eSports Are Changing Game Design

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With their popularity growing each year, we discuss and discover how eSports are influencing the wider world of game design

Not all that long ago, ‘eSports’ conjured up visions of otherwise derelict basements and LAN-cafes playing host to small numbers of dedicated clans vying for personal satisfaction and micro-scale fame. These were the early proving grounds across which the likes of Counter-Strike, Team Fortress and any number of RTS title would thrive. Such dens, with an almost prohibition-grade aura of suspicion and mystery to the outsider, were the haven of the hallowed few – the originators of a dedication to digital competition that is influencing, with greater regularity each year, the economics and culture of gaming as a whole.

Over the past decade, that humble ripple from a darkened room has churned itself into a tidal wave that demands entire stadiums to satisfy its attendees, exhaustingly modern celebrities for fans to ogle over and the formation of entire sub-cultures to better serve the dynamic and interests of a new breed of player and spectator. It’s a world that you’ll have undoubtedly heard about, but unless you’re already a part of it, you’re unlikely to understand the fervour that surrounds it and the dedication it breeds.

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In all likelihood, you’ve read reports on the number of spectators and the amount of prize money awarded to the winners of the biggest competitions. Last year a prize pool of a staggering $10,923,980 featured in Dota 2’s ‘The International’, a two-week event compromising of ‘playoffs’ and ‘main event’ components. Entire broadcasting streams were set up specifically to cater for the millions watching around the round, with different commentary options depending on your knowledge of the game and its top-level players. Yes: if you knew nothing about Dota 2 there was a commentary team setup specifically to serve you.

League Of Legends is equally significant, its fanbase arguably the most passionate and dedicated of all with entire squads of professional cosplayers acting as the cheerleaders for the most famous and well-supported teams. For last year’s world championships, over 100 hours of official content was broadcast live to an audience hungry to consume action and news. Peak viewing figures for the final hit 11.2 million unique spectators, each of those averaging 67 minutes of viewing time.

If nothing else, these numbers and those supporters highlight that this isn’t the simple offshoot of the wider videogame framework that many like to categorise it as – this is an entire industry in and of itself, featuring its own economy and sense of purpose. It’s a formation that could easily withstand the effects of oft-quoted fears surrounding the ‘death of consoles’ or ‘gamergate’.

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While the quality and nature of the games themselves generate the initial interest, it’s the foresight of the developers behind them – in this instance Valve (Dota 2) and Riot Games (League Of Legends) – to promote and serve a spectator crowd that has allowed them to grow into the behemoths they are today. To create celebrity and fandom, you must properly nurture it within an arena that perfectly meets its needs and wants. That, perhaps more than anything else, is what these studios have done and continue to focus on.

They’re not, however, the only ones trying to do it. Late to the party they might be, but developers of more traditional experiences are keen to cater to both the eSports-style player and the potentially lucrative market of spectators. Understandably excited by the reach eSports has garnered for itself in a relatively short space of time and the success it has had in carving out social communities within a landscape that, rightly or wrongly, is typically associated with loners, we’re now at a phase where a significant chunk of game design is aimed at courting this crowd.

Both Sony and Microsoft included twitch.tv streaming and video uploading capabilities within the framework of the PS4 and Xbox One in order to tap into the spectator culture that eSports had long since validated. Likewise, even the most mainstream of console-focused shooters, like Halo 5, consult with professional gamers to get their take on weapon balancing and map design with a view to appealing to the most dedicated audience sectors. While you might not consider yourself a part of it, or even lay claim to any interest of it, you can feel safe betting on the fact that you’ve played games that have been influenced significantly by the increasing popularity of the eSports movement.

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As with most advancements in entertainment and culture, then, it’s the mainstream itself that is now trying to play catch-up. Despite the mainstream having spawned it as a sub culture, eSports has become something bigger, something hard to pin down and control. One of the best examples of this can be seen in the most recent Visceral Games release, Battlefield Hardline. Here is a venerable FPS series that regularly found itself on the playlist of those early competitive gaming adopters, Battlefield’s original incarnations providing a scale and diversity that the majority of its peers could only dream about.

Customarily, Battlefield has always been about that sense of scale. Huge numbers of players playing simultaneously across maps easily big enough to handle them. While this can be an exhilarating experience for the competitors, the size of the arenas makes the idea of spectating as confusing as it is underwhelming. At best only a tiny portion of the map would be visible to an onlooker, unless the viewpoint was pulled back so far that the result was akin to watching terminally depleted ant colonies do battle.

Enter, then, Hardline’s five versus five multiplayer options. Set across small sections of the game’s larger maps, these player-limited game modes are designed specifically with eSports in mind. More rigidly-defined maps make it easier to view the action and allow you to make sure you’ve got a consistent angle on any firefights.

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“eSports is something that has really been taking off over the last few years and it’s something that a lot of people on the [Battlefield Hardline] team are very passionate about,” explains Visceral Games’ vice president Steve Papoutsis. “We also expanded our spectator capacity. Now, rather than take away one of the participant slots, we’ve allowed up to four people to spectate a match. We’re really hoping the streaming and eSports community enjoy those modes and pick them up.”

Hoping that such ideas are picked up and shared is one thing, but it can’t be achieved without the kind of game design blend that will attract the sorts of players that are worth watching. In addition to the constricted playing space, a number of Hardline’s five versus five game modes have been built from the ground up with the high-level competitive style of play that viewers want to watch in mind. It’s a move away from Battlefield’s original selling point of lengthy battles that take place over expansive areas and towards something much closer to Counter-Strike, a game that has for many years shown incredible consistency when it comes to courting a legion of eager spectators.

“[Hardline’s] five versus five, permadeath modes are something that really appeals to a specific part of the community and we were really interested in supporting that,” continues Papoutsis. “We created the Crosshair and Rescue [game modes] to do that. We’ve been working with a group called The Game Changers, which is comprised of some of the best Battlefield players in the world and some of the community’s most active YouTubers, throughout the development of Hardline. We brought them in, showed them early builds, asked for their feedback and tried to incorporate as much of that as possible where it makes sense.”

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Shooters have a long history of involvement in the competitive gaming scene as both a vehicle for elite competition and as a content type that’s easy to package for spectators. It’s not by any means, however, the only genre to be influenced by the rise of eSports. While there are a number of high-profile fighting game tournaments each year, particularly those featuring Street Fighter professionals, beat ‘em ups are, in general, a less popular proposition in this arena. That doesn’t stop new entries from falling under eSports’ umbrella of influence, however.

Mortal Kombat has, for the most part, been less concerned with precision than its genre bedfellows; concentrating more on visual impact and outlandish happenings than supporting an environment of steadfast fair play of the type required for professional competition. Mortal Kombat X, though, seems to have moved further than its ancestors to embrace this kind of equality.

“eSports has definitely become a lot bigger and it continues to get bigger every year. We had that in mind going into [Mortal Kombat X],” Han Lowe, senior producer on Mortal Kombat X, tells us. “Obviously, we want to make the game accessible to the casual players, but we definitely want things in there for the professional players that really want to dig in deep.”

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One of the ways Lowe set about doing this was to, in a similar way to Battlefield Hardline, bring in players of a professional standard during development to garner their opinions on character design and balancing. This resulted in telling instances in which such players would, in Lowe’s words, “do things that we just didn’t think about”. Clearly, this highlights a new mindset with which certain players approach these games – a mindset that even the content creators themselves have yet to catch up with and understand.

“We like to think that we cover all of the bases,” Lowe explains, “but in reality different things are going to be discovered by different people.” That sense of discovery is an intended theme in the finished product, too, with more effort spent on providing the kind of options that top-level players require in order to dedicate themselves to a single game over the long-term. “We want to give you everything we can to help you be as prepared as possible and allow you to, in some sense, customise your gameplay and really go at it and have success,” says Lowe. In turn, the facilitating of elite play leads to the creation of an audience that wants to watch it.

The changing face of competitive gaming has caught other games and individuals slightly off guard, though, with some surprising cases. You would think that Blizzard, off the back of the success of StarCraft, would be fully tooled up and knowledgeable about what is and isn’t going to work in the eSports realm. That’s not necessarily the case…

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“When we first started working on Hearthstone we thought ‘Oh yeah, this could totally be an eSport’. Then, after all the excitement and tournaments that happened last year, we then knew it was going to be a really big deal – much bigger than we’d thought.” Those are the words of Eric Dodds, Hearthstone’s game director and someone that has been involved in the project from the start.

Hearthstone has created celebrities of many of its top players, from those that specialise in tournament play to those with Twitch channels that have become invaluable sources of edutainment for a legion of followers. It’s something Dodds is still coming to terms with. “The eSports thing is already in full swing [for Hearthstone]. Last year I was blown away by the number of people who are engaged in that side of things, the number of tournaments that happen and the number of people that watched our world championships at Blizzcon. This year there are even more tournaments going on. I think there’s hardly a weekend that goes by where there isn’t some large Hearthstone tournament going on. It’s certainly something that we feel passionate about and is important and the community has told us that. So, yeah, eSports is super-important and it’s growing like crazy with Hearthstone.”

Hearthstone is, like Dota 2 and League of Legends, one of the few examples of a game that is as revered as a broadcast as it is as a game. Certainly, there are people that spend more time watching others playing the game than they do actually playing themselves – leading to a new environment in which games are becoming a semi-passive broadcasting medium in a similar vein to television and movies. The difference, though, is that it’s people power that decides which games are worthy of such status. Unlike the near-guarantee that a primetime slot on the right channel will see your TV show hit reasonable ratings, the nature of internet consumption means only the most interesting entities will raise themselves above what is essentially a level playing field.

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It’s a fact that’s not lost on Rich Jolly, co-founder of dedicated shooter studio Splash Damage and a man sweating about the upcoming launch of the free-to-play Dirty Bomb. “It would be great if Dirty Bomb did become part of that world, but we’re not going to come out and champion ourselves as the next big eSports game. That kind of thing is decided by the players, not us. The big mantra with any game is that once it’s out there it’s not your game it’s the community’s game. I think some developers are too arrogant when they try and hold on to everything. We have to listen and react to what players are telling us.”

Jolly describes Splash Damage as a company that came to life out of a community that “used to play games in competing clans against each other” and, such as, “that competitive nature has propagated every game that we’ve done.” He is, therefore, someone with a keen understanding – from both player and developer perspective – of what is required from a game to have it appeal to this new competitive crowd.

His point regarding the power of crowds highlights that the eSports community is one that is very much self-regulated. You can push towards, market to and appease the audience, but ultimately it’s not the developers that have the final say about what is and isn’t a good game for eSports. At best you can add the depth and the spectator functions, you can consult with professional gamers and the most popular broadcasters, but even the best laid plans can be undone by an audience that meets your efforts with indifference.

This is leading to increased efforts from developers in understanding players and what appeals to them, which can only be a good thing in an industry in which for so long the design and creation process was a source of mystery to the uninitiated. That sense of enhanced inclusion is galvanising a medium that has previously struggled with a sense of identity against other, more entrenched and aged, forms of entertainment and social interaction. In this area it’s eSports that has much to teach the world of ‘traditional’ game design. Genuinely, the offspring has become the mentor.

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eSports Are Changing Game Design