The eSports Effect: What Makes a Great eSport?

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    Updated: November 15, 2013
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    By: Michael J. Poropat

    eSports has been around since before the dawn of games like Counter Strike and Warcraft 3 when gamers would setup LAN parties and tournaments inside their dorms or houses, but it was only recently that eSports in the United States grew passed the event horizon of entertainment with the release of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, a real time strategy game who’s predecessor was known for highly intellectual play and high-level competition, specifically in South Korea.

    Since then, eSports has legitimized as a spectator sport and a business model and multiple leagues have taken form including Major League Gaming (MLG), the Electronic Sports League (ESL) and the IGN Pro League, all which have had great success (casters not taken into consideration in this statement). A little over one year ago, the largest live streaming website in the United States, Justin.tv, created and announced Twitch.tv, an entirely gaming specific live streaming website that took the internet by storm. Currently 28 million people a month tuning in to Twitch.tv for eSports related content.

     

     

    Which games thrive in the eSports industry depends on many audiences. You have to analyze it from many different points of view. For example, there are the pro gamers who have to feel the game is balanced at the highest level and who must be willing to dedicate a very large portion of their time learning and improving at the game in order to compete. then there are the spectators, who watch the competition vigorously and who must be able to enjoy the action without having played the game and be able to watch the action from a comfortable angle with well thought-out commentary (which is rare, at best) and not have to miss a second of the action.

    Most people will stop here, where the obvious line is drawn in the sand,which leaves many people neglected. There are the streaming outlets such as Twitch.tv, Ustream, Azubu.tv or Own3d.tv (may it R.I.P.), who require not only the ability to have a good spectating experience, as mentioned above, but also require an actual audience and seamless streaming capabilities. There are also the developers themselves, who wish to profit on the game using these streaming outlets and by licensing out their game to major tournament companies. Then there are… hmm… I seem to be forgetting one…anyone have an idea? Anyone at all…? Oh that’s right YOU! Not only are you likely either a spectator of eSports or an aspiring professional gamer if your reading this article but your also likely a PLAYER. Remember them? The people who buy the game to actually play the game FOR FUN. I can’t even begin to explain how important this point is and how often developers forget about it. Players want to be able to play the game at any level and while this could include implementing a single player or coop mode for your friends or a new and cool game type that isn’t played at the competitive level, we as players would also like to play the game at a non-professional level and still have the game be balanced. This rant is for another post but I assure you this point is of the utmost importance in this industry.

    Which bring me to my next point:

     

     

    Balance is not a recommendation or a request, but instead a requirement. A balanced game means a fun and fair game and without the fun and fair part then it’s really just a competition to see who can find the broken ability/build/strategy first and exploit it to the top of the rankings. Balancing a game is not as easy as going through a beta test. Long-time followers of StarCraft 2 can attest to this as they have witnessed the most underused units in the game become more overpowered than a flash light with fifty D batteries in it (*cough* Hellions). Balance takes an infinite amount of time to master and will never be perfect. Let me reiterate that last point for the forum trolls of the audience. Balance will never be perfect in any non-symettric game, ever. Perfect balance in a game where all parties do not have the same exact moves or units or abilities is as difficult to achieve as a perfect reproduction of the Mona Lisa by hand. You can get it awfully close but perfection will always be a pixel away at best.

    It’s important to note that by “balance” I don’t only mean balance at the highest level but at lower levels as well. While the most important balance comes at the top of the talent curve, and usually that balance trickles down to the lower ends of that curve, there are times where balance becomes lopsided at lower levels and it’s important to not allow that to happen in a competitive eSports game. This is important because you want your fans to beans to play the game and relate their experiences to what they see the pros do. A perfect example of this is League of Legends (LoL). Lol is so popular for many reasons, but I believe one of the biggest reasons is because of its ease of access and play. For starters, the game is free to play and therefore anyone who has seen it being played or heard about it will have no reason to play it themselves (unless you don’t have a computer, in which case, get a computer already). Once they download and play the game, if they enjoy the game, they will notice that the game is relatively easy to pick up. There aren’t 20 buttons and abilities you have to learn but instead only a handful. This not only gives developers another larger market to make money by selling their games (or in-game purchases) to their fans, but also allows users to connect to the pros directly using the game as a medium which keeps their interest in the eSports even longer and this factor is often overlooked by game developers. 

     

     

    Spectatorship refers to the games (or tournaments) ability to be spectated. Considerations that go into this include how easy the game is to follow for an experienced player, how easy it is to follow for someone who has never played before, its potential to attract someones interest whether it be a professional/casual gamer or a non-gamer, professionalism (is it overly gorey or otherwise unappealing to certain audiences?) and downtime.

    Its important for a game to be easy to follow for a wide variety of audiences. While the game might be easy follow for those who play the game, its main goal must be simplistic enough to allow new viewers or otherwise nongamers to be able to follow the game at least as well as necessary to enjoy it. Starcraft is a pretty good example of this. The game is amazingly complex and there are a bunch of different units each with different abilities and a bunch of different buildings and 3 separate races, but the main goal of the game is simple and easy to follow. The player who kills all of their opponents army/buildings win. While that doesn’t explain the game of StarCraft exactly, it  explains it enough for someone to enjoy watching it, and it the complexity that follows invites the viewer into a deeper experience with the game and potentially an active experience when they start playing the game as well. The key of keeping the main goal simple even when the game is complex is a very difficult balance to keep. However, those games who have been able to maintain that balance have done very well in the industry.

    We also have to take into consideration the angle at which the game is being broadcasted. If the viewing angle isn’t able to capture a significant portion of the action, then no one will be interested in viewing the game. Take baseball for example. In baseball we see tons of different angles. We see from behind the pitcher during the pitch, a sky view from behind the plate when the ball is hit, dugout views, outfield views, blimp views, etc. But how many people would watch the sport if the entire game was broadcasted from a camera taped on the pitcher’s hat? There would be limited view of the field, the players, the entire game. It works the same way for an eSports video game. The field has to be viewable and the angles must be changeable in some cases. First person shooters have the hardest time with this aspect of the game, as most of the camera angles are from each player’s perspective, but by switching to every character at specific times, it makes the game more enjoyable. It should also be noted that depending on the business model used for the game, you may not be relying on a professional caster or game viewer to watch the games. Therefore the spectator itself must be able to move the camera around to get the best angle possible for viewing the game.

     

     

    Online streaming of videogames has become incredibly popular over the last two years. Twitch.tv went from 5 million unique viewers per month two years ago to just about 30 million unique viewers per month, and YouTube has recently conducted a study and found that nearly half of the videogame related content uploaded to YouTube is done so by community users as opposed to gaming companies and organizations. This huge online streaming and video market appears to be directly linked with eSports. eSports would not be viable right now without the infrastructure of live online streaming that is offered today, however sites like Twitch.tv and Ustream would likely not be nearly as popular without the growth of eSports.

    Many games and even consoles now (with the launch of Xbox One and Playstation 4) have begun integrating online streaming. Microsoft has an exclusive deal with Twitch.tv for their new Xbox, allowing you to stream and upload your gameplay directly to Twitch, and Sony has s similar deal with Ustream on the Plasystation 4. I expect consoles to start playing a major role in online streaming with the launch of the new systems and with it I expect an increase in the amount of first-person shooter related eSports content online.


    None of the above means anything if the business entities can’t make any money. Monetizing a business in eSports is different depending on which part of the industry you are in. Professional gamers have a couple of forms of income. First, they have their contract which usually gives them a set annual salary to represent their team. Most of these contracts also have incentives, where the players earn bonuses based on their tournament finishes and sometimes based on the teams total success throughout the year. Additionally, players make money through streaming by getting donations from users, selling sponsorship products through affiliate links and through the Twitch.tv partnership program, where popular Twitch.tv streamers can run commercials in their channel and get paid a set amount per views of their commercial. While professional gamers aren’t exactly swimming in one hundred dollar bills like proessional NFL athletes, it is finally a job that is sustainable for young adults and that’s a huge accomplishment for the industry.

    Streaming services like Twitch.tv and Ustream make almost all of their money through advertising and marketing. They do a great job of seamlessly integrating their advertising through their sites and other promotions and the eSports community makes it very easy for them to profit through the twitch partner program that I mentioned earlier. The eSports community is this special community that is dying to see eSports succeed at an astronomical level. Because of this, sponsors of companies like MLG and Twitch.tv get emails of people just saying thank you for sponsoring eSports. There have even been quite a few forum discussions about the best way to thank those sponsors, such as buying their products, or promoting the products themselves.

    Game developers also need to make money in this industry and its just as important that thy make money 2 years after releases as it is at release of the product. A very large portion of the companies that make eSports related games are solely dedicated to that game and/or the industry. Some games, like League of Legends, use a “freemium” model where the game is free to play but great,y encourages you to make in game purchases to unlock certain assets within the game such as characters for skins. Others  rely on their game sales and make their steady income from advertising and marketing as well as licensing out their game to tournament organizers and creating expansions. Regardless of the method, if a developer isn’t making money from the game 1 year after release, they may just abandon it and all the balance changes and promotional needs will be abandoned with it. Its important for the entire industry that developers set themselves up for success in the long term and not just at release. This is being widely adopted as we are seeing more and more developers use the “freemium” model.

     

     

    That concludes our overview of the eSports industry. Over the course of this segment, we will discuss a large portion of these factors and more. Beyond the factors mentioned in this overview, you can expect articles that dissect the current state of streaming, tournament organization, eSports in ‘foreign’ markets (meaning Korea and Europe), and the debate of whether or not uniformity in eSports is the correct model to follow as well as disccusions about specific games and why they have become so popular in eSports. If this article (or even if you didn’t) feel free to let me know in the comments below, including any suggestions or requests you may have for future articles. Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook (/competitivegamer) and Twitter (@CompetitiveGmr).

    For more eSports news, check out www.CompetitiveGamer.net

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