So, Overwatch’s eSports scene has pretty much fallen flat lately.
It seemed almost impossible this time last year that a massive zeitgeist of online competitive gaming like Overwatch would ever fall down as an eSport. LAN Events were popular and the game itself was immensely popular too – everyone was focused on it, for better and sometimes for worse. Blizzard even went as far as to start detailing an Overwatch League, fostering the growing popularity with big-money prizes. How could it fail? The same is true of many other games – Splatoon was ripe for eSports dominance, but it fell short. ARMS was even pitched as a contender for something like EVO, but people still seem to prefer Smash Bros and even Pokkén Tournament. Street Fighter 5 just never even made much of a dent – either in the competitive scene or indeed, in sales as a regular game.
Why are so many games so keenly angled at becoming eSports giants falling short? Well, this is my personal take on the thing so take it or leave it.
Hype is a great thing in some cases; the Metroid 4 reveal was a marvel for what effectively was just an animated logo. It can also be a massive killer – see Mass Effect: Andromeda, a game which could never hope to live up to the expectations people had for it. Creating a game is fantastic and marketing it is a given – one of the main reasons I believe the Wii U failed so badly was a lack of meaningful marketing – but once the game is out there in peoples hands, that’s it. The game lives and indeed, sometimes dies on its own merits. If it cannot stand up to scrutiny or extensive play, then your game ends up like For Honor – decent, I guess, but lacking interest overall.
The success of a game is heavily skewed on what gamers feel about it at the time of its release. If it takes off, great. If it doesn’t, tough luck. Trends and attitudes shift wildly on a daily, weekly and monthly basis so what is hot one day is tomorrows fish and chips wrapper, so to speak. This is an industry where you get a very short window to shine, and most games burn bright but fade within a few weeks. That’s actually a good thing; it’s a pity some good games get swept aside but it’s also important that we sweep away the dead weight to stop the rotting corpse stinking up our industry, so the expedience of which things move on is generally preferable to the alternative.
And yes, there are a few key exceptions – Grand Theft Auto V still sells by the truckload, and Pokémon is a guaranteed hit, but these are anomalous results that even genre heavyweights like Mario, Tomb Raider and Halo can’t match.
The reason I say this is because for me, to understand why so many potential eSports games fall down, it’s important to understand how the market tends to work.
An eSport game has to be one of those ‘anomalous results’ – it has to transcend the typical turnover of the industry and have the kind of power and longevity of GTAV and Pokémon, like say StarCraft or Super Smash Bros., and have the kind of long tail-end that keeps people engaged. An eSports scene needs blood; new and old, and whilst it begins somewhere you need new challengers to come in at a given time, and in order for those people to come in – your game needs that kind of sales longevity that is often so anomalous to the rest of the market. If your pool of players stagnates, you end up with… well, the current state of end-game raiding in World of Warcraft, pleasing a select group that over time naturally disappears, leaving a gaping void behind. And a void of players means you can’t have interesting competitions, tournaments or indeed basic game tuning as the more dedicated group you could have had focused on has just gone bye-bye.
Overwatch, for all its success, could not escape this. Blizzard waited far too long to get the ball rolling on the Overwatch League; and by the time they get it out there, chances are good most people will have gone off to play something else and won’t be quite as interested as they once were. Splatoon and Street Fighter 5 had the same problem; they couldn’t escape the forces of the industry, and interest waned (Splatoon 2 might have another shot but we’ll wait and see how that goes). Capcom are trying very, very hard to CPR the competitional heart of Street Fighter 5, but more than a year on – it’s time to admit facts Capcom. It’s dead. It’s been dead for a long time. And you really should bury what remains, unless you want to turn to voodoo or something, I don’t know.
Games like Quake 3: Arena, StarCraft and Smash Bros. still remain strong eSports not simply because they’re good games – indeed, one can argue quite correctly that some of these newer rivals are technically better games. But rather, because there is still interest in them, and that interest is not governed by what the companies who created the games want – it’s the audience, the gamers and the fans who decide what games ultimately end up in this position.
Companies try to force this eSports thing all the time; Umbrella Corps was (another) attempt at giving the Resident Evil franchise an eSports angle – despite the fact if Capcom had any sense left in its thick skull they’d realise they already have that with the Raid Mode (it’s still hugely popular, even for the original game!) – and it failed, not just because it looked boring and shoddy and rough around the edges but because fans and eSports players alike could see the cynicism in it. Same with things like Evolve – it doesn’t work. Gamers can see this a mile off; and they tend to take a relatively dim view of it, for the most part.
If eSports was so easy a thing to break into, then most games would have by this point – and by token, eSports would effectively be governed by the typical rules of the industry. You’d always get different eSports games every year. No one game would stick around long enough for people to truly master, or learn to dominate. What’s hot today is tomorrows chip wrapper. And you’d never really see anyone truly master anything, or learn things the developers missed out on. It’d be just another online fad; and no-one wants to invest money in a fad, we’ve seen far too many of those over the years. eSports wouldn’t matter in such an instance. It’d be the same as any online multiplayer component – interest for a period and then it’s gone.
A sport needs to be mastered; so it stands to reason not every game can have the depth, complexity, strategy or indeed randomness that is required for it to quantify as a “sport”.
Do I believe some games will become eSports in the future? Absolutely. But it won’t be because the likes of Blizzard push some big competitive league; it will be because the game stubbornly refuses to go away because the gamers themselves won’t let it go away. This requires a good or even great game, and it needs to come at a time where gamers go crazy for it, and have the kind of content and support and often lifespan that keeps them interested months after the fact, if not years. And even if you get all of this – you need that final spark that kicks it into life, and makes it a legend enough to become a big, competitive scene.
Some games have all the aforementioned but never get that final, intangible spark that ignites it – I’m thinking Mario Kart 8 here, after all, it’s huge and won’t go away, has been ported and getting massive sales and people love it to bits. It’s deep and complex, has random chance thrown in and plenty of tracks and racers to learn and master. Why is it not an eSport? That’s just it. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows, really, why Mario Kart 8 falls down where Smash Bros. succeeds.
The current talk of eSports is about companies trying to capitalise on it for the sake of marketing; but that’s doomed to fail from the outset. People will reject that. Rightly so. eSports cannot and will not stand up to being another marketing mill, and those who have already succeeded in this arena will take a dim view of this largely due to the risks of bringing the whole damned thing down. And for this to work for companies, they’ll always have a new thing every month – a new game, a new thing, and eventually most of them will have to fail. No competitive scene can handle every single game. That’s why the games industry flows like a river – only a scant few games remain in place, huge boulders that refuse to budge. Have enough of those boulders and eventually you got yourself a dam, the flow stops and water becomes stagnant.
eSports as we know them can only succeed because the current crop are ‘special’, in some way – either age, experience or interest. If every multiplayer game is an eSport, then no game is really an eSport is it? The intrinsic value of the term is lost, and interest dissipates along with it.
As for Overwatch? It will be the players on which its value as an eSport lives or dies. Playing video games is fun. But as an eSport, they have to be fun to watch and the people have to be the sorts you can root for. It has to have magic. It has to work, work well and stand up without commentary from a bunch of loud, obnoxious twats screaming over what would otherwise be an interesting and self-explanatory situation (yeah, I’m still not happy about that thing from the Microsoft E3 conference – is it bad form to want to send him a signed picture of my middle finger?).
And then it has to do that the next year. And the next year. And the next year. Without losing interest, without losing players and without ultimately tampering so much with the game that people get really, really cross.
That’s eSports for you. The game has to be a true anomaly, transcending the base rules on which our industry runs.
… I’m not sure Overwatch is right now, but that’s not going to stop Blizzard from trying is it?