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What makes a successful eSports game

by Daniel Stanford on 03/07/17 10:34:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutras community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

eSports is a rapidly growing business, to say the least. According to Super Data Research more than 213 million people were watching competitive games during 2016 and the value of the global eSport industry was estimated to 898 million dollars, which was a 19% increase from 2015. We have for a while seen the business models in games change from having a fixed price to being free to play with optional subscriptions, skins or other things to purchase. Making new games with eSports in mind is now a new type of business model that has arisen to increase the profits. This leads us to the topic - what is it that actually makes a successful eSport game?

According to eSport earnings these are the top 4 games by total tournament prize pools offered:

1. Dota 2: A MOBA game released in 2013 by Valve. The highest prize pool offered so far is a stunning $20,770,640.00, which was offered in the 2016 championship, The International. 
2. League of Legends: Yet another MOBA released in 2009 by Riot Games. The top prize pool in a tournament is $5,070,000.00, which was offered in the world championship of 2016.
3. Counter-Strke: Global Offensive: A first person shooter released by Valve in 2012. The highest prize pool so far is WESG (World Electronic Sport Games) of 2016 with $1,500,000.00.
4. Starcraft 2: A real time strategy game released in 2010 by Blizzard Entertainment. To date the highest prize pool is from the world championship 2016, which offered $500,000.00.

This list also correlate very closely to the biggest tournament earnings 2016, even though CS:GO and Starcraft 2 has dropped a few positions here.

So what have these three game developers (Valve, Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment) done to make these games successful as an eSport? There are several factors which lead to such a success and I will be covering what I believe is 5 of the most important ones, in which some games do better than others.

Having regular updates to the game

This is one of the most crucial things for an eSports game. If the game isn't balance and bug free, this will completely destroy the competitive spirit within the game. Therefore developers must listen and act to any valuable feedback that is received from the community. Even though one may question if things could always be done better, Valve is an example of a developer doing a great job with Dota 2. This game is receiving regular updates and not just balance updates, but updates that make the game more compelling to watch. Recently there was a major update made which basically intensified the entire action in the game, making it more fun for the community to watch when professional matches are going down. Making major updates that greatly impact the game is of course always a risk, but it may also be a requirement to bring the game to the next level. As long as the voice of the community is being heard and listened to, it shouldn't be a problem.

Making sure that the player base is big

Even if one would make a flawless, competitive game it won't succeed as an eSport game unless it has a big player base and community. When creating a new game it's important to create one that will appeal to people. For instance, we already have two very successful MOBA games, Dota 2 and LoL. These games are obviously very fun to play, but would it be wise creating a new one and having to compete with these two? Well, Blizzard thought so when they created Heroes of the Storm, but they also seem to believe that everything they touch will turn into gold. Jokes aside, Blizzard are awesome, but the Heroes of the Storm player base is indeed very low. I haven't found any official numbers, but assumptions that have been made over the internet is pointing towards 100k+ monthly players, whilst Dota 2 has more than ten million and League of Legends more than a hundred million.

A part from Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard also recently released Overwatch which is a first person shooter. This game was developed towards eSports and has about 25 million monthly players. In other words being very successful. So what's the difference between this and Heroes of the Storm? Well, Overwatch isn't really competing against any other eSport game. You have CS:GO which is a first person shooter as well, but the games vary a lot in game play as CS:GO is a lot more realistic where you purchase real weapons, while Overwatch is futuristic with different abilities to use with every character, creating a whole other level of experience.

Furthermore, allowing players themselves to create content to a game is a very smart move to bring players to it, as it creates a lot of fun and interesting content. Blizzard did this in Starcraft 1 & 2, as well as in Warcraft 3 by allowing custom made maps. This is something Valve has now done with Dota 2 as well. In CS:GO you find the same customization as you're able to create your own maps.
 
Easy to learn, but hard to master

This is another thing that developers must have in mind if the game is to succeed as an eSport. First of all it should be easy to learn the basics. Developers can help with this by creating easy to understand tutorials. Preferably they should be translated into different languages and have voice acting so as many as possible can learn it as easy as possible. If the game isn't easy enough to learn and get into it, this will kill the player base and any chances of the game making it as an eSport.

Once it's made sure the basics are easy enough, the game has to have qualities that gives it a very high skill cap to master. If anyone could master the game, then where would the competition be? All of the top 4 eSport games mentioned have an extremely high skill cap. Not only does a good strategy come into part where you have to outsmart your opponent, but you also have to be able to adapt quickly to different situations and have the skill to know what actually is the right decision to make. Not only this, but things like having a great finger technique and being able to keep focus at all time matters as well. In a successful eSport game there are many different components that require a lot of practice and the better you get within the game, the more does the small things matter and it becomes a matter of optimizing them.

Starcraft 2 is for instance partially a game about being able to counter your opponent and having a good strategy planned out, but it is also a game of being mentally focused and multi tasking as fast as you can. Loosing focus for a second might cost you the entire game. It's such an important thing that there's a thing called APM, which means actions per minute in which skill is partially measured.
 
Spectator mode needs to be there

Even though you manage to do all the previous things right, the game won't make it as an eSport if there isn't a good spectator mode. eSports is built around people watching professional matches going down and no one will watch if it's not easy and fun. All the top four games have very well made spectator modes. In Dota 2 you are for instance able to see the entire map and where all the players are, different data like how much gold and experience each player has and what items they have. This is important as the community needs to understand exactly what is going on in the match to be able to enjoy it to the fullest.

Getting the right people to comment the games

This is necessarily not something that will make or break a game as an eSport, but if you get the right commentators on matches it can definitely boost the experience for people, hence the number of people watching. First of all the commentators needs to have a great understanding of the game to be able to make good assumptions of what's going on. Nobody likes listening to a noob talking, but want to be enlightened and really understand what's going on in the game. eSports is definitely very tough to comment as there's usually a lot of things going on, which may require more than one commentator. In such case they need to be able to work well together so that they don't speak over one another. Commentating on eSports certainly isn't an easy job, but doing it well can really bring the viewer numbers up, hence making the game more successful.

Please feel free to comment on your experience and insight in what actually makes a game succeed in the growing world of eSports.


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