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The incredible rise of esports has encouraged imitators to develop the next great game. If they succeed, they could follow in the steps of Riot Games resulting in massive, stable profits for years to come in an ever changing industry. Fail and the game joins the scrap heap of imitators which are doomed to be forgotten except by a few devoted souls. That being said, successful esports games seem to range across a number of different genres making it hard to know why they succeed or fail. What follows is a collection of commonalities I have noticed in popular esports games. As I wrote this, I discovered this article is really a two parter.
Think of the most successful esports games. DOTA, League of Legends, Hearthstone, etc. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re free to start. In theory, every player can get to the top of the rankings without spending a dime. In reality, successful players probably spend some money, but the games only ask for payment after the player is hooked. They also don’t require a super expensive computer to run. These two factors dramatically reduce the cost of trying the game which significantly broadens the player pool. One of the most important aspects of a high level competitive scene is having a group of fans large enough to both play the game at a high level and to enjoy watching it. The lower the barrier to entry, the easier it is for players to join, and the more likely the game will reach a critical mass.
The skill ceiling is sky high….
The competitive players that make up the competitive scene in a game want to feel rewarded for the considerable time and energy they invest in the game. They want to know that improving their skill will result in greater success on the battlefield and leaderboard. A high skill ceiling ensures that devoted players will always have another step to climb and that the best players will rise to the top. With a low ceiling, the best players will ultimately settle at the same level thereby stagnating their progress and turning competitive matches into either a crap shoot or a foregone conclusion*, depending on how the skills are capped. This both frustrates fans who want to see diverse strategies and prevents the development of a skilled cadre of players. Individual players and teams can’t stand out if everyone performs the same at a particular level. This prevents the creation of reputations and brands that fans identify with and which invest the fans more into the game.
…, but the bottom end is fun too.
Let’s face it, most of esports game players suck. They aren’t reaching incredible levels of mastery. Hell, they probably aren’t getting out of the single player campaign or fighting bots on stupid mode. Even so, these are the people who an esports developer need to watch games, root for players, and buy merchandise. To encourage old players to return to the game and new players to join in, the game can’t be so difficult that only the masters can play. They also serve as the foundation from which eventual pro players arise. Low skill players won’t just fill in the bottom rung of the competitive pyramid, they’ll also fill in every successive rung thereby providing aspirants with a path to the top. The fewer people who enjoy a game, the fewer people who will pick it up and the lower quality the eventual pros will be. Finally, having fun at the low end makes the high end more relatable. Fans have a hard time appreciating the skill of a player unless they’ve tried to accomplish the same thing. By making the low skill end of a game entertaining, the developer is also allowing fans to discover what they love about their favorite game.
And that ends part 1. See you next week in part 2.
*If the game relies heavily on random outcomes, then the winner of a match between equally skilled players is usually the player with the luckiest roles (think poker). When the game has a low skill ceiling and little randomness, then both players know the outcome and can predict every move (tic tac toe).