Only a handful of the thousands of popular video games are worthy of being called eSports. In the same way that only a handful of gamers will ever achieve the skills necessary to become eSports stars.
So what are the qualities that turn a game into an eSport? Of course, there’s the obvious factor: competitive multiplayer functionality. But there’s a lot more to it than just the potential for competition.
The first thing a prospective eSport needs is the proper degree of difficulty: it needs a high skill ceiling, allowing the best of the best to show off their talents. If it’s relatively easy to achieve perfect play, then the accomplishments of the pros lose their appeal. When everyone is the best, the best becomes average.
“StarCraft II” is a great example. Playing “SC2” at a competitive level requires constant map awareness, management of the economies of multiple bases, excellent tactical decision making, a broad understanding of the opponent’s capabilities, and careful control of one’s army in battles where a single wrong move can spell disaster. To do all this at once requires an almost superhuman capacity to multitask.
Ironically, an eSport must also be approachable for the average player. This stands in almost direct contradiction to the requirement that a game have a high skill ceiling, and it’s one of the most difficult tightropes for a game to walk.
In order to succeed as an eSport, a title must first succeed as a game. A game that isn’t fun to play for the average Joe will not become popular, and if no one’s heard of it, no one’s going to pay to watch it played competitively.
Thus, developers seeking to create an eSport must ensure that their game is easy to jump into for the average player.
“League of Legends” has perfected this balance. While mastering its countless hero combinations and item builds requires an incredible degree of knowledge, learning to play the game at a basic level of competence is quite simple due to the limited skill set of each playable hero.
Each playable race or character must be equal to the in power and potential, or the competition becomes unfair. Nobody wants to watch a boxing match between a heavyweight champion and a middle school student. Excitement flares when two evenly matched opponents duke it out until superior skill prevails.
Thus, developers must work very carefully to ensure that no units, characters, abilities, or strategies thoroughly outclass all others. Absolute balance may never quite be achieved, but with diligent effort, a game developer can minimize any imbalances enough that they do not significantly impact competitive play.
The need for balance can also place certain limitations on a game. “StarCraft II’s” three races enjoy near fifty percent win ratios with each other, showing superb balance, but that balance flies out the window in team games, where players of multiple races may work together. Combining the capabilities of multiple races makes balance impossible, and for this reason, team “StarCraft” matches are not a major part of the eSports scene, despite their popularity among casual players.
Just the right amount of change
An eSport must be constantly growing and evolving. A developer that no longer actively supports its game will soon find its appeal as a spectator sport evaporating.
There are two sides to this, the first being balance adjustments. Every eSport will have a metagame, a constant strategic arms race between players seeking to find the best techniques. This metagame will invariably lead to players discovering that certain tactics are stronger than the developers ever intended, thus upsetting the balance.
The players are doing nothing wrong here; they’re just trying to win. The onus then falls on the developers to adjust game mechanics to resolve the newly discovered imbalance.
It’s also valuable to bring changes and new content to keep the experience fresh. A stagnant metagame will bore players and viewers alike. Every few years, “StarCraft II” releases expansion packs with new units and mechanics, while “League of Legends” and “DotA 2” regularly introduce new playable heroes. Even small balance adjustments can liven up the metagame and make things feel fresh again.
At the same time, though, excessive change can be destructive. Changing too much too often makes the game chaotic, and forces players of all skill levels to constantly relearn strategies. Nobody enjoys that.
Ease of viewing
Games are designed to display all the information a player needs in an easy to digest format. An eSport must also do the same for the spectator. Viewers need to be able to look at the game being played before them and readily grasp what’s going on, even if they’ve never played the game themselves.
Fighting games for instance simply present two opponents on a single screen, and games like “StarCraft II” and “League of Legends” feature top-down views that can readily move to any part of the battlefield.
Art design also plays an important role. Excessive spell effects or muted colors can reduce the action to muddied and incomprehensible visual soup.
Most important is the desire on a developer’s part to create a truly great eSport, not an easy thing to pull off. eSports require meticulous design and constant attention. In an industry often focused primarily on the bottom-line, that kind of long-term, high-risk investment presents a big risk.
But creating an eSport does have great rewards for those who put in the hours. Developers often take a cut of tournament proceeds, but there’s more to it than the financial gain.
eSports can serve as unorthodox but powerful marketing tools. When people hear that thousands of spectators tune in to watch a game, that speaks highly of the game. Becoming an eSport is a badge of honor that a game can wear as proof of the incredible efforts of its developers. It’s one of the best assurances of quality a consumer can see.
eSports attracts a strong community of dedicated players. This can keep a game relevant and popular long after similar titles that do not become eSports fade into obscurity.