When it comes to mobile, eSports is a few steps behind PC.
PC already has the big hits like League of Legends, DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and there are other titles including Smite and StarCraft, as well as Overwatch and Rocket League rising onto the scene.
The mobile eSports scene is getting bigger in Asia, particularly in China with the likes of Tencent’s Honor of Kings (think League of Legends) hitting DAUs of 50 million.
But it's not a sector that's filled with bit hits in eSports, particularly in the West. From those that have tried, you can see how much of a daunting challenge it is. It's not enough to make a great competitive game – scaling it up to be an eSport complete with tournaments and big prize money is a different ball game entirely.
This is something that Super Evil Megacorp for example has had to spend a long time cultivating with Vainglory, while Supercell is still finding the right method of running tournaments more than a year after Clash Royale’s launch.
But that’s not the only roadblock for mobile eSports in the West right now.
“There needs to be some great game that unlocks the opportunity. I'm guessing it's going to be something a little bit different from Honor of Kings, or something re-imagined from that.
“Several of the top studios are trying. I'm sure you've heard of Brawl Stars which was recently launched by our partners Supercell. Tencent is trying to port Honor of Kings to the West with Strike of Kings. There's a bunch of different MOBAs like MOBA Legends and there are many first-person shooters on mobile like Critical Ops.
“A whole host of other studios, including Space Ape, are trying to build some version of a competitive 3v3 or 5v5 game that can unlock the same sized opportunity [as Honor of Kings], but in the West.”
Perhaps the biggest barrier though, is where users naturally go to play their games. In the West, a ‘core’ gamer’s first port of call is arguably PC and console, rather than mobile, whereas in China there’s a bigger market of mobile-first gamers.
As Yang says, these gamers didn’t grow up on console or PC and their primary gaming lifestyle takes place on a mobile device. This means they’re likely more willing to accept more complexity with inputs, such as virtual d-pads, and are also willing to engage in longer play sessions.
Honor of Kings, for example, has play sessions that can last 20 minutes. Something like Vainglory though, with its 3v3 matches, is designed for much quicker sessions.
But there are signs of a mobile-first gamer market emerging in the West.
I think a mobile-first market and demographic is becoming a much stronger segment in terms of spending power.Tony Yang
“If you look at the top grossing charts in the US, top 100, if you look today versus two years ago, there's many more games that have d-pad controls, and more games that have competitive real-time,” says Yang.
“This is a sign that I think a mobile-first market and demographic is becoming a much stronger segment in terms of spending power.
“I think that comes from two things. I think a lot of them are probably younger, ages 12 to 24 demographic, that pretty much were born into touchscreens a decade ago when the iPhone was announced.
“This is a group that are comfortable with d-pad gameplay and long session times. A lot of the people that first got exposed to mobile were likely in their mid-teens a decade ago and now are probably out getting their first jobs. So I think that market is growing from that perspective.
"Then there's a second segment we see as well, which is more guys like me that like competitive gaming and who played a lot of Halo, Counter-Strike and Quake at university.
“Me and my dorm-mates used to compete on who had the best gaming hardware. But today, fast-forward 15 to 20 years, we're now competing on who has the best Macbook Air, ultra portable laptops. So we kind of have less access to the gaming hardware but we still like these kind of games so I think there's going to be a group of people that do want more accessible but competitive gameplay on mobile.”
Opportunity for everyone
Yang predicts that the first big mobile eSport in the West will emerge within the next one to two years, and people will “finally get that 3v3 or 5v5 multiplayer gameplay is viable on mobile”.
The technology is ready, as proven in China, and the composition shift of gamer types to mobile-first could naturally except these more complex games too.
But given the challenges faced by the likes of Clash Royale and Vainglory, which have had to be patient in building up an eSports community despite big financial backing, is it possible for a small to medium-sized company to build a mobile eSports title?
Super Evil Megacorp and Critical Force may argue you can – they certainly aren’t backed by the biggest publishers in the world – but Clash Royale’s slow burn into eSports, though still raking in the money, shows the huge task awaiting contenders in the space.
“I think in terms of Western games, it's never really been super high fidelity graphics and very complicated systems that have won on the top grossing charts,” states Yang.
You do definitely need some pretty good and experienced game design chops to design these games.Tony Yang
“Certainly a good example of big system games like Machine Zone games. But I think if we're building one of these games, I'd be more scared of the company that can figure out a more simple way to capture, a more simple game that creates that same psychology and psychological rush of competitive games than I am about a studio that can build 300 3D animating MOBA characters.
“I think some of that simplicity with development will also translate into simplicity of gameplay. With all of these games as well, for example if you take a League of Legends-type of game, they've been running one map for billions of hours of gameplay. So in terms of content creation for a game that's a competitive multiplayer title, in some ways that can be less intense because a lot of the content is actually just emergent from interacting with other players, and stuff like that.
“You do definitely need some pretty good and experienced game design chops to design these games to be fun for 365 days, two to three years out and are still replayable and so on and so forth. But I don't necessarily see it as a studio size type of thing."
All the foundations appear to be in place for a successful mobile eSports in the next year or two. With companies like Space Ape, Supercell, Tencent and others looking to make headway in the space, it looks like it’s just a matter of when, not if, we’ll see a big mobile eSport on the level of their famous PC counterparts.
Tony Yang will be speaking at Develop:Brighton on July 12th. You can find more information on the Develop:Brighton website.