The current esport landscape has become saturated with high-profile titles, with names like League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2 becoming synonymous with the upper echelon of global competitive games. This raises the question for lesser established developers: What makes you think you'll succeed? Game developers and leagues alike face the daunting task of putting together a game that must stand out among the masses in order to thrive in the esports industry.
Such is the state of affairs for Jack Felling and the rest of the Gears of War esports team over at The Coalition. The Canadian-based game studio previously known as Black Tusk created the Gears of War remake, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, and has been working on their next blockbuster title: Gears of War 4.
With that comes a project built from the ground up designed to revitalize the once vibrant Gears esports scene. "This is going to sound a bit funny, but we actually took many of our cues from the UFC," shared Felling, esports Producer and Game Developer at The Coalition. "The UFC does a great job of building anticipation and storylines. We want to focus on doing the same things."
The Gears of War esports narrative has been one of peaks and valleys throughout the years. The first Gears of War installment was released in 2006 on the Xbox 360 and quickly found success. Without a proper league or circuit to play on, Gears esports was birthed on the Gamebattles ladders. Off the back of player interest (in 2007 there were nearly 5,000 teams registered on the GB ladders), Major League Gaming announced that there would be a LAN tournament at MLG Meadowlands, the first of its kind.
This tournament provided an opportunity for people to put faces to a name, and for players to prove their worth. "MLG Meadowlands in '07 was where it all began. In a hot and humid parking garage, players waited in line for check-ins to enter the venue and that was when we became a real community. We were able to match faces with gamertags and we've been a hardcore scene ever since," said Loviel "Velly" Cardwell, former player and longtime Gears of War enthusiast. Alongside Halo 2 and Rainbow Six: Vegas, Gears made such an impression at its debut season that it made a return for the second season in 2008.
"Plagued by inconsistencies and frequent title updates, participation tanked and Gears of War 2 only saw one year on the circuit before being dropped."
More importantly, for Gears esports, that first season of tournaments provided international exposure to ambitious players around the globe. The second season saw more players, more teams, better production value, and more hype.
Unfortunately, it was at the end of the second season that Gears esports began its crippling decline. The successor to the popular franchise opener, Gears of War 2, was not nearly as popular of an esport title. Plagued by inconsistencies and frequent title updates, participation tanked and Gears of War 2 only saw one year on the circuit before being dropped.
Two years of deafening silence in the competitive scene were broken by the launch of Gears of War 3, but that title fared even worse than its predecessor. What was once a thriving scene filled with promise became nothing but an empty silhouette of disappointment.
The Gears of War esports scene was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition served as an attempt to kindle the once glowing embers of Gears of War, and although strides were made with the Pro League that was run by ESL, the success or failure of Gears esports rests on Gears of War 4.
The project is a international circuit that visits the likes of Paris, Mexico City, and Las Vegas and brings with it a $1 million prize pool and the promise of crowdfunding to grow the pot. Multiple open LAN events are not common in esports these days, but TC is reuniting with Major League Gaming and Gfinity to make it all happen. "We believe it's important for players to compete on LAN as much as possible - not only does it foster a sense of community, but it also allows the game to be played at the highest level of competitive integrity and allows us to capture the most amount of content as possible," said Felling. "The roots of the Gears of War competitive community has been on LANs, and so we want to go back to that in an even bigger and better way than ever before with our Gears Pro Circuit."
Even with the project they have in place, The Coalition faces a crowded market. When a new multiplayer game is launched, questions like, "Does it have esports potential?" are raised.
With the new title comes a new approach to how the game is played at a competitive level. Known for a high-intensity 4v4 Execution game type, Gears 4 introduces something they are calling Escalation, a 5v5 round based Domination style game that is punctuated by longer respawn times as the rounds go on, and the ability for teams to place different weapons across the map in between rounds.
"We want to invest not only in prize money, but also in the program infrastructure and in the game modes and features developed for eSports," said Felling.
The esports community as a whole has certainly taken notice. Major organizations such as OpTic Gaming, and NRG have already acquired teams ahead of the launch and kickoff of the circuit. "Even in our remake title (Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, a remake of Gears of War 1), we saw the highest number of teams ever in our recent ladders and tournaments," said Felling.
Gears of War 4 launches on Oct. 11.