The explosive growth of eSports as a legitimate industry and entertainment medium came at perhaps the worst possible moment for video game consoles. Pinned down by an awkward (but very necessary) transition to a new generation of hardware, the communities surrounding these systems could only watch as their comparatively steady PC brethren took the ball and ran. This was unfortunate because it left consoles - which were always going to face an uphill battle against PC - even further behind in the race to control and define the shape of competitive gaming.
Of course, we recognize at the outset that eSports has existed on consoles for over a decade. Call of Duty, Halo and FIFA have carved a slice of the scene for themselves through the sheer weight and influence of their respective brands. Eight console-based fighting games were present at EVO 2014 - including one on the Nintendo GameCube!
And yet there's an uneasy feeling that, in a different environment, these titles could do so much more. Why aren't millions of viewers tuning in, or huge crowds filling stadiums to watch console eSports? Far from creating a conducive setting in which eSports could thrive, the old consoles often actively discouraged its development. This wasn't strictly their fault - the rapid advancement of eSports has forced us all to learn as we go, and much of the challenge we face is that we are, as an industry, only just starting to get why this phenomenon we've stumbled upon works.
If there is a silver lining to be found then, it is this: consoles - which are, by nature, slower-moving platforms - have the benefit of capitalizing on the experiences of others. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launched with a more robust infrastructure built from the ground up to support eSports, but more importantly, they arrived with a new mentality from their manufacturers, a willingness to do whatever it takes to stake a claim on the competitive gaming market.
"eSports on consoles will thrive because of the ease of self-publishing, embrace of free-to-play, and platform support for servers, streaming and spectating"
To start, the advent of self-publishing on Xbox One and PS4 has been hugely important, as it allows developers to engage their audiences directly without a middleman. This is paramount for eSport curators, who depend on their ability to frequently and easily interact with their competitive player bases, tweak balance as needed, and introduce regular updates that keep the game and the 'meta' interesting over time. Warframe may never become a major player in the competitive gaming community, but the fact that it's an online multiplayer game which has been able to live and evolve is a healthy sign for prospective eSport titles.
Support for free-to-play monetization grew from this dev-friendly position, and it's a huge boon for competitive console gaming. I really can't overstate how much eSports benefits from F2P. League of Legends claims nearly 67 million unique users a month; it can do that because there are very few barriers to entry (it even runs on old machines). Appealing to as broad an audience as possible is not only how you keep the community active, it's also how you get people familiar enough with the game to appreciate the high skill level of pro players.
Moreover, F2P offers tremendous opportunities for fueling the banner events that drive competition from the ground up. Dota 2 crowdfunded a prize pool of more than $10 million this year with the microtransactions generated by its International Interactive Compendium, which sold in-game and in-franchise items and bonuses to players. SMITE's crowdfunded initiative Odyssey has allowed us to offer close to $2 million for our World Championship in January. It's a model with a built-in positive feedback loop - your core audience creates greater rewards to attract top performers, which in turn excites the base through spectator events - and it only grows in potential as your community does.
Many console games have traditionally offered only matchmaking services, but true competitive environments require support for online ranked play and, ideally, dedicated servers for tournaments and LAN events. This dedicated server architecture is better supported on the new consoles, but it's still up to developers to deliver on that capability with viable, easy, empowering tools for distributed tournaments, broadcasting and spectating. It is a big positive that nearly frictionless apps now make streaming on consoles extremely easy. Having these key foundations in place leaves consoles in a strong position to develop their own powerhouse eSports brands in the future.
But as consoles follow the hard-won lessons of PC eSports, we have to recognize that competitive gaming on consoles - even when thriving - must inevitably be judged by a much different yardstick of success. It matters that the world's leading market for competitive gaming, China, expected to have 62 million eSports enthusiasts in 2017, is one in which consoles were outright banned for over a decade until recently. That's okay. eSports is expanding all over the world, and there's tremendous opportunity out there even for products that don't top the charts. Having over 4 million people playing SMITE just a few short months after release was enough to double the size of Hi-Rez Studios this year. We didn't accomplish that by chasing our competitors' players - we did it by focusing on our own.
In 2015, eSports on consoles will thrive because of the ease of self-publishing, embrace of free-to-play, and platform support for servers, streaming and spectating. We know how the game works now - it's time to start putting some points on the board.
Todd Harris is COO of Hi-Rez Studios, developers of SMITE, an action-MOBA game which launched in March 2014 and will arrive on Xbox One in 2015. SMITE will host its inaugural World Championship finals next month between January 9-11 at the Cobb Energy Centre in Atlanta, GA, where the studio is located.