Battlefront’s Star Card debacle an insight into what separates eSports from video games

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By Stirling Coates, Stirling Coates is a Roar Guru

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    Where will the next eSports stars come from? (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

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    Electronic Arts’ second stab at a Star Wars-themed online multiplayer game was a long shot at best of cracking into the world of eSports. But the stunning rise and fall of the game’s public approval gives us a valuable look at what distinguishes eSports from normal video games.

    Properly unveiled at E3 2017, initial public reception to the shooter was very positive. In response to criticism that the first game locked far too much content behind an absurdly expensive season pass, EA announced Battlefront II would have no season pass whatsover – with all in-game content earnable through gameplay.

    The publisher claimed this would vastly increase the game’s competitive potential, given all players would now have access to every map, weapon and character.

    An impressive live demo took place thereafter, with several professional players taking part in Naboo’s Assault on Theed mission.

    All in all, it appeared EA – a company long regarded as monolithic and hyper-capitalist – had really listened to the fans and given them the sequel they truly wanted.

    The cracks in the armour appeared a little while later, however, with news the game would feature a loot box system whereby an array of competitive advantages – including character upgrades – would come in randomised packages available for purchase with in-game credits or real money.

    Fears the game featured a ‘pay-to-win’ model became full-on outrage after calculations by fans showed it would take 40 hours of gameplay to earn enough credits to purchase the game’s most prominent heroes.

    While the furore saw the publisher backtrack and remove all real-money transactions from the game, the convoluted progression system was still widely panned, with many reviews labelling it the worst progression system in a multiplayer game, ever.

    The game, marketed as a deep and compelling competitive experience, turned out to be little more than a big-budget mobile game.

    Star Wars Battlefront II will most likely still recover and sell millions of copies, but its competitive scene is now almost certainly dead in the water.

    So, what does this debacle teach us about a video game’s progression from recreational activity to eSport?

    At a fundamental level, it’s quite difficult to really put one’s finger on what classifies a game versus what classifies a sport.

    While thousands of opinions exist on this semantic conundrum, there is something of a general agreement that the point at which a game becomes a sport is not dependant on commercial factors but, rather, when the point of the activity shifts from enjoyment to competition.

    Video gaming is one of few such activities that exists in both spaces. While some games exist purely in the ‘game’ category, there’s a growing number that exist to some people as a game, to others as a sport and to some as both.

    While something based off Star Wars seems to lend itself more naturally to the ‘game’ side of the scale, there’s good reason to suggest this could have been a competitive experience.

    DICE, the game’s developer, is best known for their work on the hyper-competitive Battlefield series, while the characters and universe of Star Wars is undoubtedly more recognisable and have vastly wider appeal than the universes of eSports giants like League of Legends and Overwatch.

    Both of those titles heavily feature microtransactions too, so what caused Battlefront’s competitive scene to fall apart while others flourish?

    Fans of traditional sports frequently purchase products on the basis they’ll get them closer to sporting superstars, would marketing loot boxes in the same fashion done the game better?

    Is grinding to earn credits you can buy heroes with not akin to the hours of training eSports athletes put in every day?

    The issue here is that EA have completely misunderstood the very nature of a competitive video game audience.

    Traditional sports have superstar players and fans – and there is a very clear divide between them.

    Many fans may play the sport they’re interested in, but there is an enormous difference between the version of the sport they and their idols play.

    That divide does not exist in eSports – the players and fans are the same people.

    Attempts to draw a line between the pros and the plebs don’t make your eSport a grander spectacle – it completely short-circuits any credible competitiveness the game has.

    While there is capacity for a video game to satisfy the needs of both those who view it as fun and those who view it as competition, EA’s public relations nightmare over Battlefront II’s panned progression system shows the perils of trying to market a game as a sport.

    As video game publishers find more ways to monetise their content – allegedly a necessity to cover increasing development costs – it appears a clear distinction needs to be made early in development.

    It would seem EA tried to do both with Battlefront II, which has blown up in their faces in the most spectacular way.

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