Which Game Will be the Next Great eSport? Assessing the Contenders

COVER STORY: From Call of Duty to Smite, Kat takes stock of the games vying to become the next great eSport.

Analysis by Kat Bailey. Published 13th February 2016 17:33PM

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The competition to become the next big eSport is intense. Every major publisher has their own prospective eSports game, and the money is pouring in from every direction. With so many major players making a move into the space, it's worth asking which of them actually have a chance to make a splash.

Call of Duty

Call of Duty doesn't have a substantial streaming presence, so it's kind of flown under the radar to this point. Nevertheless, its massive audience affords it a certain degree of credibility. Like Microsoft, Activision Blizzard has announced their intention to make Call of Duty a top-tier eSport, with their first move being to purchase Major League Gaming to give themselves a built-in streaming and tournament platform.

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What are the odds: Cloud9 owner Jack Etienne is pretty sold on Call of Duty's potential: "For me, if I were to bet, of all the games that are out there, what's the biggest next esport, I think it's Call of Duty. I feel like it's a simple game, so it has that Counter-Strike feel. It's a little more complex, sometimes, like, a little harder to understand than Counter-Strike, but it's a very simple game, it's a simple shooter. It's a really young audience, but the audience is really well-connected. If you look at the top teams, OpTic and FaZe, of Call of Duty, they have massive followings on Twitter, which is really interesting to see. As far as the Twitter count, Call of Duty has hands down the biggest following."

"Where they're really stunted right now is their stream following. It's not bad, I mean, they show up on, they show up decently on Twitch, but it should be a lot higher than it is. And I think the reason that is is they were pretty much locked to one streaming platform for a while, and so, because they were locked, I think they didn't get as much exposure to streaming like the other games did. So, I think Call of Duty could be bigger than it is, and I'm kind of hoping that it starts competing with League and Counter-Strike and Hearthstone and Dota 2 for those top spots. I would call them the number five top game."

Seems like its odds are pretty good.

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Rocket League

I've already said my piece on Rocket League. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that it's a fantastic sports game with an energetic fanbase and a clear commitment to being a top-tier eSport. The next year will tell us a lot about its prospects.

What are the odds: Pretty good. If it's hurt by anything, it's by the intense competition in the eSports space. So many big players are committing now that it's tough for a resolutely independent studio like Psyonix to compete on a large scale. The game is so good, though, that it might not matter. After all, Riot was once a small studio too...

Smite.

Smite

Smite may be further along than anyone might realize. Since launching last year - around the same time as Heroes of the Storm, as it happens - Smite's eSports footprint has steadily grown. Fnatic and Cloud9 both have teams, and last month's Smite World Championship 2016 paid out $500,000 to the winner. Being third-person - as opposed to top-down - helps to differentiate it from League of Legends and DotA 2. It doesn't get the press that those two games do, but there's no denying its appeal as an eSport.

What are the odds: Hi-Rez Studios has made all the right moves, the game itself is strong and fun to watch, and it's been picked up by both the ESL and MLG. By and large, Smite is in a position to succeed. The only question is whether the market can support one more big-time MOBA. Given the seemingly bottomless appetite for the genre, I'd say, "Yes." Even if it doesn't "make it," though, it should go right on being successful.

Overwatch

Overwatch is like Battleborn in that it's an attractive, heavily-stylized class-based shooter - a natural successor to Team Fortress 2. Unlike Battleborn, though, Overwatch has no pretensions about being a full-blooded retail release. It's a multiplayer through and through, and it benefits heavily from Blizzard's resources and sense of style. Like everything Blizzard is planning, Overwatch is definitely geared toward being an eSport.

What are the odds: It all depends on how the game itself pans out. Initial impressions such that it's an extremely fun, intuitive, and fast-paced shooter, but that it might be a little too shallow for its own good. What's more, competitive players have reportedly complained that it's too easy for attacking teams to win the game's limited number of objectives. It won't be free, either - a base version will run you $40 - which may limit its ultimate appeal. Still, it's Blizzard, and even if it doesn't catch on elsewhere, the fact that it's a Blizzard game will mean that it has some kind of competitive community. Whether it can hit the heights of Hearthstone is another question entirely. It has the immediate appeal, but Blizzard seems to be putting themselves at a bit of a disadvantage with some of their decisions with this game.

Heroes of the Storm

As long as we're on the subject of Blizzard, it's worth talking about another one of their newer eSports games - Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard's mascot-driven MOBA launched to great fanfare last year; but as hard as Blizzard has pushed, it hasn't gotten a ton of traction in the eSports realm. A cursory glance at Twitch shows that about 4,211 people are watching Heroes of the Storm right now - fewer than StarCraft II. Streaming numbers aren't the be all and end all of eSports; but when you consider that a "core" eSports like Counter-Strike has about 60,000 viewers at the moment, it's reason for pause.

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What are the odds: Eh, give it some time. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive wasn't a big-time eSport right out of the gate either. Heroes of the Storm has a lot going for it - it's free-to-play, it has a terrific pedigree, and Blizzard is really throwing their weight behind it with initiatives like Heroes of the Dorm. That said, there may only be room for a couple MOBAs in the eSports space, and League of Legends and DotA 2 have a big lead on HotS. It has also faced criticism that it might be a little too streamlined, making it a less exciting prospect for advanced players. None of this is to say that HotS doesn't have a shot - just that there's a lot of work still to be done. There's still plenty of optimism around HotS, and Blizzard has shown their commitment to eSports by investing in tournament infrastructure and pumping money into the game's prize pools. It may yet become a top-tier eSport through sheer force of will.

Heroes of the Storm.
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