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Games:Counter-Strike: Source, CrossFire, Dota 2, Dota Underlords, Fortnite, Hearthstone Battlegrounds, League of Legends, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Quake Champions, Rocket League, Teamfight Tactics, Warcraft III
One of the questions our writers and staff at The Esports Observer hear the most is “what is going to be the next big esport?” We can evaluate the potential of new games and upcoming releases, but predicting what kind of game the community will rally around is as foolhardy as making predictions about future technology (remember Google Glass?).
It is possible to create a sport from scratch that’s both fun to play and competitive, but competitive gaming actually shares a hidden commonality with traditional sports; the most successful games were accidental successes, usually developed by altering existing sports.
The longest enduring esports spawned from community-made projects, or more specifically, “mods.” Whether conceived as passion projects or genuine commercial endeavors, these titles are the closest the industry has come to creating an open-access esport, in which companies can only claim ownership to some of the game’s assets, but not the product as a whole—making these games much closer to traditional sports in terms of intellectual property.
Historically, commercial game publishers have hired the creators of these mods to build a commercial version of the game. In some instances, these companies didn’t even create the software that the mod was built from. Although the original mods retain some of their player base and popularity, the improved resources (i.e. graphics, in-game content) means the commercial version and its competitors will always supplant the original.
What’s Used to Create an Esport?
Competitive titles only comprise a small percentage of the videogame industry, and the successful esports titles barely make up 1% of every game ever made. That said, their influence on the industry is massive, both in terms of gaming’s influence on pop culture, and how other games choose to monetize.
No esport game has been developed in a vacuum. All have been developed from one or more previous games, usually as a combination of the following toolsets:
The software-development environment made in order for people to make games. These are typically available for use with a subscription or license fee, though some game publishers have different views on how widely they can be used. A number of esports have been developed using rules and gameplay elements from one game, but were ultimately built on an engine from an entirely different company.
Key example: Various versions of the Quake engine have been used to create a number of successful esports. Team Fortress, for example, was originally a Quake mod, but its developers were hired by Valve to create a standalone version using the engine for its game Half-Life (which itself, ironically, was built using a modified version of the Quake engine.)
Much in the same way that American football was created by changing specific rules from rugby, some of the more popular esports came from mods that altered the rules or gameplay from a previous competitive title. Since no company can own the actual rules of a game, other companies will typically follow the original with their own rival games—effectively turning the gameplay variant into its own gaming genre.
Key example: The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre began with a single custom map in StarCraft, known as “Aeon of Strife.” Typically, the player is supposed to build dozens of units to fight for them, but in the altered version, they control only one “hero” character. This, along with changes to the map and objectives, was the basis for games like League of Legends and Dota 2.
Key Examples of Community Created Esports
The following list of “progenitor mods” have had the most impact on the esports industry. It’s worth noting, however, that there are numerous successful esports that weren’t mods, and simply the product of good game design.
While early first-person shooters such as Quake and Doom may have been the inspiration for popular multiplayer shooters like Halo, Unreal Tournament, or Call of Duty, these games were developed independently with their own rulesets (even though the original Call of Duty used a Quake engine).
Even if a game wasn’t community created, aspects of their sequels may have been. For example, Street Fighter II did not include a “combo” system, but certain players discovered that correctly timing moves would link them together, something the developers never intended. This system of play is now a staple in the fighting game genre.
Created: 1999, by Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jess Cliffe.
Notably Influenced: Counter-Strike 1.6 (and sequels), CrossFire, “Project A”.
The Counter-Strike franchise will celebrate its 20th year in 2020, and it all came from one Vietnamese Candian programmer, who was game developing in his spare time. An interest in military and action films led him to build the original Counter-Strike atop GoldSrc, the game engine developed by Valve from id Software’s Quake engine. Jess Cliffe joined as a co-creator, managing the game’s website and community.
The tactical shooter’s core concept of team objectives and round-based gameplay has proved enduringly popular. Valve actually began to assist in the development of Counter-Strike by its fourth beta version, and later bought the rights to the game and hired both Le and Cliffe to continue work on its development.
Defense of the Ancients
Created: 2003, by Kyle “Eul” Sommer, Steve “Guinsoo” Feak, and “Icefrog”
Notably Influenced: Dota 2, League of Legends, SMITE, Heroes of Newerth, Heroes of the Storm
Like most real-time strategy (RTS) games at the time, WarCraft III from Blizzard Entertainment included a map editor, allowing players to create their own custom scenarios. The very first version of Defense of the Ancients was inspired by the “Aeon of Strife” map in StarCraft and appeared in 2003. It removed the typical objectives of an RTS, such as resource management and base-building, and instead, a player’s main priority was to strengthen their character and work with teammates to destroy their opponent’s base.
The game has no single creator since its development passed from one person to another, with many staples of the MOBA genre being added over time. Despite the genre emerging from its own games, Blizzard did not create a MOBA game until many years later. Instead, Valve recruited the mysterious Icefrog to develop a standalone sequel, while Riot Games hired Steve Feak and others to work on League of Legends.
Onslaught (Unreal Tournament game mode)
Created: 2003, by Dave Hagewood
Notably Influenced: Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, Rocket League
Unreal Tournament is a shooting game in the vein of Quake, but Dave Hagewood, then an amateur modder, started taking the game in alternative directions. He added vehicles and created the custom mode Onslaught. It caught the attention of UT’s developer Epic Games, who hired Hagewood to build out Onslaught as an included-feature in Unreal Tournament 2004.
After his contract with Epic had finished, Hagewood and his team began experimenting with other car-centered modes. While the original Onslaught was focused around vehicular-combat, someone suggested adding a large ball in the arena, essentially creating a motorized version of soccer. Hagewood’s company Psyonix Studios would later adapt this into a standalone game, and the huge success of its 2015 sequel Rocket League eventually taking things full circle, with Epic Games acquiring the studio.
DayZ: Battle Royale
Created: 2013, by Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene
Notably Influenced: PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS, Fortnite, H1Z1: Battle Royale
ARMA 2, an open-world military simulator, was the basis for a variety of mods, one of which, DayZ, would end up inspiring an entirely new game genre: battle royale. Named after the Japanese dystopian novel and film adaptation, it was created by Brendan Greene, who changed around the open-world, zombie-focused gameplay of DayZ for a “king of the hill” style gameplay.
Greene was eventually hired by Seoul-based publisher Bluehole Studio to create a new battle royale concept, later released as PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS. The core idea found in both the game and its competitors is to have one hundred or so players fight till the death, with weapons and resources gathered from across a rapidly shrinking map.
Dota Auto Chess
Created: 2019, by Drodo Studio
Notably Influenced: Dota Underlords, Teamfight Tactics, Hearthstone Battlegrounds
Despite its name, Auto Chess (now referred to as part of the auto battler genre) is largely inspired by the Chinese tile game Mahjong. Built as a mod for Dota 2, it spread the game’s combat system across eight separate boards, with players placing units (the chess pieces)—who do battle automatically.
Unlike other successful Valve game mods, Drodo Studio did not ultimately end up working with the publisher. Instead, it partnered with a Chinese publisher specializing in mobile games. Valve would create its own version, while auto battler modes would end up becoming a popular side option in League of Legends and Hearthstone.
The esports industry’s rapid growth in the last five years has prompted a number of existing and new publishers to create titles that are “esports ready.” However, as decades of modding have shown, the most successful titles are products of gaming communities—in that their player base grew organically, but most crucially, they were made by members of the community.
The battle royale and auto battler genres come from two of the most successful mods of recent times, but neither has yet proven whether it can achieve the viewership success or competitive ecosystem of MOBAs. In answering that original question, it’s important to note that instant success may not be possible in esports, and companies looking to attain it may be going against the ethos of the industry.
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