Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris on eSports prize splits and Xbox One

Smite developer Hi-Rez Studios is turning focus more on the sustainability of eSports as they push to bring MOBAs to console.

Chief Operating Officer of the Atlanta-based company, Todd Harris, told eSports Pro that last month’s decision to cap the World Championship prize pool at $1m was made in order to create a long-term approach for players and teams.

"The primary consideration was sustainability of the esports scene over the long term," Harris said, after delivering a talk at the Develop conference in Brighton. "We were honestly pretty surprised by the size of the prize pool in season one, and when we looked at what we wanted to do long term, something needed to change."

The prize pool for Smite’s debut world championship, less than 10 months into their inaugural year out of beta, reached $2.6m. This pool eclipsed many established titles, putting it at third in the prize pool rankings for all eSports tournaments – before Dota’s Asian Championship bumped it to fourth, and soon to be fifth once The International is over next month.

Strategic reduction in prize pool sizes, or radical changes to the proportional allocation of the prize pool between placing teams, is becoming a necessity in all eSports.

Wargaming.net’s Mohamed Fadl elucidated on the World of Tanks developer’s decision to change their model to something more akin to an employment scheme, similar to Riot’s LCS, at their finals in April. And Valve have recently announced the splits they’ll be using for this year’s monolithic prize pool for The International, currently sat at $17.2m, which will see even last place take home more than $50,000.

This value was reached, as with all of the largest prize pools of the past 3 years, through crowdsourcing initiatives, like Smite’s "Odyssey" event which saw fans receiving items for each stage of the championship tour.

"Crowdsourcing is still a big part of what we do, but the idea was to go ahead and cap the world championship at $1m and use the rest of the funds for other major events spread throughout the season," Harris said. "We talked to quite a few of the current players and team managers and asked them between one massive prize pool in the year and more distributed prize pools throughout the year what was their preference. And, probably not surprisingly, almost unanimously the teams and players wanted more distribution throughout the year. Because it’s just more predictability in cash flow if they’re winning first of all, and a bit broader distribution."

Though capping the potential money earned would seem like something players would not be keen to see, the associated changes to splits and bumps in lesser tournaments result in an overall higher chance to earn decent salaries, particularly for lower tier teams.

"The Summer Split at the end of July will be approaching 200 if not $300,000, and I think the Fall Split before worlds will be probably over $500,000," Harris said. "The expectation of the players would be that those 3 major events [including the Spring Split] would see larger pools than they did last year and they would continue to grow if the crowdsourcing grows."

This crowdsourcing pool is also helping to fund Smite’s next stage of evolution, as its Xbox One version prepares to enter competitive status in January with a four-team Invitational on stage at SWC, alongside the PC version.

The decision to announce such a commitment to eSports on console, during Smite’s open Beta, may seem at odds with a company philosophy of allowing the community to guide them on such matters. But Harris has already seen the signs.

"We definitely think it needs to be a pull from the players and not a push, but even when we were in closed beta we had one community-organised tournament – with little to no promotion from Hi-Rez – and it had over 100 teams sign up," he said. "Since then many of the major third party leagues in the console scene have expressed interest in running tournaments because they’ve seen it from their community too."

Harris believes that this will lead to the creation of third-party leagues from major organisers familiar with consoles within the next few months, fostering a competitive scene already.

"And that’s why we thought the invitational structure would be the best because it wouldn’t be us putting an official Hi-Rez league around it at this point, because you’re right that would be pretty early in the life cycle compared to the path that we took with the PC," he said.

"It’s more that we believe there’s going to be enough third party activity between now and the fall that there will be some prominent teams and we wanted to send a clear message that if those teams develop, there will be a way for them to be on a big stage and have a chance to have a world champion crowned in the same venue as the PC."

When it comes to the question of whether Hi-Rez will take on the console league themselves after their invitational, Harris is guarded.

"I think we’ll see," he said. "It’s a whole different infrastructure than the PC with different existing organisations, so we’re going to start by giving good support to third parties and that’ll be sufficient for us through to this January and then we’ll take a look at the scene and decided a best strategy."

Further to their plans for platform expansion, Hi-Rez are also looking at territory expansion for the PC, following the success of their Brazilian, Chinese and Oceania launches.

"China’s our next big focus to move from closed beta to available from the end of this year, then we’re looking at other regions," Harris said. "From a competitive standpoint I’d say that Korea is certainly very interesting to us and relative to eSports, so we’re having those conversations but nothing to announce yet."

(All images courtesy of Hi-Rez Studios)

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