The genre-bending competitive games releasing in the next year have the potential to bring the usually divided fan bases of eSports together.
Many see eSports as the next $1 billion sport, but getting there depends on a savvy intertwining of new titles and their diverse fan bases.
If new gaming titles such as Blizzard’s Overwatch, Gearbox’s Battleborn and Epic Games’ Paragon are going to succeed as eSports, industry insiders believe these titles have to evolve beyond popularity.
“There is sort of a secret sauce when it comes to eSports,” said Marcus Graham, Twitch’s director of Programming. Enthusiasm for game titles is no longer enough to achieve eSports stardom.
Graham said games have to be fun to play but also fun to watch. They must create powerfully entertaining drama at all levels of competition.
“It used to be a game would try to become a popular eSport by either having a larger prize purse or having a larger event, but if you don’t have all of the pieces in place, that can sort of be misguided effort,” said Graham.
A handful of premier games draw the biggest crowds in eSports. For example, last year’s International in Seattle, the pinnacle of competitive Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2), garnered more than 20 million viewers as players fought over a prize pool of nearly $18 million.
The longest running league, Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) World Championship, has amassed more than 1.5 million concurrent viewers by packaging together games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) into the same events.
The sum of eSports’ potential, however, remains fragmented across a number of different games. It has burgeoning Wimbledon-like events, perhaps, but no World Cup.
“People have different tastes in games. There are totally different genres. There’s very little overlap,” said George Woo, events organizer at Intel. “They are truly unique communities.”
As a result, many of the biggest eSporting events remain limited by the size of the fan bases surrounding the top games.
Some leagues like IEM try to get around this by featuring multiple games.
“If you’re a League of Legends fan you’re not going to watch DOTA 2 games, but potentially the League of Legends fans might watch something like CS: GO because the genre’s so different,” said Woo.
This means there’s a huge opportunity for new games to break the mold and unite players and fans across the divide of these various eSports communities.
By fusing together different genres and borrowing from the competitive design of games ranging from Hearthstone to Rocket League, many hope these games will create a new eSports audience that’s not limited by the enthusiasm of a single devoted fan base.
The Promise of Genre-Fusing
Battleborn’s matches are about shooting the opposing team and taking objectives, but also building up experience points and abilities by killing non-playable enemies. Modes like “Metldown” are heavily influenced by League of Legends, with periods of “farming” or collecting the opponent’s minions punctured by bombastic team-fights where players unleash their newly leveled-up powers.
The other half of Battleborn’s potentially far-reaching appeal is its extensive cast of characters. With 25 playable characters at launch, the creators hope Battleborn will have something for everyone.
“You’ll see comfortable modern military archetypes next to strange four-armed witches flinging odd chaos magic, fighting alongside or against sentient mushrooms armed with kunai,” said Varnell.
The designers at Blizzard — Overwatch’s parent company — emphasize the importance of having relatable characters.
“Players always will have a better time if they have a context for their actions and if they have attachments to the heroes they’re playing or facing off against,” said Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s Creative Director. “I think hero-switching is an absolute pillar of what makes Overwatch gameplay exciting, fluid and dynamic.”
What sets Overwatch apart from many other arena-based shooters is the way it lets players switch between its many different characters — from the athlete-turned-soldier, Zarya, to the gorilla scientist, Winston. In this way, the game owes less to modern MOBAs than games like Valve’s Team Fortress 2.
What Makes a Great eSport Game?
Of Twitch’s most watched games in 2015, FIFA 15 and Destiny were the only new titles to break into the top 10. Despite FIFA’s general-audience popularity, its success as an eSport has been uneven because it competes with its real-life league counterpart for fans and funding. Destiny’s hardcore following means its player-base is extremely active but ultimately limited by the overall number of people playing the game.
Future eSport titles will need to nurture their enthusiastic communities in order to succeed, but Graham said that titles will need to be retooled into engaging spectator sports.
Ultimately, however, the “secret sauce” for a successful eSports title is up to the fans. When a small studio called Psyonix released a game about playing soccer with cars last year, few predicted its meteoric eSports rise.
Less than a year later, it’s clear Rocket League‘s success is the product of its creators’ community-building efforts, like partnering with the likes of Twitch to create a Championship Series of ongoing monthly competitions.
It’s critical to create engaging, emotion-stirring and entertaining experiences, but the biggest challenge facing any game developer aiming to create the next successful eSports is nurturing the game’s fan base. Finding ways to continuously engage fans and tie them into other eSports communities will determine whether a game thrives or fades away.
Feature image credit: Patrick Strack, IEM Katowice 2016