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Growth of eSports: Free to Play

A look into what could have caused exponential growth in eSports

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Posted on May 3rd of 2014 by Falli

With the recent release of Valve’s documentary “Free to Play” on the 19th of March 2014, we were reminded of the hardships that eSports has struggled through to grow to what it is today. The documentary suggested that eSports of this scale is very much a thing of the new, with many players even having it as their full time job or being on a payroll to sustain their lifestyle. In the US, professional eSports players are even considered athletes. This begs the question, what is it that has made eSports so popular?

eSports has been very much built from the ground up, with passionate teams and players pushing the boundaries ever higher. Whether it is the creation of leagues for players to compete, such as MLG which was founded in 2002, or platforms like Twitch TV where people are able to interact with their favourite players or casually stream for their friends and fans, the tight nit community has meant that the line between player and fan has never been thinner.

Riot’s popular free-to-play title, League of Legends, has millions of dollars set aside every year just for their prize pool. Valve Corporation’s DotA 2 is also free-to-play, where they brought the International prize pool to a high of $2,874,380. On the other hand Valve’s title Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s prize pool for events such as Dreamhack Winter were only at a high of $250,000, however the game’s popularity is still growing but not as fast as games which are free to play.

As the growth of eSports may be exponential, perhaps there are more reasons of growth than we may see. The growth of eSports could have been largely due to the concept of ‘free-to-play’, where there are no real upfront costs for someone to be able to play the game. For many individuals out there, many AAA games on consoles where you can play with your friends would require at least €50.00 to purchase. In many cases, the average modern family would not be able to keep up with games which are released on a yearly basis or any sort of these games at all. With game content aside, this could be why PC games, such as DotA 2 and League of Legends are so popular. The modern family would generally always have a PC, and the option of free-to-play would be more viable for many.

The reason I am not regarding the game content itself, is because I believe that the mere opportunity for one to indulge oneself in the game is what is vital in the growth of eSports, specifically free-to-play. Free-to-play expands to people of all incomes, hence its popularity in countries such as China, where the income gap is vast.

Ease of use: the first hour of game play (even if it is just on menus), is important for a newcomer to the game, as that is where many decide whether they like or dislike the game. This means that auto-updates and quick play menus are what encourage players to stay. Previous generations of games didn’t always have official servers or clear tutorials to explain how to do X and Y, whereas current games strive for cleaner and simpler UI. If we compare Counter-Strike: GO’s “Play now -> Select Game Type” to previous iteration system’s of browsing community servers with the expectation of knowing exactly what each server is and what to do, then we can see that simpler GUI make it easier for new players to join the gaming scene.

The learning curve: this is where the competition comes in, as the difficulty in game play encourages players to improve. Rankings and the ability to play against others online to prove your skill is higher than theirs is something more than satisfactory. Twitch allows people to follow their favourite player or even learn and respect those of professional level. Spectators who watch for these reasons or general enjoyment of the game are what help drive eSports higher with bigger prize pools and bigger events.

Opportunity, ease, and difficulty are key words to consider. Reductions in any reason to dislike a game, whether it be from pricing or the navigation into matches, helps increase the number of new players who become familiar with game concepts. This is vital because these players may spectate the game and support competitive play in various ways or put their skill to the test by even joining the competitive scene; professional players do have to start from somewhere.

I hope you have enjoyed this article. What are your views on this matter and do you think that it is largely due to free-to-play that eSports is what it is now or are there factors that I’ve missed out? Please leave your opinions in the comment section below.

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