Photo: VICE & Super Evil Megacorp
The spotlights are on. The crowd is cheering. The players are walking up to the stage to get in position for the next big esports tournament.
Once the players take their seats, however, they’re seated not in front of a console or PC, but in front of iPads and iPhones.
That was the scene at the 2016 Vainglory World Championships in the historic TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood last December. While games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive rule the esports airwaves, mobile games like Vainglory and Clash Royale are slowly becoming ingrained in the esports scene.
When Vainglory was used to show off the graphical capabilities of the then-new iPhone 6 at Apple’s announcement event back in September of 2014, the world got its first real look at what a true mobile MOBA could look like. At that point, League of Legends was starting to reach a critical mass, with the prize pool for that year’s World Championship already crossing the $2 million mark. While the game was already one of the most played in the world due to its free-to-play model, there was still a barrier to entry due to needing a somewhat decent computer to run it and a high-skill level to succeed at it. That’s where mobile games come into play.
Photo: Super Evil Megacorp via VICE Sports
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t have a smartphone these days, whether it be an iPhone or an Android of some sort. Super Evil Megacorp, developers of Vainglory, were the first of a handful of companies to swoop in and target the sparse demographic. Rather than needing a computer that costs hundreds of dollars to play League, now you could simply download an app on your phone and play a full-featured MOBA in the same vein as League.
That accessibility is what makes Vainglory such an intriguing game in a sea of different esports. Not only is it easy to jump in from an equipment standpoint, but the game itself is much easier to learn. There are less in-game items to deal with, fewer abilities to juggle, and a simplified map featuring just one lane of play versus the three seen in League of Legends. While the game is still tough to master, the cost and skill level of entry is lower than ever before.
This is perhaps why some of the biggest organizations in the world have already dived into the competitive landscape. In the upcoming 2017 Spring Live Championship, starting Friday, May 19, the likes of mousesports, SK Gaming, Fnatic, Immortals, Tempo Storm, Cloud9, G2 Esports and Team SoloMid will be competing in the three-day tournament. For a game that is only in its second World Championship season, having this level of support during its infancy is almost unprecedented.
Support from these organizations is all well and good, but it is the fans that keep any esport alive. While some games struggle at the outset in this area, Vainglory already has a burgeoning fan base. Boasting over 1.5 million active players during the beta, the user base has only grown over time. In a blog post towards the end of 2016, the company reported the tripling of its Android user base, while also tallying over 450 million minutes of esports content streamed by users. Not to mention that the 2016 World Championship stream peaked at 25,000 viewers, which is more than a respectable number for a game just kicking off its second World Championship season.
When compared to something like Heroes of the Storm, whose first real championship, Heroes of the Dorm, brought in just over 100,000 viewers when it aired on ESPN 2 back in April of 2015, Vainglory seems to be doing just fine for a game breaking the traditional mold.
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While Vainglory may be taking up most of the spotlight in the mobile esports world, there’s a new challenger that is threatening to make some major waves this upcoming year with a $1 million prize pool. Yes, you read that right. $1 million for an esport in its infancy. That would be none other than Supercell’s Clash Royale, the current top-grossing app in the iTunes App Store.
Released in March of 2016, Clash Royale built upon the success of the game it’s based on, the ubiquitous Clash of Clans, to quickly rise to prominence. The games both use the tried and true method of microtransactions to light up the sales charts. Whereas Clash of Clans is a village-building game where you and your friends can form clans to achieve world domination, Clash Royale is a real-time strategy game that combines the age-old tower defense model of many mobile games with the deck-building of a game like Hearthstone. The game operates in a 1-vs-1 format and to this point has only dabbled in the world of esports. With the huge announcement of the $1 million Crown Championship, though, Supercell just jumped off the diving board and are about to cannonball into the conversation.
Vainglory World Championship at TCL Chinese Theatre (Photo: Super Evil Megacorp)
The Crown Championship is Clash Royale’s attempt at a World Championship, and from a structural standpoint, they’re onto something here. Individual players, without the need to be part of a major organization, can participate in tournaments organized within the app itself to qualify for regional brackets to make it all the way to the region’s Spring and Fall Finals. Everything will culminate in a World Finals taking place this November. Should this be executed to perfection, it could open a door for casual players to break into the esports conversation.
For a game like Clash Royale, which hasn’t enticed enough support from major organizations, consistency will be the key to keeping its esports scene alive. There must be a clear roadmap for the future in order for it to stay alive. The single-player nature of the game makes Clash Royale a unique entrant into the esports world, but one that has the potential break new ground in ways that other games simply can’t.
What the rise of both Vainglory and Clash Royale show us is that there is an insatiable appetite for a broader range of esports. The accessibility both in terms of hardware and gameplay make these two games the perfect jumping in point for anyone looking to get into the world of esports without needing to spend hundreds of hours and dollars to simply get through the door.
Whether mobile esports is the model of the future remains to be seen. What we know now, though, is that it is a viable platform that has the foundation to succeed and possibly rival the success of the console and PC sports that preceded it.