Commercial Success in Video Games Increasingly Relies on Fan Creators
Gaming content creation can be an esoteric medium. For many people, especially of the older generation, it’s difficult to rationalize how watching somebody play video games could be more enjoyable than playing them yourself. Even more confusing are the games that get popularized. Elitist sentiments aside, it can be frustrating to see certain games find widespread positive reception when others fall under the radar. What unique qualities do games like Among Us, League of Legends, and Minecraft possess that make them so prevalent in the mainstream?
1. The Competitive Scene
For many multiplayer games, the competitive scene is their public face. Much like the NBA or NFL, the top competitors are pitted against each other to determine the champion. Rivalries are formed, friendships are built, and underdogs rise, creating narratives within the competition that keep things interesting. Basketball and football had decades to perfect their formulas to maximize audience engagement, not only through novel production features like instant replay, but fundamentally changing the rules of the game to make each second as electrifying as the last. Modern games only have about three to six months to establish their esports scenes before people move on, and developers have to solve myriads of issues within that timeframe.
Most people use the metagame, or the currently upheld theories on how best to play, as a benchmark for whether the game has a viable competitive scene. If certain characters or playstyles are clearly better than others, then it is the “meta” to play that character or that playstyle. Because the optimal approach has been found, competitors will often focus only on that playstyle. Human error and skill will always be a factor that can create variability, but nowhere close enough to level the playing field between something that is “in” the meta and something “out.”
Esports viewers hate strong metas, arguably more than when they play the games themselves. People are free to play the way they find enjoyable — but what’s the point of watching something with a predetermined outcome? If a particular playstyle always wins, then the element of unpredictability no longer exists, along with the stakes or hype created. Everybody loves a good underdog story or a stressful back and forth between rivals, and stagnant metas make them much rarer. Moreover, seeing the exact same playstyle and plays over and over again is tiring. No amount of energetic commentating can save a game that sees players doing the exact same thing for ten, twenty, or even forty minutes straight.
Savvy game developers looking to foster their competitive scenes continually introduce new characters and slight tweaks. By keeping the fundamentals and changing out embellishments, they can keep the game fresh while still recognizable. Riot Games has been doing this for years: League of Legends has added 110 champions, reworked around forty, and changed around the map over the past nine years. Nobody can complain about a dominant meta because it changes every month, forcing players to be on their toes for the next patch. So long as the meta is loose enough that an element of chance can coexist with virtuosic displays of skill from players, an esport has good potential to become a breakout hit. The most exciting tournament is one where anybody can win with any approach, and games try their best to reach this platonic ideal.
But no matter how regularly a developer updates their game, a perfectly balanced meta is nearly impossible. Mistakes will be made, and players will continually explore every aspect of the game to find a small advantage over their opponent. Still, even this is arguably interesting. The struggle to be the best ensures that the top players are not only the most mechanically gifted, but can adapt quickly to new circumstances. Deeper gameplay levels are generated through these mental battles as new strategies are created and thrown out all the time, making every match extend beyond who can react the fastest. Most of all, an evolving game is fun to watch. Each League of Legends World Championship never plays out like the previous one, and fascinating narratives can be woven out of a simple tournament.
2. Edutainment, Comedy, and Commentary
General gameplay complexity extends itself towards more casual content creation as well. Many gaming content creators — especially around 2010— played the role of educators, explaining mechanics or boss fights in easily digestible formats. For many amateurs or people looking to get an edge over their friends, this content style was perfect for them. The gaming educational sphere on YouTube, in particular, existed long before more comedy-style videos became mainstream, especially in the World of Warcraft community. From this more analytical perspective also came its natural inversion. Instead of explaining away techniques and frame data with some jokes sprinkled in, knowledgeable creators would play the game in a purposefully unorthodox way — gun roulette challenges, blindfolded gameplay, everything. By creating an interesting competitive scene through thoughtful game design, developers make it easy for content creators to produce novel videos.
Fundamentally though, content creation is very personality-driven. While educational channels did well for their time, entirely commentary or comedy driven channels eventually found much more success. No game demonstrates this better than Minecraft — it has no competitive scene, nor does it have any particularly complex or fascinating gameplay. What it has perfected, though, is the unique capabilities of sandbox-style games. Telling your own story in Minecraft, even with friends, is what makes it both entertaining to play and to watch. Inventive content creators took the sandbox elements of Minecraft and turned them into roleplay playgrounds, aided by the modded and map-pack community. Creators like Dream and TommyInnit are constantly exaggerating their personalities and humour to make blocky characters staring at each other an engaging experience. Among Us has similarly experienced massive success for how much it relies on group interaction. Nobody really watches Among Us for the minigames, but for the creators talking to each other during the discussion period. In this sense, the games that get popular are the ones that can act as vehicles to deliver personalities. Sandbox and open-world games are obviously fined tuned to this kind of content creation, and the more freedom they provide, the more creators can use the game as a springboard for their content.
Large creators like Pewdiepie, who could play many different games and keep their audience, used to be anomalies. Nowadays, “variety” creators, especially with the rise of streaming, have become the norm, swapping out the games that they play on a near-weekly basis. Trends still dominate what most people like to watch, but their short lifecycle forces creators to have substance when they eventually get traded out for something else. People will always get lucky and hop on trends at the right time, but continuing their careers afterwards is the real challenge.
While games like Among Us and Fall Guys took the world by storm, their simplicity that made them so accessible was also what resulted in their sharp viewership decline over a few months. Once their novelty wore off, there wasn’t much substance for the game to stick around. Fun personalities could spice things up for a while, but staring at the same levels and minigames for hours on end still bores everybody out. In this personality-driven content creation style, there still needs to be some level of engaging gameplay to keep people invested. Compare and contrast their explosive growth and decline to Esports mainstays like CS:GO and League of Legends. Their insanely large competitive scene, bringing in millions of views for large tournaments like Worlds 2020 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Major Championships, drives most of their Twitch viewership. Constant updates by the developers and high skill ceilings have allowed both of them to survive long past what was initially expected. Esports is also much more performance-driven than personality, making it widely accessible — humour is a very personalized taste, while everyone can appreciate a good display of skill and competition.
Both approaches bring in massive amounts of views, and gaming content creation as an advertising medium has become one of the most effective methods companies can use to reach their audience. Content creation potential, whether it be competitive or casual, is becoming a substantial consideration for developers trying to make the next big hit. When the next person does eventually strike upon that miracle formula that games like Minecraft and League of Legends discovered a decade ago, their creation has the chance to become a cultural touchstone.