Ever wonder why certain games manage to break through into the mainstream of esports?
Let’s take a look at some of esports’ most prominent titles to better understand why — by Michael Oliver
Do you remember a time before online gaming? A time where you would walk into GAME, Gamestop, or CEX and spend your pocket money on a single disk (or two) that would have all the content developed for that one specific game. The cosmetics, the unlockables, the secret levels, all bonus content was behind a play-wall instead of a pay-wall; now you’d be lucky to find a modern game without microtransactions attempting to drain the remaining coins left in your wallet after buying the game itself. So, what changed?
Well, the rest of the gaming industry discovered the huge success potential in esports orientated titles. These are games that are often completely free to play and involve monetary systems that are cosmetic or have little affect over the game itself, therefore reserving them for those that choose to support the game. With almost everyone taking a shot at it nowadays, esports titles offer consistent and long-lasting success — but only if they’re done right.
Gameplay & Viewership
The be all and end all of any aspiring esport title is the play-loop. If a multiplayer game isn’t replay worthy, both for players and spectators, then the lack of content compared to a single-player RPG becomes very apparent. The real content of any multiplayer title is the need to jump into another match to improve on upon your last performance. League of Legends, DotA 2, and Counter-Strike all began from players modifying an existing game with the sole purpose of making it fun in the multiplayer arena. For example, all these titles share the refined format of 5 on 5 due to its balance of team coordination and individual skill benefiting the gameplay loop; it has enough players to add strategic layers to the gameplay whilst maintaining the ability for individual skill to shine.
An element that is closely tied to gameplay is spectator value. It’s one thing for a game to be enjoyable to play but being able to understand any kind of sport to a basic level is a necessity. Counter-Strike and shooters are blessed with the simple understanding of shoot the bad guy to win, with different intricacies sprinkled in to separate one from the other. MOBAs, on the other hand, have always treaded a fine line with regards to spectator understanding. The deep layers of gameplay involved in a MOBA can be overwhelming a lot of the time, which is apparent in Blizzard’s attempt at the genre. Heroes of the Storm (2015) was released with a competitive circuit designed with the intent to push its esports into the mainstream with DotA 2 and LoL. However, the gameplay strayed too far away from the core MOBA elements and became confusing to understand for the standard esports spectator. Blizzard ended up halting the main tournaments in their professional circuit in 2019 with the statement: “after looking at all of our priorities and options in light of the change with the game, the Heroes Global Championship and Heroes of the Dorm will not return in 2019.”
Valve and Riot have managed to bypass the steep learning curve of MOBAs by requiring only a basic level of understanding to know what’s going on when watching a match. Underneath the layers of the game itself, the sound design and graphical work do wonders in helping spectators differentiate between characters and situations. Each hero/champion has a consistent design through these elements where even a new spectator can begin to understand which spells come from which hero. Furthermore, the use of announcers, visual indicators, and viewer friendly HUD elements all culminate to give the spectator as much information as possible on the assumption they know as little as possible; It’s through this assumption that a game can reach as many viewers as possible
Updates & Community
Every single modern esport title has gone through decades of refining to get to where they are now, with the gaming community being at the frontline of the refineries. The refinement process has evolved with the capabilities of the internet, and in recent years it has been easier than ever to hear the voice of a game’s community as a developer. Steam and Metacritic offer compiled user reviews, whilst other sites and forums allow for debates and suggestions for improvements on their beloved titles. The process in which developers react to community and updates can be separated into three categories, each represented by CS:GO, Fortnite (2017), and Rainbow Six: Siege (2015).
The first of these represents a strong gameplay with little community. Valve are notorious for having very little community interaction in comparison to other developers but instead are hugely successful in understanding the gameplay of a successful esport. The Counter-Strike series is one that represents insanely strong gameplay, so much so that it has barely seen any change over the decade aside graphical enhancements. CS:GO still sees the occasional update, but the gameplay is strong enough to entertain its players for as long as there are servers to play on.
Fortnite is a a phenomenon in the gaming industry due to its insane popularity, but it has its community to thank for this. The solid gameplay and unique take on the battle royale genre was enough to push it to the top of Twitch, and it was then the community that pushed to make it sit at the forefront of video game history. Epic Games capitalised on this perfectly by releasing regular updates and content at a shockingly fast pace. The updates and community interaction through seasonal events worked symbiotically with the addictive gameplay, making it the powerhouse it has been in recent years
Finally, Rainbow: Six Siege has had a rocky journey in the esports and gaming world, but in recent years it has turned this around to become a huge success. When the game was released in 2015 it saw a backlash from the community over issues like invasive microtransactions, 30 tick rate servers, lacklustre character roster, made ever worse by the many bugs and connection issues. The long and short of it is that Siege saw a very rocky first few years, but despite this the community stuck with it and still maintained a professional scene. Ubisoft understood the importance of their loyal player base, so held workshops with their professional players and paid close attention to feedback in their forums. Changes were made to gameplay, the bugs and connection issues were resolved, and there is now a huge roster of interesting and balanced characters to choose from. Due to the huge update initiative and community interaction by Ubisoft, Siege is now up there with the big dogs when it comes to esports tournaments and viewership, with over $12 million in winnings across 228 tournaments. It’s journeys like Siege that truly shine as examples of how the modern age of communication between developers and their community can resurrect something from the ashes.
There are of course many other intricacies and factors that go into the creation successful esport that haven’t been mentioned above. However, I believe these are the most important aspects to consider when it comes to why you see the same titles on the front page of Twitch. Gameplay and community work hand in hand to keep people watching, and it would be ignorant to think that you can disregard one of them when you can clearly see the impact this has. For all you game developers out there: listen to us, we know our stuff. Well, some of the time.