The Importance of Conversing with Community for Esports Developers
Esports game developers have a fairly unique role in the industry, especially when it comes to community engagement and development. A standard game studio develops a product from start to finish, after which they release their game into the wild and breathe a sigh of relief. Their complicated and challenging journey has a beginning, middle, and an end, and how long these time frames last depends solely on the title they’re working on, with little to no interaction or feedback with their community.
After the game’s release, the studio moves on to a completely different project and starts over from scratch, hoping to improve where they last failed and build on what they did well. It’s a fairly logical process, at least on paper.
Esports game developers, on the other hand, brought a unique twist to the formula. The “structure” of it all remains the same, but the “end” of the development cycle isn’t the climax, but rather the beginning of an entirely different journey — one that is equally as complex and laborious.
Once their title sees the light of day and is released for the general public to “consume,” the developers take a step back but keep their ears close to the ground. Community feedback and development is arguably the most important aspect when it comes to esports titles, and far too long have game developers ignored its importance and long-term impact.
Any time you see someone raging online because the “meta is boring” or “X/Y is too overpowered,” you can be certain that the developers behind that title aren’t conversing with their community. Now, of course, everyone has an opinion, and many opinions out there are neither correct nor grounded in reality. Still, we need to take everything into consideration.
For many years, there was this notion that the developer always knows best. Such a thought, while certainly logical on paper, isn’t necessarily correct. This kind of reasoning is easy to understand: they made the game, after all, and they took it from ideation all the way to realization — a gargantuan undertaking that often requires many years and a dozen sleepless nights from everyone involved.
It is, by all means, a product of their own creation.
But that’s just one half of the equation. Once their game is released into the world, they no longer have control over what it can become, how it’ll further flourish and grow, or, conversely, degrade and fade into obscurity. One cannot go without the other, and only through a synergy of both can the final result awe its audience and, frankly, rake in enough revenue.
The community always plays an integral part; the players bring in hundreds of thousands if not millions of fresh eyes into this completed virtual world, doing, therefore, a much more thorough inspection of the game and its esports environment than the developer ever could’ve done. The players take what’s possible, they theorize, they come up with their own ideas and in-game shenanigans, and sooner or later the game starts to morph into something different. These differences might not be monumental, but they’re palpable enough to be easily noticeable.
The developers have a fairly good idea on what’s good and why — they test the game out before releasing it and therefore have a solid read on the strength of each hero/champion, the in-game economy, and any strategy that might be utilized. Despite their justified certainty, they lack the manpower of an actual community. Players often need mere days to “devour” the game and start coming up with ingenious strats and game-breaking schemes. Maybe it’s a route no one ever thought was viable, or a build that made no sense on paper but, when given the right twist, does wonders. Maybe it’s a combination of things, a secluded part of the map or an angle that gives a huge advantage to those who utilize it fully. Regardless of the method used, something always pops up.
This is a beautiful thing, this relationship between the developers and their communities. And as with any relationship, when it’s healthy, it gives the game a kind of sustenance that can sustain it for many years if not decades. It can make even a mediocre title thrive and persevere over the years, let alone a great one.
Conversely, if the game isn’t given the right attention, it tends to deteriorate at a staggering pace. In today’s day and age, our attention spans are shorter than ever. To make matters even more complicated, we’re being overwhelmed by options. Now, all of a sudden, we have dozens of exceptional games to choose from, and most of them are completely free. Of course, you can always shell out a couple of bucks if you want to support the developers and perhaps unlock an in-game cosmetic item or something similar, but you can definitely game to your heart’s content without breaking the bank.
This means we’re somewhat spoiled. If we start playing a game that isn’t as enjoyable (for whatever reason), we’ll just move on to the next thing that comes our way. For esports game developers, the margin for error is extremely slim, and most of them — unless they’re an age-old company with an existing fan base — don’t get a second chance at engaging with their community in the development process.
Consequences of Failure
But as logical as this might be, many developers are still ignoring such a (might one say) universal truth. The result? Divided communities and video games that are dwindling in every sense of the word. This is rarely a sharp decline, but rather one that’s prolonged and drawn out. Still, the signs of deterioration are always visible, especially to those who’ve seen this “phenomenon” happen before.
Shrinking communities, players migrating to other titles en masse, and unfavorable coverage online are just some of the signs and indicators of decay — this is how players air their grievances for bad balancing, illogical game changes, infrequent patches, and a lack of discourse between them and the developer.
On the one hand, such a stance might be a bit self-entitled. On the other, it exists because the players want what’s best for the game — much like the developers, but seeing how they’re the ones who are playing it on a daily basis, they deserve to have a say in the matter. Otherwise they’ll just move on, some with pomp and rage, others without uttering a single word.
The end result, however, will remain the same.
It might be a strenuous kind of relationship, but its existence is paramount if the game is to survive. Lastly, if both parties find an amicable way to talk, it’ll greatly benefit everyone involved.
Who’s Doing It Wrong?
Blizzard is an example no one should follow, at least when it comes to Overwatch. They’ve made dozens upon dozens of ill-advised and illogical decisions over the years, many of which heavily affected the game and its longevity. Overwatch, at its core, is an absolute gem, but bad balancing, infrequent updates, and a serious case of power creep made the game downright unplayable at times.
GOATS were just the tip of the iceberg and one of the more baffling moments in the game’s history. How could such a thing come into existence, when everyone — including casual and professional players alike — was severely criticizing it? Many months had to pass for Blizzard to react and in that time, thousands of players left the game and many more stopped watching the Overwatch League. One could argue that Blizzard didn’t even respond because they realized they did something wrong, but rather because they saw a sharp decline in their numbers and, therefore, revenue. Once that happens, you can be sure that everyone’s going to start listening to what the community has to say.
To their credit, once they hit rock bottom, they started improving tenfold; 2020 was the year things changed for the better. Blizzard started patching the game much more frequently, they started incorporating new modes and options the community was clamoring for, and they even listened to what players thought of the game’s meta and overall state. We saw a complete 180, but it came a bit too late in the game’s lifespan.
The whole pandemic certainly didn’t help either.
Who’s Doing It Right?
When it comes to the and conversing with the community and nurturing its development, one could argue that no one does it better these days than Riot Games with their highly popular esports title, League of Legends. Over the last couple of years, they’ve implemented dozens of options and changes players asked for, they made the skins everyone wanted (regardless if they were long overdue or not), along with the content we never knew we yearned for, and continued strengthening their already-impressive competitive scene, all the while listening to everyone’s feedback and criticism.
But it wasn’t always like this. For the longest time, Riot was considered as a stubborn company, as a gaming giant that was too rigid and unwilling to change. Then, once they adopted a different philosophy, everything shifted in a matter of months, and it felt like the whole company started skimming through Reddit on a daily basis.
Don’t like a certain champion? Write a passionate post about it and, if others agree, you might even get a direct response. Riot Games is, at least right now, the poster child of an esports game developer that’s doing things right, and watching them change so much for the better has been an absolute treat. Of course, they are by no means perfect, but they’re trying their hardest and the effort is paying off (both figuratively and literally).
The bond between esports game developers and their communities is like a two-way street when it comes to continued development of competitive games. There’s no successful product without a healthy correspondence between the two. The players don’t automatically know what’s right, but if thousands of people are complaining online, then there’s a very good chance something might be off. Furthermore, the players are the only people who truly matter. They’re the ones who are playing the game for hours on end and they’re the ones who’ll invest their money as time goes on. If there’s one target group that simply has to be satisfied, it’s the players.
Developers often have such a strict, rigid idea of what their game is that they fail to understand that it takes two to tango. The community and its development play an incredibly important role in the lifespan of a video game, with the players being the ones who decide whether or not it has what it takes to become an esport and stand the test of time.