Hello one and all! This week I’ve decided to talk a load of rubbish at you that I can’t quantify and is entirely from my own warped mind. The topic of this week is not competitive gaming as such, but what makes a game competitive. There are many games which declare themselves as contenders for the competitive world but not many of them actually make it. So let’s look at a few features (that I’ve pulled out my arse) and see what we can conclude.
What the devil is balance you say? Balance is the idea that all factions in a game have an even balance of strength between them. This carries over between game genres and if the balance is off then it can easily destroy a competitive game. A tell-tale sign of an imbalanced game is every competitive using the same race/faction/weapon (Command and Conquer 3 had almost every player choosing Scrin). There’s nothing worse than watching the exact same units and strategies over and over again. The reason games have different factions and gear to use is for variety, it keeps players interested and gives them different strategies to try out. Let’s take World of Warcraft which has ten classes and seven races. There is so much variety available but if a human mage is the most powerful of them all, then every competitive battle in World of Warcraft will consist of human mages. That gets stale, fast. It’s even worse for spectators, SO LET’S SEGUE INTO THE NEXT HEADING!
And thus the segue finishes. For a competitive game to remain popular and become an eSport, it needs spectators. No sport can survive if nobody watches it, this is because sport is a business and needs money to survive. You can’t put tournaments on with cash prizes every month if you don’t have sponsors and investors just like you can’t expect players to train full-time if you can’t pay them. Being watchable is crucial for a game attempting to become an eSport. FPS games struggle here, Counter-Strike has enjoyed massive success in the competitive circuit, but it’s still so damn hard to watch. Ten players are all doing their own things at the same time and the casters (commentators) can only focus on one area at any time. This leads to a lot of missed action which can be frustrating to a viewer. Starcraft 2, on the other hand, finds this very easy with two players facing off and the view of the spectator matches that of the players (top down bird’s eye).
If we take some sports to compare to, football is very easy to watch because there’s only one focal point all game, the ball. A sport like Formula One is most like Counter-Strike, a lot of action gets missed every race. If someone in 24th place performs an amazing turn to overtake, it might get missed if there’s a battle for first place at the same time. Counter-Strike compensates for this by giving the spectator a variety of viewing modes. A viewer can look at a tactical map view to see where all the players are, they can see the game from a first person view or they can free roam across the map. This makes it a bit easier to get an overall view but it still makes it difficult for spectators to follow. In my ever so humble opinion, this is one of the reasons FPS games struggle to maintain a strong audience whereas RTS and MOBA games thrive.
You know what annoys a competitive gamer? Random modifiers. Outplaying an opponent only to be beaten because they scored two random critical hits on you is not a nice feeling. A professional gamer is someone who earns money by playing games competitively in front of an audience. They do not want their earnings to be at risk because of a 10% chance of their strategy missing a target. A Street Fighter has to block perfectly to halt an attack, they don’t just have a random chance of blocking or dodging, they have to do it themselves. Units in Starcraft 2 always hit with their attacks and do the same damage, there’s no critical hit chance or dodge possibility. When I played Counter-Strike seriously, I know when I lost that it was because my opponent had better aim and tactics than me.
“A-ha!” you shout, confident that you’ve got me, “League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients have random modifiers! You stupid idiot, stop writing.” Well, that’s a good point and one I’m not sure I can give a good response to. The MOBA genre is fairly new and these are the only two prominent games available for it. Maybe it’s because the whole game style is new to people and the competitive scene is offering ridiculous prizes to players that it’s not really complained about. It could possibly be because of the items system the games use, making investing in critical chances a strategic choice, rather than a random element. But I’m not convinced, as the genre becomes more established, don’t be surprised if the randomisers start to fade.
This is fairly straight forward premise: if you want a competitive game then it has to take hard work and brains to be good at. The reason Call of Duty has bullshit like jumping 360 quick-scope headshots is because of how low the skill ceiling is on those games. Try and do that in Counter-Strike and you’ll die a lot. Starcraft 2 players at the highest level have to execute perfect strategies and timings for the first 15 minutes of a game to be in with a chance of winning. If the players get bored and have to contrive their own rules just to up the challenge, something’s gone wrong.
A smarmy conclusion
There is one reason and one reason only for this conclusion. A casual game is by no means worse than a competitive game. Just because I say Call of Duty has a low skill ceiling doesn’t mean it’s a bad game, there’s 32,000 players on Steam who would disagree with me right now. Just a lazy game. It comes down to what you want from a game, I love playing competitive games for the challenge and strategic elements, I also love killing Bonerfarts in Borderlands 2. It comes down to personal taste, but if a game wants to survive as an eSport, the above elements are what I would say are required.