Over 43 million individual viewers watched the League of Legends world-championship last year. That is about as much as a quarter of the American viewers that watched Super Bowl 51; a spectacle fifty-years in the making, and perhaps the most-watched broadcast event in the world.
This bodes well for eSports. Very well.
Competitive gaming has truly taken off in the last decade. Before 2009, gaming tournaments were not watched by millions of fans world-wide, but their popularity has steadily increased with effort from the “old guard” developers; viewership is steadily growing, evolving into a billion-dollar industry.
MOBAs role in the popularity of eSports
Before 43 Million people tuned in to the League of Legends championships, tiny roots were sown by a few modders a decade ago.
League of Legends itself was originally based off a Warcraft 3 modification, called Defense of the Ancients. Warcraft 3 was a logical continuation of Blizzard’s RTS-game fundamentals, and included hero units that could level up separately from the rest of the player’s army. A mod was created for Warcraft 3 that established a small symmetrical playing-field, a 5v5 heroes-only format, and the rest is eSports history. Steve Feak and the video-game designer known as “IceFrog” curated the original DotA mod for Warcraft 3. Both went on to create the standalone MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena’s, as the genre is called) League of Legends, and Defense of the Ancients 2, respectively.
DotA and League are by far the most popular eSports games watched and played in the world right now. The streamlined format and game mechanics lend to an easy-to-pick-up, hard-to-master game that is loved and watched by casuals and hardcore fans alike. Players control one hero character, and must jockey for strategic position against the other team. Each hero has multiple ability paths, and players must choose wisely to have a good team composition, with a focus on choosing strong-positional heroes providing synergy for each other hero character on the team. A balanced team game, akin to sport.
The competitive roots the original DotA planted grew into a verdant tree, which is now tended-to by Blizzard, Valve, and other companies such as Riot Games, who make League of Legends. These are the major MOBA developers who have stake in the future of competitive MOBA.
Valve’s curation of DotA
Valve hired IceFrog shortly after the popularity of DotA exploded (and we can partially thank the electronic artist Basshunter at some point). Valve saw huge potential in updating the game and retaining the DotA brand-name. League of Legends was already a huge standalone game at this point, which Steve Feak ended up developing with his new company Riot Games. DotA 2 and the DotA brand were now controlled by the venerated Valve Corporation
Valve has been a company interested in developing in fields other than strictly game-development for a long time; we have been waiting for Half-Life 3 for a while now. Valve has hired a wide variety of market specialists in recent years, and have employees in an incredible diversity of fields and professions. Valve has it’s eyes on the far-horizon of technological development and expanding markets.
Valve has experience in eSports with Counter-Strike, the most popular first-person shooter of all time. Counter-Strike is among the top 3 most-watched eSports to this day, and was also originally a mod for a tiny little Valve game called Half-Life. Counter-Strike has been strong on the eSports scene since the early 2000s, and its format is timeless.
Gabe Newell, founder of Valve, has always had an entrepreneurial spirit that carries all the way through the employee structure at Valve. With the rising popularity of League of Legends, DotA 2 was a no-brainer for them, and has created competition in the MOBA market. This competition has partially fueled the rise of MOBA as a premier eSport format.
With a company as ambitious and financially-focused as Valve hot on the case of publicizing and promoting eSports, it was only a matter of time until eSports was flung into the public spotlight.
Blizzard’s dedication to competitive game development
For a while, Blizzard had not realized the huge potential of eSports-focused game formats. They released a very-casual Diablo 3, which is still panned by classic Diablo fans for being too simplified in content and mechanics. Then they dropped the ball on StarCraft 2 according to many hardcore RTS gamers, such as many of the South Korean pros. South Korea has had a storied eSports presence for years, and professional eSports was also heavily influenced by the popularity of Starcraft amongst the South Korean competitive-gaming scene. It seemed Blizzard had started to favor casual game experiences with simplistic game-mechanics, and were seen as just a bloated company, milking their perennially popular World of Warcraft MMORPG.
Then something changed. Someone at Blizzard realized that there was a new market forming. Since 2014, Blizzard has consistently been creating competition-focused titles. Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm (Blizzard’s proprietary MOBA), and Overwatch have all become incredibly popular eSports titles in their own right.
Overwatch in particular has become almost ubiquitous with eSports. Popular amongst streamers and players alike, as of January 2017, 25 million people have purchased the game. Overwatch combines elements of Valve’s absolute classic arcade-tactical-first-person-shooter Counter-Strike, with elements of MOBA’s “hero” characters with special abilities, into a hybrid that is immensely popular. The graphics are bright and cartoony, the characters and environments pop out, focusing the player’s attention naturally to the chaos on-screen. There are no camos or weapon attachments, as the shooter market has been flooded with in recent years. Just unique “hero” characters, with a few select abilities each, that can each affect the tide of battle for their team at any moment. It’s game mechanics are simple, yet deep; it blends genres into an attractive arena-combat game that has seduced both the shooter and MOBA crowds to a new vision of competitive gaming.
Blizzard has announced Overwatch League, which will be the first eSports league that more closely resembles “physical” sports leagues organizational structures, with teams based in localities instead of simply clans of dissociated gamers who are interested in competing for glory. Players will be chosen from the top online-rankings, and will have to prove their ability at local tournaments to qualify for draft. There will even be a combine in which players will compete to get scouted for teams, much like the NFL.
What’s next for eSports?
Valve and Blizzard will continue to carry the emerging market of eSports into the future. We will undoubtedly watch our hometown’s Overwatch team on television in a couple years. eSports have taken flight in a huge way and we can thank the powerhouse development and publishing studios for the support. Valve continues to do its own thing, and recently co-developed the HTC Vive consumer 3D headset, owners of which can now spectate DotA 2 matches in 3D, hovering around the battlefield at-will, watching the action in almost tactile hyper-realism.
What lies ahead for competitive gaming remains to be seen, as there has only been preliminary exposure for the general population. Turner Broadcasting System started ELEAGUE, the first electronic sports league on primetime television. TBS now shows Counter-Strike and Street Fighter V matches on Friday nights from various title tournaments. Whether eSports becomes a staple of primetime will be determined by the public. Trends in recent years have shown that streaming video will most-likely overtake broadcast television in the future as millennials get older.
The competitive-gaming “ball” is certainly rolling. Blizzard and Valve, in their stoic glory, will be working hard to make eSports a business bigger than gaming development itself. Hopefully the quality of games themselves stays high in the coming decades. A competitive game must be interesting to watch, but simple. A deep skill-curve is always necessary for a game’s competitive potential to be realized. Any player who sits down and tries to play the game they just saw on television must realize their inexperience immediately, but should also notice flashes of greatness in the mechanics that they comprehend, and perhaps even flashes of greatness in themselves when they make their first “play”. That is what Valve, Blizzard, and the rest of us are here for after all, right? Entertainment and glory.