The esports juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down as this flourishing sector is poised to smash through the $1 billion barrier this year. Games like CS:GO, Dota 2, League of Legends and Overwatch have enjoyed a tremendous boost as a result of the phenomenon that is competitive gaming.
It has turned gamers into multimillionaires and attracted all manner of commercial tie-ups, so developers are desperate to break into the esports scene. Yet not all games are suitable and MMO titles in particular must overcome several obstacles if they are to crack this potentially lucrative market.
The most successful games in the esports arena are multiplayer online battle arena titles like LoL and Dota 2. First person shooters like CS:GO and Call of Duty are thriving too, with teams like Astralis becoming rich and famous as a result of their successes over the past year. Now Fortnite, which became the most popular game in the world in 2018, is bidding to muscle in. The battle royale game’s developer, Epic Games, has stumped up a $100 million war chest to ensure that it overtakes Dota 2 to become the richest esport in the world. Yet it is problematic for esports fans to follow, as they require the camera to follow a number of perspectives, and this is one of many hurdles Fortnite and PUBG must overcome if they are to succeed.
This brings us on to MMO games – massive multiplayer online games – a prominent genre that has been almost entirely skipped by the esports craze. These games sit at the opposite end of the spectrum to Fortnite, as they are large, complex and time-consuming, but they face many similar challenges in trying to crack esports. When a large number of players are taking part simultaneously over Internet connection, as is the case with MMOs, it can be difficult to turn it into a spectator sport.
You cannot have competitive gaming without fans and they need something clear, compelling, exciting and easy to follow if they are to be captivated. They fuel the craze by streaming big tournaments, hero worshiping the stars and even wagering on the outcomes at sites like Unikrn.com. It is challenging for the camera to follow the action in MMO games, and this is problematic. The biggest genre within MMO games is MMORPGs, role playing games. The joy of playing these games is largely derived from exploring a huge world and gathering loot and experience points along the way in order to enhance your chances of success. In esports, this is problematic as it damages the competitive aspect. To succeed at CS:GO and Dota 2 you need greater skill and strategy than your opponents, not simply a more powerful weapon.
This is a huge roadblock that Fortnite has faced as it struggles to win over sceptical fans. Esports require competitive balance to maintain integrity, and when developer Epic Games launched the Infinity Blade weapon it blew all notions of competition out of the water. It had to pull the weapon, delivering an embarrassing apology as it admitted, “we messed up”. The Infinity Blade gave the player wielding it an outrageous advantage, as it carried 200 health, 200 shield, the ability to jump huge distances and to dish out 75 damage with every single blow. It caused chaos at a flagship $1 million tournament and massively dented Epic Games’ credibility. It has since toyed with innovations like the Boom Box, which have also been slated for ruining competitive balance.
In an MMORPG, improving your character’s abilities while embarking upon quests is a staple, but it will not fly in esports. If any developer is to truly crack the competitive gaming scene, they need to ditch the loot system, as it is not only unfair, it can make viewing boring too. Yet that risks alienating players and killing off one of the great pleasures of the genre – players love creating characters from scratch and nurturing them over time as they improve – so it is a real conundrum.
Blade & Soul could be an interesting blueprint that other MMORPGs could follow in order to succeed in esports. Its combat is all about the player’s talent and dexterity, as opposed to abilities gathered in loot. Yet character level still goes up over time, giving experienced players an advantage over newcomers, so it will also struggle to appear competitive to esports fans.
Pace is another issue for MMO games: the successful esports titles move at a rapid pace, packed full of breakneck action and thrilling battles that allow commentators to stoke up the excitement, whereas MMO games are often plodding affairs that take a while to develop. It is interesting to note the advent of MMO games where character progression is massively speeded up by the developers, something RuneScape is exploring. It involves a huge number of players starting from square one on a brand new server, and they are able to develop their characters at warp speed, with the simple goal of survival driving their actions. It is last man standing writ large, or The Hunger Games of esports, and it can make for thrilling action as alliances are formed and broken and tense battles ensue across the map.
This makes MMOs much more fun to watch, and it could be the future. Games like World of Warcraft have only had limited success in the esports arena, as they do not lend themselves to player versus player battles that people queue up to watch, so the sort of innovation RuneScape is exploring could be crucial in MMOs’ chances of success.
It is also worth noting that there are other MMOs that stand a better chance of flourishing in the competitive gaming sector than RPGs. MMO shooters and survival titles have had more success as esports, as their scope is less ambitious. World of Tanks is a good example of a title that has enjoyed some success in esports, while Ark: Survival Evolved is another. Yet their massiveness is up for debate.
Perhaps the genre will simply polarise, with big, complex MMOs that focus on quests, loot and character development retaining a diehard fan base at one end, and games with simplified combat systems, development on fast forward and rapid character builds pulling in esports audiences at the other. The latter will allow newcomers to join games without feeling as though they have no chance against powerful veterans, and it would be interesting to see MMO games feature more prominently in esports in the future.