The lights are on
Last week, we discussed what the term eSports meant and made a case for why people might enjoy it. This week, we talk about the core games and franchises that make up the eSports scene.
Just as traditional sports include different games like football, baseball, and hockey, eSports are comprised of many diverse games that are considered competitive. Titles like StarCraft II, Super Street Fighter IV, and DotA are dissimilar games that are played at the highest level. The developers of these titles spend countless hours carefully crafting and balancing the competitive experience for gamers. Often, developers make them free-to-play in an effort to draw in more people. They also make additions that cater specifically to the competitive audience.
Making a game, thrusting it out to the eSports community, and declaring it an eSports title is a brutally difficult task for a development studio. MLG founder and president Sundance DiGiovanni commented on this issue in a recent interview with Game Informer that, “If the game is not up to snuff, the community will not stay around, they will not be engaged.” If a game is fun and provides a depth of complexity, a difficult learning curve to master, and is simultaneously accessible, then it might be picked up as a competitive game into the eSports world. However, there are no guarantees.
Without further ado, here are some of the titles that have been taken up by gamers both professional and casual as the current mainstays of eSports.
Photo courtesy of Major League Gaming
No one can talk about electronic sports without mentioning StarCraft. The franchise has so dominated eSports that it is ludicrous to think of another real-time strategy game ever seriously vying for dominance in the competitive space anytime soon. StarCraft I and II pit players against one another to harvest resources, build structures and units, and out-maneuver and out-wit their adversary. It plays like chess in space, if both players could make moves whenever they wanted, could build new pieces, and couldn’t see what their opponent was doing.
Professional play was highly popularized in South Korea following StarCraft’s initial launch in 1998 and continues to this day with StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty doesn’t look like it will slow down before the release of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. Blizzard developed the sequel with both casual gamers and the eSports community in mind. Replays of matches are automatically recorded and observation modes are seamlessly included for tournament play. A tiered matchmaking system gives players a sense of how well they are doing in comparison to other players and provides opponents of an appropriate skill level. As far as eSports games go, you couldn’t ask for better.
There are currently three major titles battling for attention and players in the competitive Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) space: Valve’s Dota 2, League of Legends, and Heroes of Newerth. All three games play similarly, with players taking on the role of a single champion with a certain set of abilities on a team of five. Teamwork is essential to earn gold and experience and gain the advantage over the enemy team. The end goal of every match is to push down three separate routes to the opponent’s base and destroy their central structure.
Games in the MOBA genre are specifically designed for eSports competition. Features like constant balancing tweaks, new characters, and observation and spectating modes put these games at the forefront of the eSports gaming scene. The struggle to bring in as many players as possible has pushed all three to be free-to-play. The competition for market share will only increase when Dota 2 officially releases and Blizzard unleashes its own MOBA title, Blizzard All-Stars.
From the heyday of arcades up through present day, fighting games have been a hugely competitive arena. The genre is heavily reliant on reaction time, combo memorization, and timing. Super Street Fighter IV is one of the most popular fighting games in eSports due to its built-in replay functionality, stat tracking, and constant balancing tweaks – though longstanding philosophical differences between Capcom and MLG have kept it out of MLG’s tournaments.
Sundance DiGiovanni stated in the previously mentioned interview that, “Capcom’s view of the world is very much a grassroots view and there’s just… complications there. We don’t seem to be speaking the same language.” Fighting game matches generally last under five minutes and are characterized by blazing-fast action and reaction. The slightest misstep can cost a player the round and subsequently the match. This kind of quick and brutally competitive gameplay helps people who aren’t familiar with fighting games to enjoy spectating professional play. Other popular fighters include Soul Caliber V and the rebooted Mortal Kombat, which have both gained in popularity since the launch of their newest iterations.
The PC FPS
Long ago, Quake was considered by many to be the pinnacle of competitive FPS gameplay. However, after the release of Quake III Arena in 1999, the series went downhill, stopping just short of obscurity with the release of the free-to-play Quake Live in 2010. Luckily, another game rose to fill Quake’s competitive shoes: Counter-Strike.
Since its retail release in 2000, Counter-Strike has remained the most-played FPS in eSports. The game sets two teams against each other to complete objectives or eliminate the opposing team. Counter Strike 1.6, the newest build of the original game, is widely regarded as requiring the most highly refined reflexes and tactics. Professional team captains develop strategies, spend hours poring over maps, and coordinate with their team members to secure victory. With the impending release of Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, it remains to be seen if the eSports professionals will switch, or remain playing Counter Strike 1.6.
Another question on the horizon of PC FPS electronic sports is how upcoming free-to-play competitors like Warface and Planetside 2 will affect the eSports landscape. DiGiovanni spoke on this subject. “Well we got our hands on Halo 4 and it was really exciting. The 343 folks were kind enough to involve us and have us get some play test time on that; that was great. The new gears stuff looks great. Planetside looks amazing!” said DiGiovanni. “They’re going to come to the event, they’re really trying to build up from the ground up to support this. It has a great look to it and a great feel to it. Ubisoft with Shoot Mania. I mean, it’s crazy.”
Halo & Call of Duty
Halo and Call of Duty play a role in the competitive shooter arena, even though neither is as popular as Counter-Strike. Both titles boast large followings in North America, but their appeal has been limited in foreign markets like Europe and South Korea. Though their popularity as eSports has waned slightly in the last couple years, both Halo 4 and Call of Duty Black Ops 2 have set their sights on rectifying the situation. With the live streaming website Twitch.tv coming to Xbox Live and Call of Duty Black Ops 2 promising eSports support, the competitive future looks bright for both of these franchises.
The Niche Titles
There are some games that develop their own followings that never become large enough to reach the biggest tournaments, but maintain a steady and dedicated fan-base. These titles include Super Smash Bros. Melee, King of Fighters, Team Fortress 2, Gears of War, and FIFA. While a large number of people play these games in a competitive manner, the followings for these games hasn’t grown large enough to warrant featuring them in the largest tournaments, or they are difficult for spectators to comprehend or enjoy watching.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of every eSports game, it covers most of what we believe to be the most important titles. Electronic sports are a constantly changing medium for competition, and these games are likely to be replaced in the next year or two with other competitive titles. However, before that happens, we will be working to go into more depth on various titles – so come back for lots more eSports related content in the coming weeks.