Perfected strategies and imperfect games may mean big problems for professional gamers.
Garnering more fans than Sunday night football, eSports has exploded into big business with professional players, teams, leagues, local tournaments, championship tournaments and serious cash prizes. A whole generation of teens and 20-somethings turned their favorite hobbies into spectator sports.
How big has eSports become? The XGames, the long-standing alternative to the Olympics, now features game tournaments in partnership with the Major League Gaming (MLG). Now, starting its 10th season, Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) features six international competitions that draw hundreds of thousands of fans.
“Kids are growing up with all this technology,” said George Woo, event marketing manager for Intel. “My son doesn’t want a driver’s license. He would rather be playing League of Legends.”
Like any other professional sport, however, there are issues which may cause the whole thing to fall apart.
The games themselves are complicated, but the manner in which they’re played is even more byzantine. There are dozens of games being played in tournaments, and each has its own rules, strategies, imbalances.
Take, for example, Nicholas “Classic” DiConstanzo, who goes to Call of Duty practice at 4 pm after a day of college classes. He turns on his Xbox One, guzzles his GFuel Energy drink, and gets to business.
Which is exactly how he looks at it — as a career. “Hopefully eSports will get bigger,” Classic said. “That’s what everyone wants — for us to get bigger, have more fans and have bigger events.”
Using a Scuf Gaming controller — it has paddles on the back so there is no need to use the front buttons — and a Razer headset with noise-cancelling headphones, he is equipped to face his opponents.
He works on his personal skills, his own abilities in the game. At 6 pm, his teammates join him, taking on other teams to stay sharp for the next tournament. Classic remains focused during the match, calmly responding to teammates.
“We will set up scrimmages against other teams, go through all the maps, work on the little things we need to fix in order to get better,” Classic said.
They break down maps and opposing team strategies the way a basketball team would look before a big game: meticulously planning, scouting weaknesses and developing specific strategies.
Teams fight to remain competitive, and the games sometimes need to do the same.
Smash Brothers Melee, a 2001 game from Nintendo, is a popular fighting game. Over time, it has become clear that out of the 25 characters in the game, Star Fox is the best.
This means top players have slowly gravitated toward using Star Fox, which hurts the sport. It’s not exactly fun for spectators to watch 16 people play round after round of the same character using the same proven strategy.
For card games, strategies may regularly gravitate to certain cards or for war strategy games to overpower a certain army with certain units.
It is similar with the latest Call of Duty (CoD) game. Classic said that the set of maps that come with any game can vary for their usability in competitive play. Some, like Dust 2 from Counter-Strike, are played countless times and becomes legends; others are rarely used.
“There are obviously power positions on (any) map, which you fight for consistently, try to have map control throughout the game,” he said.
Another problem with CoD is that certain weapons can ruin the competition.
It’s not against the game’s rules to use overpowered weapons — as opposed to, say, using deflated footballs — but it is against the spirit of the game. In CoD, the most powerful assault rifle is the AMR.
And you just don’t use it in tournaments.
“It’s kind of cheap,” Classic said. “We had a Skype chat with all the pro players, and we all agreed not to use it.”
On a long enough timeline, the top players all eventually use the same strategies and the same weapons while looking to control the same spots on a map. There will be a day where all the eSports athletes will reach maximum ability, ruining a game as a competition.
Some in the tournament community call this 20(XX), a theoretical year where a game is no longer competitive, and the tournaments have stagnated.
Luckily, video games address this. New games are released every year, and some games fall out of fashion. Leagues switch out games as well.
eSports games just are not as evergreen as athletic sports.
“You will see one genre dominate then players start looking at different games to play, and that’s when we kill it,” said Intel’s Woo. “Because there just isn’t enough of a following. Right now Starcraft 2 is waning. But we will give it a couple more years.”
Woo explains Starcraft 2’s fall in popularity as an eSport in the U.S. is because of the professional players that come from South Korea to compete.
In South Korea, Starcraft is practically a national pastime — the equivalent to the NFL or NBA. And when money is on the line, Korean players play in American tournaments — and dominate.
So players have turned away from it to play other strategy games, like the aforementioned Dota 2. The $11 million prize probably didn’t hurt either.
Sometimes in the world of tournaments for money, people play an older installment in a game franchise, such as choosing 2001’s Super Smash Brothers Melee over 2014’s Super Smash Brothers Wii U.
This happens because the older game has a larger following, better features or simply because it is liked more.
For players, this isn’t a problem. “I just love Call of Duty,” Classic says. “I don’t play any other games competitively.”
Brandon Hatfield, his team’s manager, doesn’t exactly disagree. “It is rare that you see players/teams play multiple games at a pro level.”
“There are of course some players who transition from game to game. As an organization, if you’re not trying to figure out growth strategies, you’re pretty much dead in the water.”
Editor’s Note: For the ultimate deep-dive into the adrenalin-filled world of eSports, look for All Work, All Play, a feature film coming to theaters worldwide in July.