Can Splatoon ever be an eSport?

Nintendo may face a slick uphill slope drenched in paint unless it makes these changes.
Splatoon
Splatoon © Nintendo
By Ben Sillis

Gaming giant Nintendo is no stranger to eSports – it’s helping to foster a seriously competitive scene around Super Smash Bros– but it’s taken the intervention of another Japanese company to launch its latest multiplayer title, Splatoon, as a top-flight tournament with a prize pot to match.

Last week, Japanese telco and online gaming company Kadokawa Dwango (Nintendo is a small stakeholder) announced plans to host a major Splatoon tournament, with qualifiers in cities across Japan culminating in a grand final in January 2001; more than $1 million in prize money will be up for grabs.

It’s the highest-profile Splatoon tournament since the squid-shooter was featured as an event game at the Nintendo World Championship at E3 back in June, and the first to encourage the creation of pro teams dedicated to covering the walls with paint. Fans of the game – arguably the most compelling reason to buy a Wii U yet – will appreciate the coverage, especially if North American and European regional finals are also added. But though Splatoon could make a fascinating eSport to watch, it’s not without its flaws: if Nintendo wants to create a scene as vibrant as the Smash crowd, it’ll need to make the following changes to the game.

© Nintendo

Voice chat

Easily the biggest roadblock to Splatoon’s place in the rotation at top tournaments run by the likes of ESL, Gfinity and MLG, the lack of voice chat in the shooter cripples any coherent gameplay. To come out on top in a tournament (especially one with online qualifiers), you’d need to know intuitively how your team-mates will play, or all jump on a Skype call – and your broadband might not be up to the challenge.

To be clear, this is not a bug masquerading as a feature: this is by design. Although absolutely pivotal to executing plays in popular team shooters like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, voice chat online also means it’s all too easy for strangers to start abusing you vocally, as well as your mum. Nintendo likes to keep all of its players happy, as well as their parents, and not allowing voice chat is the one guaranteed way it can keep player interaction civil.

We understand that, but Nintendo can’t have it both ways: either it has a family shooter, or a competitive shooter. Until that changes, we’ll forever be watching Splatoon battles knowing that the top players are fighting (or spraying) with one hand tied behind their back and a pair of exceedingly large mufflers over their ears. Naturally, there’s a petition to urge Nintendo to incorporate voice chat but with only 88 signatories so far, it’s going to be a serious battle. Voice chat simply must happen.

Splatoon at the Nintendo World Championships
Splatoon at the Nintendo World Championships © Nintendo

Map rotation removed

Nintendo has played Splatoon’s rollout very smartly, dripfeeding new features, maps and weapons into the game as players acclimatise to the concept of a shooter settled on surface area rather than slaying. That strategy includes enforcing map rotation: only a handful of levels are available online at one time, to keep the game thriving and to force players to really think about their load-outs based on terrain.

Map rotation was a clever move, especially for a game on a console suffering from a distinct dearth of an install base, but it’s time the stabilisers came off the bike. Now we’re all up to speed with the meta in each Splatoon map, the top players and teams need to be able scrim on each different map as and when they see fit, not according to the big N’s schedule. Yes, you can do this in the newly introduce Private Battle mode, but not every top player will want to play this way.

Matchmaking improvements

While accurate and enjoyable matchmaking is something very few multiplayer games get right, Splatoon is still way off the pace. For a start, there’s no matchmaking at all outside of Ranked mode, which means you can’t play for fun with people of a similar level to you, only with randoms the Nintendo server gods elect to pair you with. Most annoying though is Nintendo’s habit of pairing lower and higher level players in the same match.

For advanced players, this can lead to the feeling of having to prop up all of your team-mates. It’s even more frustrating when the lower level players somehow all end up on the same side, leading to a Bugsy Malone-style slaughter. Nintendo would do well to at least start matchmaking by region to put everyone on a more level playing field and remove the handicap of lag someone in the UK or US may face taking on a team of Japanese Splatoon veterans, or vice versa.

A spectator mode

While there’s always a healthy overlap on the Venn diagram between those who play and those who watch most of the popular competitive eSports, a Spectator mode has consistently proven to be an essential feature in any game that’s built up a competitive community, in any genre (fighting games with a small number of players and a small level size excepted). Fans needs to be able to tune in easily to watch how the top players play, especially in online-only tournaments. Otherwise how will we ever get as good as them?

Earlier this month, Nintendo opened up the potential for local tournaments by adding a pseudo-LAN mode in the v2.0.0 update (letting eight consoles play via one internet connection), but it’s still not enough, as a spectator mode has other more practical issues too. If you’re intending to host a Splatoon tournament and plan on streaming it online, we hope you’ve got deep pockets. As the impassioned aweshucks explains on Reddit, currently you’ll need a video capture card for every single Wii U involved, as well as the hardware to handle switching between all of those feeds on the fly. A Spectator mode would allow audiences to get a God’s Eye view of the game and switch between angles and player POVs readily.

Twitch streaming on Wii U

This sounds like a trivial little issue – sure, you can still share your gameplay from the Wii U live using a capture card – but it’s an important consideration when eSports athletes in many other games supplement their wages through Twitch streaming. If you don’t have the ability to start broadcasting with one push of a button (as you can on PS4, say), then fewer people will bother, and any self-respecting eSport needs more players, and more players that people want to watch. (While we’re at it, Nintendo could also rethink its overbearing revenue-sharing policy with streamers on YouTube, but that’s another story). Convenience is king: Nintendo can’t hope to have a competitive community if it doesn’t make it easy for them to become competitive.

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