By now it’s commonplace to state that esports is an aspect of the gaming ecosystem that’s here to stay. According to data from Newzoo, the estimated audience for esports in 2021 will be over 500 million viewers. Revenue is set to follow, with an expected $1.6B in revenues by 2021.
So, this also probably means as time goes on many midcore and up game will be expected to have an esports component – or at least be somewhat esports friendly. And while most watched titles today are on console and PC, it stands to reason that esports will become something that also matters in mobile. More and more mobile games today are building their strategy around having esports events. Clash Royale and Vainglory are the first names that come to mind. Titles such as brawl Stars and Command and Conquer Rivals are also heavily betting on esports.
In Q3 2018, Activision-Blizzard stated esports was one of its 4 growth drivers. While the tone and focus of the last earnings call was dramatically different – Activision-Blizzard stated its commitment to reinforce its foundations for growth and cut a significant portion of its workforce – the official position is still that esports is an important area of operations. Activision wants to refocus resources on its biggest opportunities and reduce redundancies. And esports is part if the plan. (you can listen to the entire earnings call here). The Overwatch League remains a key strategic focus, and Activision wants to develop something along those lines for Call of Duty. An interesting point Activision made previously was that esports is a way to extend user engagement with the title. Although in this case engagement is not based on playing the games but on watching others play them.
We’re conditioned to think about games and features in terms of what makes them fun to play. In some respect, what makes a game fun to play can be the same things that makes it fun to watch. But players have agency: they make choices based on available information (and sometimes dexterity is involved). On the other hand, spectators passively watch an action unfold in front of them. So, what makes a game fun to play and what makes it fun to watch are not always the same thing. For example, requiring a level of skill and excellence is maybe not required to enjoy a game, but it feels like a prerequisite to make watching a game worthwhile. It’s hard to imagine a compelling esports viewership around an RPG like Heroes Charge (where it’s much more about stats than skill or strategic decision-making – unlike a game like Hearthstone).
Playing and watching a game involve very different dynamics. It can also help us think about games and features – and what makes them enjoyable – in a different way. So, the question is, what makes watching a game fun and entertaining? By and large, we should assume that the same rules apply here as for any other viewing content. And there is a large intellectual tradition – from the Ancients to Rhetoric to modern broadcasting – that has considered what constitutes a good and compelling product for spectators. The idea here is that gaming can benefit from that historically rich tradition.
In order for a performance to be interesting for an audience, it needs to be emotionally compelling. In his Poetics, Aristotle identified the 2 most emotionally powerful elements in Tragedy as Reversal and Recognition. Reversal of a situation is very straightforward. In Tragedy, a character who is lead to his death turn the situation around and kills his tormentor. In games, a player is losing, and by a turn of events ends up on top as the victor. This is a property that makes a game more enjoyable for both players and spectators alike (it’s simply more emotionally intense when games lend themselves to comebacks and last-minute reversals of situation).
Recognition is based on the revelation of something unknown. To a certain extent, it involves the asymmetry in knowledge that exists between the character and the spectator. And this is something specifically relevant for esports. The asymmetry of knowledge – or at least the potential for this asymmetry – between someone watching and someone playing can make for a very compelling viewing experience. Especially in PvP games, a player’s decision depends on his assessment of the situation and of the opponent. In most PvP games, a player must make a decision based on imperfect knowledge of the other player’s hand. If the spectator can see both sides of the board, it puts him/her in a unique position to experience and enjoy the game being played. A position different from that of the player.
Some games already somehow play on that. In Clash Royale’s TV Royale, spectators can see all the cards in a player’s deck (while players must play without knowing what cards and potential counter their opponent has). And in that case spectators can see when a player is able to surprise another, and see a player walk into a trap and make a wrong assumption.
Interestingly enough, the Clash Royale league does things a bit differently. Spectators don’t know what cards players have until they actually play them (this might be done to emphasize the epic dimension of the competition, and play on spectators discovering the players’ deck as the match progresses)
EA’s Command and Conquer Rivals provides a great example of a feature that creates an asymmetry between what the spectator knows and what the player knows (you can read the full deconstruction of the game shortly). CnCR is EA’s take (and twist) on the Clash-Royale-like real-time PvP game. 2 players are opposed on a map to control key points. However, players don’t see the entire map. There is a fog of war that covers any area outside of the player’s reach. On the other hand, spectators can see the entire field (and surprise attacks being prepared). EA has expressed ambitions of make epsorts a part of what the game is. The updates also reflect this desire to continuously improve the viewing experience for users. The way the game is set up feels very conducive to compelling viewing.
A feature like the fog of war – in addition to adding to the fun value of the game – is also the type of feature that greatly adds to the esports potential of the game. Viewers can see the entire battlefield in a single view, and the short match time keep things fresh and approachable. Any fast pace PvP battle where there can only be one winner is always strong viewing material (in part because of its potential for reversal). And the fog of war is the type of features that further adds to that. It creates an asymmetry between the player and the viewer – the viewer can see what’s happening on the entire map, whereas the player has a constrained area of vision. That type of asymmetry is what’s most conducive to the dramatic tension that makes a game compelling to watch: the player must make decisions based on limited information – the viewer sees the whole picture (and the trap the player may be unknowingly walking into).
We not yet at a point where we should design a game or features mainly to be viewed (rather than played). However – if Aristotle and 2 millennia dramatic theory are anything to go by – any game that want s to have a presence in the esports arena should welcome and double down on any feature that supports the asymmetry between protagonist and spectator. That’s the kind of experience that drives people to watch. And combining this asymmetry with a reversal of situation is the best recipe for a compelling and exhilarating viewing experience.