Competitive gaming has been around as long as games themselves, from the arcades of the 80s through to the staggering prize pools of Dota 2’s The International (which seems to have settled around $25m this year!), however it was really the late 90s when things started to pick up for PC gaming in particular. Internet access becoming widespread and games transitioning into 3D. Times were changing. We now have around 20 years of data on what makes a game a good candidate for being a top spectator esport. Today I’d like to make the case that Warcraft III: Reforged is looking like a strong esport contender for 2019.
Developers have become quite experienced in designing games for the competitive scene, with some developers hinging their entire product on the buzz from that market, such as Dota 2, League of Legends and Counter Strike: Global Offensive. For any developer releasing a multiplayer game, we have to assume they at least have internally discussed how the game would fare in the hands of the best players.
So what are they discussing in those closed door meetings and how do they brew the perfect cocktail for a game to take off and go big?
Here I’d like to present my own theories on what makes a game competitively strong, assuming a game is not horribly flawed due to balance or technical issues, in my opinion, you need a solid showing in three areas:
Let’s look at Starcraft 2 and a few others as case studies and how they have performed in these categories and compare. Since Starcraft is the broadly same genre as Warcraft 3 and made by the same developers, as well as being made more recently, it’s a great place to look for guidance on what the future might hold for Reforged:
There are games that have suffered from a lack of depth, which has kept them from the competitive scene. One example close to my heart is the short-lived competitive scene for Left 4 Dead. A game that just simply does not support a high level of strategy or variation. The nature of the game means there are easily discovered optimal strategies, and no incentive to stray from them.
So a game needs to have enough complexity to support interesting play and variation. In my opinion, the tolerance for depth has actually gone up over time, with the older generation getting better at games through experience, and the younger generations being quicker and quicker to pick up complex systems.
Depth covers both the games strategy, but also the mechanics of simply how good a player can get at the actual controls of a game. It’s clear that no matter how good you get at a card game, there is not much in the way of mechanical skill that compares to something like the twitch reactions of an arena shooter.
For our own case study, it’s clear Starcraft 2 has great depth to it, with three races that all have near limitless options regarding build orders, tech choices, game plans and as mentioned, a high mechanical skill ceiling. Depth is good for Starcraft 2.
For Warcraft 3, we may not have the same tech and timing possibilities, the depth comes from the hero system, and the maps which compliment it. Creep routes, item drops, neutral building control and hero combinations help cement a depth that is different to traditional RTS, but is still there.
This concerns mostly what happens outside of the playable game, features such as Ladders, Matchmaking, Statistics, Replay functionality, Spectators, Interface, Official Tournaments, Cosmetics, etc. This is actually where I think Starcraft 2 shines. In this area other developers should be watching and learning from Blizzard.
I’ve picked two games that are the polar opposites of success and failure in this category.
Counter Strike: Global Offensive has this figured out. There is great tournament support in the client, such as custom made spectator functionality, demos, embedded twitch streams, a strong identifiable competitive gamemode (even named as such!). There is strong developer support for the regular “Major” tournaments, and the cosmetic market keeps players in the ecosystem generating revenue without compromising the game.
2017's Dawn of War 3 flopped, in my opinion, partly because this was neglected. Released with what we might label "moderate hype", it actually showed some promise as a competitive RTS, with three races with strong identities, a pseudo hero mechanic and a unique tug-of-war-with-ancients game mode that was fresh turn-around on the MOBA’s roots in strategy games.
Sadly the game was released with no replay system, no spectator system, barely functional matchmaking, no ladder. What exactly is the competitive community supposed to do with that kind of limitation? The scene was doomed from the start despite being a potentially fun competitive game.
Starcraft 2 was designed from the beginning to work in this way. While not every decision has been covered in glory (sometimes the technology just wasn’t there), there have been continual improvements to make Starcraft the best possible spectator game around. Demonstrating also that any game worth it’s competitive salt needs to have a developer-funded professional circuit, which they have done a great job with WCS.
Warcraft 3 was ahead of it's time in 2003 in this regard, The casual player can easily find replays, watch them, learn from them and track their improvements on the ladder, a satisfying gameplay loop that is necessary for competitive improvement but the world has moved on in 15 years.
It's expected that a game needs strong developer support to have a big competitive scene, and without doubt the software on people's machines needs to have features that help this, as CS:GO has. This is something that Reforged can make a big improvement on, and I would hope Blizzard see this as an easy win!
How much fun can the average (possibly casual?) player have with your game. Appeal is about how much your players simply enjoy your game, whether for it's interesting mechanics, lore, art, strategy. This has been demonstrated to be probably the most important factor, and probably where Starcraft 2 slightly drops the ball.
Hearthstone and World of Warcraft have both demonstrated that even if your game isn’t designed for deep strategical or mechanical depth, and even if your systems alienate competitive players, if there is the basic framework, and you have enough players, you can still carve out a competitive niche.
Where it’s arguable Starcraft 2 may have more depth, and undoubtedly it has better systems and infrastructure for competitive play, what Warcraft 3 has in abundance, to an overwhelming degree, is appeal to the casual player.
If your game is not appealing at the lowest level, who are your spectators? It’s actually remarkable that Starcraft 2 has such a popular professional scene considering how brutally complex and intimidating it is to the new player. I don't have numbers to hand, but I would not be surprised if it had one of the worst ratios of yearly tournament prize pools to number of active players.
With Warcraft 3, even if you lose your game to a far greater opponent, a new player can still make a hero, kill some creeps, level up and use the fun hero spells and items. You can walk away motivated to click that play game button again, not to mention the fun combinations with teammates in 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4.
With it’s monumental learning curve, I’m not sure that Starcraft 2 has really captured the hearts of the casual gamer, it's my opinion that somewhere along the way, Blizzard forgot to make Starcraft 2 fun in the way that they succeeded with Warcraft 3 and indeed Brood War.
Is it a coincidence that it was Warcraft 3’s custom game community that spawned genres upon genres of new games, where Starcraft 2’s has been underwhelming considering the support it’s been given?
A few years ago, the competitive Warcraft 3 scene had accepted that to make it work, there was a certain amount of DIY needed. With communities such as MakeMeHost, w3Arena, Back2Warcraft and this very site acknowledging that the strength of the love for this game would keep the scene going. We have been rewarded.
While there is a lot to be excited about, 2018 has also made the community nervous. Balance changes and Bug fixes often causing more problems than those that they intended to solve. We are stuck in the awkward position of waiting, and seeing how things change. May our hope not be misplaced.
It's my opinion that Warcraft 3 has enough Depth, and it clearly has Appeal, with Reforged we have the potential to improve what Warcraft 3 has been severely lacking, modern systems for competitive play. If Blizzard can support official large prizepool tournaments, if the graphical updates, the campaign changes and appearing on the battle.net launcher can bring and keep players in the ecosystem. If they can update the ladder and stats system, if they can support better spectator systems, if they can improve the UI and replays, if they can keep the custom map community happy…
… we might just have 2019’s biggest competitive release on our hands.