Supercell know a thing or two about developing smash hit mobile games, given gems like Clash of Clans and Clash Royale in its repertoire, and Brawl Stars continues that theme. The studio's latest iOS and Android exclusive is like a streamlined mash-up of League of Legends, Overwatch, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, delivering a team-based action experience that's ideal for pocket-sized screens.
That's what is building enthusiasm about Brawl Stars' esports prospects, and we'll get a strong first look at that with the Red Bull M.E.O. by ESL Global Final. Taking place on February 2-3 in Dortmund, Germany, the Global Final will spotlight the world's eight top Brawl Stars teams that emerged victorious in the online qualifiers.
It'll be a great chance to see exactly what high-level Brawl Stars play looks like and how the competitive meta is shaping up – and based on what we've seen and played so far, we're very intrigued to see the results. Ahead of the Red Bull M.E.O. by ESL Global Final, we spoke with Brawl Stars game lead Frank Keienburg about how the mobile hit came to be and what to expect from its competitive future.
A star is born
Supercell have already created the top Western mobile esport in Clash Royale, but for Brawl Stars, they wanted to bring an active, team-centric experience to touch devices – one that recalled some of the top competitive games on consoles and PC without copying them.
"We wanted to create a great competitive game for teams and capture the essence of popular titles like League of Legends or Overwatch – without adding a lot of unnecessary complexity," Keienburg explains. "We also focused on mobile from the start, which has an impact on the whole player experience: from the controls and UI to things like file size. Our focus was on retaining a lot of depth while stripping away all the fluff."
Brawl Stars really does keep the thrill of more complex competitive shooters and action games, albeit on a simpler, shorter-form scale. Games only last a couple of minutes, matchmaking is nearly instantaneous, and you're able to jump right in and start blasting foes with ease. It has a few very distinctive modes, too, including a team-centric gem grab along with solo and duo battle royale showdowns. It's much more robust than you might think at a glance.
"Brawl at its core is easy to pick up, but hard to master," says Keienburg, who suggests that the game takes on much more depth with more experienced players in the fray. "This becomes very evident when you compare how different the game is played in different trophy ranges."
A hard soft launch
Brawl Stars has already been a hit, with tens of millions of downloads in a matter of weeks, but it almost didn't make it past the testing phase. Supercell first soft-launched Brawl Stars in certain territories in June 2017, and gradually took in feedback and made adjustments in kind. Over time, those tweaks became much more significant than you might expect.
"There's simply no telling if a game will fly prior to players getting their hands on it," says Keienburg. "Was it smooth? No. We changed the game from portrait mode to landscape, which unsettled a big chunk of our core community. We had to redo the meta game and UI multiple times, and transitioned from 2D to 3D environments just before release."
About a year later, with the game still in a limited testing release, Supercell wasn't sure if the game would ever see the light of day in a public release: "Before summer, we were not sure if we would release Brawl Stars," Keienburg admits.
It was a long and difficult road for the team, and Supercell has a history of killing soft-launched games that never fully clicked. But Brawl Stars survived all of that poking and prodding and seemingly came out better on the other end. And they're seeing it as another potential ongoing success with incredible legs, much like Clash of Clans and Clash Royale before it. "It's still early days," he adds. "At Supercell, we are not thinking in months or quarters – let's talk again five years from now."
Big-time brawling ahead?
That kind of long-term mindset is ideal for establishing Brawl Stars as an esport, although Supercell isn't ready to announce anything at this point. Even so, they've seen firsthand how captivating the competitive viewing experience can be.
"Within the company, we organised a tournament with a live event in September 2018 with more than 150 participants, live commentary by Ryan ‘RLight’ Lighton (our community manager) and Seth 'The Rum Ham' Allison and final rounds on-stage," says Keienburg. "When the service personnel around the venue stopped serving us to focus on the game on the big screen, we knew this could become big. They never saw the game before."
In Keienburg's view, it's too early to tell whether there's enough demand for Brawl Stars to support a major esports initiative. Supercell doesn't want to put the cart before the horse and declare Brawl Stars as the next big mobile esport before there's measurable interest.
"Ultimately, we don't believe that you can 'plan' an esport," he says. "I am personally always weirded out when gaming companies announce a new esport title before even seeing the community reaction. We would like to turn this around. Our initial goal was to provide some basic tools like friendly games and spectator functionality, to enable tournament organisers and influencers to organise their own tournaments."
Those are measured and modest first steps for a company that's shown that it can put together a major mobile esports league, but it allows Brawl Stars the opportunity to try and gradually court a proper esports scene. And if that comes organically from within the community, then Supercell will be there to help push things along.
"[The tools] opened the door for all kind of events. One of the first bigger ones with a live audience is Red Bull M.E.O. by ESL, with the final in Dortmund," says Keienburg. "Now we wait and see how the community reacts, what people want, etc. – and we're ready to support the players, organisations, and organisers."