What makes a good eSports game?
How come certain games dominate eSports, and why are certain genres of games overrepresented? Is there simply a lack of variety, or does there exist a formula for the perfect competitive game?
eSports is becoming a big business, with competitive leagues growing in both Europe and North America. South Korea is arguably the global center of eSports, where the interest has grown to such proportions that gaming is regularly televised, and even has dedicated cable-tv channels. Despite the growth and diversification eSports is seeing though, there's an almost remarkable consistency in what games are featured during competitions. What makes real time strategy and first person shooters so appealing, while turn based strategy and puzzle games don't cut it? What is it about certain titles, like Counter Strike, that makes them show up time and time again in competitions?
There is a clue in one major component of eSports which sets itself apart from all other types of gaming: The audience. When you play a game of Call of Duty online, everyone looking at a screen is usually a player. However, in eSports, the majority of viewers are spectators, and they must be catered to. This is a very important factor for choosing games, as well as genres. There's no reason a puzzle game or a turn based strategy game couldn't be competitive; the complexity of a game of Civilization certainly offers all the strategy and variety you'd need to compete against others. However, turn based games are slow-paced, and offer little excitement for any viewers who aren't intimately involved and knowledgeable about the game. This is similar to how chess, while having a dedicated following of chess aficionados, doesn't see a lot of wide-spread coverage in the media. Real time strategy and shooters dominate in eSports because they are dramatic and exciting to watch.
Ideally, you want a game which makes your audience stand and cheer; excitement sells
Apart from fast paced and dramatic gameplay, the games must also have a high skill-ceiling. One appeal of traditional sports is watching athletes simply because they are many times better than the average Joe. When they perform amazing feats the rest of us can't hope to match, it's inspiring. This applies to video games as well. When the professional players demonstrate a far superior skill level to that of the ordinary player, you and I get to see something really cool and impressive on the screen, and we'll cheer on. If the game had a low skill ceiling, and competitors in eSports were playing not too differently from how anyone else was, what would be the appeal? Why would I watch them instead of playing it myself? The importance of a high skill ceiling is echoed time and time again among people involved in eSports, including Alan LeFleur, self proclaimed "behind the scenes guy in eSports" and co-author of Advanced Theory and Practice in Sport Marketing. He speaks of the importance in a high skill ceiling on his personal blog, esportsbusiness.com
Similarly, eSports would not be very interesting unless the games also allow for a variety of different strategies and gameplay styles. This means the games have to be balanced. Any good competitive game must be balanced to a tee – otherwise, every competition would involve using the same weapons or tactics over and over again. A very well-balanced game allows for the gameplay to persistently evolve new strategies, keeping the game in a self-sustained state, potentially for years. This is important, as the game will have longevity. A game which cannot evolve by itself will likely be dependent on expansion packs, something which can only keep interest in a game up for a short amount of time, and once they stop being released, the game will slowly die.
It's no accident this is still being played
Extra Credits ran an episode on pro-gaming a while back, and they pointed out the importance of longevity, and how it is necessary to build a bond between the game and the spectator, just as people build bonds over sports such as baseball. If a game is constantly changing or being replaced by a new version of itself, it never really has a chance to cement itself into the public mind. This is one reason why Counter-Strike 1.6 is still being played, and how even though FPS games are released in spades every year, very few of them ever seen any competitive play.
I have a feeling we've only scratched the surface of what goes into picking the perfect eSports game, and while much of what I've written is more speculative and opinion based, rather than stemming from facts and figures, I think we can establish that there is indeed some logic behind which games go on to be part of eSports, whilst others do not.