Over the past couple of years, a lot has happened in the world of eSports.
Well, when I say “a lot”, what I mean is...
- the usual array of pushed-back sector revenue estimates (worth $1 billion when... 2017? 2019? Who knows?);
- plenty of speculative M&A spending;
- plenty of hype about future profitability; and
- little concrete understanding of how the market will evolve past the current trivium of League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike.
Actually, I mean “not a lot” of actual substance has happened yet.
(That will change if Blizzard gets its Overwatch League off-the-ground this fall, but that’s another article.)
And if there’s one area that’s seen a lot of “not a lot” happening, it’s mobile eSports.
Failure to launch
This isn’t to say plenty of companies haven’t been trying hard to make something happen in mobile eSports.
Putting aside the Chinese market (another article entirely) and Hearthstone - which despite its mobile app is primarily a PC game when it comes to eSports - the first mover in the west has been US startup Super Evil Megacorp.
It’s raised $42 million to build out the organisation and wider infrastructure to make its mobile MOBA Vainglory an eSport regular.
The cash has enabled the company to hit its goals in terms of all the things a proper eSport title needs to succeed: regular championships; a strong cadence of game updates; a franchise program; a solid selection of supporting eSport teams; and optimised in-game monetisation.
What’s not clear, however, is whether there’s a business model to support the game’s long-term future.
Show me the money
Certainly Vainglory’s top grossing positions on the Apple App Store or Google Play store in key markets are nothing special (outside the top 100 top grossing placement on both stores in the US, for example).
Nor does the 7.5 million hours of Vainglory eSports coverage watched in 2016 compare to the 7.9 million hours of eSports gameplay Hearthstone generated on Twitch during April 2017.
Super Evil has done everything right in terms of laying the foundation for the first eSports mobile game hit.
Obviously, as has already been pointed out, these are different games with a different velocities, but three-years-on, Hearthstone remains a top 100 top grossing game in the US and typically peaks into the top 10 when content updates drop.
Indeed, I’d argue the fundamental problem with Vainglory is Super Evil has done everything right in terms of laying the foundation for the first eSports mobile game hit - that is aside from generating direct revenue from players and/or spectators.
So, maybe the fact Vainglory doesn’t look like it will become a profitable eSport mobile game tells us something about how the eSports community, and wider core console/PC audience, views mobile games.
They play and spend in some of them - Clash of Clans, Game of War etc - but they don’t love mobile games as a primary entertainment source. And they don’t play mobile games when they could be playing PC/console games.
This seems to be particularly true for eSports titles.
Opposites don’t attract
One reason is that in all key respects, the attributes required for a successful eSport game are mobile games’ weaknesses.
Successful eSport games are built around large scale environments, extreme graphics, dynamic cameras, a high level of gameplay skill and, above all else, a longform and dramatic spectacle which provides multiple ways of mass audience participation.
In contrast, mobile games are built around frequent, very short sessions; polished yet simple fixed-screen graphics; their controls are as simple as possible; and they’re effectively single-player experiences with little real-time mass audience participation.
Perhaps too much is made of Twitch and the lack of mobile game visibility. But whether chicken or egg, Twitch audiences just don’t watch mobile games.
Equally, the mobile-focused Twitch killers - Mobcrush, Mirrativ, Kamcord etc - have failed to gain any market share, and this despite ever more gamers viewing eSports through apps on their mobile devices.
Doing it right
I was recently reminded of the contrast between console and mobile games with respect to streaming and eSports during Jamie Jackson’s session at Nordic Game 2017.
18 years ago, there was one audience – gamers. Today, there are three: gamers, broadcasters and viewers.Jamie Jackson
He spoke about how UK startup The Slingshot Cartel is developing its PC eSports third-person squad shooter The DRG Initiative using Amazon’s Lumberyard streaming engine.
The talk was all about integrating Twitch audiences, both in terms of strategic gameplay - voting on loot drops for example - and controlling the drone cameras.
As Jackson (previously of FreeStyle Games) put it:
“When I started making games 18 years ago, there was one audience – gamers. Today, there are three: gamers, broadcasters and viewers.”
And for me, at least, it’s not clear how, other than accessibility, mobile games can offer any advantages over PC/console games for any of these groups.
Which, finally, brings us to Supercell’s soft-launched Brawl Stars.
By stint of its incredible success and audience scale generated over the past five years, it could be argued some of Supercell’s games have become default mobile eSport titles.
For example, despite the lack of in-game options to set up tournaments etc, it’s widely reported the first mobile eSports tournament was a Clash of Clans fan event in the Philippines back in 2014.
Clash Royale was another step along that path, although - Hearthstone aside - the appeal of card-based eSport games is clearly limited. Nevertheless, the game’s financial success ($1 billion of annual revenue) and Supercell’s deep pockets mean the current Clash Royale Crown Championship is worth $1 million in overall prize money.
Note: in this context, the cash pot for Dota 2’s The International 2016 competition was over $20 million, mainly generated from crowdsourcing.
No doubt, eSports will be a great long-term retention tool for Clash Royale but it’s pushing the definition to say Clash Royale is a popular eSport title.
Put up or shut up
On the other hand, Brawl Stars is clearly designed from the ground up as the mobile game to break into the eSports market.
It has real-time action which requires as deep gameplay twitch skills as any mobile title, while also predicated on a neat reverse-risk cadence, which forces teams to switch from aggressive defence to all-out attack (and vice versa) as the session time counts down to zero.
In terms of spectacle, there’s a wide range of characters, each with their usual matrix of strengths, weaknesses and special skills, and despite the 3-vs-3 team structure, tight teamwork around the small play area is vital to victory.
Obviously, Brawl Stars doesn’t offer anything like the spectacle of say an Overwatch (or even a Vainglory), although the targeting options used by the tap controls will be helpful to highlight what’s happening.
Equally, Brawl Stars’ design doesn’t try to water down the strengths of mobile games.
It’s designed to be played in portrait mode on a phone; session times are short, offering immediate replayability; graphics are polished but basic; and the in-app community aspects are limited.
The power of Supercell’s marketing muscle means Brawl Stars will gain the level of downloads required to provide it with a mass audience, while the app stores will provide the seamless billing mechanics.
Brawl Stars will likely be another big hit for Supercell, perhaps its biggest to-date.
But, I’d suggest, the test of whether it’s mobile game’s first bonafide eSport hit won’t be revenue, but Brawl Stars' appearance on the most watched Twitch monthly chart as audiences switch from playing those usual eSports suspects on PC/console to pulling out their phones.
It might happen, but personally I’d be surprised.
One jarring takeaway underlines how difficult it is for mobile game developers to bridge the gap between mobile game and eSports audiences.
Brawl Stars’ default control method is a virtual d-pad.
Obviously, the game is in soft launch, so this may change but the need to appeal primarily to a mass mobile gaming market means Supercell (of all developers - Supercell!) has released a game with a virtual d-pad; something that not only looks terrible and obscures the screen, but also degrades character movement and hence the twitch gameplay skills required to win.
All games involve compromise, of course, but I doubt The DRG Initiative, or any other future PC/console eSport title, will be borking its control method to appeal to its core audience - because it doesn’t have to.
Its core audience is already the core eSport audience. And that’s just not true for mobile games.