15 elements of a good e-sport

Last Updated January 23rd, 2022

Ever wonder why the Call of Duty scene is so much smaller than the Counter-Strike scene? Ever wonder why Street Fighter has so many more players than BlazBlue? Ever wonder why your favorite game never seems to be played professionally, despite your dreams of one day becoming a professional gamer?

These are all good questions, and they have complex answers. Not every game can be an e-sport. It’s a common misconception that all a game needs to build a competitive scene is quality and popularity. E-sports need so much more – from a thriving community, to a stable infrastructure, to heaps and heaps of monetary support. E-sports need to be accessible and identifiable, but also fun to watch. They live and die not just on the efforts of their players, but on the passion of their fans and the cooperation of their creators.

This list will go over 15 elements that the most popular e-sports have in common. An e-sport can survive without one or two, but when a game lacks in multiple qualities, it’s a fairly good bet that its scene will die. If you are looking to develop the next big e-sport sensation, keep these qualities in mind, because the elements of making a good e-sport are not necessarily the same as the elements of making a high-selling game.

Simplicity

Think of the goals of traditional sports. Basketball is “get the ball in the hoop.” Soccer is “get the ball in the goal.” You’ll find most traditional sports have simple goals like this. A good e-sport should be able to be described in the same way. Simplicity brings the audience and the game together. Everyone feels like they can play baseball, just not as good as a professional. 

Depth

A successful e-sport appears simple but is incredibly deep. Think of fighting games. It’s easy to understand “punch the other guy until he dies”, but the intricacies of combos, cancels, and mix-ups keep them feeling fresh. The deeper the game is, the more strategies can be developed. The more different strategies develop, the more the meta changes. The more the meta changes, the less likely it is that this year’s tournament will be a repeat of last year’s tournament. Depth keeps competitors pushing to be the best, and keeps spectators coming back to see what wild new strategies are developed.

Skill

Let’s say you tune in on Sunday to watch your favorite football team square off against their long-time rival. Your team scores more points but at the end of the game, the ref flips a coin and pronounces the rival the winner. Infuriating, isn’t it? Why should they win when your team was obviously more skilled?

The same holds true for e-sports. Any good e-sport should be a showcase of the skill of the players, not the randomness of the mechanics. If an e-sport does include variance, then a core part of the game has to be managing and overcoming that variance. Think Poker as opposed to Chutes and Ladders.

This is why professional Smash matches are played with items and stage hazards turned off. This is also why Hearthstone players throw a fit when high variance cards, such as Yogg-Saron or Tuskarr Totemic, make their way into professional play.

Interactivity

Sometimes, the best strategy is to do nothing. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make for a compelling e-sport. The best e-sports keep their players taking actions and making decisions for the entirety of a match. Even a game based entirely on pattern recognition, like chess, usually implements some mechanic that forces players to keep moving at a higher level, in this instance a chess clock.

This is why you very rarely see games like Sim City or Civilization end up in e-sports arenas. Spectators don’t want to watch players sitting there and doing nothing.

Balance

A good e-sport at least makes an attempt at balance. While true balance can never be achieved, the closer a game gets the more exciting it is to watch and play.

Balanced games are games with variety. A fighting game with a balanced roster will see its top players using many different characters. A balanced game creates a complex and interesting meta filled with counter-picks. When a game is balanced it’s clear that it’s not what you play that determines the winner, but how you play.

Imbalanced games have become e-sports in the past (just look at Marvel vs Capcom 2), but in these cases the set of viable characters or strategies had their own balance and meta. When games become increasingly imbalanced, it becomes more and more clear that players can only reliably win using a single strategy. For example, look at the Hearthstone Summer Championships before the last balance patch. Everyone ran the exact same decks.

When players use the same strategy, tournaments start to feel like re-runs. Eventually the meta will become stale, strategies will stop evolving, spectators will stop tuning in, and the e-sport will die.  

Sustainability

Ever wonder why we don’t see sports sequels, like Basketball 2 or Soccer: Rise of the Faked Injury? It’s because they don’t need one. Professional athletes have been training at their sport of choice all their lives. If the rules changed every few years, no one could build a successful career. Keeping the rules of a sport constant keeps the players and teams constant, and that allows spectators like us to build emotional bonds with superstars and brands.

This is why some of our most successful e-sports are also some of our oldest games. Counter-Strike has been around since 1999. The most popular form of Smash Bros, Smash Bros Melee, has been around since 2001.

This is a serious problem in the video-game industry because it’s a business that is focused on constantly trying to push out new and interesting products. Call of Duty massively changes its rules and mechanics every year. Street Fighter V and other popular fighting games introduce new characters and balance patches every few months! A simple balance patch could ruin some of the greatest professional gamers. Just look at Daigo Umehara, largely considered the best Street Fighter player since the days of Street Fighter II. He has been struggling to get to top 8 in Street Fighter V because its mechanics are so wildly different from every Street Fighter that came before it.

Every time a game gets a new revision it hemorrhages professional players who decide it’s not worth it to re-learn the game again. A lack of players equals a lack of competition, and a lack of competition equals a dead e-sport.

Ease of Spectatorship

E-sports aren’t just fun games to play. They are fun games to watch. For a game to be fun to watch it has to be easy to watch. When a game has so many particle effects cluttering up the screen that you can’t follow the action, it’s failed at being a spectator sport. Good e-sports should be easy to follow not just because of their mechanics, but because of their graphics. This is why spectator modes in shooters are so important. Without a good way to follow the action, spectators will tune out.

Entertainment

A good e-sports match should follow a narrative curve. The game begins, player action builds tension, a dramatic moment builds to a climax, and then we feel that tension release before the loop begins again, intensifying each time.

Any segment of an e-sport, no matter how long, should follow this curve. Let’s look at Street Fighter matches. Here are just a few examples of the tension, climax, reset curve:

Players walk back and forth playing footsies (tension) – one player gets a hit and does a combo (climax) – the opponent is knocked down and footsies resume (reset)

Players trade blows (tension) – the final hit is delivered (climax) – round 2 starts (reset)

Players select characters (tension) – they play a 2 of 3 round game (climax) – they counter-pick for the next match (reset)

Players are seeded in the bracket (tension) – they play a full set of matches (climax) – they either continue onward, go into losers, or get knocked out of the tournament (reset)

Any good e-sport should be able to build tension and punctuate them with dramatic moments. That’s what makes them entertaining to watch. You don’t want your e-sport matches to end with a whimper instead of a bang.

Aesthetic Desirability

This is going to sound really obvious, but e-sports should be pretty. While not nearly as important as some of the other qualities on this list, a game that looks good is more likely to be watched than a game that looks like crap. This isn’t to say that your e-sport has to have the latest in 4k HD graphics. The retro sprite aesthetic can be just as appealing. Just be sure the visual aesthetic of your game is coherent and pleasing to the eye. This, among other reasons, is why we will never see a huge e-sports scene for Dwarf Fortress.

Brevity

Both competitors and fans have limited attention spans. Thus, a good e-sport needs to be short. Fighting game matches take about a minute. Shooter matches take about five. The longest e-sport out there is the RTS, which can run for 45 minutes a match, and even that has been mostly supplanted by the shorter and snappier MOBA. Short matches are not only more watchable, but they take less of a toll on competitors. This allows them to stay in fighting condition for later matches. You don’t want your early matches to fatigue your players so heavily that the grand finals look like two amateurs mashing buttons.

Accessibility

It doesn’t take much to play traditional sports. All you need is a ball and a space to play. The more accessible a sport is, the more people play and watch it. That’s why games like basketball and soccer have much higher view rates and higher play rates than a game like golf, which requires expensive equipment, expensive courses, and (depending on where you play) membership fees to even begin practicing.

Similarly, e-sports should be accessible to nearly everyone. Not only does this increase your viewer pool by increasing the amount of people who understand the game, it also increases your talent pool. The more people who play the game, the bigger chance you have of finding the next super-star.

This, once again, is a problem in the money driven video game industry. This is going to be difficult to swallow, but $60 is too high of a price for most e-sports. This effectively locks out most video-games from ever reaching e-sports status.

And the numbers don’t lie. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is only fifteen dollars, and its original version is free. Hearthstone is free. League of Legends is free. DOTA2 is free.  Even recent popular games like Overwatch are cheaper on PC (the preferred e-sports platform) than they are on consoles. With the slight exception of fighting games, which routinely struggle with being smaller than MOBAs and shooters, few people pay $60 for an e-sport title. This is also why hugely popular shooters like Gears of War and Halo struggle to find a scene while Counter-Strike is one of the biggest e-sports in existence.

Global Popularity

E-sports draw investors from all over the world. This influx of money and support is what keeps the scene alive. To maximize interest, e-sports need to be appealing on a global stage.

This may seem self-explanatory, but it has some heavy implications. For example, there are plenty of free to play games that come out in Korea and China that have most of the qualities on this list. However, gamers in the states and in Europe have no idea of their existence. Similarly, there are many indie games that have these qualities, but never hit it big as an e-sport simply due to their lack of popularity.

Unfortunately, this means that a large part of being a successful e-sport is marketing. The more people who are aware of your game, the more people play, the more chance it has to develop a competitive scene.

Community

Successful e-sports have large and thriving communities to keep them in the spotlight. Community is sort of a catch-all term here for anything involving the game that doesn’t pertain to professional competition. Communities will report on important tournaments. They will string together matches into highlight reels. They will stream on Twitch to keep people interested in the game during the off-season. Semi-pro members of the community will do research on new strategies and frame data. Community journalists will even bring up your game as an example in their list of qualities that make for a good e-sport!

This list just got a bit too real…

The point is community keeps your game alive when your players and tournament organizers are taking much deserved time off. Without a community, you might find your e-sport dead after one tournament cycle.

Money

Ah yes, the root of all evil e-sports. E-sports are a business like any other, and businesses need to make money. Developers need to sell games. Tournaments need to have prize pools to entice pros to play in them. Teams need to pay a salary to get pros to join them. Venues need to be paid in order to host tournaments. Everyone is looking to make a buck so they can give that buck to someone else looking to make a buck.

Where your e-sport makes its money can be a difficult problem to tackle. If it’s popular enough, you might be able to survive on entrance and spectator fees alone. The fighting game scene has long survived on the pennies of its fans.

But high-profile e-sports make money through other means, and so it helps if your game has the infrastructure to support that. Microtransactions are one popular way to make money, especially if you sell skins related to your favorite e-sports teams. Some e-sports are supported by funneling money from a company’s more popular and successful games into the e-sports scene. Remember, a good selling game is not necessarily the same as a popular e-sport.

Official Support

Finally, we bring you to our last item, official support from developers and publishers. Unfortunately, gamers are very small and corporations are very big. It helps to have someone with resources at your side whenever things get tough. Some of the most popular e-sports tournaments are actually run by their game’s publisher.

Official Support is incredibly important because publishers can single-handedly destroy an e-sports scene, should they disagree with it. They can take down YouTube videos or even official tournament streams. Everyone remembers when Nintendo tried to shut down a Smash Bros. Melee stream at EVO. Without official support, a publisher can just say “no” to all e-sport activities.

What do you think? Did we miss any important qualities of successful e-sports games?  Do you think e-sports can thrive without these qualities? Let us know in the comments.

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