343 Industries and Microsoft are serious about making Halo a legitimate player in a growing eSports landscape. So serious, in fact, that they're forming an official eSports league for it.
Dubbed the Halo Championship Series, it will see 343i partner with Twitch, the ESL and other entities to form an advisory body to tournament organizers in a quest to add structure, tension and momentum to the shooter's multiplayer community moving forward.
The HCS is intended to see its full form when Halo 5: Guardians releases in 2015, but competitors will see its effects much sooner. 343i is launching their new league with Halo: The Master Chief Collection and the Halo 2: Anniversary multiplayer maps it contains. The HCS's inaugural season will run from this month through March 2015, and will allow teams of four competitors to participate in an officially sanctioned series of events online and at tournaments organized by HCS partners.
Halo 2: Anniversary and its multiplayer will serve as a test bed of sorts for the ideas that 343i has for Halo eSports, and in a conversation with Halo Franchise Media Director Che Chou and 343i Community Director Andy Dudynsky, it becomes clear that Halo's stewards have put a lot of thought into it.
"We looked at a lot of different ways to handle Halo eSports," Chou told me. He described a mishmash of competing standards and lack of consensus that ultimately undermines the mainstream appeal of Halo and many other shooters in the eSports community, despite Halo's major presence in the roots of the movement.
"It's never been particularly organized, there's no great structure," Chou said. "Every league has different standards. We wanted to create a centralized system. We look at what Valve and Riot are doing at the forefront of eSports, and also admire that they're flexible and always changing."
The comparison to the Dota 2 and League of Legends communities is an encouraging one, given both of those games' aggressive iteration and burgeoning crossover appeal. Both publishers have very different ideas of their role in organized play. Valve puts most of its effort into its yearly International Dota 2 championships and its qualifier matches in the months prior, and lets organizers like ESL operate largely independently with an event-based system. Meanwhile, League of Legends publisher Riot is more actively involved with a season system and more codified rules for teams. But both are seriously financially involved in their games' success as eSports, and 343i (and Microsoft) is poised to do the same. "Halo eSports is an investment," Chou said. "We wouldn't announce if this weren't a three- to five-year commitment."
343i will have more information regarding sanctioned tournament play after The Master Chief Collection releases, but Chou and Dudynsky — who was himself a prominent Halo competitor with his team Triggers Down prior to joining 343i — were able to give me some details about how tournaments would be officially sanctioned and how the seasons would work. For example, all official tournaments will be required to support the HCS's bracketing system, and to work with streaming giant Twitch. 343i is also planning to offer funding assistance to make sure each tournament's presentation is up to snuff, assisting with video packages and formatting.
The HCS will also stipulate that events be open to all qualifying entrants. I asked Chou whether there would be an official position for the HCS regarding desegregated brackets on the basis of gender, in light of this year's earlier controversy with the Finnish Assembly's refusal to allow women to compete in their Hearthstone tournaments (a policy that was later reversed after pressure from Hearthstone developer Blizzard). While there isn't currently language in the HCS charter prohibiting segregation, "a gender-specific league is not what Halo is about," Chou said. "There's nothing in the handbook, but we would prefer competitions be non-segregated, inclusive and open to the age of majority," said Dudynsky. "We certainly imagine both genders will be competing on an even playing field."
"We admire companies like Riot and Blizzard."
I asked Chou and Dudynsky if there was any controversy around the idea of a Halo governing body. "Because it is unprecedented, especially for 343i and my team, we don't have a model," Chou explained. "But we admire companies like Riot and Blizzard. The job of a sanctioning body is to unite the kingdom. Instead of doing one tournament here and one tournament there, let's make all of them matter. At the end of the day, if people are going to invest their time in playing competitive Halo, I want to reward them with the most impactful fame and rewards possible."
Chou acknowledges that tournaments will retain their own styles, as organizations like ESL have a specific presentation aesthetic. "Tournaments have their own styles but they also have their own communities, and I don't want to take that away from them. That's what makes good tournament organizers, they bring their culture and style to it." Instead, Chou continues, the HCS exists to provide production assistance, design help where it's needed and that kind of input.
From a format perspective, however, the HCS is more clear. Seasons will work on a point system. Points are awarded both through online events and in larger organized events. Chou stresses that the bigger events will offer more points to competitors based on their spectacle and scope than the more regular online events. But for teams without travel budgets to attend physical tournaments, progress can be made online. "We're still trying to figure out that economy and how we balance that," Chou said. Tournament organizers will determine how many points their events are worth and how they're awarded, with guidance from the HCS, based on bracket sizes and the prize pool.
Dudynsky explains that there are people internally at 343i working to determine this "economy," and that Halo 2: Anniversary is being used in part as a test bed for the full season plans for Halo 5. "Points are an actual representation of how difficult the tournament was, and how you did relative to all competitors." Attendance will also play a role.
I asked Chou and Dudynsky how the HCS can make Halo a better experience for everyone, not just the competitors looking to earn more money at bigger events. "[The HCS] allows us to build a narrative for multiplayer, for that season. It presents the spectrum of human drama as teams compete," Chou said, calling back to his earlier desire for every tournament to matter within a greater Halo competitive ecosystem.
Chou explains that via better streaming event coverage and coverage packages on the Halo Channel for tournaments, people can get to know who's competing and build a relationship with teams. "It allows us to highlight and showcase, but it also allows us to create a storyline for multiplayer," Chou said.
It cannot be stated clearly enough how important this central tenet has been to eSports like Dota 2 and League of Legends, and to sports in general. Allowing players to learn more about the teams playing and their records allows investment, especially with major team rivalries. And 343i's understanding of that suggests that they just might know what they're doing. The first season of the Halo Championship Series will launch later this month.