I think we were all a little surprised by the recent news that Sony Online Entertainment would partner with Major League Gaming to bring PlanetSide 2 to the MLG competitive circuit. While we’re all still wondering at the “why”s and “how”s of the deal, maybe the question we ought to be asking is: “Should?”
It seems like we’ve just recently come to an era where most MMORPG developers realize that they’re not going to match World of Warcraft‘s numbers. There are occasional boastful rumblings, but for the most part, the days of anticipating the “WoW killer” are gone.
But what would the Captain Ahabs of the gaming industry do without a whale to hunt? Nowadays, the focus on “beating the best” seems to have shifted from people in the game to people watching the game, and nearly every new entry in the MMO industry seems to be taking a stab at e-sports.
Is this a valid goal? Can or should MMOs be developed with e-sports in mind? Or are developers just setting themselves up to fall short of expectations – again?
It’s easy to see why companies would take this approach. The undisputed king of e-sports, Riot Games‘ League of Legends, drew over eight million viewers to its World Championships in October, and you better believe that brings in some serious coin in advertising revenue – not to mention simply exposing the game to a bunch of potential new players who can directly line Riot’s coffers.
To put those 8.3 million viewers into perspective, the #25 broadcast program from that week scored 9.4 million viewers, meaning League of Legends likely would have rated in the top 30 or 40 among all television programs in the United States.
(Yes, I know that many of the LoL viewers weren’t American, but it’s still a fascinating stat.)
So it’s only natural that companies like SOE, ArenaNet (Guild Wars 2), Red 5 Studios (Firefall), Hi-Rez Studios (SMITE), and probably countless others are exploring the possibility of adapting their games for an e-sports audience. But should they?
In many ways, League of Legends is like World of Warcraft: It came along at the exact right time and did for MMORPGs what LoL did for e-sports. It introduced tons of new players to a developing genre and made a new style of gaming relatively mainstream.
Can that success be duplicated? That’s what SOE and others are banking on, though they probably don’t quite expect numbers on par with what LoL pulls, whether it’s 8+ million viewers for a World Championship or League‘s overall numbers of 70 million accounts and 32 million active monthly players.
Or do they? Executives – in any company – are a “numbers first” bunch, who don’t necessarily understand the disconnect between data and reality. While I’m sure someone like John Smedley “gets it,” what about his boss? Or his boss’s boss? What did Smed need to promise to get the go-ahead to sign the deal with MLG and the requisite cash that will be required to execute the plan? If LoL gets 8.3 million viewers for its World Championships, what percentage of that does PS2 need to make its big event worth the investment? 10%? 25%? 50%?
(From my personal experience… when developing a new trading-card game, a co-worker and I made the semi-error of remarking in front of an executive that it “wouldn’t be the next Pokémon,” which the executive responded to by saying, “Why not?” Our response: “Because it just won’t be.” That didn’t satisfy him.)
Even if a CEO doesn’t have a suit to satisfy, his own ego can be his downfall. Enough games have tried – and failed – to match WoW‘s numbers without any external pressure that it’s not hard to see the same thing happening even for fully independent studios like Red 5 or semi-independent ones like ArenaNet.
This isn’t to say that Mark Kern or Mike O’Brien – or Smedley, for that matter – are overreaching when it comes to their goals of developing their games for e-sports. But just as with the first few years of WoW‘s existence, where everyone looked at WoW‘s numbers and thought “Why not us?” nobody really knows what the ceiling for e-sports is. The first few MMOs released in the wake of WoW probably thought that five to 10 million players was a totally reachable goal; after years of often-painful experience, we now know that to be a nigh-impossibility.
A sporting chance
All this isn’t to say that MMO devs shouldn’t try to take a bite out of e-sports. The money’s definitely there, and the concept is new enough that there’s probably still room to make a big splash, if done right.
But, as we’ve learned with people trying to “chase” World of Warcraft, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the rest of your game. Some games are well-suited for e-sports, and some aren’t, just as some games are suitable for a mass-market audience like WoW‘s and some aren’t. The key is knowing what you have and being realistic about what you’re trying to do.
League of Legends, with its focus on small, competitive matches and skill-based gameplay, make it a perfect game for medium. Other MMORPGs, which dedicate much of their resources to mechanics that aren’t meant for the e-sports crowd — such as crafting, exploration, most PvE, and some types of PvP — might see e-sports as a “Hey, let’s try to do this, too, in addition to everything else we’re doing.”
E-sport talk is just “tacked on” to the package as a whole, making it more of a feature than a core part of the game, hurting its chances to really establish itself with the e-sports crowd, which — like MMO players who like one of the above types of gameplay — expects the entire game to cater to what they want to see.
Maybe SOE will prove us all wrong with PlanetSide 2 and innovate a new era in e-sports that goes beyond the “small-team” games like League of Legends. Instead of two-side, five-on-five matches, maybe they’ll figure out an effective way to manage and broadcast three-way battles involving hundreds of players. If they can pull it off, it should be entertaining as hell to watch.
But if their effort comes up short, will it discourage other companies from trying? As long as League of Legends continues to pull in millions of viewers – just as World of Warcraft pulls in millions of players – someone will always try to duplicate that success, no matter how many other games fall by the roadside.