3 Top Reasons Why Google Stadia is (Not) the Future of Esports

From a former semi-professional gamer

A couple of weeks ago, Google made a dramatic announcement, promising to change the future of gaming. Stadia is a streaming service that allows you to play games on any device with 60 fps, low latency, and 4K graphics. Stadia will be a subscription service and allow everyone to play the most demanding games without needing to purchase a console or a powerful gaming PC.

But Stadia is not the future of all gaming. Esports, the great new frontier of gaming, doesn’t benefit from the value Stadia brings. Esports is a nearly $1b market growing at close to 30% per year. Google says its strategy is to focus on multiplayer and synergize with Youtube to allow streaming with no performance loss. But Esports is a dominant share of multiplayer streaming — 4 of the top 10 most streamed games on Twitch are Esports (arguably seven, depending on how you count). So clearly Google’s strategy seems to have a flaw if it’s going after multiplayer and streaming without appealing to Esports.

I could tell you to take my word as a former Starcraft 2 grandmaster that Stadia isn’t suited for Esports — but don’t. Here are three reasons why Stadia will fail for Esports and for competitive multiplayer games:

Latency

Phil Harrison, Head of Stadia, comments on latency
“Different games have different sensitivities”

That’s right, Phil — and Esports games have the highest sensitivity. When I played first-person shooters (FPS) Enemy Territory and Counter-Strike competitively, my Israeli team was unable to compete in Europe due to our high latency — 100ms. 100ms is nothing and yet it was enough to render us second rate players versus the top competitors in Europe. Reaction times in Esports vary — players take 100–300ms to respond. A 50 millisecond difference time can differentiate between top pros and good amateurs. Serious gamers know that latency results from a myriad of factors: your computer monitor, input devices (mouse), network connection, and more. Stadia introduces considerable added lag because data has to travel from the Google servers to my screen. According to this PCGamer article, latency on Stadia may be as high as 200ms.

Is Google banking on 5G to solve their latency woes? If so, they may be in trouble because Verizon and other mobile operators will drive a hard bargain knowing of Google’s dire need. These companies are also quite aware of the synergy their technology has with cloud gaming, as indicated by this verge article and multiple job positions for a “5G Cloud Gaming” team in New York City for Verizon.

Graphics

Majd Bakar, Head of Stadia Engineering
“Stadia will support resolutions of 4K at up to 60 FPS”

Serious competitive gamers don’t care about graphics. In fact, when I played Starcraft 2 on a powerful gaming PC, I purposefully disabled special graphics effects and changed all graphics settings to the lowest quality! Why? Two reasons: First, I wanted to maximize my frames per second (FPS). Even if my eye can’t technically tell the difference between 60 and 120 FPS, higher FPS creates a smoother movement that is easier to target with the mouse. It also creates a more accurate representation of the actual movement of objects to allow better targeting. Second, and perhaps equally as important — a pro gamer wants to focus only on relevant information needed to win the game. We don’t care about effects, explosions, and fancy graphics. This is why we disable anything that might distract us, including sometimes sound effects, background music, and definitely 4K graphics. If you think this only applies to a handful of players, check out this article recommending low graphics settings for Blizzard’s Esports title Overwatch. High-quality graphics are another Stadia value proposition that falls on deaf Esports ears.

Cross-Platform Play

Phil Harrison, Google Stadia
“Wouldn’t it be even more magical if that same game … could be available across any screen type in your life?”

Not for Esports, Phil. As a pro-gamer, I spent thousands of hours honing my skills on one platform — the PC. It would make no sense to abandon all that practice and switch to another platform or to diversify my practice time if my goal is to become one of the best on PC. This is akin to a musician playing the piano or the violin — to be among the best, he/she works tirelessly to master one tool. And there’s a reason why PC is the primary platform for Esports. The mouse and keyboard allow for a greater expression of skill, coordination, accuracy, and customizability than other current alternatives. Whether you’re a pro-gamer on PC, console, or even mobile — cross-platform play has no added value since you only care about mastering your single platform of choice.

Cloud Gaming is Still Great

Although I’m skeptical about Stadia for Esports, I’m still excited about what cloud gaming will do for single-player and casual multiplayer gaming.

And another important point — Esports players are business savvy. When we choose a new game to invest thousands of hours practicing, we consider social economics. That is, if millions of players are playing and watching a game, then mastering that game makes long-term financial sense. So if Stadia can reach critical mass on Esports-caliber games, pro-gamers may compromise and choose to play those games following the crowd. Stadia should consider adjusting their strategy to allow non-cloud users to log in to competitive multiplayer games with their gaming PCs. That way, there could still be room for serious gamers to play alongside casual Stadia players.

For more on Stadia and Esports, I recommend episode 16 of the excellent podcast “The Business of Esports”.