Three games that shaped modern day Esports.
Esports is being pushed further and further into the realm of legitimacy, thanks to several key flagship titles. Some of these games include League of Legends, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Overwatch, Dota 2, and Smash 4. These games however are not chosen at random to be the face of esports, rather their addicting gameplay, high skill ceiling, and immense depth have compelled players to sink thousands of hours into them. The balance of engaging gameplay and competitive mechanics injected into these games is no fluke either; as over a decade of precursor legendary esports titles have lead and inspired the inception of these modern day games. Today we will explore the history of three past esports games, their gameplay, their competitive scene, and how their legacy impacts video games today.
Super Smash Bros Melee If your childhood extended or started in this century, chances are you’ve played, or at the very least heard of the popular game series: “Super Smash Bros.”. All four official Smash Bros. titles have seen critical commercial success, and the majority heralded as a mainstay in not only the fighting game community, but also the couches of casual fans across the globe.
One of Smash Bros most elegant aspects is its duality, where it walks the line between being easy to play, while maintaining a high skill ceiling for competitive players to thrive. Particularly the second entry in the series, “Super Smash Bros Melee”, is filled to the brim with complex movement techniques and hidden abilities, some intentional and some as a sort of accidental genius. These complex movements can require on average, five or six unique, specifically coordinated and timed inputs, in less than a second. Characters such as Fox and Falco are based on high input strings, and players who can pull them off are rewarded, as both characters are considered top tier.
Like most other fighting games, Melee has an active, vocal, and passionate community. Melee was released in 2001, and as such players could not simply find opponents online, instead they had to go to meet in person with friends to play. Over several years, as larger and larger groups of friends played and practiced together, different regions and pockets of players emerged, each with a unique reigning champion. Thanks to the tight knit and passionate community, the current Melee competitive player count exceeds any other Smash game to this day, 17 years after its release. Notable players who are hailed as Melee legends include: Ken, Korean DJ, PC Chris, Mew2King, Armada, Mango, PPMD, and Hungrybox.
Many of the core innovations made by the Smash franchise were developed in the first Melee. HSEL currently features Smash 4 (and soon to be Smash Ultimate when it releases), and many of the elements that bring Smash 4 to life are drawn off of Melee. In order to understand Melee impact on Smash 4, we also have to understand its relationship with the third title in the series, Super Smash Bros Brawl. Brawl was the highly anticipated sequel to Melee, and was released in January of 2008. Much to the dismay of competitive Melee fans, Brawl was a hollow shell of the complex game Melee is. The game was slower paced, lacking in balance, depth, and was riddled with poor game design choices (e.g tripping). Several years after Brawls release, the community collectively agreed Brawl was not too be the future of Smash, and mostly reverted back to Melee. Some fans even went as far as to mod Brawl, and create a competitively viable version titled “Project M”, and has gone on to be surprisingly successful for a fan project. As they were designing Smash 4, Nintendo realized after the Brawl debacle they simply could not have a repeat scenario, and looked to Melee as inspiration. The result is a fast-paced well-polished Smash game that harkens back to Melees insane speed, but eases the player into the experience with less intense input strings. This new game was a hybrid of Melee and Brawl, featuring at impressive roster of 49 heroes. Smash 4 in many players eyes, has been a successful title, being featured at many major tournaments, and a gateway to a countless number of newcomer fans.
Super Smash Bros Melee (2001) Super Smash Bros for Wii U (2014)
Counter Strike 1.6 and Counter Strike Source
CS 1.6 like Super Smash Bros Melee is truly a relic of a different era of gaming. The first Counter Strike game released, simply called “Counter Strike”, was released in the distant year of 1999, and was bought out by Valve in 2000. Under Valves vision, the final version, 1.6, was released. Ever since, 1.6 has been shaping the landscape of the tactical First Person Shooter genre. 1.6 was not the first tactical FPS (Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six was released in 1998), however it is the first to gain a large esports following, and has gone down in history as the defining game of that era and genre.
1.6 is known for introducing and pioneering many of the unique gameplay features and maps that Counter Strike is known for. The game is played with two teams of five, each team racing to reach 16 round wins. Rounds are won by the terrorists via successfully planting and blowing up a bomb, or by eliminating the opposing team. Gameplay featured slower paced, tactical gameplay with heavy emphasis on team cohesion, correct usage of a myriad of different grenades, and extremely punishing gunfights, that usually last only seconds. This style of gunfighting heavily contrasted the then popular arena shooter style of gameplay, which had a heavier emphasis on complex movement techniques and a high health pool. Counter Strike was more grounded in realism, with the vast majority of guns killing in 1-2 shots. In addition to these elements, another distinct skill-based characteristic introduced in 1.6, was the monetary system. After each round, each player was given a certain sum of money, based on the previous rounds success (or lack of success). Things such as wins, losses, kills, defuses, plants, and losses in a row are all factors that play in to how much money was received. At the beginning of the round, players could choose how they wished to use their money, if they wanted to buy the top of the line-gear that round, or save for the next round. Knowing what to buy, when, and when to save, is yet another facet in the ever so complex gem that is Counter Strike. In addition, all of the maps featured in the current CS:GO competitive map pool originated from 1.6. Although CS:GO has brushed up the maps with small tweaks and re-designs, the overall layout and flow of the map remains the same.
Like Melee, 1.6’s epsort scene had humble beginnings. The smaller, but passionate community worked with the development team to try and solidify a set map pool and rules. Early LAN tournaments such as CPL featured a much wider range of maps, and a different ruleset. Through trial and error, the modern rules and maps were born.
In 2004, valve released Counter Strike: Source and Steam; hand in hand. Before Steam, players had to manually download a large update off a single server, cutting down playtime for days at a time as thousands of players around to globe struggled to get the latest patch. With the invention of steam, players games would automatically update. Source was not as revolutionary as 1.6, changing some of the maps, grenade size and physics, bunny hopping, and wall bang potential. A unique trait of the Counter Strike community that stays true even to this day, is its international representation. Big esports titles at the time were usually only popular in 1-2 regions, however Counter Strike had strong representation in 3: North America, South America, and Europe (western and nordic countries). Forget East Coast versus West Coast, early Counter Strike LANS were continent versus continent. This was especially rare in the age of dial-up internet, and far less public interest in esports or internet culture.
Team Fortress 2 Unlike Melee and 1.6, Team Fortress 2 (TF2) is from a younger generation of games, albeit still very old compared to present day titles. In fact ,TF2 recently celebrated its 11th birthday. TF2 as many may know, was everyone's favourite zany, random, and explosive casual class based shooter, with a fanatical devotion to hats with a thriving economy to boot. What many may not realize however, was underneath the glossy cartoony explosions and gore, was a fast paced, well refined, hybrid blend of arena and class based shooter that has molded the class based shooters of today.
The series had humble beginnings as a mod for Quake, in the form of the 1999 game, “Team Fortress Classic”. It featured 10 playable classes, each with their own distinct traits and abilities. The game gained some traction, and after a long development period, Team Fortress 2 was released in 2007 to standing ovation. The game was heavily polished, open for community content creation, ran smoothly, and most importantly, had addicting gameplay. The game featured the core 9 classes, all with unique personalities, and a range of different maps and gamemodes to play them on. After a few years of testing, a minority in the community wanted to elevate TF2 to a more competitive status, and thus the esports scene was birthed. Ever since then, different formats, maps, gamemodes, and hero compositions have be tried and tested, until the common “sixes” format was found. For the majority of this decade, 6’s has been the primary format for competitive play. It features as the name implies, two teams of six squaring off on a select few control point maps, with some King of the Hill maps sprinkled in. The optimal composition found was two Soldiers, two Scouts, one Demoman, and one Medic (some classes have a cap on 1 or 2). Playstyles varied between soldiers and scouts, so there is still some dynamics between teams. In certain scenarios, one scout will switch to an off class such as Sniper or Spy.
The competitive scene in Team Fortress 2 has been alive almost as long as they game is, which is to say a very long time. The one issue that has continually plagued the community and hindered its growth, is the lack of support from Valve. Ironically the biggest barrier for TF2 blowing up as a game, is it’s developers. Aside from new casual content such as weapons, hats, maps, game modes etc. Valve has never had much direct contact or even acknowledged the growing and patient competitive scene. They seem to be content with milking the cow that is the freemium model (free to play games with built-in cosmetic microtransactions), which has been heavily profitable. The content the competitive community wanted so desperately instead, was a built in competitive ladder system, akin to what pretty much the rest of the multiplayer gaming market was sporting. These days, any new AAA multiplayer title will have some form of a ranked system, and for good reason. A competitive ladder gives an incentive, a goal, for players to aim for. It also allows players bragging rights, and a way to compare themselves; as well as good players to rise to the top and prove themselves. Needless to say, a working and well functioning competitive system is crucial to maintaining the health of a games competitive scene.
The story of TF2 esports community and history is somewhat of a tragedy, a regretful glimpse into the past of what could have have been. In the beginning Valves lack of recognition meant nothing, why would they acknowledge an up and coming scene? The community powered through and set up various leagues and website such as TF2center, ESEA leagues, UGC leagues, and other online resources. As the years passed by, semi-international LANS such as ESEA finals and the Insomnia series began to crop up, and yet still little to no interaction from Valve. Players were so desperate for some support from Valve, in terms of prize pool, advertising, or even a simple acknowledgement. This drove top leaders in the community to write a letter, a proposition to the TF2 development team, outlining their needs and concerns for the game, as well as what can be done to fix them. Following in trend, Valve gave no response. After this demoralizing time and the years to follow, the game began to dip from its peak, and stagnant. Community members such as STAR, Jerma, and Muselk began to hunt for new waters as the game staled, and pro players such Muma, Clockwork, ShaDowBurn, and seagull left for Overwatch. The already small minority began to shrink even more, and players began to lose hope. Valve did end up releasing a competitive mode in the summer of 2016 in the “Meet your match” update, and was met with an incredibly crushing wave of disappointment. The mode failed to do meet its quote, and in fact did not allow players to meet their match, and failed on multiple levels. Today, the TF2 community is a remnant of what it was, and an even shallower husk of what it could’ve been. A group of core competitive players still actively organize tournaments and other events, but not nearly at the level of tier 1 esports.
TF2’s fall from grace is not in vain however, as the games long lasting competitive community has molded the landscape of the now popular class-based shooter genre. Games such as Paladins and Overwatch have borrowed not just in-game mechanics, but many of the community members actually grew and originated from TF2. In interviews, Blizzard game developers have stated they studied TF2 intensely, and used this information to guide the design process. This is evident when making comparisons with the hero pool, heroes such as Pharah and Drogoz, resemble the same mechanics as the Soldier. Similar parallels are drawn with the Sniper and with Widowmaker and Kinessa, as they all share the same charge mechanic. Hypothetically if the entire design process of Overwatch and Paladins were somehow revealed, it would be an almost absolute certainty that more than surface level character design has been borrowed from TF2. The afformented ex-TF2 players turned Overwatch players are not just things Overwatch borrowed, but in a sense lured over to the other side of the river. Other converted TF2 players are: Custa, Harryhook, Taimou, Harbleu, Mangachu, Tvik,Zappis, Knoxx, Zebbosai, and Big Boss Pine. These players are all performing in high level tier 1 and tier 2 Overwatch, proving that TF2 was really in a sense, a sacrifice that birthed the titan of an esport that is Overwatch.