Life, The Universe, And Gaming — The Return Of eSports
I think we can all agree that eSports is dead.
I’ll bet there are some who read that and hissed violently with their forearms covering their faces like garlic to a vampire, and in their defence that is a bit sensationalist in truth, but perhaps it’s better to say it like this: eSports is in a coma. There. How’s that?
It’s true though. At least, the way I remember eSports, it’s no longer what it used to be. I remember reading through my first actual gaming magazines in 2003 and discovering the world of competitive gaming where grand tournaments were held for clans and single players to enter and prove their prowess and performance against other professionals all for the sake of competition and promoting gaming as a sport. A mind-sport, they called it. I’m sure a lot of twitch-gamers would beg to differ.
Back then I read of such clans and games as Nightfall, who dominated the WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne competitions locally, with players like Swoop and Shase constantly going at each other. It was a rivalry that thrilled me to read about, even more so when I finally got to watch them go at it, during a recorded event. Then there was DC, previously Evolve, with such players as Hellhound and his brother, the boy wonder, Style, who would feature in and win many Counter-Strike 1.6 tournaments.
Back then there were international tournaments held annually, most that we never really did that well in but were still grateful for the opportunity. And of course there was the Cyberathlete Professional League, or CPL as it was known, which was considered the cream-of-the-crop, world cup equivalent of competitive gaming. It was the showcase event with a huge prize pool that absolutely dwarfed anything any other competition could boast, with all the triple-A industry names coming to the fore in support.
Unfortunately the bad administration and outright horrendous choice of competitive games — due in no small part to a period where there was a complete dearth of decent competitive titles releasing — led to the CPL fading away into the niche world of underground and eSports, growing as a competitor to other, more well-publicised sports, began to fade.
To be honest I’m still not entirely sure why it faded. Perhaps it was the egos present in clans with gifted players? Perhaps the agents and managers who worked with clans charged exorbitant fees leading to players feeling unwilling to compete as a career. Perhaps the requirements of a career in eSports were too much, with some games requiring eight or more hours of constant playing per day. A lot of people considered gaming as a sport to be akin to the little-leagues of various more popular sports, so perhaps the pressure to ‘grow up and get real jobs’ eventually got to players. Sell-outs. Whatever it might have been on the side of players, you cannot argue that after a while there seemed to be no games players were willing to play any more.
There was WarCraft III’s Defence Of The Ancients custom map, sure. A lot of people still play that up to today, and it’s the reason for the so-called Multiplayer Online Battle Arena genre which includes such games as League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth and the long-forgotten Demigod. There was still Counter-Strike Source however many players were resistant to this change and outright refused to participate in tournaments featuring the upgrade to Counter-Strike 1.6 citing the engine upgrade as a deterrent. StarCraft II was great for a while, if you were Asian, but the lack of LAN support was a big issue for most. Nobody even really knows where Unreal Tournament 3 went, after Unreal Tournament 2004 was considered a game few people still wanted to play competitively, though in some circles, let’s be honest, that’s where the best action could be found when it was still popular.
Now? Now we have such games as Gears of War 3 and (ugh) Halo: Reach on Xbox 360, Killzone 3 on PlayStation 3 as well as cross-platform titles such as FIFA 12, Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. There’s even games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band which hold the potential for clan competition. Why then has there been no resurgence in competitive gaming?
I would say this lack of resurgence is due in part to the comfort and ease of online gaming, either over LIVE or PSN. Hell, even on PC. Competitive events are expensive affairs that require technical know-how and a lot of cold, hard cash to pull off. And even then there’s bound to be an issue or two creeping up. Furthermore, building hype for a competitive event is difficult because try as you might, there are gamers who simply love the comfort of their own homes too much to set out and try to make a name for themselves. Sure there are tournaments held at local LANs, Organised Chaos and FRAG often featuring some pretty decent competition with great prizes for winners, not to mention rAge each year. But it’s not the same, is it? It doesn’t have the same sort of flair or feel to it that previous, really big tournaments had. At least, not to me.
The common factor seems to be the PC gaming master race, as I like to call them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still fractionally one of them, so I’m allowed to call them whatever I bloody well like. PC gaming has suffered in recent years. Last year was perhaps its best year in at least the last five years, with games like The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Portal 2 and Battlefield 3 releasing to, and being better on PC. There is no arguing on two of those three games. Then the upshot of indie gaming has also helped, with such offers as the Humble Bundle to sweeten the pot for mouse-and-keyboard gamers. Soon, it’s about to get even better.
Console gaming could be as competitive as PC gaming. In some circles it already is. But I’m talking about CPL-level competition, where the prizes could put you into early retirement and you are revered as a star without needing a South-Korean residency. Why it hasn’t happened already, I’m afraid I’m unfit to answer. I can only guess at the unwillingness of event organisers to get permission from Microsoft or Sony, or perhaps just outright laziness. I know I’d pitch up to a Gears of War or Guitar Hero tournament, even for a ridiculous entry fee (but not too ridiculous… I’m a brown boy after all).
The answer then lies with the PC.
The good news is that; and this was meant to be my original title: Valve will herald the return of eSports.
In my opinion, of course. Look at what they’re doing with the games they’re currently working on right now. They’ve got two particular games that are descendents following the natural order of succession from previous eSport big-hitters; Dota 2 and Counter-Strike Global Offensive.
Dota 2 is in every way the original DotA’s successor and it’s not some silly clone of the original game. No, clones are inherently copies of something else and therefore not worth their salt. Dota 2 is the original game, in every way that matters. It has better net code, better visuals, better facilities for multiplayer (spectating and the like) and much, much more interesting unit responses. But it loses none of the original game’s alluring, borderline addicting, gameplay and frantic, frenetic fun. I really do love my alliterations. Already, Dota 2 is gaining in popularity, converting even those who weren’t sold on the original DotA custom maps, which are still seeing updates up to today, some nine years after the release of the game for which they’re created. It’s even got to the point where Valve can ask players for $40 of their hard-earned cash in order to get a beta key for an otherwise free-to-play title, in order to get early access, together with some aesthetic items to customise their heroes. That Valve could even get away with such a thing speaks volumes of the game’s appeal and the willingness of players to get as many people involved in it as possible. Just, don’t expect Dota 3, ever.
The second of these titles, Counter-Strike GO, does nothing for me. Counter-Suck, right? Still, it’s being hailed as the game Counter-Strike 1.6 players have been waiting for and importantly, it will be available on all platforms which means maximum exposure for Valve, who aren’t even asking that much for it when it eventually releases. This is another beta that has a huge pool of players involved in it, on an almost daily basis.
There are players who’ve already put more time into either of these betas than they have in any other game in recent years. Such is their appeal.
Last year at Gamescom there was a Dota 2 tournament held with an early version of the beta, with probably the biggest prize pool I have ever seen for an eSports tournament, and this for a sector of the gaming industry that is otherwise defunct? Gone are the Fatal1ty’s of the world. Instead people are cheering on MyM while they gang mid lane and push for rax. This is where competitive gaming is going, and I have to say I’m quite liking it.
If eSports is indeed to make its triumphant comeback, then it will be Valve who we will have to thank for it. And who knows, maybe in a few years this could be what we’re watching on ESPN, or Super Sport 3:
And of course, I’ll be reporting on it. Or with any luck, maybe taking part.