still there are some difficulties. The Overwatch format raises the crucial issue of balance, whereas Battlefield developers puzzle over the number of players in a team.
Players can't be brought in using money either. Over the last year, Smite has conducted numerous tournaments featuring prizepools that could be compared to those in CS:GO, but still it didn’t work out. Now, the number of its views on twitch.tv is lower than the one for World of Tanks. Accordingly, the gold mountains promised by Blizzard and Electronic Arts can also be simply ignored. On the other hand, eSports requires expenses so if the game won’t be successful, the developer will go through material losses.
Trying to solve all problems using money can turn out to be damaging for the entire industry. If Blizzard and Valve will start a war for an audience, all sides will be at the disadvantage after all. Furthermore, such competition may make all fans that liked CS 1.6 and WC III DotA go back in the days outboard, and without community, eSports will simply die.
As long as new games meet the interests of the community, they have a great effect. But such companies as Electronic Arts pursue slightly different goals, viewing eSports as one of the most efficient ways to boost sales of their products. Who does benefit from it and how does it influence the community? The answer is obvious. Blizzard's Overwatch, in its turn, is already imposed as an eSports title, despite being on the phase of beta. All the plans for upcoming tournaments, which certainly seem a bit premature considering the current status of the game, cast some doubt on the fairness of their aims. But only time will tell if that is true.