Is Quake Champions the next big eSport?

Creative director Tim Willits discusses the plans to turn the shooter into an event.
Quake Champions in action
Fast and frenetic battles await in Quake Champions © Bethesda
By James Pickard

While conversations about competitive gaming are now dominated by a few big names, there’s no denying the legacy of a game like Quake. Doom may have popularised multiplayer deathmatches, but it was the additional options Quake added that asserted its lasting influence on the competitive online shooter.

Even years after the main game and its various sequels had launched Quake was still played competitively and was the starting point for the careers of so many iconic eSports names. Jonathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel, Alexey ‘Cypher’ Yanushevsky and Dennis ‘Thresh’ Fong have all established professional careers through Quake. Now, with the behemoth that is eSports growing ever still and following the successful experiment that was Quake Live, id Software are hoping to capitalise on that potential with a new, modern entry in the series, Quake Champions.

After its first reveal at E3 2016 there was an undeniable excitement for the game’s return. A sense that, after years in hibernation and in a vastly different first-person shooter market, perhaps now was the time to recapture that old school feel of a fast-paced arena shooter. Yet, while the name still holds significant weight, Quake Champions faces the challenge every other game with eSport ambitions has to tackle: finding an audience for itself in a world where MOBAs take up most of the viewer base and prize money.

“So the eSports scene has exploded in the last few years, which is awesome,” explains Tim Willits, creative director on Quake Champions at id Software. “Quake has always been a competitive game, we’ve run eSports events for 21 years, so you know it’s funny, a lot of people that run eSports companies got their start playing Quake, they just love Quake.”

Quaking in their boots

Willits knows that the passion for the game is still there. And if anyone would, it’s him. Willits started his career like so many other game developers did back then by designing and distributing his own levels for Doom. The developers at id Software were impressed, hired Willits, and he has since worked across the entire history of Quake titles in multiple roles. That experience and expertise has played a big part in the eSports plans for Quake Champions.

Quake Champions one versus one duel
Willits sees 1 v 1 duels as a highlight © Bethesda

“One thing that we have learned is production value. It needs to be very professional, very top level. Spectator modes and features need to be consumer friendly and allow people to spectate a game even if they’ve never played. We understand that we need to listen to our pro players and we’ve done that twice now. I’m feeling good about our eSports plan but I do realise that it is a whole new level of high production value we need to bring to be successful.”

Willits’ approach appears to be twofold: make Quake Champions as easy and accessible for viewers to watch, while also ensuring you listen to and support pro players. For the former, that means having a functional spectator mode and a group of casters ready to guide players through the game’s lightning fast matches. “It would be nice if the Quake Live folks that run the community servers switch over. That would be great, because they’re our most loyal fans,” he says.

For the latter, that’s designing a game with a significant skill ceiling that allows for some thrilling matches. If Quake Live has set the precedent, then Quake Champions is surely in with a good chance too. Willits speaks confidently about that game’s successes:

“One of the great things we have that no other shooter in the eSports market has right now – every pro player told us this – is our duel mode, our one-on-one mode. We have, like, the title fight. You can have the world’s best guy versus the world’s best guy from this country. At QuakeCon last year we had the top US player versus the top Russian player and it was amazing, it was like Rocky IV.”

Thrilling matches are one thing, but the pro scene is something that needs to be fostered. If players are dedicating a significant amount of time to the game there needs to be the tournament infrastructure to support them. Not just decent prize money so players can afford to eat, but regular events that ensure the game retains its momentum.

“Absolutely,” says Willits. “We’re not quite ready to talk about our partners yet but we’ve been talking to some of the top production companies in the world. We want to be as agnostic as possible when it comes to eSports platforms and we want to host our own events but we want to make the game accessible enough for other people to host their own events. If you’re a pro player and you’re looking forward to winning some money with Quake Champions, you should have some opportunities after the game is released.”

Following that, if everything is in place, what is the measure of success for Quake Champions as an eSport? Does Willits simply want to attract a large audience, ensure pro players are making money, or are their other goals in mind?

“Well yeah. A group of top tier players making a living from playing Quake would be awesome,” he acknowledges. “But we also want those stars, you know the kids in the football league who make it into the college league and then go to the pros. I think there are lots of stories you’ll see as we move into our competitive seasons as we go live.”

Off the Richter

There’s an element of Blizzard’s approach to competitive tournaments in Willits’ story of that one player rising up to compete with the pros. Just look at the Heroes of the Dorm or the Hearthstone Collegiate Championships and you can see how they’re supporting players from the ground up. And with Overwatch making plans to support regional teams in the near future it’s interesting to see what approach Quake Champions will take in this area of competitive play.

© Bethesda

“They’ve done a lot of great things – I love playing that game, it’s awesome. They really tapped into that regional play which I think is important,” says Willits on Overwatch. “We definitely want to look at how that works and maybe tap into some of that. We haven’t finalised our region play, territory play and world play yet or how we want to break it up. But there is a lot of nice things that you get with that type of regional play that fans appreciate.”

Do you want to win a world championship in a game that looks like a Disney XD movie?

Tim Willits

So the plans are robust and steadily coming together, then, and it sounds as if id are willing to give Quake Champions the push it will need to establish itself amidst heavy competition. Ultimately, however, it will come down to the quality of the game on offer. There has been some concern over how character abilities will affect the classic formula, but take one look at the game in action or witness one Railgun kill and you know exactly what you’re in for with Quake Champions, and what separates it from the bevy of eSports titles out there. Willits perhaps sums it up best:

“The skill that these pro players have is so amazing. What they can do in the game is so incredible that I do believe viewers will love watching the best Quake players play. It’s like watching professional athletes dunking from the free throw line. And when you win a world championship and you’re standing on that stage, do you want to win it with a great, violent, bloody game, or do you want to win it in a game that looks like a Disney XD movie?”

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