There were a few themes that ran through this year’s PAX East. Several new MMOs were showcased, and the MOBA genre is getting visibly more popular. One of the largest consistent stances across the show floor, however, was an enthusiastic focus on the part of developers to cater to the e-sports crowd.
E-sports, or simply “competitive gaming” has been popular in Asia and in niche cultures around the US, but hasn’t before seen a huge following in the West prior to the last few years. Anyone who followed competitive gaming a few years ago _probably_ followed Counter Strike, StarCraft, or Street Fighter (or MvC2). This is changing though as the culture is getting more prevalent here, we’re seeing huge crowds attending events (DreamHack saw 200,000 viewers for League of Legends I believe), and as a result, developers are wanting to be a part of this movement.
What I saw and heard while giving interviews was many developers stating that they were expressly interested in making certain their games were not only viable for competitive gaming, but that the structure of the game supported it. This was done in a number of ways, through in-game tournament support, to match making systems, and team (or clan) support.
To clarify for anyone not familiar with competitive gaming, there are a few distinct ways that it varies from regular old multiplayer support. There must be a rich and complex multiplayer, there must be a high skill ceiling, and there must be extremely fine tuned balance. To give an example, imagine a match of Street Fighter. If the game was not extremely balanced, everyone would be playing Ryu, because he may simply be _the best_, and in a competitive environment, it’s all about winning. If the game did not have a rich and complex system, everyone would be “flowcharting” (go google Ken Flow Chart), and you would see nothing but Hadoken spam. If the game did not have a high skill ceiling, then the game would essentially be “mastered” by all the top players, and no one would ever really have an advantage, imagine competitive Mario Party. It doesn’t work without these things.
For so many developers to say they are gunning to make their game a competitive e-sport is not only ambitious, it’s rather surprising. There’s the problem of establishing a notable professional scene, with recognizable, big-name, players for fans to follow. Anyone who follows Street Fighter knows who Daigo is, likewise those who follow StarCraft2 know who WhiteRa or NaniWa are. The more games are available for competitive play, the harder it’s going to be to get these really solid faces to commit to _your_ game. So which games really have what it takes, and which are blowing smoke?
I’m going to discount League of Legends here. Riot wasn’t really showing new content at PAX, a few new champions and some Quality of Life improvements, but nothing that’s going to change the face of their product. They’re also already solidly cemented in the pro-scene, as they were actually casting a life tournament during the expo. I believe I saw MM (which I think stands for Mono eSports somehow) and AAA (Which I know is Against All Authority).
World of Warplanes:
The first game that I looked at that said they were looking to get into the competitive gaming scene was Wargaming.net’s World of Warplanes. Wargaming was actually showing World of Tanks as well, which is a previously released title of their, and stated they were interested in encouraging competitive gaming in regards to both games. The games are, after all, more of less founded on the same premise: Get a vehicle and proceed to shoot all the vehicles on the other team.
World of Warplanes, however, was their featured title, so I’ll focus on that. Game length is important for these competitive games. Obviously matches can’t exceed several hours, or they become unviable for spectators. The World of Warplanes matches were hypothesized to last under 10 minutes, which is a good length, looking at other titles that have had success in the field.
Another positive point in regards to this game is its free to play nature. With a low barrier for entry, many more people will become invested in the game compared to a title that has a standard $60 price tag. In fact, World of Warplanes has only a few shortcomings.
Firstly, Wargaming stated that there will be hundreds, if not a few thousand, plane models available in World of Warplanes. These would comes in four major distinctions: Fighters, Heavy Fighters, Jets, and Air-to-Ground bomber class planes. Four different archetypes is not complex enough, I doubt, to yield a rich and fulfilling multiplayer, while distinguishing between planes within a class, being that there are hundreds of them, presents staggering balance issues. Undoubtedly, what will happen, is some planes will simply be better than others. I could foresee this cause a rift between the developers and their audience, as casual players and viewers may have preferences when it comes to planes that they never see used in professional matches. This results in an unsatisfying viewing experience because they aren’t as invested in the outcome.
I also have my worries over the involvement of group play. Matches can be run up to 15v15, which is incredibly large for an e-sport team. Most team e-sports do not reach this size, the occasional FPS being the exception, as it is incredibly difficult to manage teams that large.
In the end, I think World of Warplanes may be a challenging and fun multiplayer game, allowing the casual player to partake in some good old dog-fight action, but I don’t think it’s going to make significant strides in to the “e-sports” community.
The next game that mentioned it wanted to make a heavy push at e-sport presence was Edge of Reality’s Loadout. Loadout is a pretty basic 3rd person shooter with a few things going for it. Firstly, its match sizes max out at 6v6. This notion of 6 person teams is much more manageable than the 15 man aforementioned setup. It also leans heavily on the functionality of their weapon customization system. Really, this ability to customize your weapons is the entire point of load out. They’ve combined some pretty solid gameplay, that feels very much like a 3rd person Team Fortress 2, what with the exaggerated animations and large leaps, with this ability to completely customize how your weapon works. And I mean completely. You can alter the functionality of any aspect of your weapon. To projectile type (bullets, rocks, lasers, whatever) to the how those projectiles are fired (slow and heavy shots, rapid fire, homing, spread…) to scopes, stocks, barrels and more.
It was definitely a fun game. Hell, anything that can be related to Team Fortress 2 must be at _least_ fun. But again, does it have what it takes to be an e-sport?
Well, we see the same concern here as we did with the last title. With so many loadout (I see what they did there…) options, you’re bound to have some set ups that are simply unviable. You run the risk here of having an unbalanced multiplayer scheme. All the guns function in the same fashion (point and shoot), so you don’t have have the variety that Spies and Engineers throw in to Team Fortress 2. The maps will also be a concern. The one we played was very wide open, so there wasn’t much in the way of tactics: “Rush the capture point and hope that your team is more technically skilled than their team”.
I think this game will be a blast for the average player, and I plan on buying it, but again, I don’t see it being a solid presence in the e-sport circles.
The first of two competitive games released by Hi-Rez Studios, Tribes: Ascend is an incredibly fast paced shooter. Done in the first person, right off the bat it’s easy to see that Tribes will have a very high skill ceiling in comparison to most shooters. The game provides each player with a jet-pack of sorts, so that gameplay is taking place, aggressively, along three axes. Hi-Rez also wasn’t kidding when they say that Tribes: Ascend is the “fastest shooter out there”. People zip around faster than I was able to keep up with.
Players choose between different classes at the start of a match, so players filling a specific niche, whether that be recon, defense, or long range support, will be playing with a tool kit specifically designed to be utilized in that fashion.
The match I played was a capture point style, set on a very large map. I was exceedingly poor at the game, but I saw players around me doing very well. With these large map sizes, and the speed of the gameplay, I could see Tribes having a very high skill ceiling. With the limited and specifically tailored classes, I can see unit cohesion and group composition being very important. Tribes to me seems like a game where tactics, strategy, and refined execution are all chief factors in consistently winning matches.
Given all of the above, I think Tribes is among one of the most likely titles to garner a large competitive following. It’s got all the needed requirements to be a great spectator sport, and you’re bound to see some nutty performances from expert players. Expect to see this title at some FPS tournaments for sure.
Smite is a 3rd person MOBA game. Initially a genre ruled by DOTA, League of Legends and to some degree, Heroes of Newerth are the chief competitive presences for MOBA games. As wildly popular as this genre has become, it’s rife for some innovation. HoN and DOTA are very similar in feel, with LoL being only slightly differentiated. This opportunity has not gone unnoticed by other developers.
Along with Monday Night Combat, Smite is a 3rd person approach to the MOBA genre. Where the aforementioned established titles are done via an isometric view, like a standard RTS game, Smite controls more like an MMO. Click-to-move mechanics have been replaced by the WASD keys, and the camera is firmly situated behind your champion at all times.
This actually has some interesting tweaks on the gameplay. All Abilities are now “skill shots”. You can’t merely select a champion and automatically have your ability land on them, as the cursor is no longer present as a tool separate from the player’s character. It also means that you cannot pan your screen around the map to investigate what your allies are doing. Though there is still a mini-map, you won’t be able to see precisely what is going on. This means that any “global” abilities are pretty much off the menu.
In fact, that seems to be the general result of the shift: champion kits are going to simply be more limited than those in traditional MOBA formats. On the other hand though, even Auto-Attacking is skillshot based, so you could hypothetically negate the effect of ranged champions entirely through evasive maneuvers.
I had some trepidation about the game before I began, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. The game is themed after global mythology, pulling champions from Egyptian, Greek, and Asian deities.
I think this game has a legitimate shot and gaining a competitive following. It’s got all the pieces, as MOBAs in general are a successful e-sport, and it’s a new take on the old genre. The only problem might be its competition. I don’t think it’s going to pull any serious competitors away from the likes of League of Legends, but it will probably develop a niche crowd.
This game really stuck out to me on a number of levels, and I’ll be going over it more in depth in another article, but as it fits into this one, the developers of Red 5 told us that they are very keen on making sure FireFall as a competitive presence. It’s multiplayer (pvp) functionality is much more closely related to an online shooter than it is an MMO (as the game might suggest). Being able to change your class at any point, a focus on group composition, positioning and load out choices makes the competitive side almost like a slower version of Tribes, as described above.
FireFall’s Team size is limited to 5 people on each side, and will feature a number of standard shooter game modes, though I believe it was stated that their competitive focus will be on capture point maps, though at some point we may be able to expect elimination. Personally I think the capture point scheme is more conducive to a spectator audience, because the match is always tense, whereas the first team to go one man down in an elimination match is usually at a huge disadvantage.
FireFall’s largest strength however, is intertwined with the continuity of its game world. The fact that it is essentially an MMORPG done via online shooter. An analogous situation is seen with World of Warcraft and its Arena system. WoW Arena matches are streamed on the professional level, but are not as engaging, objectively, as something like Street Fighter or StarCraft. Yet it remains incredibly popular because of how many people are invested in the content. WoW has a huge number of players that all want to see some high level Arena PvP because they love the game.
FireFall stands to benefit in the same way. There is just such an awesome game there, outside of the competitive scene, that I foresee a vast number of players getting invested in the game. Couple this large prospective following, with a playstyle that has already been shown to be successful in a competitive circuit and we should expect to see huge numbers of people following it.
Not to mention that FireFall will be fundamentally more engaging thanks to its MMORPG nature. In standard shooters, players are limited to a few action choices in which to interact with their opponents. This usually consists of “shoot, knife, or grenade”. Due to the fact that FireFalls classes are complex enough to fully realize the game’s MMO nature, you’re going to be looking at Snipers that aren’t just posting up in a spot and head shotting enemies, but that are utilizing unique and creative abilities to achieve victory for their team.
In the end, I think all of these games will see competitive play on some level. I mean, people hold Super Smash Brothers tournaments, and if there is any sillier fighting game since PowerStone, I’ve not see it. However, I think that the the games we’ll see the biggest competitive following for are going to be FireFall and Tribes. The shooter genres are well established, and these two games fit nicely into this category. Tribes simply executes on a level that will allow expert players to demonstrate the skill gap between playing casually and practicing 14 hours a day: They’ll do things the average player could never do, and the spectators will be amazed.
FireFall, while less technically demanding, I think is going to ride off of the fact that there is such a good game there that it will have a huge following by default. This will merely translate over to interest in the competitive approach and you’ll see people following their favorite teams at events.