Why Do We Like Esports?

I've been thinking a bit about esports lately. I recently had the pleasure of participating in the Squidboards Splat Series, a monthly Splatoon 2 tournament. There were nearly 70 teams that participated, all of whom are intensely dedicated to the game. Of course, in the world of esports, Splatoon is still small scale; games like League of Legends, Counter Strike, and Star Craft all have millions of dollars in prizes available for the best players.

What makes esports compelling? Sports in general arise from our competitive instinct- we want to say that our tribe is better, and we look to sports as a way to (hopefully) prove that. As such, any good esport needs to be competitive. That is, there needs to be a wide variety of skill levels that can be found in the game, and the best players should be able to consistently beat lower skilled players. Whether that arises from strategic/tactical thinking, or from quick reflexes, or a combination of both, it's important that there is a clear winner who deserves to be the winner.

While competitiveness plays a role in sports, there is also an aspect of being fun to watch. A game is fun to watch when you can take one look at it, and you understand what is happening - is the player in a good position, or a bad one? Did that play have a major impact on the course of the game, or is it simply going to stall the inevitable victory of the opponent? In MOBAs and shooters, if you see a player killing another player, you automatically know that is giving an advantage to the team, although other parts of the state of the game might be less immediately readable.

Readability benefits from our ability to associate what we are seeing with our past experiences. Of course, the ultimate case of this will be if the audience has played the game before, but ideally, you want the game to be readable by someone who has never played your game. I enjoy watching the occasional baseball game with my family, even though I have never played baseball. Rocket League is easy to follow, because if you have ever played Soccer, or Basketball, or Hockey, or any of most sports, you know what is happening - if the ball is on the other side, that's good, if it's on your side, you might be a little worried. You can see who is ready to score, and who is ready to make an epic save.

I think there is a decent chance that Splatoon can make for a decent esport. It is instantly readable - as mentioned before, if you see a player splatting another player, you know who that benefits, but also, the core mechanic of the game- that you must claim turf by painting it in your team's colour before you can enter it, means a quick glance will reveal where each team is allowed to go, and where they will have to work to get to. A look at the map will reveal all you need to know about the current state of the match.

Splatoon is also very competitive. In the three ranked modes, the players are all encouraged to close in around a small area, and fight for control over an objective. If the team can maintain constant control over the objective, they can win quite swiftly, but if the other team is able to take control, then some of the progress the team made will be undone, slowing down their progress. This means that the match will be decided over an extended period of time, unless one team has a clear significant advantage over their rivals.

Esports are a fascinating area, and I feel that there is plenty of room for development within the field.

Focusing On Fun When Adapting Gameplay

I'm sure you are aware that The Ancient Game of the River was based heavily on the second oldest board game known to mankind. However, while we were working on The Ancient Game of the River, we weren't afraid to take liberties with the rules where I felt that it would make the game more fun and enjoyable. For example, the five rosettes spread around the board, which give the player an extra turn, and (in the case of the center rosette) provide protection to the piece occupying it. They are very powerful, and encourage the players to fight over who gets to control the central rosette. This was one of the aspects of the original game that made it so appealing to me, since it added lots of strategy and texture to the board.

However, the protection provided by the rosette also caused problems. Since any piece that was on the rosette was given unlimited protection, a very common strategy in playtesting was simply to race for the center, and whoever got to the center would sit there for most of the game, and then jump out in the final moments, when it was safe(ish). This took away a lot of the potential the rosette provided, since the benefit provided to the player while they were sitting on the rosette was actually fairly limited, and whoever got the monopoly (which could sway the game in their favour) was determined mostly by luck.

This bothered me for months, but I decided to try out a different approach to the rosette - I added a timer that would count down every time a player moved a piece. Once the timer reached zero, the rosette would fade away, and the piece could be captured. This encouraged the player to move their piece off the rosette, which meant that there would be several races for the rosette throughout a single game, allowing the players to strategize about when to jump off the rosette - ideally you would want to move when you have pieces ready to claim the spot again, and if you capture an enemy piece, that's great. Thus, the rosette ended up affecting who won the game not just by who won the initial race for the center, but by who could most effectively take advantage of the nature of the rosette throughout the match.

This is just one example of how as a game designer, I tweaked the rules to make the game more fun and exciting, but there are plenty more tweaks made to the game that I might share in future posts. But for now, I've got other things to take care of.

Until next time -

Mikkel R P Wilson