It seems like the advent of eSports is amongst us thanks to games like StarCraft II and League of Legends leading the charge and opening up the international competitive scene to audiences everywhere. Even the ever-isolated South Korean gaming scene has turned around to embrace to fast-growing industry. Many western companies are starting to notice as well. Tribes: Ascend released last month and is already slated to be included in the next North American Star League, and MLG tried out Max Payne 3 this past weekend.
Esports is clearly becoming the next big thing for the video game industry. So is it any wonder that Call of Duty is setting its sights on it?
Here’s what Black Ops 2′s Creative Director told the Verge:
David Vonderhaar mentions e-sports. He says Black Ops for PS3 was on the Major League Gaming circuit, but at the time the team didn’t fully comprehend the significance of competitive gaming. Now, Vonderharr says they find it amazing.
‘E-sports is a big agenda for us,’ says Vonderharr. ‘More importantly, taking e-sports to the mainstream is a really key thing, but in order to do that you have to make the game fun to watch’[sic]
It looks like the minds behind Call of Duty have recognized a fundamental problem with Call of Duty on an eSports level: it’s awful to watch. You only get the viewpoint of one person for entire minutes of a time until they suddenly crumple over dead with no warning. There is almost no indication as to the flow of the match, who’s moving where or what important engagements are happening. Just take a look at this MLG finals match:
Compare it to something like StarCraft 2, where everyone can see everything at any one time:
Arguably, the reason why StarCraft 2 and League of Legends have propelled eSports into the burgeoning focus of the industry is because of this simple inherent nature. For a sport to thrive, it takes more than just an individual’s awareness of the game as a whole. The spectator must see beyond that of any one participant and be able to look over the game as a whole. Can you imagine if we watched football or hockey games from one player angle at a time? It would be an exercise in frustration and complete bewilderment.
But they said they’re working on implementing a solution for these observational problems, so it might all be perfectly watchable come November. But there’s still a much bigger issue: Call of Duty’s gameplay does not lend to a good eSport. For starters, Call of Duty: Black Ops is the only game in MLG’s offering that actually has a list of Banned items in order to keep whatever balance is in the gameplay. It’s understandable to have one or two things banned due to developer oversight but a whole list of items ranging from all secondary launchers to a good chunk of the perks in the game? That’s a square block being hammered into the triangle hole here.
The game also requires a relatively low skill level for players to maintain a professional capacity. In any game mode, it ultimately comes down to an understanding of the maps and a general awareness of where teammates are dying. The laserbeam accurate weapons, low health, small level sizes, general sameness between weapons, and ability to shoot through walls accurately negate almost any advantage a practiced hand can have. It generally comes down to who sees who first and who can keep the momentum going longest. Every player is about equally skilled at knowing exactly which walls to shoot, where to throw grenades and where to aim in anticipation. It’s impossible for one person to change the tide of the match. This FFA match perfectly demonstrates:
It’s worth pointing out that most players are using the same gun: the FAMAS. There’s whole gunmetal rainbow of weapons available in the game but the FAMAS is the one used by everyone because it simply happened to be the one overpowered weapon in Black Ops until a patch later in the game’s lifespan. Not a good thing for a competitive game and especially worrying since every Call of Duty game has a history of imbalanced weapons. Call of Duty 4 had the M16 and MP5, Modern Warfare 2 had the Model 1867 shotguns and UMP, and Black Ops has the FAMAS. Clear imbalance does not breed good competition.
Take a look at this Halo: Reach MLG match:
Notice how each firefight is a struggle between both sides? How each weapon requires a different method to its use? How there’s a clear area to push to? Halo: Reach isn’t exactly a fantastic eSport title either but it’s still miles ahead of Call of Duty in terms of required competitive skillsets. It’s not simply a game of who sees who first; it’s more about tactics and skills supplemented with proper skills. Every weapon is used in different situations and there’s no clear “best”.
Call of Duty became popular with its fourth iteration because it was different than Halo. Halo was balanced for the most part and offered a deep gameplay experience with a high skill ceiling that often frustrated gamers who could not keep up with its shifting metagame. Call of Duty 4 became popular because it took very little effort to be good at and everyone was put on an even plateau quickly. The only advantage some received was learning how best to exploit Perks and Killstreaks, something that only intensified exponentially with each passing game when Killstreaks and Perks were expanded upon in new directions. For Call of Duty to ever become competitive, it would take a fundamental shift in gameplay philosophy.
And, of course, we can’t have a discussion on competitive shooters without Counter-Strike. Here’s the obligatory video.
Unlike Halo and Call of Duty, Counter-Strike a slower paced affair where teams get into position with great care until the action starts and everything basically explodes. Gunfights last less than a second but it’s never clear who the winner will be. Every gun behaves very differently but fills a specific niche. Some players are clearly more skilled in some areas than others and the same map can yield multiple different strategies. It’s not a mess and, for a first person shooter, fairly easy to see what’s happening. Counter-Strike is the defacto competitive online shooter for a reason: it’s simply the most balanced and the most unpredictable. There’s very little by way of carrying momentum to the end like Call of Duty has, it is a question of individual skill making large scale effects.
There’s just not much Call of Duty can to do become a competitive eSport. On top of its frenetic gameplay design, it’s a series completely controlled by money. The only reason Black Ops was on PS3 only for MLG was because Sony paid MLG a hefty sum to make it so. Every year, a new Call of Duty replaces the old one in the MLG playlist. An eSport has to be viable to a lengthy period of time. StarCraft: Brood War and Counter-Strike are well over ten years old. StarCraft 2, League of Legends, Halo 3 and Halo: Reach are all a few years old now. You simply cannot break into an eSsport market with a new iteration of your game every year without resetting the metagame, the governing invisible force behind any sport, with it. The eSsport carrot may just be too far from Call of Duty to ever catch.