Esports connotes a certain image: Young people seated in front of powerful PCs, playing complex, tactical games at an extremely fast pace. Mobile games conjure up something altogether different, and so the opportunities for overlap have traditionally been limited.
But the number of people on earth with access to mobile devices dwarfs those with PC access, which means some sort of blending was inevitable. Enter the world of touch esports, a subcategory with massive potential. Right now, they represent a tiny corner of the marketplace. A "niche within a niche," as Kristian Segerstrale, COO of mobile game developer Super Evil Megacorp, puts it. It's a niche the studio's game, Vainglory, is slowly starting to take over. And that niche is unlikely to remain as small as it is for much longer.
Although Hearthstone could be classed as a touch esport, Vainglory is among the first properties to be developed that way from the ground up. It will look familiar to esports fans, though: As a three-on-three multiplayer online battle arena game (MOBA), it's right in line with mega properties League of Legends and Dota 2. Which is to say, it's very different from the Candy Crushes of the world. Segerstrale says Super Evil Megacorp's mission "is to bring the kind of gaming we grew up with ourselves to the touch screen generation."
"We wanted longform gaming," he continues. "The kind of game you play with your friends for hours and hours, you order some pizza, then you play for hours and hours more until the sun comes up."
It's quickly catching on. Less than two years into its existence, there are already multiple professional Vainglory leagues across the world. It hosted its first world championships earlier this month. Huge esports organizations like Team SoloMid and Cloud9 are investing, as are sponsors such as Nvidia and Red Bull. The niche within a niche has begun to attract the sort of brands that shape the industry at large.
It shouldn't come as a surprise, either. While today's esports stars came of age on a PC, the next generation will have grown up with a phone in their hands.
"For a lot of people, phones are just a second screen," said Segerstrale. "You have your main entertainment on your PC or your TV, and this [mobile gaming] is what you do on the bus. Well, most of the world right now is growing up with these devices as their primary screen. We're building Vainglory for that generation."
The gameplay has been tailored to that generation, as well. Vainglory matches usually last under 20 minutes rather than the 45 minute-plus marathons in other MOBAs. The smaller screens lend themselves to smaller maps, too, which means more action and fewer avenues for avoiding confrontations. And while you have to wait a long time for exciting team fights to happen in a game of League of Legends, Vainglory has them almost from the start. It's rapid-fire, brief bursts of entertainment for the so-called short attention span generation.
Mechanically, the crossover has been mostly seamless.Touching the screen works just like a mouse click, and the character moves instantly towards where you press. In some cases, it's entailed design improvements. The "stutter step," a popular and essential MOBA-strategy game technique in which the player alternates between attacking and moving, is easier than ever without having to move a mouse backwards and forwards. Segerstrale recalls a comment he recently received from a 13-year-old European player, one of the game's top-ranked players who has also never played a MOBA on a PC.
"He was saying he's heard there are games like this on PC, and he can't understand how you could abstract away control in a game like this to something as 'awkward as a mouse and keyboard."
Still, according to 17-year-old Alessandro Palmatoro, who plays Vainglory for Team Secret, the greatest draw is the ubiquity of the platform it's on.
"Undoubtedly, the main attraction is the accessibility," he says, and while a lot of that has to do with being able to "play the game almost anywhere provided you have connection," accessibility is about a lot more than just having a phone. Namely, the technology gap is almost nonexistent within touch esports. Traditionally, big esports events provide — and require — state-of-the-art machines, with the only customization coming by way of the hard drives and preset keyboard and mouse configurations that players often supply themselves. It's a complicated, endlessly evolving affair.
Yet if you own a phone which came out in the last three or four years, you're already on par with the technology the pros use at a touch esports event. There's no expectation of technology standardization, either. At a Vainglory event, the players just bring whichever device they usually play it on, which runs the gamut from phones to tablets . If anything, there may even be a benefit to remaining behind the curve: Larger screens can slow you down.
"The thing you gain from a large screen is an individual tap is a bit more accurate, but then you need to move your arms more and you become a little bit slower," Segerstrale says, adding that one of the top players in North America plays on an iPhone 5.
"Touch esports have opened up the door for people who may be limited to their phone and not be able to afford PC gaming," says Benedict "MrKCool" Ward, a 13-year-old who plays for Rebirth of an Empire. Accordingly, Palmatoro predicts that "it's only a matter of time" before touch esports' reach extends even beyond that of PC-based esports. Super Evil Megacorp recently announced a partnership with the National University Esports League. Its founder, Josh Williams, is excited about what touch esports is bringing to the table.
"Touch will be one of the key mechanisms that introduces esports to the masses," he said. "The smartphone has been the springboard for the careers of so many in different industries. Esports won't be any different."
The next step is upping the prize money: According to Segerstrale, Vainglory players were paid around $350,000 in prizes in 2015, a number he expected to double when the 2016 year-end figures roll in. Still, it's pittance compared to the PC sector, and Segerstrale readily allows that the current goals are still along the lines of "creat[ing] a following" and "something that's sustainable."
But with the world at three billion mobile devices and counting, potential demographics do not get any larger. Vainglory won't be the only game in town for very much longer, because there are more reasons to believe in touch esports than doubt them. After all, there aren't many things you can become professional at while sitting on the toilet.