Competitive Gaming or Electronic Sports (eSports) is rapidly growing in the sport industry. A report in 2013 estimates US$71.5 million in viewership and US$25 million in prize money. MOBA title, Dota 2 “The International” tournament’s prize money was US$2.87 million in 2013. In 2014, it quickly quadrupled to nearly US$11 million. Naturally, game developers would love to tap into this exponentially growing market and essentially create a new sport.
“When a game becomes a sport it not only stops being commercial, it becomes unrateable (indispensable)” – Chris Thursten
Since the birth of (real) eSport title, Starcraft: Broodwar in the Korea eSports scene, I have spent many hours watching and studying eSports. To identify the aspects that contribute to the success of eSports, let’s look at the top five eSports games sorted by prize money:
- Dota 2 (Valve) – MOBA
- League of Legends (Riot Games) – MOBA
- Starcraft II (Blizzard) – RTS
- Counter Strike (Valve) – FPS
- Starcraft: Brood war (Blizzard) – RTS
Each of these five titles has six aspects that contribute to their success as an eSports title. Some games did well in some aspects and some in others.
1. Constant Developer Support and Patches
For a game to be worthy of eSports, it needs to be constantly balanced and bug free. This means developers should be involved in accepting community feedback and release periodic bug & balance patches. IceFrog (Dota 2 Designer) and Blizzard did a great job in this aspect. Dota 2 receives constant updates every few days, this shows that the developers are extremely committed in improving the gaming experience for the players.
This is especially important during the beginning of the game release because most games are released with some sort of defects that needs to be fixed. Bug reports can be fixed with the help of the participating players in the game.
Of course, developer support does not limit to only in-game development. It also includes other stuffs like sponsoring tournaments, improve spectatorship, managing communities and etc.
2. Player Base and Community Involvement
What is a game without its players? All five titles listed above have large player base. Dota 2’s all-time peak was 880,655 players in an hour. This is dwarfed by League of Legends’ all-time peak of 7.5 million players all playing LOL all at the same time! There is no doubt these two are the top eSports of all time.
Valve’s history of allowing user created content has been successful in both sales and encouraging community involvement. In 2013, Valve paid US$10.2 million to 661 contributors for creating in-game cosmetic items.
All these spell constant growth for the game and with enough community backing of the game; it is easier to market it as an eSport.
3. Easy to Learn Mechanics and Accessibility
A successful eSports title is easy to understand. For most MOBA games, Team A destroys Team B’s ancient to win. As for most RTS games, destroy your opponent to win, pretty straight forward. All these top five eSports games are also highly accessible from all around the world. None of them is country blocked so you can even practice Starcraft II during your holidays overseas.
High learning curve games deter players from engaging with the game. If nobody wants to learn about the game, what are your chances of making it into an eSport?
Developers also play a huge role in educating the community about their newly launched game. A live example would be Evolve. Evolve is a game that is still in alpha testing phase. However, they have released a ton of information about their game, commentary, videos, photos and guides. I am not surprised if Evolve becomes the next popular eSport.
4. High Skill Ceiling & Clutch Moments
Have you ever seen any Pacman pro-gamers? I don’t, because like anybody out there, I can master the game in a couple of minutes. eSports is a game you cannot simply master. eSports is also a game of seconds, get cocky and lose focus for half a second and you may face defeat. This is what makes eSports entertaining. The video below shows one of the trending and most epic Dota 2 comebacks:
Bear in mind that this is not a tournament match. Therefore, it is important to note that if casual gamers can replicate the clutch moments experienced by pro-gamers in tournaments, that game stands a massive chance of being successful in eSports.
Another example of high skill ceiling would be Starcraft. The skill ceiling is so high they had to measure it with a term called APM (Actions per Minute). Although APM does not entirely determine the best player, however it goes to show how mentally fit these pro-gamers need to be in order to compete at the highest level.
5. Spectator Mode & Game Pacing
“Spectator modes are no longer an afterthought, but a core feature touted throughout the development process” – Twitch.tv
If you look at all of the top five eSports titles, you will notice that the developers made it spectator friendly. This means developing spectator mode for the game and pacing the game in a way that viewers can see what is going on. This is what many MMORPG games fail to achieve. MMORPG games in nature are progressive out-of-tournaments. So you can only see watch part of the progression during the tournament. Below is a messy WoW 3v3 tournament video clip.
“I can definitely say that WoW 3v3 Arena right now is kind of hard to watch, in the form that it is.” – Blizzard eSports head Kim Phan
MOBA, RTS and FPS games shine in the “Spectator Mode” category. Not only there is a separate spectator’s interface that allows you to see the entire map, the statistical interface allows you to look at specific data important to the progress of the match. Data like gold/min, exp/min, resources lost, units lost, and building in progress allows the commentators to predict as the game develops to a climax.
6. Entertaining Commentators
Lastly, commentators play an important role in explaining everything that is going on in an eSports. Every competitive sport in this world is more fun to watch when there is a caster or two. The commentators are those who are aware of all the things that are happening in the game. In eSports, sometimes multiple commentators are required to capture everything that is happening in the game.
Although commentators do not directly influence the gameplay, but their commentaries will directly affect the viewership of the game, which is crucial to the success of an eSport.
The Future of eSports
With the exponential growth of eSports, eSports has hit 71.5 million viewership in 2013. If this continues, we are looking at approximately 140 million views in 2014. Sponsors, developers and publishers are going to take advantage of the massive growth in eSports to advertise their product and their games. We are at the tipping point of eSports’ success.