This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
For an entire generation of players, there is nothing sweeter than scoring the winning kill in a Halo death-match and leading your team to victory. With the first-ever Halo World Championship, Microsoft is making a concentrated effort to get these good vibes out of the living room and into a giant eSports arena. But does Halo 5: Guardians, the franchise’s latest installment, have what it takes to make it as the next major eSport?
Halo 5’s executive producer Josh Holmes certainly thinks so. Holmes recently told the gaming site Polygon that they are ready to “fully [embrace] that legacy with the biggest investment in Xbox eSports history.” And Microsoft, the game’s publisher, is putting its money where its mouth is. The company has invested $1 million in prize money for the world championships, with an additional $700,000 raised through crowdfunding, positioning the tournament as a huge event. But funding and throwing a successful tournament with lots of players is only the first step toward transforming a popular game into a successful eSport.
There’s certainly a growing audience for the Halo World Championship to grab. A Juniper Research report published this month forecasts the eSports audience will more than double to 310 million annual viewers by 2020. Today, the NFL reached 220 million people around the world, almost half the audience Formula 1 racing attracts. That fame is fed by fans who attend competitions and tune in via the Internet. “It’s not just about how many people play the game,” said Rahul Sood, the CEO and founder of Unikrn, an eSports company based in Seattle. “The biggest challenge is generating viewership.”
With Microsoft’s vast reservoir of current and retired Halo players, building an audience shouldn’t be much of a stretch. For many of today’s gamers, deathly shootouts between Xbox’s patented red versus blue skirmishes are a defining videogame experience that’s etched in their memories. “It is easy for a mainstream audience to watch a Halo game and understand what is going on compared with watching a game of Defense of the Ancients (DOTA),” Sood explained. “Microsoft has that going for them.”
The game has the potential to become one of the most accessible eSports by virtue of the fact that so many people are intimately familiar with it. The problem, however, is that, over the past 15 years, the modern landscape of competitive games has already found its tentpole titles, such as Counter-Stike: Global Offensive, which currently presides as the hot shooter. This means Halo is jumping into the bustling world of eSports from the sidelines.
What’s more, as a general rule of thumb, eSport fans prefer the intense strategy of multiplayer online battle arena games like Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storms to the visceral skill of first-person shooters. In that light, banking on Halo to capture the hearts and minds of eSport fanatics is a bit of a gamble. Players are a very fickle bunch, and the games they flock to have little to do with marketing pushes.
“It’s weird because you can’t predict the audience,” says George Woo, who is the marketing manager of the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship. He has helped manage dozens of eSports competitions in different parts of the world. “You have a product you think the audience will love, and they don’t. You have some product that you never think would make it, and it’s popular.”
To his point, Rocket League came out of the woodwork to make a splash in 2015. “As a publisher, you develop a game, you throw it in the market, and you hope people will gravitate to it,” Woo explained. If companies are lucky? “Boom, you’re Riot,” he said, referring to the developer of League of Legends, which is unparalleled in its eSports popularity.
One of the greatest challenges that Microsoft faces in creating the next big eSport is that Halo 5 is, well, Halo. “A few years ago, videogames were released kind of like how movies were released, where it came out, a lot of people watched it, and then people started slowly forgetting about it,” said Michal Blicharz, vice president of pro gaming at the Electronic Sports League. “Now we have free-to-play games where people are engaged with a single game for years on end and never get bored of them. That entirely changed the eSports landscape.”
While Halo attracts a dedicated following who plays religiously, the series still adheres to the old blockbuster movie lifecycle: A new game in the franchise comes out every few years and creates a bunch of publicity, before gradually fading into a memory. In order to survive as an eSport, it will need more than a world class tournament to attract players. Halo will need a new approach of constantly improving, balancing and updating the game to keep fans and players interested, according to Blicharz.
This time around, the developer 343 Industries is taking a constantly evolving approach to multiplayer, pledging to provide the consistent improvements and tweaks that eSports need to grow and breathe. This will be particularly helpful as the game attempts to entice players into the arena. The finals in March will host the best of the best, inviting sixteen Halo teams from five different regions around the globe. With such a massive prize pool at stake, players are likely to bring their A-games, and the crown will be hotly contested.
With help from developers and event planners, Halo players can focus through their iron sights to win the big cash prize, while fans who love to watch eSports will be turned on to a new delight.