Note: My observations are largely from Vietnam market in particular and Asia market in general. Those might not apply well in international level. Please feel free to leave comments, though.
Many hard-core gamers in Asia have known of and liked e-sport titles such as World of Tanks, League of Legends, DotA 2... But is there any traits in common of those games, from the design and business perspectives?
e-Sport started long under the name of competitive gaming and small- to mid-size tournaments in 1970s, then it went internet-based in 1990s. However, it is bloomed only in the last 15 years or so with professional tournaments, players, prize pools, stream integration...Thus, to be fair, it is hard to pin down key trends in the field, and subjectively determining which games are suitable for e-sport development is even harder. In such infant and robust industry, today's features may be fundamentally changed tomorrow.
In game design
Around the world, main e-sport-like titles ranged from games in console such as Tekken, Street Fighter... series (usually called competitive gaming in tournaments) to PC-based recognized e-Sport games. They did share key traits, but on overall, I went more on PC renowned titles to see if we could find a current generic pattern of a successful e-sport.
Player versus Player
This is, I believe, the most common ground at this time for the new field. In other sports, some are still retaining record-recognized or performance-based form of competition (Cycling, Aerobatics...) but e-sport is purely confrontation, players versus players battle. I have not seen any e-sports that decide win-lose based on performance yet (currently, only human is capable of that), while in record-recognized games, there might be some small friendly competition (want a Swing Copters friendly tournament?), but no one would care about professional games.
An interesting notion that I found, this PvP thing maybe one of reasons makes e-sport currently available to a small list of game genres: RTS (Age of Empire series, Starcraft series...), FPS - TPS (Counter-Strike: Global Offense, Call of Duty...), MOBA (DotA 2, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm...), Sport (FIFA Online) and other console-based action games. However, I believe this is a trend, not a fixed rule, and really, I expect break-throughs with Racing games, RPG games... joining the "e-sport" league in near future.
So, if you would like to try to make an e-sport-focused title, find the PvP elements and strengthen it. Of course, you may choose to play safe by making it a mode, accompanied with another mainstream game mode. Like DotA? Yes, a custom map from Warcraft 3 - RTS title with amazing campaigns. Like Call of Duty series? We really can't miss their single player mode. Just a handful of games originally designed with PvP as its only main USP, though. It is a positive sign, too. Meaning that your RPG is very possible to add new e-sport elements. In fact, PvP in WoW can also be considered one already. It just that the thing isn't popular yet (as a e-sport), and there is just few games step up to WoW way.
Although this is a bit off-topic, I observed that Asian gamers tend to have stronger competitive mind in games, they love challenges, topping charts, boss fights, PvP... and thus, often become excel in e-sport, which can be easily proven with the domination of Asian gaming clubs in international tournaments. However, this specification only stays true in PC. With banning of console in China and other SEA countries until recently, the competitive gaming in console there is greatly dispersed.
Teamplay and socializing features
Another trend in current e-sports games is co-op gameplay. It is not that solo matches of DotA 2 doesn't yield curiosity or games like FIFA Online is out of league. It just that professional plays prefer team matches.
This trait, in my personal view, is based on one key root cause that also governs PvP thing above: socializing needs in games. Iconic e-sport games are masters of virality, socializing features and co-op gameplay. They have stand-alone, fully featured and well-promoted team-play modes, matchmaking/internet play system..., on which they built, or let the community build itself, loyalty fanbases. DotA, Starcraft II had Battle.NET, Counter-Strike, Quake, Doom... possessed excellent internet/LAN game modes since very early time. You played it, you found it interesting, you would find ways to share it to your friends and, voila, a complete tool-set for you to play together, add new friends, devise new strategies... Isn't it fun? The entertaining value of the game, thus, is maintained and renewed by the friend-based community itself, and save publishers/developers' effort a lot if you are doing it right.
Obviously, community building is done most part by the publishers, but really, game developers can assist much with a platform, socializing features like leaderboards, friend management...
Player-skill based gameplay
Why do you admire that League of Legends professional team and willing to watch their plays, join some gambling for their wins and buy their merchandises? I can safely guess main reason being that they are better than you (in skills). With a same hero, a same combat situation, they handled better, they performed well and win! Yes, game is virtual, but you just admire real person's skills, not their characters. To pursue e-sport, you would need players with skills, not characters with publisher-dependent items or pure luck.
This maybe why RPG have not walked into the e-Sport list. Most RPG titles I know (in Asia) followed the pattern of progressive missions laid out by game designers, and a huge inventory of items and equipment that improve the characters' powers. Players just role-play in the character form and (the character) become strong. This model quickly inflates the experience level and economies, but not player skills, making clear difference between new and poor characters, but not skillful - unskillful players. Also, it creates great dependency in publishers. New missions? Wait for developer - publishers. New gameplay? Wait for developers. In some games, RPG-maker implements lottery based systems which further over-powers rich and lucky characters. Yes, I do aware that main point of a RPG is painting a life-simulated environment with inflated economies, poor-rich difference, unfair politics, luck… but still, it kills off player-based content, which is enormous, and thus, no one admire. (except admiring the game designer? And no, simply being rich isn't something admirable)
You might argue that this is one of basic differences that defines the genre and no RPG can integrate features of such characteristics without losing the "role-playing" part? Personally, I counter that. It is just the matter of designing.
I favorite an old MMORPG space shooter with sci-fi theme named Space Cowboys. It is developed by Masang Soft (Korea) and published in North America by Suba Games. It is a classic RPG game with missions, grinding mobs, vast equipment system… But:
- The storyline revolves around two fighting factors, each occupies some maps and you can encounter players enemies anytime, not to mention PvP-invitation feature.
- Second, at determined time, usually each week, there is Mothership war, with the participation of almost all players, one side protects the giant ship (called the Mothership) and the other tries to kill it.
- Beside, daily and weekly gaming consist of wars to attack or protect specific strategic points, that are randomly spawned, or neutral cities.
- Moreover, there is an Arena for team battle ranging from 1vs1 to 12vs12, forbidding the use of some super items to create more balanced fights.
Of course, this game could not be called an e-sport yet, since there are a lot of character-dependent features unbalancing small battles. But with bigger team fights, Mothership war, Strategic Point war or Arena war, the results are more and more dependent on players skill, strategies and teamwork. Nevertheless, one thing that this game does, is including PvP elements from very early with opposing forces and constant wars, it is the foundation for an e-Sport. I suppose that if they make the Arena or Mothership war stand-out, becoming a separate mode with balancing adjustments, it could be very well an e-sport potentials (we have few space shooter sci-fi games that enable e-sport, right?).
In Business and Operations
Beside game design aspects that enable e-sport, lots of other elements are required, from business perspective, from a game to be a real e-sport.
Promotion and introduction
This sounds obvious, right? Well, not really. It depends wholly on whether or not you want an e-sport. Some games, I believe, can really be promoted to competitive gaming and international tournaments environment. But their publishers chose a lighter tone, went with standard game business or simply paid no attention to it at all.
Capcom, in a sense, is a very strong in console-based action combat competitive gaming. Their series, Street Fighter, is well-known and hugely supported in North America and Japan. It features (of course) PvP elements and obviously player skill-based. Yet, they have never went e-sport. Part of their reason is, the Japanese government is strictly forbidding any form of play-for-money activities. But personally, I think that Capcom believed normal retailing business is successful enough, and they just don't pay attention to e-sport, or maybe there were other reasons, though.
On one hand, I think in community-emerging field such as e-sport, over self-promotion could be harmful. However, publishers can very well apply pull marketing, or setting up support for the e-sport games, like streaming features, internet/LAN play, starting with small tournaments… and so on.
This could be a very important decision for publishers/developers to work on an e-sport-enabled game. Deferring from standard Free-to-play or Premium model, DotA 2 is making part of its profits and fame from big tournaments. E-sport games are usually based on big fanbases and tournaments need viewership more than anything else, so making a lot of tricks to sell IAPs may not work anymore. E-sport publishers/developers need new monetization strategies that is unobtrusive, and help the game FEEL even more "free" to quickly grow their bases.
Also, holding international tournaments is a business itself, and sparklingly different from normal game business, which might prove some difficulties if you are not ready. People are paying to watch their favorite teams/players playing, they are spending on gambling in results, advertisers are paying for your shows on TV or streaming channels, merchandise goods can be boosted in sale, too, while you are paying for holding the events. Managing all that costs and revenue sources outside the game, publishers/developers of e-sport games have to care about new indexes and metrics. It is more difficult to track causal relationship of decisions and pinning down which road to take. It also becomes a sport, and game design or game business changes could very well wreck the whole scene of community just after an update.
Personally, I think maintaining close contact with gaming clubs is the most important. In the end, it's all about community.
This is an emerging field, I think. Maybe it will become the next thing in gaming and its characteristics will be thoroughly researched, it could be recognized as an official sport soon, titles could be extended to other genres, more gaming clubs, streaming channels might be founded. Or, it might die out just like another trend. Being aware of this is critical before you jump in, since making a game that e-sport-enabled is not as hard as making it a true recognized e-sport, while there are thousand of uncertainties, and, unlike other sport, this 'sport' can be changed, and, at this time, 'die out' after a decade of success or so.
P/S: I really waiting for new, unimaginable trends like e-sport in mobile or virtual reality devices.