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Hi-Rez Studios: "Console is a blue ocean for MOBAs"

Smite's eSports presence and Xbox One launch can help close the gap on the market leaders, says COO Todd Harris

One doesn't need to travel far to understand that MOBAs are popular, but doing so underlines the point a hundred times over. Whether Europe, Asia or the Americas, the biggest draw at any given consumer event will likely be smothered in the branding of Dota 2 or League of Legends. Indeed, that trend is even more pronounced in markets like those in Latin America, where free-to-play PC games are the best available destination for the kind of gamers that would otherwise be drawn to consoles.

However, while the MOBA is arguably the most played genre in the world right now, it is resolutely a PC phenomenon. Neither Valve nor Riot Games has a clear strategy for the console market, and given the amount of revenue their market-leading games already return it could be argued that they don't really need one. However, that isn't to say that money hasn't been left on the table. League of Legends and Dota 2 are among the very few games with a truly global following, but the spending power of a gamer in Brazil is wildly different from one in the US. Teut Weidemann's dissection of League's monetisation at GDC Europe in 2014 alluded to that very problem. With free-to-play PC games, reaching further doesn't always mean earning more.

”Any game, no matter how successful, has a lifecycle. Players tire and look for something different”

Consoles offer a very different environment in which to do business, even for a developer working with a freemium model. Though the addressable market is far smaller, if a player owns an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4 it is a basic guarantee that they are also accustomed to spending money on games - generally around $60 per title, and often much more if the experience is to their liking. As such, the first studio to hit big with a MOBA on console will make its investors very, very happy, and if Hi-Rez Studios' plans come to fruition, that MOBA will be Smite.

"We think it's going to do really well," says COO Todd Harris, who co-founded Hi-Rez in 2005. "I can tell you that, even in alpha, where we had tens of thousands of players with keys, the average play time is higher than it is on PC. It's still early, but that's very encouraging. It's certainly a player base that is used to spending quite a bit on their games."

More importantly, Harris believes Smite is the right game for the platform. The PC versions was developed based on principles that are a good fit for console multiplayer: there is an emphasis on high visual fidelity, and giving the player more direct control of the character, aligning Smite more closely with popular shooters like Call of Duty than either League of Legends or Dota 2 could ever claim. Harris calls it an "action MOBA," one of what will likely be several new sub-genres to form in response to Riot and Valve's dominance. Smite is in third place on PC, Harris says, but the gap between third and second is large, and the gap between second and first is larger still.

"Any game, no matter how successful, has a lifecycle. Players tire and look for something different," he says. "So the opportunity in MOBA, on console or PC, is choosing the right elements to innovate on. The industry has seen titles that were too close in their core mechanics - only coming in with a new IP, a new skin - and they didn't work.

"Console is a blue ocean for MOBAs. The overall growth of the genre [on PC] is starting to slow. I won't say it's peaked, but it's gonna slow eventually."

”eSports still isn't a revenue generator. In fact, right now, it's an investment”

Console isn't just a good fit for Smite as a product, it's also an arena where it could potentially dominate. The PC version already has more than 10 million registered players, a decent proportion of whom also own a console. That gives Hi-Rez an immediate base on which to build, and its exclusivity to Xbox One has ensured that Microsoft is also engaged with driving Smite towards success. Right now, it's still in open beta, but there is nothing on the near horizon that could beat Hi-Rez to market. Smite, it seems, will have console to itself, for this year at least.

"Only for a little while," Harris says. "The fact that we're going out early is to our advantage, of course. There's a few names out there. Some put a little more itemisation or customisation into the shooter, or a little more shooting and action into the MOBA. But there's definitely going to be three to five solid titles released in the next 18 months, on both PC and console."

Harris stops short of claiming any fear of that competition, and that's no great surprise. Not only does it have a well established PC audience, it is also one of the major players in the thriving eSports scene. The first season of the Smite World Championships, held earlier this year, awarded more than $2.6 million in prize money to teams from Europe, Asia, and North and South America. And only $600,000 of the prize-pool came from the studio's bank account, with the remaining $2 million raised by the game's community using a method similar to that employed by Valve for The International. Again, the distance between third and second place is large, but Harris is very proud of what Hi-Rez has achieved with limited resources in just a few years.

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"It's new job titles, new skills, new everything," he says. "We started three years ago. We had early Smite tournaments with one guy casting it with his unmade bed in the background. That was the production standard. We were like, 'Bart! Make your bed! Okay, sweet. Nailed it.' That's where we started.

"It still isn't a revenue generator. In fact, right now, it's an investment. With any of your marketing you do it for discovery and engagement. In the same way that setting up a booth at PAX is ultimately a marketing cost, from a business standpoint eSports is really in that category. It's an expense, but we can see that our eSports players and viewers engage longer, they're more involved with the brand. It's one of the best marketing expenses there is, but at this point it's still an expense."

”The top games are already getting more viewers in the US than hockey or golf”

It may be necessary to justify eSports in terms of marketing now, but Harris has faith that the entire ecosystem - from coaching players to building to venues to broadcasting the events - is developing quickly enough to create significant revenue opportunities within the next few years. That poorly kept bedroom of three years ago is now a dedicated production studio at the Hi-Rez offices in Georgia. The company hosts regular competitions between top teams from Europe and North America, with a dedicated team of ten people assembling the footage into a professional package, complete with shoutcasters and ESPN-style graphics. According to Harris, the point where this becomes a vibrant business in its own right is really only a matter of time.

"The genre is already getting incredible viewing figures," he says. "You don't need to argue the case, because the top games are already getting more viewers in the US than hockey or golf. In the case of the Smite World Championship, over the three days we had 3 million unique viewers watching. That's pretty darn significant for the first year.

"My kids are growing up watching this more than regular sports. I watch a lot of basketball, I play basketball. My son watches with me, but he's more interested in Smite."

Three years ago, Riot Games' Brandon Beck told GamesIndustry.biz that he was so confident in eSports' potential, he believed it would become an Olympic event within his lifetime. At the mention of this, Harris simply laughs.

"It's a healthy aspiration," he says. "I may not live as long as Brandon."

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