If you’ve picked up a controller over the last few years, there’s a good chance you’ve played some kind of esport. Whether it’s the world-conquering battle royale of Fortnite or the colorful, viral hit Fall Guys, the unstoppable rise of streaming platforms like Twitch has grown competitive gaming into a multi-billion dollar industry.
With over 400 million people logging on to watch the latest esport tournaments, the most beloved video games aren’t just played by millions of people — they’re watched by just as many. And it’s not just the game’s developers and publishers that stand to earn big from esports either. Last year’s edition of Dota 2’s annual tournament, The International, broke records by offering an astounding $34 million in prize money to the winning team
But with competitive games existing since the dawn of gaming itself, what exactly defines an esport? As the name suggests, at the simplest level, an esport is an electronic sport. While many games boast a multiplayer component, that doesn’t necessarily make them an esport. To be considered an esport, a video game needs officially sanctioned teams or robust head-to-head solo play, observer tools, a well-implemented ranking system, intricately balanced gameplay, and ranked competitions amateur and professional levels.
Whether it’s the Super Bowl-esque spectacle of League of Legends Worlds or the Hearthstone tournaments broadcast on TV networks like ESPN — there’s no doubt that esports is here to stay. Research from Newzoo estimates that global esports viewing figures could potentially reach a staggering 900 million worldwide viewers by the end of 2020. While turning your game into an esport requires an entirely different development approach than crafting, say, a single-player platformer, if you do strike esports gold, your game could potentially be played, bought, and watched for decades to come.
If you manage to make a genuinely successful esport, your game’s lifespan could become indefinite. An esport becomes a massive phenomenon if it is finely tuned, multi-layered and fun to watch. In other words, a good esport isn’t just a game — it’s a platform in itself.
Take Valve Software’s Counter-Strike. While this seminal PC shooter has had its fair share of versions and upgraded visuals since its November 2000 release, the core gameplay has remained largely unchanged. Why? Because Counter-Strike is still just as fun to watch and play as it was twenty years ago. Across tournaments, game purchases, and in-game cosmetic sales, Counter-Strike has seen its revenue nearly double from 221 million U.S. dollars in 2015 to 414 million U.S. dollars in 2018. In other words, Valve’s shooter is bigger than ever, illustrated by the fact that in April 2020, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive hit 1.3 million concurrent players on Steam.
Meanwhile, esports mainstay League of Legends is only increasing in popularity. Launched in 2009, the Riot Games developed MOBA attracted a staggering 135 million monthly players in May 2020 and was averaging around 75 million monthly players in 2018. Despite its age, the game only seems to be growing in popularity.
This means that if you’re successful, an esport becomes a tool to keep players immersed and playing in your virtual world long after release, transforming your game into a booming business of its own. Whether it’s brand sponsorships of teams and tournaments, generating revenue from ticket sales of physical events, team-branded merchandise, or purchasable in-game cosmetics, transforming your game into an esport means you’ve created a game that will stay relevant (and profitable) for far longer than any traditional gaming experience.
Making your game an esport sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? However, crafting a competitive classic takes a considerable investment of time and resources. Riot Games, for example, revealed it spends $100 million annually on its events alone, which they also consider part of their advertising. But with titles like League of Legends generating $1.5 billion in revenue over the course of 2019, the high costs have paid off.
As we’ve mentioned, any competitive game can technically become an esport. Suppose you have managed to create a multiplayer experience that is both entertaining to play and watch. In that case, you are already well on your way to transforming your title into a bonafide esport.
However, your game will require constant balance tweaks and new content to keep the game’s meta feeling fresh and fair. This will require a team of engaged community managers conversing with your player base, an army of dedicated influencers creating content, and the support of major tournament organizers.
Maintaining a successful esport is an incredibly resource-heavy and seemingly never-ending task. Games like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Rainbow Six Siege require a steady trickle of new maps and characters to keep the game feeling fresh. For some esport genres and titles, the game’s development never truly ends. All this requires a lot of staffing.
Take Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege, for example. This game was developed by a team of 150 who worked tirelessly on the game for four years before its lead developers moved on, and the team was able to downsize. Yet with the game boasting 55 million players four years after its launch and taking in over $1 billion in revenue, the effort was clearly worth the investment.
While making a single-player or simple multiplayer game can easily be handled by a small team of developers, doing all of the above is a big ask for an indie studio. That’s why the vast majority of esports come from studios lucky enough to have a big publisher behind them, leveraging said publisher’s content and resources. As alluded to previously, making an esport also requires investment into teams and tournaments, solid servers, anti-cheat software, and a group of developers who are always ready to amend and improve the game.
All of this is why your business model will require some scrutiny.
If you look at the ten most successful esport titles, you’ll find a mix of both full-price and free-to-play titles. If you don’t happen to have a well-known IP or deep-pocketed publisher at your disposal, you’ll most likely want to design your game as a free-to-play experience.
Despite being funded by companies like Riot, Valve, and Blizzard, games such as Valorant, DOTA 2, and Hearthstone have all found success thanks to their free-to-play model. The rising battle royale sensation Fall Guys is also enjoying huge success, largely thanks to it being offered free to PlayStation Plus subscribers in August of 2020. In other words, while you initially need to find a pricing model that works for your game, like one that doesn’t lock any gameplay features behind a paywall, the key to generating hype around your esport is getting as many people to play it as possible.
While this can often result in making your title free-to-play, full-priced titles like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, and Rocket League have also become immensely popular. Either way, you’ll need to invest in marketing. You can, of course, simply pay the biggest streamers and influencers to cover your game to generate the initial buzz. But, there’s no guarantee that this will elevate you to the esports hall of fame. Boss Key Production’s colorful battle royale, Radical Heights, went after the Fortnite crown and was immediately, and some say suspiciously, played by two of the biggest names in streaming — Ninja, and DrDisRespect.
However, the hype surrounding the game was short-lived. Despite a decent number of players gravitating towards the game initially, Radical Heights went from a peak of 12,500 players on its second day to 2,200 a couple of weeks later. Ultimately, Boss Key’s battle royale ran out of steam because it didn’t generate enough hype to keep players invested. The result? The game was offline within three months, and the studio shut down. As Radical Heights illustrates, even if you manage to make a game that connects with a decent audience, it’s all for nothing if it doesn’t generate enough profit to keep your studio running.
However, the good news is that a wide variety of genres can succeed within the esports world. While many associate esports with shooters and battle royales, games like FIFA, Towerfall Ascension, Hearthstone, League of Legends, Fall Guys, and Rocket League prove that as long as your game has a compelling competitive core, any genre can make it in the esports big leagues. If your title is competitive, balanced, and just as fun to play as it is to watch, there is a good chance that it could succeed as an esport. Yet as we’ve seen repeatedly, the key to success is not to push a game to become an esport before the audience is there.
As we’ve mentioned, it takes a lot of cash to get an esport off the ground. Indie developer, Unknown Worlds Entertainment revealed that to host a world tournament for its shooter/RTS hybrid, Natural Selection 2, it had to invest over $60,000. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the most successful competitive games are backed by multi-million dollar publishers. But that’s not to say that you can’t create a world-beating esport as an indie developer.
Take Rocket League, for example. On paper, Psyonix’s unique blend of backflipping supercars and soccer shouldn’t have been any more than an indie curio. However, thanks to the sheer brilliance of its design and gameplay mechanics, Rocket League has become one of the most successful competitive games ever made. Created by a small team, Rocket League is the successor to Psyonix’s lesser-known title, Battle Cars.
But Rocket League opted for a slower and more spectacle-heavy approach to the same concept, with its winning formula ultimately being the result of seven years of gameplay tweaks while the team worked on other for-hire projects to stay afloat. It was a slow burn that paid off, with Psyonix’s motorized football sim earning them over 110 million dollars. And the Rocket League developers are still reaping the rewards, with the game hitting 500K concurrent players across all platforms in 2020.
Another unlikely esport hero is Matt Makes Games and his TowerFall Ascension. Originally released as an exclusive for the ill-fated Android Console, this frantic arena-battler quickly transcended its dead platform and soon became a multiplayer hit on PC and PS4. Playing like a blend of Street Fighter and Quake, this fast-paced pixel pulverizer may not be a stadium-filler, but it’s still gone on to spawn IRL tournaments around the world and has become a mainstay local multiplayer game for gamers of all ages.
We’ve mentioned it briefly, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss Fall Guys while talking about indie esport hits. The game is the baby of Mediatonic, a British studio primarily known for creating licensed video games. Yet with its colorful and chaotic gameshow-themed battle royale, it struck gold. Selling seven million copies on Steam and taking the crown as the most downloaded PlayStation Plus game ever, this cleverly marketed and brilliantly simple title has become a global gaming success. It’s even become a Twitch mainstay, holding its place in the streaming platform’s top ten most popular games several months after its release.
Outside of the all-important step of ensuring that you have an active (and loyal) player base, another critical component of a successful esport is that the gameplay elements feel fair. Take Rocket League, for example. In this wonderfully odd esport that sees two teams of cars playing soccer, you’ll notice that every participant is on a near-identical playing field.
Aside from players sporting different cars (which primarily just offer cosmetic differences), Rocket League succeeds by having an easily accessible concept for new players while also containing an incredibly high skill ceiling. This perfect blend of depth and accessibility has kept Rocket League a highly beloved (and profitable) game since its July 2015 release.
To be an esport, you’ll need to have both online and offline official tournaments. These require either high production value events or simply custom user interfaces, as well as leaderboards and anti-cheating systems, and can be incredibly time and cash-intensive to create and maintain. This is why many games initially opt to partner with third-party tournament organizers.
Of course, regardless of whether you choose to host your own tournaments, to keep your game fun, stable, and bug-free, you’re going to need regular updates. Equally, without a good ranking or progression system, an esport cannot exist. Not only do you need the basics of a leaderboard, but you also need a progression system that keeps players wanting to come back for more.
An active player base is essential for any esport, and to keep them playing, you’ll need to make sure that you invest heavily in your social channels. Be it memeing on Twitter, planning special Twitch events, or hosting giveaways on Discord, an excellent social strategy is essential to keeping your game relevant and your audience active and engaged.
Not every game is meant to be an esport, and not all esports are born equal. Yet thanks to the longevity that they can add to a game, the global communities they foster, and the brand loyalty they inspire, attempting to transform your multiplayer title into an esport can reap huge rewards.
It may not be an easy task, and in this high-stakes competitive world, there are far more failures than there are success stories. However, if you manage to craft a competitive experience that feels both fun and fair and has people happily gathering around to watch, you might just have the next esports knockout on your hands.