"But can it be an eSport?"
That's the question that's asked of every competitive game these days. And with League of Legends and DotA 2 continuing to attract massive viewing audiences for their competitions, it's a pertinent one.
Halo Wars 2 is an interesting case in that regard. A follow-up to Ensemble's bold attempt to popularize real-time strategy on console, it has a distinctly casual pedigree. Nevertheless, Halo Wars 2's eSports potential is very much on executive producer David Nicholson's mind.
"I think it can be [an eSport]. But I don't think developers should set out to make eSports," Nicholson told me at a recent event. "I think you have the ability to support a game that the community feels warrants the aspiration to be competitively good at it. We should have the accessibility so lots and lots of people want to play it, we should have the depth so that those people who are very good at it can compete at the highest level. We think we build that into the game, but the community will tell us whether it's a game they want to strive towards the top of any leaderboards. It needs to be meaningful to be good at Halo Wars."
Clearly, the opportunity is there for Halo Wars 2 to make its mark on the eSports scene. It's a well-known IP with a built-in audience, and its accessibility ought to make it easy for it to accumulate a solid userbase, though it may be less on PC and more on console. Halo Wars 2 also benefits from the presence of the Halo Championship Series-the professional league sponsored by Microsoft and 343 Industries.
Nicholson nods when I mention the professional league, "I don't think it's going to be difficult for us to support the game if it moves toward an eSports-style audience."
The real question is whether Halo Wars 2 has the depth to stand-up in competitive play. Plenty of eSports look promising in the early going, but ultimately wind up getting solved by high-level players, leading to boring matches in which everyone uses the same strategy.
In that regard, Creative Assembly's strategy for developing a competitive metagame seems to be throwing out a lot of different modes and see what sticks. Asked what mode he thinks will best lend itself to competitive play, Nicholson responds, "I wouldn't rule out any of the modes. So Hearthstone is a fantastic eSports title. I've sat and watched eSports tournaments in Hearthstone. So [the card-based mode] Blitz could be. But also I think [the more traditional mode] Deathmatch. I don't think it's possible to separate any of the modes and say, 'Right, this is going to be the one.'"
With that, Nicholson seems reluctant to commit to naming any one mode. But then he begins to talk up Strongholds-a control point defense mode introduced last year at PAX. Strongholds gives players unlimited resources to build up their army, but with the caveat that it takes a bit for the units to actually be produced. That forces players to not only think about what unit mix they want, but how to divide up a finite army between the different control points. It gets even crazier when teams are playing against one another and multiple battles are erupting around the map.
Next: What Creative Assembly looks for in a successful eSport.