e-Sports are a booming business, with million-dollar prize pools and legions of adoring, fanatical fans rooting for their respective countries' teams as they fight on a glitzy, virtual battlefield. And of course, since these games make truckloads of cash every year, developers are rushing left and right to create their own mammoth, stadium-filling hit, while simultaneously ignoring the reasons that these games made it big in the first place.
I’ve been involved in early closed beta tests for the current top three MOBA titles (LoL, DotA 2, SMITE) and manged to get a behind-the-scenes look at how simple multiplayer titles like League became a worldwide phenomenon. In this part, I'll discuss community relations and why social media and streaming is more effective than beating people over the head with alleged "eSports features" before you even have a community. But how do you build up said community? Let's find out!
Thousands gather to watch a game of LoL.
An important thing to note about competitive video games is that every major e-Sport title from Starcraft to Counter-Strike had one thing in common at release: none of them were actively marketing themselves as “competitive,” until they already had a massive and fanatic base of players spectating and participating in fan-hosted events. In fact, most of these games have their roots in free, non-commercial mods like Defense of the Ancients and Counter-Strike, or took an established concept and turned it on its head to great acclaim. But regardless of origin, all these games had one other significant thing in common that people often tend to forget:
Their competitive scenes were established and popularized by the fans and not the devs.
And yes, while some of the newer titles helped foster an environment that encouraged eSports (see below), the power to decide the game's future was ultimately in the hands of the consumer, and not corporations or studios ramming "eSports" down people's throats when they didn't ask for it.
Seriously guys, not EVERY game has to be an eSport. Almost all the major titles in the scene right now started off without grand aspirations or debut tournaments and for good reason. Even Hi-Rez Studios took two financially risky and niche games before they finally “got it right”, and one of those was based on an established and beloved cult franchise. If you’re a brand-new studio or a massive company (looking at you, Ubisoft) that’s just now dipping into the MOBA honeypot, don’t expect it to get anywhere near SMITE or League unless your player base demands competitive coverage and tournaments. Otherwise you just end up looking desperate or greedy for a slice of that glorious eSports pie.
Another thing all successful modern eSports have are both official and fanmade hubs for competitive players to learn new builds, tactics and map strategies. Sites like ESEA, MobaFire, and of course, Twitch.tv provide communities and guides to help shape their respective comp scenes, something that games like Firefall and Bllodline Champions never ended up getting.
Here again we can learn from SMITE, which focused heavily on livestream shows, community relations and social media instead of buying a friggin’ bus that cost millions of dollars that could have been spent on developing the game. And thanks to SMITE TV, which supported early “celeb” streamers like DryBear (who eventually got hired by Hi-Rez) and Smitten, the scene was built around its fans and now features a tournament with a million-dollar prize pool funded by fans. Take note devs, Hi-Rez is doing it right.
Knowing the mentality of your player base and shaping the game and its services around said mentality is the key to organically growing and maintaining a solid fanbase. But by declaring the game an eSport in the first trailer and making competitive features before you know your audience, you effectively doom that game to an endless purgatory of unsatisfied gamers and increasingly cartoonish attempts to justify your decisions (see above).
When all's said and done, it doesn't matter how many pro teams you consult or how ESPN-ish you make your interface, if the community is not properly supported and encouraged from early Closed Beta onwards, your game will never be an eSport. Period. It's ultimately up to the players to decide whether or not they want a competitive scene, and I really wish developers would stop pushing this idea that every new free-to-play title needs a screaming crowd of fanboys filling the Staples center to be successful. The LoL players aren't giving up LoL any time soon, and the sooner these devs realize it, the sooner we can get over this ridiculous deluge of garbage MOBA clones like Strife and Arena of Fate.