The Team Behind 'OlliOlli' Is Making a Killer, 'Tron'-Like Sports Game

There's no guarantee it'll succeed as an esport, but Roll7’s ‘Gladiators’-goes-‘Tron’ arena game is a frenetic blast and a half.

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Jul 19 2017, 8:41pm

You can't work in this job and not be asked about esports, on the regular. It's the growth sector when it comes to head-turning revenues, practically an industry unto itself, attracting investment from parties with no previous interest in video games.

Just look at the launch of the Overwatch League—founding teams in Boston and New York are owned by organizations with significant stakes in the New England Patriots NFL franchise and New York Mets baseball team. "Traditional" sports are into this enough that, perhaps, we need to think about dropping the off-putting "e" and just accepting that these are sports, too.

And when it comes to sports—ones played on pitches, on courts, on grass both muddy and artificial—the most immediately understandable ones are often (though not always) the most popular. Boxing: one person fights more skillfully, or perhaps simply punches harder, than the other. Football—or soccer if we must: this team scores more goals than that one, so they win. Other sports have wrinkles, unique scoring systems where not every "score" has the same value, like tennis and basketball. But they're pretty easy to pick up, too.

League of Legends? You could watch that for an hour—in which time you'd probably only see one complete game play out—and come away with no firm concept of its rules, the hows and whys behind the tactics employed by the winning team, and what it was about them that proved triumphant. The hell is that wizard doing whaling on that tower, anyway?

Dota 2 is the same. Squad shooters where the objective changes between rounds, like pro-scene Call of Duty: again, you can soak up the atmosphere and get that the more you shoot someone, generally speaking, the better you're doing. But then, that's far from always the case; sometimes you attack, sometimes you hold, sometimes you sprint around the edge of the map to deposit a "ball" in a "goal." (I like those modes the most.)

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Long intro, about to arrive at its point: the next wave of esports, as I see it (and bang on about people to), should be a lot closer to the quick-parsing of popular "traditional" sports with easy-to-parse core rule sets, like football and boxing, than the MOBAs and shooters that so far have proven the greatest money-spinners. I look at where the explicitly football-analogous Rocket League is now and can't see it not getting exponentially bigger—the game's not only made a ton of money for its makers, Psyonix, and attracted over 25 million active players, but its seen its Championship Series prize pool rise to $300,000 already.

Which you might think is peanuts beside something like League of Legends' top-end prize money, running into the millions—but Riot's game has got six years on Rocket League, a solid bedrock of dyed-in-the-wool supporters. The relative noob is punching above its weight, no doubt. Anyway, to Laser League. (Apologies, and thanks for bearing with me.)

An esport that you can participate in using just one hand, your sponsor's brand of energy drink in the other? Hmm, it's almost too perfect.

Laser League is new, so new as to not be out properly before 2018, although early access is likely for September, and for me it represents where esports need to go now. It's easy to understand, most importantly—here are two teams, and when one has all its players eliminated, the point goes to the opposition, matches played over a best-of-three formula. How they're eliminated, I'll get to in just a second.

It's super fast—avatars zip around the neon arena, reminiscent of American Gladiators (though we had this hero in the UK version) by way of Tron, and rounds can be over in seconds; but the longer they last, the more nerves are shredded. And it's simple to play, too—all you need is one analogue stick to run around, and one trigger for your chosen class of character's special ability (a barge move, being able to ghost through opposition lasers, a blade attack, and more). So you can play it right or left handed, or with both on the pad, it's up to you. An esport that you can participate in using just one hand, your sponsor's brand of energy drink in the other? Hmm, it's almost too perfect. (Not to mention fantastic for players who don't have the use of two hands.)

Pre-alpha 'Laser League' screenshots courtesy of 505 Games/Roll7.

Like football, like boxing, and a lot less like League of Legends, success in Laser League can come as much through sheer blind luck as it can refined skill, to exacting precision—and that makes it so exciting, to play and to watch. Opposition players can warp from one side of the area to the others (Pac-Man style, kind of—run into the wall at the bottom and you emerge at the top), and get immediately wiped out by a just-that-split-second triggered wall of laser death. Accidents abound—lucky for some, for others, less so.

There is craft and co-operation, then, and there is brilliant, beautiful unpredictability—spun into accelerating twists of fortune by the picking up of arena modifiers that pause the lasers, switch their colors (so that the one you could rush through, you now can't, and ouch), or cause them to split apart.

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Okay, the lasers. These take the form of walls in the arena, in two colors, corresponding to each team's color. If your little guy's yellow, passing through those ones is OK. No damage done. If he's blue, and you run into a yellow wall—or a yellow wall comes for you, as they only rarely stay still, appearing and moving in various patterns across a number of arenas—that's you down. And vice-versa. It makes instant sense from the first time you go wrong.

You can be revived by a teammate—they simply need to pass over the spot where you were caught, to summon you back into play. But when all of your team is out (I played two on two, but the plans is for three on three to be the competition standard, and four on four to be a chaotic party option), that's the round.

Written down in words, it sounds a little… dull? Perhaps. But then, so does football, really—kick this small sphere around for 90 minutes and aim to get it in that tiny netted area more times than the other team. It's the participation, the putting the theory into practice, where the simplicity translates into something so much more; where the basic template can have tactics layered upon it, strategies dependent on laser patterns, on load-out choices, on whether or not you work well with your co-op partner(s) or prefer to express yourself more independently.

I played Laser League for an hour, and it felt like five minutes. I could have easily have gone for another hour, or two, if it wasn't for this thing called "work" getting in the way. I'm going to take that as a sign—if I—a useless boob when it comes to competitive gaming—can play this thing pretty well, feel okay at it, and want to immediately see more of it, hey, that's a thing.

Laser League, played locally, purrs—I can see it being a hit at tournament play, perhaps as a side attraction to begin with at bigger events covering MOBAs, sports games and fighters (there's an argument that this game can fit comfortably beside any of them), before moving into its own space as and when it can fill it. Online, though, the slightest lag will mean failure, such is the twitchiness of the average match, the need to turn on sixpences and duck out the way of knockout lasers by a hair's breadth.

So developers Roll7—the British indie team behind the multi-award-winning OlliOlli—and publishers 505 Games (Virginia, Abzû, Stardew Valley) absolutely have to get that razor sharp for when Laser League formally, officially launches. Teething problems in early access will be unfortunate, but forgivable; if they last beyond that window, though, then the massive promise here will have been torpedoed. Because, from what I've seen, based on what I feel, this really can be a part of the next phase of esports—and any game at the forefront of that push can only reap the rewards of a rapidly expanding audience and ecosystem.

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