Esports meets mainstream: Build a great game first, esports can come later

by Daniel Rosen Jun 13 2017
Thumbnail image courtesy of E3 / ESL

E3’s press conferences are finally over, and that means you’ve seen tons of exciting new games, one terrifying new way to eat bananas and heard publishers tell you (or shout at you, in one particular case) about how important esports are to the future of gaming.

Personally, I’d like to believe that’s true, if only because my continued employment relies on it, but I’m always wary of game publishers bearing esports. Over the last few years, we’ve heard plenty of developers tell us about how their upcoming game is going to be an esport, and it almost never happens.

There are some exceptions to this rule. Before Street Fighter V came out, Capcom was ready to talk about the game’s then-future esports presence, but they could only do that because Street Fighter had a grassroots competitive scene for years before Capcom stepped in to fund their own pro tour. Meanwhile, a lot of publishers are trying to manufacture an esports scene for their game before it even comes out. The fact of the matter is that all your favorite esports were accidents, and you can’t force an accident.

This year at E3, EA put a pretty firm foot forward in terms of trying to build an esports presence for some of their games. EA has worked hard to build competitive scenes for FIFA and Madden over the last few years, but they haven’t yet broken into the top tier of professional competitive gaming. Then, this year at E3, EA affirmed their commitment to building a Battlefield One esports scene by creating a specifically designed competitive mode. They also presented a multiplayer PvP Star Wars: Battlefront II demo complete with commentary that seemed designed to say, “Hey, maybe esports?”

Then, at Microsoft’s conference we saw an announcement demo for a new game called The Darwin Project punctuated by the shoutiest shoutcaster to ever exist, which all but said “this is our esports game.” Bethesda announced a $1 million Quake Champions tournament at their conference, with ESL running tournaments in the lead up to QuakeCon.

The Darwin Project, Quake Champions, Battlefield One and Star Wars: Battlefront II all have something very important in common: They aren’t esports right now. The Darwin Project doesn’t even exist yet and Battlefield One and Star Wars Battlefront aren’t really played competitively in the same numbers as even a smaller esports title like Street Fighter. Quake Champions is an interesting one, given that it’s the newest game in a series that is one of the earliest esports games, but Quake doesn’t exactly have a thriving esports scene right now, which gives Champions the incredibly difficult task of rebooting a mostly dead game. ESL can do a lot in terms of building infrastructure, but if it turns out that people aren’t that interested in the game, there isn’t much more that they can do.

That’s not to say that no one is going to play these games competitively or that they absolutely could not become popular esports. It’s also not to say they will definitely be bad games, I haven’t played them, they could all be amazing. That’s not what’s happening here. Theoretically, any game could be great, and any competitively balanced multiplayer game could be an esport. The problem with that “could” is that no currently popular esports franchise was specifically conceived as an esport in advance, and few had esports as part of their messaging before launch.

Riot Games played a small part in LoL’s early competitive scene, but things like the LCS didn’t come around until much later. Valve effectively leaves CS:GO alone outside of the Majors and even though the first International was held while Dota 2 was in Beta, Valve was building off of years of DotA tournaments. Street Fighter had a grassroots scene before Capcom stepped in, and Nintendo has yet to step in to support Smash Bros. in a significant way. The most popular esports games were accidents, and publishers and developers stepped in to profit off of and help build scenes that their players created.

The one exception, for now, is Overwatch.

Blizzard has run a handful of events for Overwatch in its first year, but says they won’t be launching the Overwatch League until Q3 2017. Blizzard spent a year hiring people, figuring out their system, and courting non-endemic organizations to get involved. In the meantime, they’ve choked most third parties out of the system, and whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you, but they clearly wanted to build up Overwatch’s fan base while setting themselves up for esports success. We don’t know if it’ll work yet, but they aren’t trying to pretend they can just have an esports scene on day one.

It’s easy to see why publishers that don't have games with professional level competitive scenes attached to them would want the kind of brand awareness and fan loyalty having a popular esports title brings. Riot and Valve make a pretty decent chunk of money from LoL, Dota 2 and CS:GO. But all three of those cash cows were great games first. The esports came later.

That doesn’t mean that we won’t all be watching the The Darwin Project World Finals in two years, and it doesn't mean that game won't be a good one. It just means that it's more important to focus on making a great game before thinking about how cool it would be if that game was an esport.

Grade: C- — No one’s saying that you definitely can’t manufacture an esports scene before a game launches, it just hasn’t happened yet in any significant way. Meanwhile at E3, EA’s reliance on YouTube and Twitch personalities, coupled with Microsoft’s embarrassing shouting man makes it seem like these companies don’t necessarily know how to nurture organic esports communities. There’s always hope, but it all feels a little too cynical to me.

Daniel Rosen is a news editor for theScore esports. You can follow him on Twitter.