'The world of mobile eSports is ripe for the taking'

'The world of mobile eSports is ripe for the taking'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

May 3rd 2016 at 2:57PM

Skillz CEO Andrew Paradise says casual games can be just as successful as hardcore eSports titles

Competitive gaming and the growing eSports industry has grabbed much of the gaming world's attention over the past few years, with countless studios trying to recreate the success of PC-based titles like League of Legends. But what about mobile eSports?

We've recently looked at this oft-neglected offshoot of the eSports world in our interview with Super Evil Megacorp, the studio behind competitive mobile hit Vainglory.

While this title is definitely a poster child for the potential of eSports on mobile, it still appeals to the same hardcore crowd that follows Riot Games et al. But Skillz, a company that specialises in organising mobile eSports tournaments, maintains that casual games can be just as popular – and there's still plenty of opportunity for devs to reshape that market.

We caught up with CEO Andrew Paradise to find out more. 

The talk around eSports centres around PC and the occasional console title. Why are mobile eSports being overlooked?
Basically, mobile eSports have been overshadowed by PC and console titles because mobile games simply haven’t been in existence as long and the whole category is still evolving. Just like early PC games, the early games on mobile – at least, the early games after the App Store launched – were casual and often didn’t even have a multiplayer mode, much less the readily available high-speed data connectivity to to foster a competitive ecosystem. This is changing rapidly, as evidenced by growing mobile eSports like Hearthstone, Clash Royale and Vainglory. All signs indicate that these games are just the beginning. 

eSports are primarily skill-based games, but a number of the games you organise tournaments for are arguably casual: bubble shooters, match-three puzzles and so on. How do these translate to eSports?
Many people define eSports narrowly and assume that every electronic sport will be a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), first-person shooter (FPS), or real-time strategy (RTS) game. People also assume every eSports athlete will be a hardcore competitor.

The reality of eSports, however, mirrors the world of physical sports, where the sports vary in complexity and the participants vary in their level of competition.

In the world of physical sports, there are games like American football that have detailed and complex rules, and there are also sports like running which involves nothing more than basic human locomotion. In physical sports, there are both casual participants – like the two-hand touch game of football or the casual jogger – as well as hardcore athletes – the NFL player or the Olympic sprinter – and everything in between.

Electronic sports are no different. There are eSports with very complex gameplay, but also eSports where the gameplay is comparatively simple. As for the competitors themselves, there are casual FPS players and there are hardcore bubble poppers earning a professional living playing a game that many would consider casual. In short, eSports encompass a wide variety of both games and players.

The reality of eSports mirrors the world of physical sports, where the sports vary in complexity and the participants vary in their level of competition.

Can touch screen controls for smart phones and tablets accommodate the level of skill required?
Touch screen controls have certain limitations, but that’s true of any gaming device. For example, traditional PC and console controllers aren’t typically aware of the user’s location and don’t have an accelerometer, which means they’re much less suited for augmented reality or virtual reality gaming.

What we’ve seen historically, and I continue to believe will be the case, is that hardware manufacturers will build technology to meet the needs of both game developers and gamers. With 2.1 billion mobile gamers in the world, there’s enough of an incentive for hardware and software manufacturers to find a way to deliver deep and engaging content content.

Similarly the screen size is considerably smaller, even on tablets. Does this limit the type of eSports/games that can work on mobile?
It's taken some time, but developers seem to be figuring out a way to make all types of content work on smaller mobile screens. It took Electronic Arts several years to make a really great version of Madden, but now they have effectively translated what was considered “console content” to the world of mobile. Similarly, first-person shooters are now starting to take off on mobile.

Concurrently, as mobile screens get bigger – the 13-inch display on the iPad Pro is now as big as many PC screens – the lines between PC and mobile are blurring.

eSports thrive on being spectator events, but you can’t have people cramming round a mobile screen. How are devs/platforms enabling the type of widespread viewing League of Legends et al enjoy?
While the number of people who can crowd around a 27-inch computer monitor is larger than the number who can crowd around a four-inch mobile screen, neither is sufficient for large scale viewing. The solution to this problem of in-person spectatorship is the same for mobile as it is for PC or console: game content being projected on larger screens in an arena or other venue.

For spectatorship via remote broadcast, which reflects the majority of viewership for both physical sports and electronic sports, infrastructure is rapidly developing to enhance the spectating experience of the millions of eSports fans across the world. Twitch and YouTube are the biggest players in the video distribution space, but developers are increasingly turning to eSports infrastructure providers to facilitate video capture, tournament organisation, and enhanced tools for online commentary.

Looking again at physical sports, the average NFL game lasts three hours, but if you tally up the time when the ball is actually in play, the action amounts to a mere 11 minutes. The rest of the broadcast time is devoted to helping spectators understand and appreciate the nuances of the game via instant replays, live commentary and analysis. This is why the proper broadcast infrastructure is so important.

The mobile eSports industry is ripe for the taking, so any developer who is considering diving into eSports should think about building for mobile first.

Are there any other major barriers to eSports taking off on mobile, and how are these being overcome?
Historically, there have been two fundamental barriers to the development of mobile eSports: hardware and data connectivity. Early smartphones and tablets didn’t didn’t have the battery life or graphic capabilities to facilitate complex competitive content. That problem has been fixed over time. In fact, the iPad Pro tablet now has a faster processor than a new 15-inch MacBook Pro laptop.

The second major barrier has been data connectivity. When the App Store was launched in 2008, most cellular networks offered connectivity speeds around 384 kbps or less. Even for mobile gamers on wi-fi, the average home internet speed in the U.S. was less than 3 mbps. Speeds this slow inhibited players from competing in complex, bandwidth-intensive games. Today, most mobile mobile carriers offer 4G internet with average download speeds between 5-12 mbps and the average home wi-fi network provides connections over 30 mbps. With readily accessible data connections, game makers are just starting to build out the kind of mobile eSports content that will define the future.

What are the prime examples of mobile eSports titles at the moment? Any big contenders on the horizon?
Today, the most well-known mobile eSports titles are Vainglory, Hearthstone and Clash Royale. Vainglory alone had over 150 million minutes viewed on Twitch last year.

However, much of the mobile eSports landscape is still fragmented across titles that are popular but relatively unknown. Many people don’t know this, but the fifth highest-paid bowler in 2015 wasn’t in the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) – he was playing a mobile eSports title called Strike Real Money Bowling.

What advice do you have for developers aiming to develop an eSports title for mobile?
Here are three things I think every developer should consider:

  1. Successful eSports must include all of the following elements: competitive gameplay, a tournament system, and spectating technology. Developers should decide if they want to build each of those elements in-house or if they are better equipped to just build the core game and partner with a platform technology provider for the tournament and spectator infrastructure.
  2. Most of the time, an existing single-player game cannot be made into a successful multiplayer game without substantial gameplay tweaks. Consider the differences between Halo’s single-player mode and its multiplayer mode. If you’re trying to turn a single-player game into a multiplayer, think critically about what tweaks you need to make.
  3. Mobile devices are the largest gaming platform in history, yet eSports are still nascent here. Right now the mobile eSports industry is ripe for the taking, so any developer who is considering diving into eSports should think about building for mobile first. The players and fans are ready and waiting for more mobile content.

Many people don’t realise how big mobile eSports have become already. Last year, Skillz alone awarded 20 per cent of all eSports prizes to mobile gamers, so there’s no question as to whether mobile eSports will be a major driver for the industry.

The question that everyone should really be asking is: “How long will it be until mobile eSports are bigger than the NFL?”