In mid-February Korean online streaming service GOM TV, broadcaster of the prestigious StarCraft II tournament series the Global StarCraft League, announced that they were planning to diversify the eSports which they broadcast.
The reason I bring this up here, in the FreePlay column, is that the game which GOM is building a new tournament around is World of Tanks, a free-to-play game developed by Wargaming.net of Belarus in eastern Europe.
For those of you who have never played World of Tanks (WoT), first of all, why haven’t you? It’s free! But seriously, it’s a massively multiplayer online game. You earn money and experience playing in large scale tank battles on a variety of maps, you can then use your money and XP to unlock new tanks and new parts for said tanks, and you can also buy new items and ammunition. Think League of Legends, but you choose what items you want your character to have before the game, rather than during it, and there’s no respawning. The victor is the first to capture the enemy deployment zone or kill the whole enemy team.
The real reason I bring up World of Tanks here though, is that it’s the first time I’ve seen a free-to-play game (other than League of Legends) gain any kind of traction in the competitive eSports scene internationally.
So I wanted to confront a few key questions: Why has GOM TV chosen to expand with WoT, rather than other games? Why have free-to-play games not gained greater representation as eSports? How, and why, out of all the free-to-play games, has League of Legends succeeded where so many have failed?
Why World of Tanks?
At first glance it may seem strange for GOM TV to choose WoT rather than more established eSports like League of Legends, Counter-Strike or Call of Duty. However, there are some pretty sound reasons why World of Tanks is a better choice.
Especially with the upcoming release of Heart of the Swarm, GOM TV’s audience has become a truly global one. Whilst the majority of highly skilled StarCraft pro-gamers are Korean, the viewership is much more international. So it makes sense for GOM TV to play to their audience by running tournaments featuring games popular outside Korea.
And WoT is nothing if not popular. It boasts 45 million active accounts worldwide, and has had more than 500,000 concurrent players in Russia alone. Players worldwide have reportedly spent a total of 230,000 man years in battle since October 2010.
Not only does it have worldwide appeal, but unique appeal to the Korean market. Despite its widespread popularity it only had a Korean release on December 27th 2012, and in the ten or so weeks since, more than 150,000 Koreans have registered with Wargaming.net, with 45,000 more expected to transfer from international accounts.
WoT has also already proved a popular eSport, notably being included in the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice event. And finally, WoT is a popular game to livestream, with many players streaming their games live on sites like twitch.tv.
Why aren’t more free-to-play games popular eSports?
There are some real barriers to the archetypal free-to-play game becoming popular as an eSport. Most of the problems are tied up in the way free-to-play games make their money.
Traditionally, eSports-friendly games had an up-front cost, after which the multiplayer aspect was a level playing field. FIFA, Street Fighter and StarCraft: Brood War are good examples. In the majority of free-to-play games (League of Legends is an exception, I’ll get to why in a minute) the money has to be made in-game. This means trying to sell the player something, which requires incentivizing the purchase.
In a multiplayer environment (the only one in which eSports can exist, obviously) the easiest thing to incentivize is one which gives players an advantage. Clearly, giving competitive teams the option to gain an advantage over the competition is something which an eSport can’t afford to do.
This generally takes the form of access to equipment/vehicles/upgrades which affect gameplay, which cannot be accessed without paying real money. WoT does fall into this trap to a certain extent, but through regulated competition, has managed to overcome it.
How come League of Legends has it so good? That’s free-to-play as well!
Free-to-play games can overcome some of the barriers to becoming popular eSports by taking a leaf from the book of League of Legends (LoL). The key with LoL is that there are two kinds of things to purchase with real money currency: new characters to play as, and new skins for your existing characters.
The key is that while you can buy new characters with real money, you can also unlock exactly the same characters without it, it just takes a lot longer. The only things which can only be bought with real money are the purely cosmetic character skins.
Combining this with a dedication to game balance, and regular patches, and you have one ingredient of a successful eSport.
Another important aspect of turning a successful free-to-play game into a fun and entertaining spectator eSport is something which comes naturally to free-to-play games: audience. In order to be a fan of a sport, you need to understand the rules. The best way to get lots of people to understand your game is to get lots of people to play it! And a great way of doing that? Give it away for free!
There are of course a lot of other things which you can do to make a good game a great eSport, like have a small number of maps and have them be symmetrical. And making sure the spectator viewpoint is compelling enough for the audience to want to watch. These things aren’t unique to free-to-play, but can still be exploited by developers of such games.
Despite the difficulties, I think the future of eSports lies with free games, because no matter what else happens, you can’t have a sport of any description without fans.
FreePlay is Games Are Evil’s regular column about games that cost you nothing to download and get started with, hosted by multimedia journalism student and professional cheapskate Ed Prosser.