2018 Asian Games Esports Games List Includes Some Surprising Choices

Yesterday, the 2018 Asian Games, billed as the largest multi-sport event in the world outside of the Olympics, announced what games will form part of competition at its inaugural esports event. While esports will be a “demonstration,” not a medal event at these games (they will be a medal event for the next games in 2022), this is still a pretty big deal, as it’s the first time esports has formed part of a major traditional sports competition like this. The games forming part of the lineup are: League of Legends, Hearthstone, StarCraft 2, Pro Evolution Soccer, Clash Royale and Arena of Valor (a Chinese mobile MOBA that basically looks like a mobile version of LoL).

I have to say, if I had guess what games would form part of the lineup, these are not the 6 titles I would necessarily have come up with. My thoughts on each of these choices:

League of Legends: Not a huge surprise, as this is by far the most successful of the six games listed. Of course, the other of the world’s two most successful MOBAs, DotA, is not part of the event. I’m wondering if this was intentional, as the organisers felt they had to pick one game or the other in order to prevent “MOBA overload.” You have to wonder if the two games will become mutually exclusive at major multi-esport events in the future for this reason.

Hearthstone: It’s going to be fun seeing how this one turns out, just because of the RNG factor. Yes, every sport involves luck (although with a lot of other e-sports the luck factor is surprisingly small), but given how blatant and in-your-face the luck factor in Hearthstone is, something seems a bit off about having it as an event at a major sporting competition where medals are won, national pride is at stake and *serious sports things* happen. Do you really want the medal winner of your event decided because [insert name of random damage card here] ended up hitting face instead of the opponent’s board?

Also, given that Hearthstone is not necessarily an easy game to pick up by watching, and you basically need to have played the game to understand how it works or what any of the cards do, the game will have pretty much zero accessibility for non-esports fans (or even gamers who aren’t Hearthstone fans).  This means it’s maybe not the best choice if the purpose of this event is to expose esports to a non-gaming audience.

StarCraft 2: The grandaddy of the e-sports scene! While it doesn’t have the audience numbers it once did, given its role in the development of esports it seems fitting that SC2 should be one of the events here. StarCraft is also probably pound-for-pound the most fun to watch out of the six listed here, and also the easiest game understand and digest for a non-esports audience (when non-gamers think video games, a game like StarCraft, with space marines fighting each other, etc. is probably what they think of). Overall, can’t really complain about this one.

Pro Evolution Soccer: Why not FIFA? [Update: as some reddit commenters to this post have pointed out, PES is the soccer game in Asia instead of FIFA, so that solves that mystery.] Also, scratch that comment about StarCraft 2. This is definitely going to be the most easy to understand game for a non-esports audience, although I feel like it shouldn’t really count because it’s the only game that’s simulating a real sport. On an unrelated note, since I’m assuming real soccer will be an event at the games too, how about a “split” event where the soccer players play real soccer for the first half, and the gamers play PES for the second half, then the scores are combined? This could be the esports equivalent of chess boxing.

Clash Royale: Clash Royale is kind of like the quiet overachieving kid of the esports scene. No one really thinks too much about it, but it shows up in these tournaments more than you’d think. This is also the first of two mobile games forming part of the lineup. People who haven’t played Clash before can literally see the event, download the game on their phone, and be playing 30 seconds later. I feel like I should take this opportunity to invest in SuperCell stock or something.

Arena of Valor: I’ve never heard of this game, and while some quick googling tells me it’s huge in China, I have to wonder if it was really the optimal choice here, especially since the game play is so similar to League of Legends, which is already part of the competition.

Overall, there’s a few major omissions that I would have expected to see on this list, including DotA, Overwatch and CS:GO. Even and Smash Brothers or PUBG may have made an interesting addition if the organizers wanted to stray from the beaten path a bit.

In particular, the lack of shooters is a bit puzzling . If this is supposed to be a showcase of esports in general, it seems like you’d want at least one shooter there. Maybe the organisers were concerned about the potential violent nature of these games, and this isn’t really the image they wanted to convey.

Regardless, while this is not necessarily the game lineup I would have gone with, it will be fun to see how this turns out. Hopefully the organizers pick up some pointers about what worked and didn’t this time around, and use those lessons when setting the lineup for future events.

Jail Time and Fines For Hackers Show Video Games Have Finally Made It

It’s been a tough few weeks for video game hackers. Yesterday in Los Angeles, a hacker responsible for a number of DDoS attacks against World of Warcraft’s servers  was sentenced to one year in jail, as well as being ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution to Blizzard for the cost of responding to the attacks. This news comes on the heels of reports last week that South Korea has sentenced two of thirteen hackers recently arrested for making cheats for Overwatch, with one receiving a $10,000 fine, and the other receiving probation. Similarly, China has recently arrested 15 individuals charged with making PUBG cheats, levying a whopping $4.5 million USD in fines against them.

One notable thing about all these cases is that the perpetrators were charged criminally. While game companies have been suing hackers in civil court for years (see for instance Epic’s recent crusade against a 14-year-old Fortnite cheat maker), this is the actual government coming after people, often expending considerable resources to do so. For example, the WoW hacker above was caught after an international investigation spearheaded by the FBI, which took 8 years to conclude (the attacks actually occurred in 2010, the hacker was indicted in 2011, then the US government spent spent the intervening time, and what I assume are considerable resources, fighting to extradite him from his native Romania).

Cue 8-bit version of the “Cops” theme.

These kind of stories show how far the perception of video games has changed in mainstream society. I think it’s pretty safe to say that if a game company had gone to a law enforcement agency 20 years ago and asked for their help catching someone making CounterStrike hacks, they would have been politely told to mind their own business. After all, video games were still seen as kids stuff back then. The government wasn’t going to divert resources they could be spending on catching drug dealers to trying stop people from being able to see through walls on de_dust.

Nowadays that’s not the case. Video games are big business, and when Blizzard calls, the FBI apparently listens. Some countries, like Korea, have even passed legislation explicitly making it illegal to make video game hacks, with violations of the law punishable by up to 5 years in jail.  And crucially, all this is seen is perfectly fine by society at large, with no one really raising any eyebrows when any of this stuff happens, even outside gaming circles.

While I think it’s still an open question whether this kind of behavior really deserves the kind of serious criminal sanctions we’re talking about here  – after all, you could argue all these people are really doing is mildly interfering with others’ enjoyment of an entertainment product – it’s still good to see video games being taken seriously this way.

Going Viral By Accident: Stories of Unconventional Indie Marketing Success

I’ve already spent a lot of time on this blog talking about how difficult marketing can be for indie devs, and how  with 30+ new indie games coming out on Steam every day, generating any media coverage and making your game stand out for the crowd can be extremely hard.

While some indies manage to accomplish that through standard methods (writing to journalists, dev blogs, getting covered by streamers, social media etc.), it’s clear that marketing is not an exact science, and sometimes the things that result in the most exposure for games are the things you never expect. After spending some time reading postmortems for various indie games, a few of these random, unintended-consequence marketing stories stuck out for me, so I thought I’d share them here. So without further ado, here’s some the more unconventional ways that some devs have managed to “accidentally” get some exposure for their games:

  • Write an Angry Forum Post to One Of Your Fans. Hugh Monahan, developer of indie isometric shooter Brigador, was having a rough day. After seeing a spike of initial sales at release, sales for his game had faded to “next-to-nothing” levels (that would be the stretch labeled “Pit of Despair” in the chart below). When a couple of his fans started complaining on the game’s forums about the $20 price tag for the game he had sunk 5 years of his life into, instead of letting it go, he wrote sarcastic blog post tearing into them. The post went viral, and was eventually picked up by Kotaku and other game publications. The resulting exposure resulted in the  biggest sales spike in the game’s life cycle, as seen in the handy chart below:

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    The result of getting covered by Kotaku.
  • Put a Gif Maker Into Your Game. Patrick Corriery, the developer of PolyBridge, a hugely successful bridge building simulator, credits a lot of his success to one simple decision: creating a built-in GIF generator for his game. He did this on the suggestion of a developer friend, not expecting it to be a major game feature. However, once the game came out, the GIF generator ended up being the key driving force behind the game’s success. Players started sharing little snippets of his game on reddit and other social media, a few of them hit the front page, and from that point on the snowball kept rolling creating massive buzz and sales for the game.
  • Go Viral On Reddit With a Cute Infographic. The devs of the indie bullet-hell shooter Starlicker put a lot of work into making their game, and by the time it came to release and market it, they were by their own estimation tapped out. Luckily, a friend of the devs, wanting to help them out, made a cute info graphic asking people to check out the game. The post managed to tap into the sensibilities of the reddit hive mind, shooting up to the top of /r/gaming and even ending up on the front page for a while. It was viewed at least 400,000 times, resulting in 10,000 downloads,  which accounted for more than 90% of the game’s total lifetime sales.
  • Create a “Twitch-Plays” for Your Game. Ok this one wasn’t really accidental, and isn’t something that’s going to work again, but TinyBuild Games, publisher of the boxing-themed-tamagochi-like-life-simulator Punch Club came up with a pretty brilliant strategy for generating coverage for their game. Before putting it out, they created a “Twitch plays” for it, in the same spirit as Twitch plays Pokemon. The catch was that the game would not be released until the Twitch community beat it. The novelty resulted in a lot of media coverage both relating to the stunt itself and the practicalities surrounding it (after all, some people had pre-ordered it seeking a fixed launch date). As a result of the coverage the game made it to no. 5 on the overall Steam sales charts on the weekend it was released, a pretty impressive feat for an indie.

Terrifying Twitter Account Shows How Saturated the Indie Market Is

Further to my recent post on the importance of indie game marketing, if any indie dev wants some perspective about how hard it will be to have their stand out from the crowd, they should have a look at the Steam Trailers in 6s twitter account.

Like its name suggests, every time a game goes up on Steam, the account auto-posts a 6 second trailer of it. This allows you to see, in real time, the fire-hose like rate at which these games are cranked out. A new game is posted every 45 minutes to an hour or so. For instance, at the time of the time of this post, the account had put out 33 trailers in the past 24 hours.

If I was an indie dev, scrolling through this feed would scare the living crap out of me. It’s one thing to read stats on paper about how 7,000 games were released on Steam last year and so forth; it’s another thing to see it happen right in front of you like this, and to know that somehow your game is going to have to differentiate itself from all of these to see any sales.

Marketing: The Indie Dev’s Achilles Heel

I’ve been having a lot of fun recently reading game post-mortems from indie game devs. Like the name suggests, post-mortems are basically articles by game devs looking back after their game is released,  going over what went wrong and what went right.  A few collections of them can be found here and here.

As I started reading through these I was going to write one of those “5 mistakes every first time indie dev makes” lists, but going through more and more stories, one problem stuck out more than any other: marketing. A depressing number of the post-mortems went essentially like this:

  1. Small indie dev gets an idea for a game;
  2. Dev + a few friends work for months or years on said game, sometimes at great cost to their personal health and finances;
  3. Game is finished and goes up on Steam, no one finds out about it, game fails.

Part of this seems to arise out of the fact that many devs treat marketing as a bit of an afterthought, believing that making a quality game will automatically result in press coverage and sales. When their game finally hits the market many of them seem to have an “Oh shit!” moment, realizing that’s not the case, and that marketing the game is a job in and of itself and a far bigger time-sink than they thought it would be. Atillo Caroteuento, the developer of bullet-hell game An Oath to the Stars puts it pretty bluntly in his post-mortem:

Most importantly, what you really need to understand and always keep in mind, is that nobody cares about your game. I thought that, having worked in famous game studios and having a lot of cool promo art would ensure coverage, and I was wrong.

You’ll need to chase people and journalists, create an amazing presskit and a lot of social media work just to get them to look at your page for 10 seconds. It’s exhausting…

Many indie devs find essentially beholden to media coverage and twitch streams to get any traction in the marketplace. Without those, their game is essentially dead. This is neatly summarized by game dev Hugh Monahan in the post-mortem for his game Brigador:

This is what selling an indie game is like … Media coverage, both press and YouTube/Twitch, largely determines both how high your sales peaks are, as well as how quickly they decay. When all mention of you or your game disappears from the internet within a few days, you don’t have momentum so much as a flatline.

Making games takes a toll. Brigardor dev Hugh Monahan before and after his game was completed.

It’s kind of sad to see this kind of thing, especially because many of these were quality games with good reviews, and just seemed to fail because they couldn’t rise above the noise and get any exposure.

I guess the lesson is that if you’re going to take the plunge and spend months or years of your life making a game, make sure you spend some time planning out how you’re going to sell said game as well.

6 Excerpts From the Official Overwatch League Rulebook That I Found Randomly Interesting

A couple of weeks ago the Overwatch League’s official rule book and streaming policy leaked. While there’s already been quite a bit of reporting on the major features of these documents, I finally got a chance to read them start to finish, and here’s a few additional minor tidbits that I found randomly interesting for various reasons:

1. Players Can’t Get Involved in Politics

The streaming policy has an “Off-Limits List” of things the players can’t be seen to support or endorse. Aside from standard things like drugs, weapons or gambling, players are forbidden from supporting “Political Candidates or Initiatives.” Fairly standard, but if you don’t see xQc at any Donald Trump rallies, this is probably why.

2. There’s Technically No Limit to What Teams and Players Can Be Fined

The rules simply say that if a team or player violates the league rules Blizzard may “levy fines against the Team and/or Player.” They don’t say anything about the amount of any such fines, or place any other restrictions on what kind of violations warrant what level of fines. This kind of unlimited power on Blizzard’s part could potentially become a biiiiiit of an issue in the future, so look for the teams/players to try negotiate some clearer restrictions on this at some point (if they can).

In case you’re curious, the league so far has issued fines ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 to players under this provision for various fun activities I’m not going to go into detail on here.

3. Players Can’t Wear Excessive Jewlery

While playing in matches, players are limited to wearing “a reasonable amount (as determined by the League Office) of jewelry, rings, bracelets and necklaces.” I have nothing to add except that I really, really want to see someone force Blizzard to invoke this policy at some point.

4. …Or Smart Watches

The rules also prohibit players from wearing “smart watches … smart devices, fitness devices, or any other devices with computing capabilities of any kind, other than a digital watch.” I guess this rule is in place to prevent cheating, although I fail to see how wearing a FitBit or something like that is going to give someone an unfair advantage.

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The cover of the leaked rulebook. I’m pretty sure in real life it smells like old baseball cards from the 1970s.

5. Failing To Report a Code of Conduct Violation is a Code of Conduct Violation

The league has an extensive code of conduct governing things like harassment, match fixing, drug use, etc. The code of conduct also states that “Upon becoming aware of any [prohibited conduct] players, team managers are required to immediately report the details to the league office. Failure to comply with this requirement is an independent violation of these league rules.”  So if a player becomes aware of someone else violating the code of conduct, they have to report them or they themselves will face potential discipline by Blizzard.

While there’s probably good, reasonable reasons for having this rule in place, I can’t help but get a bit of a 1984 vibe reading it.

6. Blizzard Is Explicitly Permitted to Film the Players 24/7

The rules anticipate Blizzard creating reality-show style content surrounding the league, and state that the players give Blizzard the right to monitor their daily life “using persistent, 24/7 cameras that may be placed in the team house, training facility, competition venue and other locations frequented by team members (provided that no such filming or recording will occur in any team members’ bathrooms).” My favourite part about this is the explicit exception for players’ bathrooms, in part because it implies that literally nowhere else is off-limits.

Lawsuit Filed Against PUBG Mobile Clones

PUBG’s publisher has filed a suit in California for copyright and trademark infringement against Chinese gaming behemoth NetEase, developers of “Knives Out” and “Rules of Survival,” two popular PUBG mobile clones. The move comes only a few days after the release of a mobile version of PUBG, and after its publishers attempted to remove the clones from the app store without success.

Hmmmmmm.

It will be interesting to see how this one turns out. While PUBG essentially created its own genere, things like game concepts and ideas are not protectable IP. Any developer can make their own battle-royale style game, copying things like the airplane drop, last-man-standing format, shrinking play area, etc. without worrying about a lawsuit.

However, it’s still possible for PUBG’s publishers to succeed if they can establish NetEase’s games copied the “look and feel” of PUBG . This is a pretty nebulous legal concept that basically means that, even if NetEase didn’t directly copy any actual code or art assets from PUBG, if the two games are substantially similar in terms of both visuals and overall functionality, NetEase will have infringed the PUBG’s publishers’ copyright.

Generally these kind of infringement claims have been successful in regard to less complex games with easy-to-define rule sets like Tetris or simple tile-matching games. PUBG is of course a far more complicated beast, and its publishers will probably have an uphill struggle on their hands showing there are enough similarities between it and NetEase’s two clones to establish infringement. If this claim succeeds it will probably be the first time the a court will have found this kind of infringement between games of this level of complexity.

The Biggest Problem Facing E-Sports Right Now

What would you say the biggest problem facing e-sports right now is? The lack of mainstream TV deals? Dangerously high levels of energy drink consumption? The occasional collapsed lung?

This man has a problem.

While I think we can all agree the collapsed lung issue needs to be closely monitored, in my view there’s one fundamental problem facing e-sports that’s bigger than all of these: game companies have way too much power.

The reason for this is simple: they own copyright to the games, and if anyone, anywhere wants to run and broadcast an e-sports tournament, they need to get their permission. Because of this game companies basically have the ability to exercise absolute, 100% control, over the e-sports ecosystem. Some companies are currently taking advantage of this more than others, but in the long run they all have the ability to do this.

This is probably the most fundamental difference, business-wise, between e-sports and traditional sports. Imagine if someone needed the NBA’s permission to start a basketball league, or the PGA’s permission before running a private golf tournament. That’s basically the situation with e-sports right now.

In my opinion, is a very bad thing for the long-term health of e-sports, for two reasons:

  • Lack of Competition: I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that competition is crucial for the development of a healthy e-sports scene, especially at this early stage. If you want the best possible e-sports product to develop, you need to let different people with different approaches try things out. Some will work, some won’t, but ultimately the market will ensure the best products come out on top. If game companies can deny licenses to any potential competitors and basically set themselves up as the only game in town, then this process can’t happen, and we’re all the worse off for it.  The best example of this is probably the Overwatch scene for most of last year. Despite the game being hugely popular, its competitive scene was essentially dying on the vine and teams were shutting down left and right because Blizzard was  refusing to grant anyone licenses to hold Overwatch events (this was because, of course, it didn’t want these events competing with the Overwatch league it was going to start up itself).

 

  • Lack of Bargaining Power for Teams/Players: This is a corollary of the competition issue. As discussed in this post, because they control the games, the game companies have essentially all the bargaining power in negotiating how revenue gets split with players or their teams. Using the Overwatch league as an example, if the teams/players aren’t happy with how much money Blizzard is offering them, they can’t really tell Blizzard to f*** off go and set up their own competing league. Their only options are quite literally to take or leave what Blizzard’s offering. In the long run this means less salary money for players, less money for teams to market themselves (and by extension e-sports), less interest by investors looking to start or fund teams, and, ultimately, a less vibrant evolving e-sports scene.

This problem also applies to other parts of the e-sports ecosystem like streaming. Every single streamer right now is  infringing on a game company’s copyright. While most companies are currently being cool about the issue, as the money being made from streaming continues to increase, how long until more and more of them start going all Nintendo and shutting down streamers unless they agree to kick in a huge chunk of their profits to the company? Or how long until they decide only a select group of company-approved streamers can stream their games? And if this starts happening, what effect do you think that will have on the quality and variety of gaming streams available out there?

So what’s the solution? Simple – create an exception to copyright law that lets anyone, not just the game companies, operate and broadcast e-sports events (and streams) without needing permission of the holder of that game’s copyright (i.e. the game’s publisher).  Anyone who wants to set up an e-sports event or stream a game would have the unencumbered ability to do so, and the free market would be free to work its proverbial magic. Fans of Overwatch wouldn’t be forced to cross their fingers and hope they like what Blizzard does with the Overwatch league because they know they have no other options. Blizzard would have a bigger incentive to make sure it puts out the best product possible because it knows it can’t simply sue the competition out of existence.  The cream would rise to the top and we’d all get the best e-sports product possible.

Of course, I think there’s about zero chance of this kind of change happening for the foreseeable future.  For something like this to happen you’d need (1) a change to the copyright legislation creating some kind of exemption for operating or broadcasting e-sports events, (2) a court decision changing the interpretation of the existing copyright legislation on the terms above (maybe expanding the fair use doctrine to cover something like this – how likely such a challenge would be to succeed I have no idea, I’m just spitballing here).

As things stand, there isn’t really any big groundswell of support that could motivate the former, and I’d be surprised if anyone involved in e-sports has the resources and incentives necessary spend huge sums of money and years in court arguing about the latter. However, as more money starts being made in e-sports, don’t be surprised if this becomes a bigger point of friction between the game companies and the team owners/players, and some serious legal fights in this area taking place (maybe instead of going for the clickbaity title, I should have called this post “The Biggest Problem Esports Will Face In 5 Years.”). It will be interesting to see what happens when/if this does occur.

 

Is the Clash Royale Crown Championship the Future of E-Sports?

If any of you are wondering what the e-sports landscape is going to look for most games coming out the next few years, the best place to look probably isn’t major events for established titles like the International, or Blizzard’s Overwatch league, but rather Clash Royale’s Crown Championship Series.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Clash Royale, it’s a mobile game by the makers of Clash of Clans. It’s got its’ own small (but growing) fan base, but it’s no DotA or CS and doesn’t have a huge pro scene. However, that didn’t stop SuperCell, the game’s publisher, from pulling out all the stops in putting this event together.

As you can see from the video above, this event involved, among other things: a full studio arena with live crowds and expensive-as-hell looking giant projection screen showing the proceedings, multiple sets of commentators and assorted studio people, and an $150,000 USD grand prize for the winner. For some previous events they even traveled to the players’ homes to do human interest pieces on their home lives and families.

There’s absolutely no way that SuperCell came anywhere close to making back the money it put into this event (the video above only has 1.5 million views for instance). But you know what, they’re probably OK with that. Putting something like this together helps generate interest in the game, which should lead to more revenue in the long run. And if it helps kick-start a pro scene, perpetuating self-reinforcing cycle of interest in the game, which leads to more events, which leads to more interest, and so forth, even better.

If I had to guess, I’d say that in the long run, this will probably be the model followed by games that aren’t quite at the top-tier in terms of an e-sports audience. Putting together events like these, and supporting a competitive scenes that would otherwise probably not be strong enough to support themselves, will become almost standard practice for companies that can afford it, going into their marketing budgets right beside traditional advertising like TV commercials, magazine ads, and paying for good reviews sending swag and perks to game websites.

 

Pokemon GO Lawsuit Settles for $83,000

Remember that Pokemon GO lawsuit I posted about a few months ago?  It turns out that Pokemon GO probably is protected by the right to free speech, as the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors has agreed to settle the case for the sum of $83,000, with the entire amount reportedly going to the plaintiff’s legal fees. The park board will also agree not to enforce the ordinance at issue, which creates an awkward permitting process for any augmented reality games to be played in Milwaukee public parks.

This settlement comes after a July court ruling holding that it was likely that the plaintiff would succeed in establishing that the park board ordinance banning augmented reality games from public parks violated their right to free expression under the first amendment, and granting an injunction preventing the park board from enforcing the injunction.

This is as close to a 100% win as you get in law, with the board agreeing to give the plaintiffs everything their were asking for, and pay their legal fees. Score one for the forces of justice and freedom.