Thursday, 6 March 2014

eveSports part 1: Is it feasible?

Warning. Long post incoming... and it's only part 1!

There are a number of games out there which have proven highly successful in the eSports scene. League of Legends, Starcraft II and CS:GO come to mind. They all have regular tournaments with sponsors and large prize pools. League of Legends is practically tailor made for eSports and the developers place a lot of focus on this. Starcraft and Counter Strike had much humbler beginnings. In the early days their development as eSports was largely driven by the competitive community. However, now Starcraft II and CS:GO have a lot more developer support helping them cement their place as popular eSport titles. EVE is in an interesting place and with the New Eden Open underway I thought it was good timing to discuss EVE as a potential eSport.

The Criteria

Firstly, what makes a game a good eSport? Here are what I feel are 4 key attributes that a game needs to have in order to succeed as an eSport:
  1. Low Barrier of Entry
  2. Competitive Community
  3. Spectator Friendly
  4. Developer Support
This is by means an exhaustive list! However, in my time playing games competitively I've watched many games come and go as eSports. The successful ones usually nailed all 4 of these points. So how does EVE do in each category?

Barrier to Entry

I think that EVE has a high barrier to entry and this, in my opinion, is extremely limiting in its development as an eSport. There isn't really any way for a brand new player to pick up EVE and get into a competitive match. This is due to a number of reasons. Firstly, there isn't really any way to quickly and easily set up the match environment found in the alliance tournament or new eden open. Secondly, the amount of ISK required to be competitive isn't realistically achievable by a young player. Finally, new players won't have the skill points to fly the range of ships required in tournament play, let alone have the support skills to be competitive in them against a veteran player. I think this is one of the most difficult things to change without negatively affecting the game as a whole but I'll get back to that in part 2.

Competitive Community

EVE is an extremely competitive game by its very nature. Also, the number of corporations and alliances in the game automatically lend itself to the formation of a large number of teams for competitive play. The community is also excellent at organising itself. The syndicate competitive league is a great example of this. If the tools were available to the playerbase as a whole to set up matches in the alliance tournament format, or other custom formats, then I imagine many more organisations like the syndicate competitive league would pop up. Podcasts, blogs and other communities already set up contests of various kinds. Extending this to tournament play would be natural if it was easier to actually set up the tournament conditions.

Spectator Experience

I don't think that EVE is a particularly fun game to watch for the untrained eye. To an uneducated viewer, there really isn't a clear way to tell what is going on. Even to an educated player it often just boils down to watching the battlefeed overlay at the bottom of the twitch feed without having to pay too much attention to the actual spaceships. Remind you of anything? It starts with O and ends with verview. Spreadsheets in space! How exciting! Anyway, my point is that more needs to be done to make the actual fight itself the focus rather than the battlefeed.

The second part to this is accessibility of the spectator system. My current understanding is that with EVE the battlefeed overlay is not readily available to players without CCP help. Also, the only way to spectate matches is through Twitch TV streams rather than via the game itself in some way. I think this particular limitation is also tied into the inability of players to set up their own "arenas" or servers to hold matches in. However, I think both would need to be addressed simultaneously.

The last element is the pacing during and between matches. I think this is partly due to how matches are set up, with CCP having to manually teleport people into a system on Tranquility which is inaccessible to the rest of the game. Up to 20 minutes of setup for a best of 1 which in some cases is a complete whitewash can be a bit anticlimatic. Credit where its due, I think CCP ran last weekends NEO matches very well and the discussion between matches was always relevant and interesting. CCP Rise, Fozzie and Dolan really know their stuff and I think Bro also did a good job directing considering it was his first time in the casting char. It also came across as very professional to me and the player made adverts in the intervals was a nice touch. However, due to the slow pacing, I did feel that it lacked a lot of energy and wouldn't really lend itself too well to a main stage atmosphere at a major tournament such as Dreamhack for example.

Developer Support

I think EVE passes this with flying colours. It is evident that CCP is keen to test the waters with eSports. Cash prizes for the NEO, large support of the Alliance Tournament and the support they have shown to player organisations such as the Syndicate Competitive League make this quite clear. I feel reassured that they wan't to make it work. There are a number of steps I think they need to do to achieve this though.

Priorities and changes

  1. Low Barrier of Entry
  2. Competitive Community
  3. Spectator Experience
  4. Developer Support
I feel that the game does have the competitive community base to supports eSports in EVE and I also think they have strong developer support. 2 out of 4 isn't too bad. However, I think the barrier to entry and spectator experience are serious problems if EVE wants to grow as an eSport. So what would I do about it?

Barrier to entry

I talked about EVE's barrier to entry. Competitive play is extremely difficult to get into as a new player for the reasons mentioned earlier. One idea is to have a way to set up private arenas, like the alliance tournament, which also normalises the players skillpoints. Then give them access to free ships, or a pool of money to buy them, to address the ISK issue. There would then have to be ways to regulate the arena settings to force compliance with particular rulesets, like the points systems used for fleet composition in NEO and the Alliance Tournament. This could be taken further, like limiting the skill pool, skill points or even ISK pool to allow interesting tournament styles to evolve. The general idea though is that arenas need to be easy to set up and they need to be accessible to new players. However, I do appreciate that there are huge ramifications with implementing something like this into the game and I'll discuss them in part 2!

The ability to have multiple matches running in parallel is also important. This would result automatically if private arena matches were possible and it would make tournament logistics themselves much more feasible and potentially more interesting. There are only 32 teams in NEOII, yet the tournament has to run over 2 weekends. Best of 3 matches seem like a no brainer to me, especially when 1 round only lasts 10 minutes, but this would have caused the first 16 matches of NEO to take 18 hours or upwards instead of 6! 

Spectator Experience

Basically, more needs to be done to make the actual fight watchable. The battlefeed overlay is okay for extra information but it shouldn't be the main focus for a spectator. Putting certain information on the bracket system could be a problem in regular gameplay but not in a tournament setting where UI clutter is less of an issue. Especially since a spectator won't need things like chat boxes, module controls or an overview to take up screen real estate. It needs things like indicators on the actual ships in space demonstrating webs, damps and other effects. Ships could be given icons based on their point values. Ship health values could be indicated on the brackets themselves via a simple colour system e.g. blue = shield, orange = hull and red = structure. Vary the colour distribution on the icon to show how a ship is tanked (shield versus armor). While EVE isn't an RTS, I think spectating it from such a view isn't such a bad idea via a specific spectator bracket system. Ultimately, getting a good overview of the fight that isn't literally watching a spreadsheet with health bars is what I'm looking for.

Secondly, we need the spectator interface to be accessible from within the game. There needs to be a way to watch an arena game remotely, similar to watching a CS:GO match, via the ingame interface without being directly connected to that particular arena. Linking it into a recording system, like the demo system which has existed in counter strike for over 10 years, would be excellent and a good way to allow content creators to do casting of matches after the fact or create highlight reels.

Also, a private arena system would indirectly affect the spectator experience by making casting matches much easier. The ability to reset matches and get set up quickly would lead to better game pacing and less "forced" chit chat to stall between the matches. This would make also it easier for tournament casters to jump to the next game much quicker rather than 10-20 minute intervals between each 10 minute round. Also, it would allow longer match formats, such as best of 3 or best of 5 at earlier points in tournaments which I think would be more exciting. 1 round matches that are over in a whitewash are pretty underwhelming to me and often, in other games, a team who gets whitewashed in game 1 can often mount a comeback. I think it would lead to better tournament stories and enhance the experience.

Closing summary

I think EVE has a lot going for it as a potential eSport. The actual tactics and strategy involved are very complex and rewarding when learned. However, the barrier for entry makes it difficult for new players to get involved. Also, although many EVE players will find the matches really exciting, I feel it relies too much on knowledge of the game. Other games, such as Starcraft II, have good spectator turnouts even when the spectators don't play or fully understand the game. I think it is because they simply appeal better to the eye, have better pacing in a tournament format and then good casters to explain the mechanics and tactics going on in the matches. I feel improvements can be made, or things implemented, which would push EVE in this direction. However, that being said, implementing things like private arenas into the game are dangerous for other reasons. Some subtle and some more obvious but I will talk about that in part 2! So tune in tomorrow for the dangers of making EVE into a fully fledged eSport.

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