The mods have it - Or why developing for esports fails
Games made for esports do not work… No exceptions!
There is a trend in recent year for developers to create games tailored to esports. As logical as it sounds owing to the recent evolution and growth of the industry, this is a bad idea and has always resulted in failure.
Looking at games that have worked and are “making it in esports”, the lowest common denominator to all of them is that they were created to answer a player demand and not as a reaction to the growing number of tournaments, viewers and investment into esports.
So why exactly is developing for esports not working? Should developers ignore this trend? Is esports a valid objective to aim for when planning your new game?
On what makes an esport game
If you look back at all the games we are now used to seeing in the realm of esports, you will notice very quickly that none of them were developed for competition on the scale we now know. As absurd as this may sound, many of them still have issues when it comes to setting up private servers or competitions, lack of appropriate spectator modes or competitive points and ranking systems.
So you may be wondering, like many of us, how exactly does a game become a fan favorite for tournaments? Well, in my opinion, the answer is there already: it was a fan favorite before the tournaments started.
The Shootmania experimentation
A few years ago, French developer Nadeo, created Shootmania with a simple design, different map modes allowing for very competitive gameplay that was both “easy to play / hard to master” and simple to understand for the spectator’s point of view. On paper it had everything it needed to become the ultimate replacement for Counter Strike, a game where the action is often hard to follow due to the number of players in the round and the quick pace at which the action takes place. Shootmania proposed a 3 vs 1 battle system allowing the viewer to follow the attacking player and his overpowered railgun as he attempted to take the enemy flag, defended by the 3 opposing players and their slower rocket launchers. The balance was perfect, the graphics were fun and colorful, helping viewers enjoy the game and follow all the action even if they had never played.
Sadly, at launch the menu system was decades behind what competitors were doing, hard to navigate and rendering even the most hardened FPS gamer quizzical as to what was available to him in terms of game modes or social features. Added to this, the absence of any progression system or player customization, made every game feel quite pointless, especially as the ranking system would simply place you head to head with all the other players of a region without giving you the clear progression steps we are now used to (bronze, silver, gold etc…). Player retention was catastrophic and, despite some very promising tournaments set up in collaboration with the (French) ESWC during the Paris Games Week a few years in a row, as well as the (surprisingly) large number of good commentators who adopted the game very early on, in the hope that it would indeed be a hit, Shootmania simply was not able to hold on to that player base.
Blizzard’s foray into esports - is it worth it?
In my previous article comparing esports to a high-school courtyard (that you can read here), I mentioned my wish for Blizzard to stop pushing their games into esports. With the recent figures from Newzoo looking at the difference between the number of hours played and the number of hours watched on Twitch for the top 20 esport games, you can see that Overwatch is indeed the 5th most played game but only the 7th most watched game. A disparity that is shared with other Blizzard titles such as Hearthstone, being the second most played game (behind LoL) but only the 4th most watched game.
Recently the company has been investing heavily into esports and are using their vast resources (marketing expertise, immense community, overlapping game-universes and colossal finances) to showcase themselves as industry leaders. As the numbers show, though they are managing this well, this strategy may not be as beneficial to them as we may suspect. Indeed, where other titles back their communities through the organization of tournaments, Blizzard is backing it’s tournaments through the aforementioned resources, reaching into their communities for visibility.
Then how did the others do it?
DOTA was originally a mod created by fans for the popular Warcraft games released by Blizzard and, alongside the very similar League of Legends, resulted in a game type that has been leading the esports scene for the past decade. On the FPS side, we know that Counter Strike was originally a mod of Half-Life and is now the only game of it’s genre to have survived in esports since it’s launch. And finally Player Unknown Battlegrounds (or PUBG) dives into “inception world” as it is inspired from a mod of DayZ: Battle Royal, which itself is a mod of the DayZ mod created for Arma.
So… game mods FTW?
It certainly looks that way, though that’s not the full explanation to why they work.
All these mods were built by players who liked the original game but could see potential elsewhere. These players were in search of something more: a game mode that was not offered in the original game, a faster paced gameplay, a deeper level of player customization… you name it. Whatever the motivation was, the focus was always on the player experience first and foremost. The key factor here being player retention through player satisfaction and replayability of the game, and not the modification of the game to suit a tournament or make the action more viewer-friendly.
Create the game for players first, make sure that they have fun and want to come back, and you will be successful, with or without esports.
So how do I get my game into esports?
The short answer is: you don’t.
By nature, players are competitive. They like to know they’re the best and love opportunities to show other people just how superior they are. Any psychologist will tell you that this is a simple evolution trait that comes from your need to survive, to be the top-dog, the wolf-pack Alpha. Players who enjoy a game where they are placed in a confrontational environment against other players will want to know who was the best at the end of the round. They will want to see their progress compared to other players and they will want that progress to be recognized by the community.
Players will create tournaments. Players will watch tournaments. Players will “make your game esport”.
In the end, all you have to do is create a good game!
Give them reasons to play again be it through unlocking customizations, earning achievements, choice of characters or a varied gameplay. Give them a clear points system at the end of each round and, if possible, a simple leader-board with an attractive ranking system. Finally, give them methods of being social, communicating with team-mates, creating groups, teams or clans, give them a method of sharing their success. If you are able to give players these, then you can be certain that players will give you esport.
So please, stop trying to make games for esports but instead make games for the players, make games for the community.