How SEMC plans to rule the world of mobile eSports with Vainglory
Super Evil Megacorp (SEMC) was founded in 2012 by a group of games-industry veterans with a simple idea: to create competitive games for tablet and smartphone. Its focus, though, wasn’t on the kind of games people traditionally think of as appropriate for phones or tablets, such as Candy Crush. Instead, the company wanted to create demanding games that would appeal to the new generation of players who have grown up on touchscreens.
Its only current product, Vainglory, is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) that pits teams of three players against each other in a set map. Each player chooses a hero character from a wide pool, and then fights to capture objectives across “the Halcyon Fold”, consisting of a lane with turrets in it and a jungle area more appropriate for jumping from hiding onto an opponent.
The beauty of MOBAs is that the basics are simple, but underneath there is tremendous depth. Pick characters that are countered by your opponents’ choices and you’ll find yourself outgunned. Choose the wrong builds for your hero as they develop and you’ll find yourself the victim of fierce enemies. Fail to get enough mines and flares down on the map and you’ll be jumped on by opponents exploiting the elements of surprise. While MOBAs look like “twitch” games, which rely solely on reflex – what MOBA players call “mechanics” – there’s an enormous amount of thinking involved too. Execute your gameplay well and you can win, even if you’re not the fastest.
This mental agility isn’t rewarded with only digital badges and medals – MOBAs are a huge business. Last year’s world championships for Dota 2, the biggest PC-based MOBA, had a prize pool of more than $20 million, with the winner pocketing more than $9 million. The last match of the final series had 5.7 million people viewing, and the aggregate audience for the whole series was more than 142 million.
By comparison, Vainglory’s 2016 world championship prize pool was relatively small at $120,000 but, given that it was the first time the company had held world championships, it was still a more than respectable amount.
Playing all night
So, with a sizeable heap of cash on the table, how did the mobile upstart Vainglory come about? According to Kristian Segerstrale, CEO of SEMC and formerly of EA and Playfish, the development of Vainglory was driven by the fact that the founders were gamers themselves. “We built Vainglory in the first place because we grew up playing the kind of games which we could play with a team all night, and we felt that users who had grown up with touchscreens were being deprived of that experience. We wanted people to have it, so we built Vainglory.”
Initially, though, the company’s focus wasn’t on creating an eSport – it was about making a great game. “You can’t create an eSport. You can only make a game that people want to play competitively,” said Segerstrale. We started just by supporting community tournaments, then at the beginning of last year we struck a deal with Twitch and got serious about it.” This seriousness was partly a reflection of a groundswell of interest in Vainglory among existing teams from other eSports, and partly driven by the organic development of Vainglory-only groups.
(Above: Kristian Segerstrale)
“Some big teams like SK Gaming and Team Secret started playing early on before there was even a real competitive league. What we’ve always done with teams is to keep a dialogue open about what teams want to see, but what we don’t want to do is to push things too fast. We’ve always tried to take advice and help develop the business of eSports with the teams. Hence the franchise system we’re introducing, which will see us share revenue with teams who support the game.”
The franchise programme is an effort to deepen the company’s relationships with pro gaming teams that are committed to helping the game grow. Franchise holders will get a cut of SEMC’s revenue from broadcast rights, tickets, sponsorships and also potentially partner on merchandise sales. In return, teams will actively promote the game.
The franchise programme also involves the option of teams being tied to a “home city”, something that’s proved successful in other games such as Overwatch. As part of this, eSports giant Fnatic has launched a Vainglory team with London as its home base – the first major team in Vainglory to be headquartered in the UK.
Keeping things simple
With the challenge of an increasing professional level, though, comes other tests – most notably retaining the simplicity of the game. Other MOBAs have become increasingly complex over time, layering on heroes, maps and twists to the game, to the point where it becomes difficult to know where to start.
This is a challenge Segerstrale is fully cognisant of. “We’re aware that we have to keep the game learnable for new players while also having the kind of elements which work at the top level for pro gamers, and we will have some novel approaches to that being introduced this year. This year we’ll also explore shorter game modes for newer players that help them get to grips with the heroes and the mechanics of the game.”
“I think that mobile eSports will become the biggest kind – and if it’s not us that does it, someone will”
So, what does the future hold? Segerstrale ultimately sees mobile becoming the dominant platform for eSports. “I think that mobile eSports will become the biggest kind – and if it’s not us that does it, someone will. Think about the maths of devices: there are more than three billion devices out there which can play Vainglory, compared to maybe a few hundred million capable of playing League of Legends. I’m convinced that someone will build a mobile eSport which is three to five times the size of anything in the PC space.”