The week of August 16, 2015

The graveyard of busted esports games

By Ferguson Mitchell

Infinite Crisis was supposed to be the next big esports success story.

The game mashed together the most common esports genre—a team-based strategic combat game called a MOBA, or multiplayer online battle arena—with the fictional universe of DC Comics. It went through years of beta testing. It was shown off at high-profile tournaments. And when it was was finally released in March, it flopped.

A few months later, on June 2, the game’s developer pulled the plug. Infinite Crisis went from a game with so much potential to another tombstone in the esports graveyard. This kind of sudden death is relatively rare in the mainstream gaming industry; even games that receive heavy criticism, like The Order: 1886, sell well into the millions. Esports is unique in how often— and how spectacularly—its games fail.

Just taking a cursory glance at a list of all the MOBA games in the genre (the most popular in esports), it’s clear that the majority have either failed or seen dwindling fanbases that pale in comparison to the biggest titles. Guardians of Middle-earth, Demigod, Minions, Dawngate, and now Infinite Crisis: It’s hard for esports titles to break through. But the market is hardly saturated the way it is for traditional games. You’ve got League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Hearthstone, Call of Duty, a few others. And that’s it. So what’s going on?

When League of Legends first came out in 2009, nobody expected it to go very far. But it smartly combined a free-to-play model, which ditched up-front costs for in-game purchases called microtransactions, with a patch-based release schedule that spits out content on a weekly basis. That proved to be a winning combination. It was both easy to get your hands on and being constantly upgraded and tweaked. You’d never have to pick up a League of Legends 2. The number of current League players is quadruple that of World of Warcraft, one of the highest-selling games ever, at its peak.

League’s top competitor, Dota 2, has more than 11 million active players. Top digital card game Hearthstone has more than 30 million. Counter-Strike, now in its third iteration, is closing in on 8 million.

Why are those numbers so huge? Unlike Warcraft, which demands dozens of hours of grinding just to get to the max level, esports give all players, even newcomers, full access to the entire game, right off the bat. And while money or time can grant players aesthetic bonuses (new character skins, for example), more strategic options (such as being able to pick different characters), or access to the competitive ladder, the core game experience is often just a few clicks away. Much of Warcraft’s newest content, on the other hand, is only open to max-level accounts or even restricted by what level a player’s gear is.

Infinite Crisis went from a game with so much potential to another tombstone in the esports graveyard.

Esports have always prioritized accessibility, and it’s this exact reason that they’re flourishing right now. In fact, today’s esports industry is more diverse than ever. There are MOBAs, shooters, strategy games, fighting games, and card games. Hell, one of the most promising new esports titles this summer is about teams of cars playing soccer. It’s just that the total number of games is still relatively small, and breaking into the pack is incredibly difficult.

When players pick up new games and find them lacking, it’s very easy to leave them behind, especially because they’re free. And remember: These games are being constantly tweaked and improved. The current version of League of Legends looks and plays significantly different than its first iteration. If you make a League of Legends clone, you’re asking players to leave that game behind for yours.

Every new game that wants to call itself an esport had better come out guns blazing—or it’s dead on arrival.

That brings us back to Infinite Crisis. Sure, it was based in the DC Comics universe, but there was nothing about its gameplay that made it special. Many of the gameplay elements were pretty much just copied from other titles and given new names. In the most glaring example, Infinite Crisis’s set of maps is nearly identical to that of League of Legends.

Then there’s Waystone Studios’s Dawngate. Also a MOBA, Dawngate only had a few token changes to the regular format, such as the addition of several capturable mining bases around the map, but those never amounted to any real strategic difference from other MOBAs. Waystone attempted to tack on a focus on “lore,” the fictional world that the game takes place in, and even had a decent set of graphic novelesque comics to supplement the game. None of that helped. Development was shut down in late 2014.

Esports have always prioritized accessibility, and it’s this exact reason that they’re flourishing right now.

In another case, Triumph Studios’ Command & Conquer never even reached open beta. It promised to finally bring a free-to-play business model to the world of real-time strategy (RTS) games, which focus on base management and large-scale troop movements. In design, the game played similarly to StarCraft II, the most popular modern RTS title, but would allow players to select one commander, from among dozens prior to heading into a game, that would give their army special abilities and units that other commanders didn’t have.

Then Triumph announced it would only focus on developing multiplayer modes for the game. For RTS fans, that decision was unacceptable—the genre is steeped in rich and memorable single-player campaigns that had players begging for more. In the end, all Command & Conquer ever managed to be was a multiplayer-only StarCraft II knockoff.

Esports fans have high standards—a result of both the quality of games available and the near-constant content update schedules. If a game doesn’t live up to those standards, or just feels repetitive, gamers are easily able to drop them and move on. Traditional games that require time sinks, like Warcraft, or have definitive end points like a campaign mode, aren’t quite as easy to walk away from.

Keeping people playing your esport requires making sure they don’t go back to others. The bottom line is that in trying to grab players, all the aforementioned games (and many others) attempted to throw their own twist on the formula. Ultimately, they failed to actually make the game feel any different.

There are a few titles that buck the trend, however. Heroes of the Storm, a Blizzard game that went through several years of behind-the-scenes development, reduces and simplifies the genre. Before it even exited beta, developer Blizzard Entertainment had announced that the game would host a $1.2 million world championship. In April, ESPN2 broadcast a collegiate Heroes tournament, making it one of only a few esports to ever feature on cable television.

Esports fans have high standards—a result of both the quality of games available and the near-constant content update schedules.

The basic mantra behind Heroes is a drive to make the MOBA genre—well-known for being almost needlessly complicated—more accessible. Blizzard removed a lot of the technical intricacies and skill requirements that are present in most MOBAs. It also made the games faster. Heroes games finish around the 20-minute-mark, while League and Dota games usually run past 30 minutes and can sometimes be as long as an hour.

The game now appears poised for a major breakout in the coming year. But it’s not the only title challenging the MOBA hierarchy. When Smite initially came out, many thought little of it—a League clone with an over-the-shoulder viewpoint and skillshots that needed to be aimed just seemed too niche. Combined with the odd mythology theme, it didn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Doubters be damned, Smite now has over 10 million accounts and is even paving new trails when it comes to stabilizing its pro scene. By combining ideas that work from other scenes—a competitive league akin to what exists in League of Legends and the crowdfunded prize pool of The International, Smite developer Hi-Rez Studios has found unexpected success.

That success lies somewhere in this balance between unique ideas and familiarity. Command & Conquer innovated in a way that turned off players, while Dawngate just ended up being boring. Not innovating at all like Infinite Crisis and just relying on branding is another sure way to be sent back to the drawing board.

Only when the mix is right, such as it is with Smite and Heroes, can a game break through. That means that developers can’t just throw together a copycat game and see it do well. There are no middling successes in esports. There are esports, and there’s everything else.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai