Atlas Reactor isn’t like any other eSport. In fact there is only a few games from the last 20 years that even have a similar premise to Trion’s latest effort. Two teams battle it out in turn based combat to try and establish dominance, the team with the most kills wins. However instead of being a static turn based affair there is four different phases to each turn, which always play out in the same order.
The prep phase gives everyone a chance to decide what they want to do it and lock it in, this could be as simple as moving slightly to the left or as game winning as taking a killer shot. After this phase the first action phase takes place. The dash phase allows characters with movement ability to dash or charge to a different location. After that the blast phase kicks in, this is when any attacks happen, meaning attacks can be dodged in the dash phase if you can predict what will be coming your way. Finally the move phase allows characters that don’t attack to move to another location. It’s pretty complex but this handy video shows it off quite well.
This mix of strategic planning and all out action make Atlas Reactor a entertaining spectator sport. It certainly isn’t constant action like many of the top eSports have, but it fills a unique space, somewhere between the slower nature of Hearthstone and the rapid action of Call of Duty.
“Watching Atlas Reactor is kind of like watching American football,” says William Cook, lead designer on Atlas Reactor. “You have 30 seconds of the huddle, of the analysis and the predictions from the announcer, what might happen, what can happen, what should happen, what should the coaches do. And then you have 30 second of anything can happen, of the actual whistleblowing and shit happening. And that’s how our game plays. Thats pretty compelling, once you know the game.”
Ever since the format of the game started to take shape, the team knew that they had something watchable on their hands. What’s more they had something unique, with the stop start nature that has served American Football so well over the years. But even with something as promising of Atlas Reactor they didn’t want to make assumptions about its eSport potential.
“Companies don’t get to chose if they have an eSport,” says Cook. “You can throw in a lot of time, effort and money but there’s no guarantee. In some ways Overwatch is probably the closest thing to a pre ordained eSport, but there is still not a ton of games that are not making it as eSports despite the developer’s best efforts.”
While the development team weren’t actively pushing Atlas Reactor as an eSport prior to launch they did want to give it the best chance to succeed in the field. A combination of their wish to have a successful sport and the community’s wishes lead them to implement more and more features that facilitate competition.
“We introduced custom games long before we thought we would need to because the community responded so well and they wanted to run tournaments” recalls Cook. “The UI we gave them was still temporary, it wasn’t a polished UI, but we gave them the basic functionality to do it because they really wanted to. The next thing they wanted was spectator mode, so we created that a lot sooner than we thought we would. And then the replay mode, we did that early again because the community was so positive and enthusiastic about running their own tournaments.”
With the new features came a lot of tournaments, and quickly the team’s thoughts about Atlas Reactor’s eSports potential were confirmed. Despite still being a very early beta version of the game, and with many features missing or not perfected, the action was exciting and the strange pace worked out really well.
“We were watching an early competition on a big screen in the conference room and people started wandering in because they didn’t understand why people were just screaming in this conference room” recalls Cook. “Granted it’s our game, and we know how it plays, but you can’t fake shouting and screaming when you see something happen that you did not predict.”
In the following weeks and months the team perfected Atlas Reactor’s eSports features, and the community continued to grow. With the game now out and available to the general public the eSports scene has grown significantly, with ESL now coming on board to run ESL Go4 series tournaments that feature $8,000 in prize money. The early signs are good for Atlas Reactor’s competitive future, but Cook doesn’t want to get too excited.
“Cloud Atlas Reactor really make it to the top? Well it wasn’t really foreseeable with the other ones, so if you look at the advantages that we have and the disadvantages then it’s possible,” says Cook. “We are clearly a niche game, but then so were MOBAs. We scratch an itch that wasn’t there before, it’s a little bit inconceivable to think about LoL sized things, but I’m not going to prematurely limit our ambitions. I’m ambitious enough to think we could get there but that’s a long road, even for LoL it was a good few years before people started to see anything happening with eSports. It takes a lot of hubris to make a game in the first place, it takes an extra amount to come out and say this is going to be an eSport. We just made a competitive game.”