eSports’ biggest challenges

Imagine watching your favorite football game: the stakes are extremely high tonight, millions of fans have tuned into the TV and stadium seats are sold out.

The game is extremely tense: two minutes are left, and whoever scores the next goal will most likely bring the cup home. Your favorite player, the team’s rising star, manages to dribble the entire defense, and with an amazing display of his technical talent finds himself alone against an extremely out of position goalie, a kick away from securing the tournament…

Suddenly, the ball disappears. The whole stadium is in shock, as are the people watching TV while the game is interrupted: according to the rules, the match is to be started again from the latest engagement — preceding this remarkable play.

Two minutes later, the opposing team scores an unexpected goal and goes on to take the tournament — pocketing the round sum, and allowing sponsors, gamblers, anyone involved in the industry to take home cash that-arguably-should’ve gone the other way.

There’s a 95% chance he would’ve scored. But because of the doubt, there is no way when abiding by the rules to declare the losers victorious.

Is that fair? What rule should be applied in this dilemma? You wouldn’t want to be the organizers, nor the supporters of the first team. Thankfully, this situation is impossible in real life sports — because real life isn’t at the mercy of computational powers, or a simple cable.

In eSports though, analogous things can and do happen, and more often than you probably think.

DDOS attacks are fairly easy to achieve, even for ‘hackers’ with basic knowledge — most the time they only need to follow a simple tutorial to cause great harm. In recent tournaments, we’ve seen time and again matches interrupted at critical moments because of the game servers being attacked, forcing game publishers to find remarkable ways to freeze and save games at a given point — but even pausing in the middle of an action can completely change the outcome and the momentum of a team. A simple electric default, someone stepping on a cable, a keyboard malfunction, all of these very plausible reasons can tremendously impact the results of high level plays, and there isn’t much to do about it right now.

Some will argue that there are, in facts, cases where real-life sports are unfair: referees missing a blink-of-an-eye situation that will flip over the game; but however critical — and rare, as the technology improves — these events are , they can be dealt with in an easier way and most of all, they aren’t at the mercy of malevolent individuals exterior to the organization.

But that’s not the only challenge eSports needs to overcome to defy the real sports industry.

Game glitches

Sometimes issues will arise not because of a hateful mind, but simply because of glitches that haven’t been noticed or, for those that have, weren’t fixed yet by lack of time from the developers.

Imagine that one of the characters in your game can achieve something unwanted (from the publisher) and overpowered under certain circumstances — whenever he’s at a very specific spot in the game, he is able to cast an ability faster for example. Now of course, nobody would be allowed to exploit the glitch during a competitive game at the risk of being kicked out of the tournament — the game publisher already announced that they’ll fix it ASAP, but a tournament is to be played right now. Imagine that in the heat of the game, you exploit the glitch by mistake. You’re just at the right place, at the right moment, and can secure an easy objective, so in a heartbeat, without even realizing, you make the play. Whose fault is it? Are you to blame for deciding to not take an advantage? Is the game editor to blame for imperfectly coding an extremely sophisticated universe? If you win thanks to this unfortunate event, can your team be held accountable for somehow ‘cheating’? And most importantly, if you had not used it and subsequently lost the game, wouldn’t it ultimately be the game editor’s fault?

Add to this the possibility that the glitch may not be discovered beforehand, and here you are with an impossible situation, where you can’t quite solve the equation that has critical consequences on the game and the communities revolving around it.

One shouldn’t underestimate the trouble a glitch or programming error can cause — Asimov’s “I,robot” and the Terminator franchise can attest for it.

The “Grubby syndrom”

This unofficially nicknamed phenomenon refers to a game called Warcraft 3 which competitive scene was for years dominated by a player named Manuel ‘Grubby’ Schenkhuizen.

The following anecdote may have been a conception of our time for which we might have exaggerated the implications, but it raises a serious question nevertheless that can’t be resolved by sound logic.

For those that haven’t heard of this game, it’s an RTS (real-time strategy): Your goal is to build your own base then put together an army in order to defeat the opponent on a map — games last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, and before each game you can choose one of 4 races to represent during the game, each having its own units, buildings, strengths and of course tactics.

As a teenager, I used to watch the tournaments as I could, by downloading replays of the game afterwards (twitch.tv didn’t exist yet, and eSports wasn’t really a thing then) but I noticed that Grubby was one of the only top players consistently picking Orc as a race. He was actually winning almost every tournament he attended to, and certainly was the world’s best player for a while, but was unique when it came to picking the race. Night Elf was by far the most played at high level tournaments.

He will never admit it, humility being one of his major traits and probably making him the champion he was, but a big chunk of the community pretty much agreed on the fact that Orc at the time was slightly underpowered compared to other races, especially Night Elf. And this is where it gets interesting, as it raises a major question about game balancing that doesn’t exist in traditional sports. How to deal with exceptional players?

Jump in the shoes of the game director: your have millions of players complaining that the game they’re playing every day is not balanced, and their favorite character/race should be improved, or “buffed” as we say — but the player winning everything at the moment is playing it, and any improvement of this character/race would further increase his lead on the game, directly impact the performances and revenue of every professional player & teams involved in your game. Do you, or not, improve this character? With eSports being as big as they’re now, one can imagine the outcry from all the industry and the collateral impact it can have on your game and community. You need to make a major choice: are you designing your game for the enjoyment of the masses or for the industry of the elites? Are you sacrificing widespread fun for a minority’s well being?

Dealing with exceptional players has never been a problem in real sports, since human capabilities are usually the only variable at stake- Usain Bolt only has his body to race, Roger Federer his hands holding the racket, yet nobody can complain about it: the context & rules of these games can have a very limited impact on who takes the cake, and it usually take years for rules to evolve, giving enough time to every player to get used to it.

In eSports, it can happen overnight.

Popularity vs Spectacularity

A argument between League of Legend’s game designer an team leaders recently made the headlines : Andy “Reginald” Dinh, professional gaming house TSM’s founder and manager, was the first to open the pandora box, claiming in a public interview that he felt the patches (e.g, changes applied to the gameplay that can impact characters or environments) mere weeks before the world championship every year had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the tournament — where cash prizes exceed $5 million every year — as they didn’t give enough time to teams for strategic adaptations to the changes.

Riot game’s lead quickly replied and although I won’t go too much in details regarding the drama that ensued, stating that patching the game before major tournaments is a problem can’t be waived as easily by anyone, especially game publishers.

When every change in your game that makes it more fun or attractive for your newer player base can have a massive impact on high-level competition and reshuffle the cards, what position does the publisher hold? Who do you choose to please, if both ways will result in big money being raffled by some and lost by others? Isn’t money ultimately the main vector for decisioning, where a few tensions with professional players is a winning tradeoff versus gaining tens of thousands of viewers because of spectacularity? There will always be other players dreaming to take their spots on the competitive scene, right?

The exponential difficulty of balancing

Popular games today usually have, for entertainment purposes, multiple possibilities: several races, each constituted of many units in RTSs, dozens of different heroes in MOBAs (above 100 currently in some big names), but remember that for each addition of a unit/hero/race/ability, you must be sure that it is not under nor overpowered compared to every situation that currently exists in the game — including every ability, which can quickly exceed a thousand in recent games. A unit you add must fit the current paradigm of the game, at risk of ruining the current ‘meta-game’ (e.g the ensemble of strategies & decision making required to make a team work together) and changing which hero is chosen, which isn’t, and ultimately… which team will win the next tournament.

Hence for every addition, it becomes exponentially complicated: so complicated, that sometimes adjustments can be brutal: Right after Overwatch launched, a big patch almost halved the effective hit points of a single playable character, and completely changed the meta-game. Imagine the frustration of the players that trained for hundreds of hours to master this very hero, that needed to restart from scratch to reach the top again.

Finding the right balance is usually attempted by tweaking, fine tuning and adjusting for years, in the hope that the players won’t complain about balancing anymore — but real, perfect balance is a mirage that is virtually impossible to achieve with the current human & computer processing capabilities; hence, one can predict that it will remain one of the major challenges to overcome as the industry blooms and more and more professionals depend on the ephemeral decisions from a team of developers.

To conclude, I will state that I am a big fan of eSports and I firmly believe that in it lays the future of entertainment for the masses — however, I can only wish that this huge opportunity to create this new market from scratch will induce a higher level of precautions, despite its tremendous growth. The real sports industry with its flaws and absurdities should be a goldmine of lessons to learn from and prevent the eSports industry to spin out of control.

Will A.I have a defining role in e-Sports, to improve game balancing? Will dramas have such an impact on the game that only very simple, arcade-like, symmetrical games can make it to the top when the money flows? With enough focus, will the industry stabilize games enough to make sure no interruption or glitch will ever happen again in games?

Only the future will tell, but I will keep on being an avid observer and critic.