If you’re a gamer, you have probably heard of esports, aka the professional level of multiplayer competition, and if you’ve heard of esports, you’ve probably heard of Overwatch and any one of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games (MOBAs) like League of Legends or DoTA 2. We know that millions of people watch these games when the big tournaments come around, and that tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people watch the smaller events and regular seasons.
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MOBAs are the biggest reason that the current craze in esports exists, but as games, I believe we are reaching a point where they simply aren’t as fun to play as other games with burgeoning professional scenes. The recent news that Overwatch has overtaken LoL as the number one game in Korean PC Bangs (basically LAN cafés) is just one of the signs of this. I have also had the opportunity to observe this personally as a longtime League of Legends player who hasn’t played in about a month and is completely fine with it.
I’ll break each of these games down into a few different categories and explain why games like Overwatch and Rocket League, while they may not be as big as esports right now, are honestly much more fun for me at this point. The first will be the time commitment, which is just how long it takes to play a game. The second will be enjoyment floor, which is the lowest low that you can have in the game, while the third will be the barrier to entry, which will approximate how hard it is to actually become good, or even passable, at the game. The final category will be the hype factor, which is an approximation of how good it feels to execute high level plays in these games. None of these categories is isolated from the others, and they are all roughly equivalent components in the “fun factor” of each game. Each one will be graded from 1-10, with 10 being bloody wonderful and 1 being abhorrent and disgusting.
MOBAs have been the uncontested kings of esports since the dawn of the Third Age (First Age being Quake and Second Age being the Brood War Era). Typically pitting two teams of five against each other in a set of lanes (three in League and DoTA), each team tries to destroy the other team’s base. Players choose a character from a roster that typically includes several dozen heroes, each with a unique kit augmented by items purchased from an in game shop using money gained from slaying creeps that spawn periodically. The games are complicated and feature a bevy of subtleties in map movement and pressure application that can require a discerning eye to pick out, but can provide an immensely rewarding experience. Unfortunately, these games are hampered by a pretty massive time commitment that detracts from their overall appeal as pastimes.
Time Commitment (1/10 RIP VAN WINKLE WTF PATCH IS IT GRADE)
This is where the MOBA truly suffers. The average game time for a League of Legends or DoTA game easily suprasses 25 minutes and can vary greatly, but typically takes much longer. Even a 25 minute game is 2.5 times as long as a Payload round in Overwatch that takes the maximum amount of time possible, and FIVE times the amount of time in regulation for a game of Rocket League. If you add in queue times, which have been recently quite difficult for LoL fans, particularly at higher levels of play, then the time commitment for a single game of LoL is easily an hour. These games honestly just take too damn long to really be fulfilling on a consistent basis when combined with a very low enjoyment floor and very high barrier to entry. If your team wins the early game really hard, then maybe you can close the game out quickly, but more often than not, a team at the average ranking in LoL (somewhere in the middle of Silver, the second tier from the lowest rank of Bronze), will take longer because of mechanical errors and misplays in the complex macrogame. Meanwhile, if you lose out in the early game, your suffering will likely be extended for a very long time. A player who gives up first blood in an unforgiving matchup will likely have to deal with 15 minutes of trying to get themselves back into the game without dying more while being at a distinct disadvantage to their opponent. If they cannot walk the tightrope necessary to claw their way back into the game, their suffering will continue until at least the 20 minute mark--the minimum time that must pass in game before a surrender vote becomes possible.
Enjoyment Floor (1/10 BASICALLY WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I PLAY AN INSTRUMENT GRADE)
As alluded to above, the enjoyment floor in a MOBA is very low indeed. While DoTA does help address this in that players immediately have access to all of the heroes in the game and can just go play, League of Legends has an account leveling system in place that forces players to earn every champion that they want to acquire by grinding games. In DoTA, however, the margin for error is actually much smaller in-game than it is in LoL because of the greater potency of hero abilities and the greater complexity of the mechanics of playing in lane.
No matter which games you play, however, there are certain truths to MOBAs that lower their enjoyment floor. The first is that a MOBA is fundamentally matchup based. This means that each player, for a good portion of the game, is matched up directly against another player in the same position. This creates a zero-sum game formula because in most games, players will tunnel in on their particular matchup and worry only about what is directly in front of them. The game sits on a knife’s edge from the very beginning, and the opening duel between two players can set the tone for their experience in the game for the rest its temporal passing, as kills reward experience and gold that count toward item purchases and the in-game character level-up process. In other words, the enjoyment value of most MOBA games is determined in the first 5-10 minutes of games that last twice that long in the very least. Further, because so many people play MOBAs, the skill level of an opponent will fluctuate from game to game, which means that their game knowledge will shift accordingly vis-a-vis the player’s own depending on what champion or hero is being played, in what role it is being played, and what specialties the players possess. Any discrepancy can be mercilessly exploited. The potential for tilting is extremely high, and the pressure of knowing that messing up badly enough can put your opponent in a position to wreck your whole team’s chance to win the game is thicker than Colby Jack. Extend that whole experience over, say, 30 minutes, and you have yourself a very, very long stint in the No-Fun Zone.
Barrier to Entry (1/10 50 FOOT WALL OF CORPSES TURNING INTO WHITE WALKERS GRADE)
Another factor that exacerbates the aforementioned issues with MOBAs is their very high barriers to entry. As I mentioned above, skill discrepancies are one of the constants of MOBAs. They may change constantly, but one of the players is simply going to be better than their opponent. This comes from time spent playing the game, mostly, because knowledge is the most important part of a MOBA player’s quality. Beyond the simple mechanics of the game itself, there are dozens of characters whose kits are unique and distinctive. The community in League of Legends recommends that players know at least two champions in each of the game’s five positions before playing ranked, which means that a player needs to learn at least ten characters. Although the more recent changes to queues, which allow players to queue up for two positions, alleviated this pressure, it still behooves a player to have a diverse pool of characters available to choose from because matchups are also very important. Following that is macrogame knowledge, which has to do with moving around the map, when to group with one’s team, where to do so, etc. This all represents a massive learning curve that, while it grants tremendous rewards to good execution, is never truly conquered because MOBAs are live games that are constantly patched for game balance. Therefore, the time commitment necessary to even approach being competent at a MOBA is gargantuan.
Hype Factor (10/10 SMEB INTENSIFIES AS CLOUDTEMPLAR BEGS HIM TO GIVE UP GRADE)
Let’s be honest, MOBAs are hype machines. Because getting to a point where you can actually play the game is such a chore, making a big play has been known to produce memes and pentakill screams which resonate throughout your group of friends for weeks to come. That dangerous lane matchup environment with its pressure cooker environment can sometimes produce a gumbo so spicy, so sharp, and so utterly rewarding that it is impossible to countenance ever giving up on MOBAs. MOBAs reward their players by turning the overall experience of getting better into a crucible, and it is in completing such a trial that a player can finally recognize progress in his play.
They also give us Korean Casters to serve as the basis for all of my hype factor grades.
Overwatch is the marquee title in the emerging “Hero Shooter” genre, which combines the character pool of MOBAs and the objective based game modes popular in shooters such as Team Fortress 2. There’s no in-game leveling system like in MOBAs, and the profile level up system produces purely cosmetic unlockable content through loot boxes. The game is fast paced, exciting, and quirky. It’s main discrepancy between players is mechanical, but its games are over in about ten minutes, typically, which makes individual progress feel faster and more satisfying. The game has been so well received, in fact, that it overthrew League of Legends’ 46 month reign as the most played game at Korean PC Bangs.
Time Commitment (9/10 [6/10 for Ranked])
Overwatch’s time commitment is pretty low per match. Each match ends when a team has accomplished their objective, whether that be seizing a point, stopping an opponent from escorting an objective, or what have you. There is an in-game overtime mechanic that gives the losing team one last chance to pull out a win if they are contesting the objective when the game ends, but overall, this overtime does not typically last overly long. The reduced time per game compared to MOBAs gives Overwatch a much higher Enjoyment Floor by virtue of suffering that ends much more swiftly.
On the other hand, however, in ranked play, Overwatch’s ranked system plays out in Best-of-Five series, which extends the time commitment of the game considerably for that game type. This creates a tension between time commitment and the incentivization of individual player progress by stating that in order to be ranked and augment said rank, one must commit 2-5 times the amount of temporal investment into the game. I’m still not sure where I stand on whether or not the Bo5 system is healthy, but it certainly does not earn points in this category.
Enjoyment Floor (2/10 [8/10 with Friends])
I am loathe to talk about enjoyment floors in games, just because it means highlighting what it’s like to have the worst experience possible. However, in Overwatch, this category is particularly difficult to grade because it depends on whether or not you are playing with friends or not. However, regardless, the floor does not sink as low as MOBAs because at the end of the day, even in ranked play, it is hardly likely that you would experience comparable match times to MOBAs.
However, because Overwatch is a heavily objective-based game in which the composition of one’s team is as important as one’s skill with the mouse and keyboard, playing on your own can be extremely frustrating. Without teammates who are willing to communicate constructively and address team needs, Overwatch can feel a lot like smashing your head repeatedly into a brick wall. With Spikes. And Fire. If you play with a group of friends, however, many of the problems of team coordination can be easily sorted out amongst your group. Further, it is possible, and encouraged, to switch between characters mid-match if you find that you are not succeeding or that your team is lacking in some regard, which means that most sources of frustration have a fairly straightforward solution available, team coordination notwithstanding.
Barrier to Entry (7/10 [9/10 with Friends])
Overwatch is not a particularly difficult game to learn, conceptually. The objectives are very straightforward and there are characters who appeal to all manner of players, ranging from the typical first person shooter types like snipers and assault rifle toters, to tanks with shields and utility for those who may not be as quick on the clicks. Overwatch is built to be the everyman’s game, which means that it is fairly open to a variety of tastes that go beyond character design.
The game’s main downfall in barrier to entry is that in the early goings, it can be difficult to keep all of the maps straight--particularly because many of them have multiple stages for contested objective rounds. Further, the diverse cast off heroes raises some similar concerns to those of MOBAs, in that the distinctiveness of each character makes them all unique learning experiences. Playing McCree, a pistolero, and playing Reaper, a guy with pistols that are actually shotguns, are very different experiences, even though the two fill similar roles on the team in terms of providing up front damage. That being said, the keymapping is fairly simple, so for many of us, learning Overwatch is a matter of getting timing down and trial and error with abilities. This is not a tall wall.
Hype Factor (9/10)
Gotta have my hypu! In Overwatch, the hype factor is pretty massive. As with many first person shooters, it is a very mechanically intensive game that places emphasis on individual skill over mind games (which is not to say that the latter is not viable). This means that whenever you do something really cool, you FEEL IT. The hype pulses in your veins and much whooping and yee hawing can be heard for miles around. This feeling is multiplied by the Play of the Game segment that occurs at the end of each match. The game itself selects what it perceives to be the most hype play and replays it for all to see, which provides players with the incentive to take risks and do crazy things to reach new levels of hype.
This grade comes out to a 9/10 because of Bastion and Torbjorn PoTGs where almost nothing that is even remotely hype occurs on screen. Turrets suck. That is all.
If XCOM 2 is my abusive significant other, then Rocket League is the unrequited love of my life, which is to say that I love it to death, but am hopelessly bad at it. The game is soccer with cars and crazy physics that occur in domed playing fields. There are a wide variety of cars to choose from and others added through DLC, as well as a bevy of maps, some of which we wish were not a thing (lookin’ at you, Neo Tokyo). Games take 5 minutes and go to sudden death overtime if the score is tied, and the games are played either 1v1, 2v2, or 3v3 in normal and ranked queues with an added 4v4 queue for normals who have too many friends. Its professional scene is growing, and I hope that it will become a much more visible esport in the days to come.
Time Commitment (10/10 MY GOD WHERE DID ALL THE TIME GO OH WAIT IT’S STILL HERE GRADE)
“Wanna play a game of Rocket League?” Unlike the other games on this list, this question is never a daunting commitment. Each game takes 5 minutes unless you go to overtime, and I’ve yet to play in an overtime game that lasted more than 12 minutes in total. You would have to double your game time in overtime in order to last as long as an Overwatch round. While there are games that are slowed down by the 10 second replay sequence after goals, there would have to be a goal every 5 seconds for a Rocket League game to last as long as a surrender at 20 minutes in LoL. I don’t think it’s hard to see why I haven’t played LoL in a month.
Enjoyment Floor (8/10 [3/10 alone])
Rocket League has a pretty good enjoyment floor that can be traced to two factors. Firstly, your suffering is never prolonged for longer than 5 minutes. If you’re losing at all, you won’t go to overtime, so when you’re losing so badly that you hate everything and cannot even, it is all over quite quickly. The second factor is that while the barrier to entry is pretty high for such a simple game, you still get queued up against people who are roughly on your level, so games are rarely stomps. Sure, there’s the occasional 9-0 game you get stuck with, but for the most part, you’ll end up queued up against other people who have just as little idea of what’s going on as you do. Rocket League does lose points on a couple of counts, though. The first is that there are far too many instances, both in ranked and normal play, in which someone who is clearly new to the game can bring along one or two friends who’ve been playing for two years and just watch it rain rank points without penalty. The second is that this game can be pretty awful when you play without a full team in voice chat together. As with most sportsball games, knowing where your buddies are and when, as well as trust and shot calls are incredibly important, so when you end up in a game with two other guys who don’t talk to you, it can make you seriously question booting up the game.
Barrier to Entry (5/10)
Science is hard, guys. Physics is hard, guys. I’m a social scientist. This is not what I do. Rocket League is simple. It's probably the simplest game that I have derived this much enjoyment from in a long time. However, it is also very deep. Your cars have booster packs attached to them, for example, that will, if the nose of your car is angled correctly, allow you to fly. The sky is a scary place, and it is a frustrating skill to learn, mostly because there are always people who are better at it than you. Figuring out where a static ball would bounce when it hits a wall is easy, but the spin of the ball and the interactions between the cars and the ball and the field of play are also difficult to pin down quickly, which means that the only real way to get much better at Rocket League is to play a lot more than you are right now, which can be very frustrating.
Hype Factor (10/10 CLOUDTEMPLAR HIGH PITCHED CJ NOISES GRADE)
I cannot hype this game enough. Watch this video, then imagine actually pulling off something that even vaguely resembled ANYTHING on it. I’ve had a couple moments like that, and there is no feeling in MOBA or shooter that I can really compare to it. The game is immensely rewarding to improve at, largely because mastering the mechanics of the game is so difficult, and when physics smiles on you, oh, what a smile it is! The encouragement that a good play in Rocket League can give you is viciously addictive, and it pushes you to produce those plays on a more consistent basis like in these other two games. It also does so in a much more expedient manner because you don’t have to take 40 minutes to play each game.
At the end of the day, MOBAs, Overwatch, and Rocket League are all games with tremendous hype factors, but Overwatch and Rocket League provide hype on a much less punishing and much less time consuming basis, which makes them much more fun to actually play than any MOBA that I have encountered thus far. The real difference between all of these games lies in the time factor. The latter two games, which are riding the Third Age of eSports that MOBAs helped bring about, will probably be more in line with the sorts of games that will push esports forward. Less is more, and less is more fun to watch as well as play. The key to building a successful esport lies in building a successful game, and MOBAs are simply too unwieldy right now to remain kings of esports unless they show a willingness to evolve.
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