What makes a good e-sports game?

Starcraft in Korea represents the peak of professional gaming. Why do we not have anything like it in North America?

Starcraft in Korea represents the peak of professional gaming. Why do we not have anything like it in North America?

10-02-08: CorkscrewBlow informed me that his video card has melted, and it may be a week or so until he is back in business (he’s getting an RMA). However, he IS on track to post a new Battle Report and to continue posting my series on the WCG in Los Angeles.

These days I’ve been seeing and hearing many misconceptions about what makes a game good material for an “e-sports game.” There is alot of talk about balancing, skill, mirror matches, stars, etc. These things are important, however I believe the major factors underlying a solid competitive game are majorly overlooked and this causes much confusion about why certain games are not very professional and some are. The ideas in this article are not all my own, some come from my experience in competitive gaming (attending WCG) and some come from other people that I have met and have experience in this area, namely Paul Hendley (one time owner of team Hyper!, a pro level Counterstrike team). Without further ado…

What makes a game have many high prize tournaments and pro level players? Advertising money. Where does advertising money come from? Marketers. Why do marketers put up money for tournaments and events? They believe they will get a good return on their investment, to do this they need many people seeing their ads. The reason most tournaments never happen even for good games is advertisers don’t believe it is worth their investment because people won’t see their ads or product enough to justify shelling out the cash. We get people to see ads and products by making them interested in whatever it is the ads and products are with, in this case pro gaming. The bottom line is this. We need more viewers, people to sell things to if pro gaming is to become larger. To get more viewers, we need to answer the question:  How does one become a viewer, a fan?

I believe most people become a fan of some sport or game because at one time they played it and liked it. The average person growing up in a western society will likely play at least 3-4 sports for some period of time, maybe more. When these people are searching for entertainment, they naturally want to watch things that they entertained by, and watching some of the sports they used to play is entertaining to them. It follows that if “e-sports” is to make it big with advertising money, we need more current and former gamers that would have an interest in following competitive games online, on television, or in person. The problem here is that most people don’t really want to follow games that they didn’t play. The implication here is that “e-sports” is not really about all competitive gaming, its about the competitive aspects of each game.

If you agree with these points, we face a larger problem here than is visible on the surface. To have a viable ‘esport’ game with many professional players making money worth all the effort involved, we not only need a critical mass of fans (ex-players and current) for e-sports, but we need that critical mass in one game just to have a good shot. I believe it is impossible to look at gaming in general and see a possible professional sport, everything is just too specialized and spread out. Each game must be thought of as its own separate sport that needs to be developed.

As an example, starcraft is such a model of ‘what could be in professional gaming’ because starcraft is such a popular game. There is a large number of former and current starcraft players in Korea, and they enjoy watching pro starcraft players play for the exact same reason people in the USA enjoy watching football – they used to play it or still do. Notice how this has nothing to do with the supposed skill involved in playing the game (even though pro level starcraft takes godlike abilities). Notice also how it has little to do with balance (even though the balance is a model for all rts games). It is the fact that the game is fun and balanced and people enjoy playing online that draws them to play it. Finally, notice that it is the large number of current and retired players that draws so much money to starcraft, but the reason that drew all those people to the game was that it was fun.

So why doesn’t COH have any real competition or money? Too few people play this game, partly due to inadequate advertising and post release support. There is not enough people to see ads to justify advertisers spending any money on it. If gamereplays or another site decided to host a tournament, they would have difficulty getting any sponsorships because they would not get enough hits on their website from people watching the tournament and its results to give advertisers a return on their investment. Because there are no tournaments and not much competition there are no pro teams and no pro players.

One way to overcome lack of advertising money is to get money from the game company itself. EA regularly pumps money into CnC through WCG (WCG has a very high entry fee that a game company must pay to get a game into WCG, in 2006 I heard it estimated by a friend of mine that it was over 50k). They also host the command and conquer league, where players qualify for spots in a 32 man bracket by placing high on the ladder in various phases. The grand prize for this is over 6k, some of which is provided by HP or other sponsors. The problem with this is that rarely do companies get a good return on their investment for funding these kinds of things. I was informed by someone at relic back in my COH glory days that relic simply stopped putting dow in WCG because it wasn’t worth their money. I would imagine this is why COH is not in wcg as well. Hypothetically, how would relic make a solid “e-sports” game if they wanted to? This leads us to my theory on how to make a good competitive game.

Surprise’s theory of how to create a good e-sports game

Step 1 – Create fun game to play. (most important part)

Step 2 – Make said game fun to play online (most difficult part). This involves much post release support to fix balance and bug issues that will inevitably arise.

Step 3 – Watch as everyone loves to play your game online and sticks with it. Instead of the common drop off of users as time progresses, your game may actually get more popular after release for a time as people sell it to their friends. (note only blizzard games and cs have made it this far, i know not 1 ea game that has made it past step 2).

Step 4 – Create competitive medium, doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, just make it work. Have incentives for people to win this competitive medium. Even having visible ladder results is more than enough to encourage people to compete viciously in bad games, let alone your fun and supported game. This is a catalyst for future competitions. Sooner or later the accepted medium of competition may change to something out of your control such as outside leagues. This is usually acceptable and means you don’t have to do much work anymore.

Step 5 – Work with companies and websites that want to host events for your game. Your game is fun to play online and therefore a lot of people want to play it. Advertisers want to reach these people and sell them crap. Help the advertisers and connect them with tournament organizers. Consider investing money into getting your game into the WCG and similar events – it may lead to more competitions and events which you can collect money off of by selling licences that event organizers need to buy to have your game in their tournaments. Having your game in these events may also sell additional copies.

In conclusion – a game needs to be able to make money for advertisers in order for them to invest in sponsoring tournaments and teams. Professional sports are incredible advertising mediums for any enterprise, currently progaming is not a good advertising medium for anyone except a select few companies that sell specialty gaming products. If progaming is to become a reality we need to work on making money for the people that will be giving us sponsorships.

2 Responses to What makes a good e-sports game?

  1. Linn says:

    i was wondering wheter e-sport niche is pulling enough ads on the site?
    it’s kinda interesting as i am actually looking for some niches that is good to expand.
    great post, really. thanks for sharing

  2. I think EA in particular has pushed very strongly the concept of e-sports, EA has the financial resources and marketing department to do so.

    Relic/THQ is a smaller group and just doesn’t have the same resources or know-how. EA also has massive franchise history and brand recognition, plus a fanbase (in the case of C&C) that is more than a decade old.

    That’s a tough mix for somebody like Relic to go up against, probably why Relic doesn’t even bother wasting time or effort on it.

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