What Makes a Good eSport?
As mentioned in a previous article What Esports Are Safe To Invest In?”, 2017 is shaping up to be a monumental year for the growth of esports. Advertisers are beginning to truly comprehend the reach competitive gaming brings towards the “unreachable” 18 to 25 year old gamer demographic, the increase in funding is driving up the production value of esports events, and the higher product standard is bringing new blood into the sector, both in the form of spectators and athletes themselves. This virtuous cycle is simultaneously leading to more studios attempting to enter the market. Some, such as Psyonix’s Rocket League and Super Evil Megacorp’s Vainglory, have managed to gain a solid foothold in the esports scene, while others (Electronic Arts’s Dawngate and Stunlock Studios’s Bloodline Champions come to mind) failed to grab hold of a large enough playerbase and floundered as a result. So what, beyond more than a fair share of luck, creates a viable esport?
#1: A Strong Playerbase
First and foremost, an online game (be it casual or competitive) requires a large fanbase to be active. For casual, cooperative experiences, a small pool of active players makes it difficult for those logged on to find teammates to stand by their side. On the other hand, when wins and losses against a human opponent are at stake, a low player count not only makes it difficult for players to find opposition, but also to find enemies of a similar caliber, causing those engaging in battle to either always blow out or be blown out, neither of which can be considered fun in the long term.
Considering all esports are, by their very nature, combative experiences, this requires a significantly higher draw of players in order to keep the game vibrant. While a company can throw millions of dollars at a title to artificially grow its game into a thriving esport in theory, this is seldom sustainable and often very transparent to the community. So what causes players to stick around and develop a community from the ground up? Simply put, you must have…
#2: A Fun Game
As elementary as it sounds, being an enjoyable game outside of an esports context is imperative for the longevity of your competitive game’s lifecycle. Even if the title you are evaluating fulfills the rest of the criteria on this list, a sustainable esport requires players at all skill levels and of all aspirations to maintain a strong community. This means that a delicate balance must be struck in order to appeal to the professionals–the stars of today–but also the beginners–the stars of tomorrow. An ideal prospect can appeal to both the casual viewer that happens to tune in just for the big events and the hardcore fanatic who watches professional matches every day religiously.
Even still, simply being “fun” does not correlate to it thriving as an esport. Take, for example, Super Smash Brothers Brawl for the Wii. Being a Smash title, it had a large playerbase and was certainly fun for all demographics. So why did it fail so spectacularly as an esport? To determine this, we must look deeper at what will cause professionals to pour so many waking hours into achieving a high level at their craft.
#3: A High Skill Ceiling
Consider any prominent sport in today’s society. While they all have relatively high “playerbases” and are, depending on who you ask, fun, the most mesmerizing part of observing a sport for many people is seeing a professional do something you as a spectator could not fathom attempting. Esports are very similar in that regard. Take any major esport and it will fulfill the same criteria. It will have a large playerbase, be fun for players of varying skills and commitment levels, and will have a high skill ceiling: you can tell simply by watching who is a good player and who is a bad one. On the other hand, take Pong; it is a competitive game that has been played by millions and is fun. However, there is little distinction between an intermediate and expert Pong player.
A high skill ceiling is necessary for a competitive game to thrive, because it keeps players invested. A game that can be mastered in 2 hours will not maintain the interest of those who are “students of the game”. A game like Chess, Basketball, or even League of Legends will have players spending thousands of hours training before even being classified as proficient. For those who would rather devote their time to one experience and ultimately reaching the professional level, a deep experience is the baseline for what drives their attention.
#4: An Easy Viewing Experience
One of the greatest parts of sports is that they are intrinsically easy to watch. Young children, with a little guidance, can understand the fundamentals of Tennis or Football in under an hour and will gradually pick up the remaining common rules over a short span as well. This leads us to the final point for what makes a good esport: it should be easy to understand for a first-time viewer. While this is not necessarily a requirement on par with the previous points (League of Legends and DotA 2, the two most prominent esports currently on the market, are notoriously difficult to understand for a new viewer), titles like Counter-Strike and Super Smash Brothers have rapidly grown in popularity over the past few years largely due to being extremely accessible to a wide audience.
As esports as a sector continues to grow, it is not unlikely that more people will latch onto particular games to play based on what they find most enjoyable to watch early in their lives. This can be seen as parallel to children determining what sports to play based off where they live (Americans are more likely to play American Football, while Europeans are more likely to play Cricket) or what sports their parents are most familiar with. As a result, it is important that mainstream titles consider how they can not only appeal to players, but to new viewers as well, seeing as these could potentially be new consumers moving forward.
In closing, large numbers of games pushing for esports greatness are being released in the coming months and years. As you develop or look to invest in one such title, it is important to be aware of what makes a valuable product in the market. Overall, a game that can successfully have both breadth of consumer appeal and depth in gameplay has the potential to be a diamond in the rough, but weighing what you believe are the most important factors must also be taken into consideration, as does viewing the esports landscape and how your title will fit into it.