What we can learn from League, Dota, CS:GO and Overwatch

NALCS Playoffs Cloud9 vs Dignitas (2:36)

Cloud9 and Dignitas faceoff in the NALCS Playoffs. (2:36)

Editor's note: C. Alan Bester is a former associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and the University of Western Ontario. Parts of this article are based on a course on the Economics of Sports and Esports that he taught to undergraduates last spring.

While esports continues to grow at an explosive pace, a small number of titles continue to dominate the industry. We examine lessons from each of four major PC titles with substantial presence in esports. In each case, we discuss one positive aspect that helped (or will help) the title gain a following in esports, as well as one negative factor with the potential to limit its longevity or appeal to players and fans.

Dota 2 (Valve)

Balance dynamically

With a roster of 112 heroes available in Captain's Mode (the standard for competitive play), balancing in Dota 2 is a challenge. Lead developer Icefrog and his team have done an outstanding job in this regard.

Icefrog's balancing paradigm is built on two pillars. First, whenever possible, heroes are "buffed" (improved) by adding to their existing strengths, or "nerfed" (toned down) by accentuating their weaknesses. This keeps each hero feeling distinct and creates a rich set of tactical and strategic interactions among them. Second, while balancing in the early years of Dota 2 focused on all levels of matchmaking, as the game matured, balancing changes have been more targeted toward higher levels of play, with the idea that these changes will trickle down as players see them take effect in high-matchmaking rating (MMR) or professional matches.

This philosophy has worked: A stunning 107/112 heroes were picked during The International 2017, and 101 of them won at least one game during the event. Many of these heroes were put in multiple roles, with audiences (and the opposing team) often left wondering whether a given hero would be a mid laner, offlaner or support.

Punish bad behavior

Tough competition and the anonymity offered by online interactions are a volatile mix. Dota 2 currently has a behavior problem that is prevalent even at the highest MMRs. Players routinely give up on a match and "feed": intentionally die, destroy items or repeatedly allow their team's couriers to be killed, which gives a substantial gold bonus to each member of the opposing team. Even one player on a given team engaging in this behavior can easily give a near-insurmountable edge to opponents.

While the game does have a report system, many players don't feel it functions properly (or, in some cases, at all). Players are mostly limited to a set number of reports and will routinely be rematched with a teammate they reported in the previous game. More frustrating is that many egregious "griefing" behaviors could be identified by peer review systems used by other titles (CS:GO, League of Legends) or in theory be detected automatically from match replays through use of machine learning or other computational techniques. Today's high-MMR players are tomorrow's pros, and it's important that those players come up in the best competitive environment possible.

Counter Strike: Global Offensive (Valve)

Pacing is key

CS:GO is the NFL of esports. You have offense (terrorists) and defense (counterterrorists). Maps are divided into well-defined rounds and played in a best-of-30 format, with the first team to 16 rounds declared the victor. There's a natural halftime, as teams switch sides after 15 rounds. Each round is at most three minutes long, with a nicely partitioned buildup phase as teams decide on loadouts and take positions, then typically nonstop action once the first shots are exchanged.

The NFL is king of TV ratings among the major North American leagues for good reason. The action is consistently fast-paced but also nicely encapsulated, so a big play is always followed by a chance to digest, analyze or recognize players involved, and commercial breaks are minimally invasive. Of all current games, CS:GO's pacing lends itself best to this kind of production, so it's not surprising Turner Broadcasting chose ELEAGUE as its first flagship esports product.

Be clear with the community

Valve is a brilliant but at times enigmatic developer. Though their approach to balancing is usually excellent in hindsight, they're not at all consistent about telling the community what's going on or explaining the logic behind their decisions. This goes far beyond balancing and leads to Reddit drama over things like drop rates for cosmetic items and trading restrictions. Valve is sometimes slow to respond publicly to bugs or server issues, which can create serious confusion even in competitive settings.

Contrast this with Overwatch, a game still in its infancy and with far more severe balancing issues. Like him or not, Jeff Kaplan is an important presence who does a great job articulating the development team's design philosophy to the community. How much would CS:GO and Dota 2 drama be avoided if Valve had a similarly capable point person?

League of Legends (Riot)

Organization and promotion

With the League Championship Series and World Championships, Riot has built arguably the most stable and well-organized competitive structure in esports. In many ways, it's the only esports league that resembles traditional sports institutions, complete with scheduled competitive seasons, enforceable restrictions on player trade and contacts, rules for the sale of franchises/teams and more.

Riot is probably in a better position to do this than any other company. Unlike Valve or Blizzard, which have other titles and revenue sources to manage, from a functional standpoint, Riot is League and vice-versa. In fact, many feel Riot has taken its in-house approach too far, but that's a different discussion. There's no arguing with success, and no question that the clearly structured schedule and rules have played a huge part in LCS's explosive growth. If a particular developer isn't in a great position to help facilitate logistics for an emerging esport, why not make it a priority to hire personnel or find an outside firm who can?

Don't punish new players

While League of Legends and its competitor Dota 2 are both nominally free-to-play, the new player experience is very different. In both games, players must level their accounts by participating in unranked online matches to earn access to ranked competitive play. In League, however, only a small set (about 10 percent) of the game's 138 champions are available for free. Want to play that awesome-looking champion you just saw dominate in a professional match? It'll probably cost you.

Newer players can unlock champions with in-game currency or real money, but some game features remain locked until given account levels are reached. In the worst case, it's possible to purchase a jungling hero without realizing the account lacks access to the loadout (access to in-game items or bonus abilities) required for the hero to function well in this role. While this might help simplify the experience for those completely new to the genre, this makes for a uniquely frustrating experience for those with a background in other similar titles. Riot recently reduced the time required to reach max level by about half, but it will still take most players well over 100 hours to unlock the game's features, let alone practice and understand them.

Overwatch (Blizzard)

Developed characters and clear mechanics welcome new players

Apart from Rocket League, a tremendous but much simpler game, Overwatch's new player experience is probably the best out there for an esports title. While it had a head start (design work on much of Overwatch's cast was done as a part of canceled Blizzard MMO Titan), Overwatch's characters exude distinct and colorful personalities as well as meaningful connections to their world, drawing new players in and encouraging them to learn each hero.

In terms of gameplay, Overwatch's mechanics are clearly explained and are identified in game with excellent visual and audio cues. A diverse set of arcade modes offer alternatives for completely new or existing players who desire a different way to learn or improve, or just a change of pace. Since the game's release, the team has introduced new maps and cosmetics at a pace that has felt just right, and has kept the community updated on patches and tweaks to the game's competitive structure.

Don't neglect spectator features

As good as the Overwatch experience is for players, it is arguably awful for spectators. One of the strengths of esports is that the spectator and player experiences can be so closely aligned. However, while having a spectator client similar to the in-game interface seems to work well for Dota 2 and League, spectator-exclusive features are badly needed to help viewers follow fast-paced action in first-person shooter titles. In CS:GO, for example, paths for thrown grenades are indicated to spectators by glowing lines, and the position of enemy combatants not visible to the current-POV player are clearly indicated.

Overwatch doesn't do a great job with this. A given hero's team is indicated by the color of name and health bar, but in a game where the same hero is often played by both sides, things get confusing quickly (the development team recently announced that improvements are underway). While the spectator client does provide third-person perspectives, they are often at wide angles, and the transitions to and from first-person player perspectives are sometimes visually jarring. In fast and/or drawn-out engagements, it's nearly impossible for a spectator to follow the position of all 12 players in anything close to real time. And hero swaps (a critical part of a team's strategy) are often missed entirely.