The competitive video gaming scene has exploded in popularity over the past few years and it now boasts 454 million viewers across the world. It is an extremely lucrative industry thanks to sponsorship deals, media rights agreements, ticket sales, advertising and merchandising.
Many developers aspire to muscle their way into the esports scene, but it is currently dominated by a few extremely successful titles, while most games simply fall by the wayside. What does it take for a game to become a successful esport?
A game needs to be easy to understand, fun to play and a pleasure to watch in order to succeed as an esport. In essence, it must be easily accessible for millions of people in a number of different countries.
The three main esports are League of Legends, Dota 2 and CS:GO. The premise for each one is simple. In LoL and Dota, opposing teams try to destroy the enemy’s base before theirs is wiped out. In CS:GO, teams try to kill one another while completing a secondary objective, which involves killing or protecting hostages, or planting or defusing a bomb.
These games are easy to grasp, visually arresting and exciting to watch. Each one boasts a larger player base, a passionate community and a flourishing competitive scene. A game has to have mass appeal and broad popularity before it can be converted into an esport, and accessible games with a low skill floor work best.
It is possible for a complex game to crack the esports sector, but it requires strong tutorials and a friendly interface in order to make it engaging enough to appeal to gamers and viewers. Hearthstone is a good example of that, but it is a rarity.
A high skill ceiling
A game will only thrive as an esport if it has an extremely high skill ceiling. The basics need to be simple in order for the masses to grasp it, but developers must allow for an elite group of superstars to emerge. That can only happen if there is enough scope for players to develop their skills to extreme levels.
If a game is too easy to master, millions of people can excel at it and it will never make it as an esport. Spectators need to witness amazing feats of individual brilliance that only the professionals could pull off.
It is similar to traditional sport: anyone can kick a ball, but few can bend a free-kick into the top corner from 35 yards like Cristiano Ronaldo. Anyone can hit a ball with a racquet, but nobody can deliver the stunning array of shots that Roger Federer produces.
Esports must follow that format: simple to grasp, extremely difficult to master.
A strong competitive balance
A level playing field is essential for a game to flourish as a spectator sport. If one snooker player has a high-spec cue and the other has to use a broom handle, the competitive balance will be thrown out of whack. This might initially be amusing, but it would quickly grow tiresome for spectators.
The same is true in esports: both teams must be given a fair chance of success, and unbalanced games are by their nature a lot less competitive. Esports fans love to bet on the action at sites like Unikrn, and that is not possible if the game is not fair and balanced.
This is why battle royale titles are struggling to crack the esports scene. Epic Games is throwing heaps of cash at a calendar of professional Fortnite tournaments, while a nascent PUBG circuit has emerged, but both titles are hamstrung by their reliance on RNG (random number generation).
A professional could train for hours each day in a bid to succeed at a big Fortnite tournament, but then suffer bad luck with the weapons he is given and lose to a less skilled player that enjoys better luck on the day.
The randomness of the draw is a major component of Fortnite’s success, so Epic has to complete a unique balancing act: it must try to offer pros a solid and balanced experience, while allowing millions of players to enjoy the RNG-reliant game.
A commitment to longevity
The most successful esports all follow a very similar model. They are released on a free to play basis and the developer works hard on regular updates in order to keep the gameplay fresh and exciting. The company charges for in-game extras like cosmetics, but has to be wary about allowing players to buy skills that others have to work hard for.
This microtransaction model allows the developers to make a lot of money, a portion of which is reinvested in continually improving the game.
Many of the world’s most famous titles do not follow this model. Most gaming firms follow a traditional publishing cycle, whereby they release a game, charge consumers for it and move onto the next one.
Call of Duty has never matched CS:GO as an esport because a new title in the series is released on such a regular basis. There are often vast changes to the gameplay, and the pros are suddenly not particularly great at the new game. By the time an elite group has mastered it, a new title is released and the community moves on.
League of Legends is now celebrating its 10th birthday and it is still going strong, because a team of 2,500 people constantly works on improving it. Most games that were released in 2009 have long since been abandoned by the developers and the consumers alike. A company like Riot Games or Valve needs to display a commitment to securing longevity for their game if it is to become a successful esport.
Cold hard cash
Gamers can only turn professional if there is enough money on offer for them to dedicate themselves to a particular game on a full-time basis. Blizzard effectively killed off the esports scene for Heroes of the Storm when it decided to cancel its Heroes Global Championship.
With nobody pumping money into prize pools, there was no possibility for a pro scene and anyone that made a living based on HotS was left distraught.
Becoming a Dota 2 player is a viable career for hundreds of people due to the eye-watering prize pools on offer. Epic Games has turned Fortnite into an esport, despite the aforementioned challenges it faces, by simply throwing cash at the scene.
It channeled $100 million into Fortnite tournaments this year, and that saw 40 million people enter qualifying for the World Cup. Money talks in this industry and you cannot make it as an esport if the cash is not there.