How to design a game for eSports played by millions

Developing a game for eSports can be a daunting prospect. To give you an idea of the scope, we speak to experienced developers in the competitive gaming space
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Competitive gaming has come of age and it’s now becoming an increasingly significant part of the games industry.

The headline eSports games – League of Legends, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike and World of Tanks, to name a few – attract millions of casual spectators and adoring fans.

In fact, League of Legends’ 2014 World Championship attracted some 27 million viewers last year. That’s a level on par with, and exceeding, some of the top physical sports in the world.

And the biggest tournaments can generate massive prizes for their competitors. DOTA 2’s prize pool for The International 2015 was more than $18m, the League of Legends World Championship 2015 offered $2.1m, while Hi-Rez’s Smite had $2.6m worth of winnings on offer.

But it’s a tough arena to get into. As CCP’s lead game designer Andrew Williams tells Develop, whose studio has eSports ambitions with its upcoming virtual reality space combat game Eve: Valkyrie, “you don’t make an eSports game, eSports picks you”.

Building for the masses

But that doesn’t mean of course that developers shouldn’t design their game with competitive play in mind. In fact, it’s crucial. Riot Games’ Greg Street, design director on perhaps the world’s biggest game, and most popular eSports title, League of Legends, says developers need to keep it in mind right from the beginning.

“It’s really hard to convert an existing game into an eSports title without compromising it and potentially alienating players with the kinds of changes that would entail,” he states.

“For example, it’s easy to design a multiplayer game in which the players move and fight each other at a high speed that feels fast-paced to participating players, but is really hard for viewers to be able to follow. Yet slowing a game down once it has gone live would be really hard on an existing player base.

“As another example, if you make a playing field with a lot of nooks and crannies, you’re giving up on any hope of a third-person camera that hovers over the entire playing space. Just being able to tell who is ahead and behind can be challenging if it isn’t designed upfront with that intent.”

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Wargaming global head of eSports Mo Fadl warns however that developers can’t design a game solely for eSports.

“It has to be an awesome game to begin with,” he says. Fadl explains that some of the biggest eSports games today were not designed directly for that purpose, but rather their following and intense competition that emerged amongst avid players who clamoured for such a platform.

Using the example of World of Tanks, he says the company started slowly, beginning with smaller tournaments while planning for the future. Eventually it brought on a team of professionals to mould how its eSports scene would work, rather than jumping straight into the Grand Finals.

“It takes a huge amount of time and planning,” stats Fadl. “I think it’s simply not possible to start a game with its sole purpose being eSports. You’re setting yourself up for a great fall. Just focus on delivering the best multiplayer experience you can.

“You can keep eSports in mind. A lot of devs are creating games that want to be eSports staples – it makes business sense. That doesn’t mean they all will be. It’s about taking things slowly. Don’t force it on your community.”

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It’s really hard to convert an existing game into an eSports title without compromising it and potentially alienating players with the kinds of changes that would entail.

Greg Street, Riot Games

At the core of a successful eSports scene are the professional players. These superstars, like in other professional sports, are increasingly taking the headlines, and their ability can attract thousands, or even millions, to watch their matches and tournaments.

The right balance

But developers can’t forget the amateur players, of course, which will make up the majority of a game’s userbase. So how do you address the balance of making a game accessible for amateur players playing just for fun, while professionals can climb the skills ladder and keep improving when playing full-time, perhaps for years?

Street says that one way to make the game appeal to both areas is by having a long, if not endless, skill curve.

“The skill floor for new players can be pretty low, so that they feel like they can get into a game and actually accomplish something, but they may play hundreds of games and still find that new ways to improve their play,” he explains.

“Even League pros can usually analyse their matches and identify areas where they made mistakes or could perform just a little bit better.

“Part of the secret sauce of any popular viewing sport – eSport or otherwise – is that viewers can enjoy it at multiple levels. For League of Legends, a relatively novice viewer can still understand what is happening when hitpoint bars start to go down and turrets fall, but then more hardcore viewers can obsess about item picks, spell cool downs and ward placement. Very engaged viewers know the pros and their play styles as well as
the champions.”

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Frank Elliott, PR manager at Mount & Blade: Warband developer TaleWorlds, believes one key aspect of making a game interesting for both amateur and professional players is to push reaction-based decisions. He explains that as long as there is enough variety and scope in the decisions players can make, and it pushes their reactions hard enough, a game will be hard to master.

To provide a welcoming experience for new players who could get overwhelmed, meanwhile, Elliott says the studio encourages newcomers to face players of similar skill.

“If you make your game sufficiently complicated, then at a low skill level it’s going to be kind of random because
people aren’t going to be playing well enough,” he explains.

“In our game, if you attack other newcomers as a very early player, you’ll get rewarded for that. So if your game is sufficiently complicated in a way that people will be vulnerable, and you can have some fun at the start immediately, you can get some success immediately.”

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Professional precedence?

Though all kinds of players are important to cater for, does one skill level take precedence in game design over the other? Elliot says he leans towards professional players, but admits more experienced developers may say both.

“I think you have to make sure the game will always be valuable for professional players because otherwise they’ll reach a cap and it’ll break the bubble of your game if they can’t keep progressing,” he states. “You have to design around the professional players, and then find ways to make it playable for the amateur players.”

Fadl says, however, it’s important that all players are considered during development. He explains that studios shouldn’t segregate their audience, as everyone comes from an amateur position, whatever the game they are playing.

The learning curve then, should be gradual and engaging. Citing the example of World of Tanks, he explains how important it is to have tiers and matchmaking that puts players against others of a similar skillset, which can then help them improve while also enjoying the game.

For the jump to the competitive space, Wargaming has looked carefully at the process of climbing the ladder from amateur to professional.

“This has helped us create our eSports infrastructure 2.0.” he says. “We’re specifically concerned with how players make the leap to professional eSports athletes, and have streamlined the process. Accessibility is key for us. It’s key for any eSports game. If there’s a high threshold for joining, then people will not want to play.

“Infrastructure 2.0 makes it easier than ever for players to start their journey through our leagues. They can form a clan, enter competitions and work their way up the ladder. If you’re in the Gold Series, you can be subsidised for playing on top of your competition earnings.

“We’ve invested millions into the scene and think of both sides of players when creating content. New competitions, maps, and vehicles – they complement players from any background.”

I think it’s simply not possible to start a game with its sole purpose being eSports. You’re setting yourself up for a great fall.

Mo Fadl, Wargaming

Street agrees that, on the assumption a game needs to be at least a moderate commercial success, it must have a decently wide appeal.

Amateur players need to find it fun, he says, and believes part of what makes League of Legends so successful is how players can watch a competitive game, and be inspired to replicate strategies and play styles themselves in their next game.

There are still other key considerations to keep in mind, however.

“It is worth pointing out that the more skilled players, and especially professionals where so much is at stake, are the best at breaking your game as they’ll be better at exploiting balance problems,” Street explains.

“And the pros are also trendsetters, meaning those balance problems may soon trickle down to amateur play as well. You can’t just balance a game just for the pros, but you need to be prepared to react to what they are doing.”

Player support

It seems then, while accessibility is an important pillar for any game to be successful, professional players are invaluable in raising the profile of a game, as well as improving on its design.

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Marcel Menge, MD of Turtle eSports Technology – which runs the Electronic Sports League, the biggest organisation in competitive gaming – is a big believer in supporting professional players. He says pros can help balance a game and discover potential abuses.

With this in mind, he says developers should invite these players in early during the development process, and let them participate in Alpha and Beta stages. And it’s not only here developers need to take heed of their opinions.

“Their feedback is valuable and often makes sense, but as a game developer it is important to not forget the casual players in the process and balance the playing experience for the different groups of players,” says Menge. “After the game is launched it is important to track how the best users playing the game and try to balance it for them, as they will get the most out of it and the normal players will profit from that as well.

“Also it is good to establish a direct way for communication between the professional players and the development team or a community manager, to make sure that game breaks are reported early and also to have an ongoing discussion with the pro players about the further development of
the game.”

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Living the stream

One of the most important parts of the eSports scene are videos and broadcasting on popular websites such as Twitch and YouTube. These streams and recordings can attract hundreds of thousands, if not millions of spectators around the world, and are arguably the biggest driving force behind eSports’ dramatic growth during the last few years. And given their popularity, this will only continue.

As TaleWorlds’ Elliott eloquently describes eSports broadcasters: “they are eSports”.

“eSports wouldn’t exist without Twitch. It’s the most important thing, and it’s completely revolutionised the whole eSports scene and the community,” he states.

“That scene wouldn’t exist without Twitch. Without it, it’s just a few players playing together.

“We use Twitch and then YouTube to stream games, have chat shows and so on. It’s important for developers and the professional players to connect to their fans.

“You have players streaming themselves playing the game – that’s how you then give players personality. That’s what eSports relies upon: having players with personalities, that’s what creates the storylines around eSports. Twitch has really enabled that in a big way.”

Pros are also trendsetters, meaning those balance problems may soon trickle down to amateur play as well. You can’t just balance a game just for the pros, but you need to be prepared to react to what they are doing.

Greg Street, Riot Games

Fadl concurs, and says the massive communities of such sites, combined with the ease of setting up a video or stream, which almost anyone with a computer can do, has driven eSports to new heights by empowering streamers and players.

Audience participation

It also provides a place for viewers to interact with the streamer in a live environment, which Fadl says offers a transparent way to broadcast, making spectators feel more connected and involved in the events they are watching.

These streamers are so important in fact, that Wargaming does what it can to support some popular streamers to ensure the matches are broadcast.

“For our events like The Grand Finals, we wanted to support our streamers as much as possible,” says Fadl. “We set them up on a great stage, had fantastic equipment, awesome staff – we gave them an environment where they could do their thing unhindered.

“We had streamers shoutcasting, narrating the action, interviewing the crowds, breaking down the action. As part of our new eSports infrastructure we subsidise people who stream and create content that helps others learn about the game. We want to help streamers as much as we can. We believe they provide a great service to the eSports community.

“Developers should let streamers broadcast games, and communicate with them so that they can provide better content. We’ve given our community contributors super tester accounts and let them try out new tanks, because that’s what the community wants. It’s about working together to meet their needs and wants.“

The world of eSports looks set to continue growing to new heights over the coming years as more developers and publishers look to get in on the action and promises of wealth, and more traditional broadcast channels, such as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN), air matches.

Though there is sense in the suggestion that you don’t choose eSports, eSports picks you, there is a lot you can do to prepare your game for when that moment arrives.


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