What does next-gen mean for eSports?

eSports are booming – but new consoles and controllers will take top flight gaming even higher.

What does next-gen mean for eSports?
© Respawn Entertainment

The PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One have well and truly arrived: since launch last November both consoles have sold millions around the globe and the first big blockbuster, next-gen only titles like Batman: Arkham Knight and The Crew are starting to trickle through, stunning gamers with full HD visuals and huge open worlds to explore.

For most gamers, the coming of next-gen is nothing but good news: more power provides scope for more innovation and bigger, better games. And if games weren’t realistic enough already, the new consoles provide more finesse too. Faster processors don’t just mean better graphics, but better audio fidelity too. This is something pro gamers will have to learn to take advantage of to succeed, says the community marketing manager for gaming headset manufacturer Turtle Beach, Jeff Burchett.

“The more objects that an audio engine can use to bounce sounds off of, the more realistic the final sound output can be,” he tells Red Bull. “Let's say you're playing a shooter, and behind you, a grenade explodes. If there's a whole mess of objects between you and the explosion, the system has to limit how many of those objects can interact with the sound of the explosion to keep processing going smoothly. The more powerful the system, the more processing it has available, the more realistic the potential upper limit of the sound is.”

“What this means for competitive gaming is, for example, the difference between knowing a grenade exploded behind you and knowing that a grenade exploded behind you, but also behind a concrete wall. The difference between those two things is huge: in the first scenario, you could assume someone was throwing a grenade at you and you should probably run for cover before you get shot. In the second scenario, that grenade was probably a blind lob, and chances are you could spin around and have the drop on someone as that player came around the wall.”

But change isn’t always a good thing. Many young, up and coming pro gamers in the rapidly growing eSports industry are only just getting used to today’s equipment. With new consoles come new controllers. For all but fighting games, the Xbox 360 controller is considered the gold standard for competitive gaming, but now there’s a new gamepad to get used to and thousands of hours of muscle memory to relearn.

“The next-gen controllers are just like every other next-gen controller we pick up once a new console is out,” says Michael Chaves, the OpTic Gaming professional Call of Duty Player better known as FlamesworDsQ. “Our first thoughts are usually the same; ‘I hate these controllers! Why can’t we just stick to the ones we have been playing with for five years!’”

Michael Chaves
Michael Chaves© Red Bull

They’ll need to get used to the new Xbox One controller though, as change is afoot. Last autumn, Major League Gaming announced it was moving to Xbox One for all Call of Duty: Ghosts tournaments and it’s not alone. Gradually, you can expect all big console gaming tournaments to move to the new consoles: the Call of Duty World Championship, which takes place in Los Angeles at the end of the month, will also take place entirely on Microsoft’s new console. If pro gamers want a stake in the million dollar prize pot, they’d better get training.

The change is likely to present a few obstacles for eSports athletes however. Microsoft reportedly spent as much a $100m developing the new gamepad, with its flatter face and more accessible D-pad. But it’s not without its problems for the pros, not least the absent shortcut ‘paddles’ on the back, large buttons that duplicate other front facing keys, which many hardcore players have come to rely on.

The new Xbox One controller
The new Xbox One controller© Microsoft

“The reception of the Xbox One by pro gamers has been great so far – they absolutely love the console. The controller has been a bit challenging to adapt to though, because it doesn’t have any paddles,” says Hilmar Hahn, the product marketing manager for peripherals at gaming accessory giant Razer, which makes pro level controllers including the Sabertooth for Xbox 360.

“Especially on a competitive level, those paddles can make the difference between winning and losing a game.” That should change in time though. “Since Razer’s mantra has always been to support pro players as much as possible, this is something we are looking into as well,” he adds.

“Now I do like the new design of the controller, but since the face is much more flat now it makes clawing for me a little bit more difficult,” says Chaves. Clawing, for those unfamiliar, is when you place your right index finger over the controller to hit the X, A, B, and Y buttons, allowing you to keep your right thumb on the analog stick so you are in total controller of your character. Yes, there are physical techniques to pro level gaming, not just in-game tactics.

“Another feature I would like them to re-do is the bumpers and thumb sticks,” he continues. “The bumpers [which you might know as L2 and R2] don’t feel responsive. I feel Microsoft can take another look at the Xbox 360 controller and use the design of the bumpers and sticks from the Xbox 360 controller.”

If Microsoft won’t, you can bet others will. Aftermarket peripherals designers have spent years refining their controllers for pro gamers. Mad Catz, for instance, based its official MLG Pro Circuit controller for 360 and PS3 on the needs of Call of Duty PS3 players and hardcore Halo players on Xbox. But it’s too early to say what next-gen games will dictate the inevitable next-gen controller sequels, says Mad Catz’ community and sponsorship manager, Mark Julio, who works closely with pro gamers.

“We are in a transition period with the new consoles and have yet to see where the eSports leagues will take it,” he tells Red Bull, adding that the company is always listening to the community to adapt to their needs.

One thing Mad Catz do anticipate however: eSports becoming even more popular. There’s one little blink-and-you’ll-miss-it button on the DualShock 4 controller for PlayStation 4 however which won’t just change eSports – it’ll take it mainstream. The subtle share button just above the D-pad lets you save up to 15 minutes of gameplay, so you can show off your killstreak, headshot or flawless victory. It’s a concept that’s been around for years, but it’s never been so convenient, or required so few cables. Microsoft provides for similar services on Xbox One and both allow gamers to share their gameplay live over gaming social network Twitch – as well as watch that of others.

“There are a lot of new features that both PS4 and Xbox One possess that help change the landscape of competitive gaming and how it’s viewed by the public,” says Julio. “One of these things is the new ability to share, stream and interact with others online, which is happening at an unprecedented rate compared to last-gen.”

It’s this sort of seamless integration on next-gen which means you can bet countless more will get involved and fall into eSports’ exciting orbit.

What about the glorious PC gaming master race?

At a glance, these console advances don’t threaten to change the nature of PC-based eSports, strategy-based games like StarCraft 2 and MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games such as League of Legends and Dota 2, whose fast and furious, cursor-controlled antics pull in tens of millions of livestream viewers for big money tournaments. Twin thumbsticks can’t compete with a mouse. Or can they?

Gaming giant Valve – the creator of hits like Half-Life and Portal – is hoping to crash the console party with an entirely new concept, the Steam Machine, Linux-based gaming PCs that bring all of the games available on the Steam PC download service to the big screen TV in your living room.

© Valve

It’s a great concept, if you’re a fan of first-person shooters at least. But what about the games reliant on mouse and keyboard combos? There’s a reason the cerebral StarCraft 2 isn’t on PS3 and Xbox, after all – gamepads lack the pixel precision needed to command alien hordes.

Enter the Steam Controller, Valve’s new take on the gamepad; designed to provide the same level of accuracy as PC inputs on a flat surface, which will ship with every Steam Machine when they go on sale later this year. Instead of the standard twin thumbsticks, the Steam Controller sports two optical trackpads for your thumbs, alongside customisable keys. It’s a revelation, says Stuff magazine associate editor Will Dunn, who has tried a prototype at Valve’s Washington State HQ.

“The best way I can describe it is that it's like using an invisible trackball. It looks like you're just going to be smearing your thumbs over the flat pads, but the way the lobes are curved makes your thumbs stand on point, like chubby little ballet dancers and the haptic feedback makes it feel like you're spinning and stopping a ball with each thumbtip. It's a lot more subtle than it looks,” he says. “It does take some getting used to and there will be some gamers who give it five minutes and send it back, but I found myself playing Portal fairly well within about ten minutes. Another hour and I think I'd be as good or better than I am with an Xbox controller.”

Valve also makes Dota 2, one of the most popular eSports in the world right now, so you would think the Steam Controller might be designed for eSports – but don’t get your hopes up too high. Surprisingly, Dunn says Valve isn’t aiming to satisfy pro gamers with the solution however, so don’t expect the likes of Dota 2 world champions Alliance to turn up to tournaments lugging Steam Controllers with them anytime soon.

“I asked Valve this question when I went to visit them and they said it isn't as accurate and for tournament play, professional Counter-Strike players won't be switching,” Dunn says.

A jump in creativity

On the face of it then, PC eSports won’t change that much with next-gen, but it’s not just the controllers that are changing. It’s the games themselves. Multi-platform releases mean that changes in consoles will come to affect all of eSports, whatever genre you favour, be it shooters, strategy, fighting or even FIFA.

Just as important is all that new hardware potential is the chance new platforms provide for a new start, for weary developers to draw a line in the sand. With every new console, developers must push the hardware to its limit and produce the best games that they can. “Changing up game modes and structures is interesting because it brings new life to the gamers who are tired of playing the same old game mode,” says Chaves.

© Electronic Arts

People’s attentions are waning and yes, Call of Duty sales each year are slipping slightly too. A new generation of consoles provides an opportunity to go back to the drawing board, which is precisely what Vince Zampella, the creator of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series, did after leaving Activision in 2010 under acrimonious circumstances.

He set up Respawn Entertainment with fellow Infinity Ward co-founder Jason West and got to work on Titanfall, a new type of multiplayer game that’s half traditional shooter, half mechs fighting the Megazord from Power Rangers, with a new focus on verticality in levels – you’re not just restricted to a map’s ground in the 12 player carnage. Kill enough players and you can summon your very own Titan to jump in and blast around the level, leaving destruction in your wake.

From the power-up burn cards you can play before each respawn to the clever relationship between your pilot and your Titan – while a Titan is powerful, it also attracts enormous amounts of attention because look at it – there are new mechanics at play in Titanfall we simply haven’t seen before on any console.

Ian 'Enable' Wyatt
Ian 'Enable' Wyatt© Red Bull

“I love Titanfall, I got to play the beta a little bit and I couldn't get off of it. It's extremely fast-paced, super fun for everyone and a breath of fresh air for FPS,” says Red Bull pro gamer Ian ‘Enable’ Wyatt, one of the world’s top Halo players.

Titanfall will put the Xbox One back on the map after the PS4’s early sprint start, there’s no question: reviews have been glowing, the game has shot up the charts to become the biggest selling title of 2014 so far, and even doubled Xbox One sales in some countries.

Here’s the thing though: Titanfall hasn’t been built with eSports in mind. It’s a team-based game and with a heavy reliance on artificial intelligence to power Titans and hordes of bots or ‘minions’, it leaves much control out of the hands of gamers – so not ideal for tournament play, then.

"We're interested in what competitive players think when the game ships and it's definitely something we’ll look into, but not something that's been our primary focus," explains Respawn community manager Abbie Heppe. That may change in the future however.

Xbox One
Xbox One© Microsoft

“Our focus has been to get a really solid foundation out. A game that is really fun, that will attract players and keep them playing for a really long time. That said, we have a ton of interest from the eSports community and I know we’re not going to be shipping with all the features that they’re going to be wanting in the game, but we’re in our first iteration. A lot of the games that have developed good eSports features and the competitive community are ones that required multiple iterations to get that done and to build in those things. So while that couldn’t be a priority for us here, we’re definitely listening to all of the feedback.”

In other words, it’s not hard to imagine Respawn is already at work on DLC (downloadable content) or a sequel that better caters to pro-gaming, potentially making desirable power-ups much harder to acquire. Some elements will have to change, says Wyatt. “I think for competitive though, the game will have to be altered a bit including deathmatch – removing of the Titans or making them harder to get, for instance.”

© Activision

In the meantime, much of the eSports focus will remain on the types of games we’re already playing by the tens of millions. MLG may have switched consoles and controllers, but it still hasn’t changed games yet.

“Personally, I don't think we'll see a change in the types of games played competitively on the next-gen consoles. I think it is going to be dominated by FPS games,” says Wyatt.

But there’s no denying that first person shooters themselves are changing with next-gen. Wyatt thinks that the next Halo game for Xbox One will tinker with the formula considerably.

“I am beyond excited for the next Halo, I think it has the potential to be a great game. I think it is going to focus on being more fun for the casual players, but also improve in the competitive aspect – at least I am hoping.”

Then there’s Destiny, which is headed to Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3 and PS4 in September and promises to use the power of the cloud to combine shooters with massively multiplayer online worlds and provide on the fly online match making. It too could prove a popular new way to play competitively.

“I don’t think there’s anything in the design of Destiny that will preclude competitive gaming from happening, it’s just a matter of having the time to provide the customisation they want,” Bungie president Harold Ryan told Red Bull last year.

In other words, eSports will evolve, right along with our tastes, and we can’t wait. Neither can Wyatt. “It would be awesome to see something new being played competitively on the next-gen consoles.”