Nintendo devoted a small amount of time during its Switch reveal to something a little unexpected: esports. Despite all the leaks and rumors, the NX asked a surprising question: Could Splatoon really be an esport?
To find an audience for your game as a spectator sport in 2016 is to bump up against the big boys: League of Legends, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Dota 2, among others. These are the games that fill stadiums and continue to break streaming viewership records.
And, while Splatoon has seen some tournament-level play, it is far from making the jump of casual third-person shooter to an arena-filling esport.
Some needed color
In Splatoon, players are divided up into teams and use weapons such as blasters, chargers and rollers to paint more of the map than their opponents in a given time limit. Whoever has the majority of the map painted in their color when time runs out wins. It’s colorful and simple — both to understand and to play.
Splatoon is a fantastic game that is not a great fit for a spectator sport.
Making a game that’s fun to play is very different from making one that’s fun to watch. A candidate for esports requires a certain amount of tension to keep audience members engaged. Teams must have the ability to grow in dozens of small, subtle ways, leading to a field of competition with a wide range of levels of mastery over the game in question.
In League of Legends, as an example, each individual game has a sense of momentum that pulls in viewers. Once one team pulls ahead, the burden is on them to grow that lead as much as they can, like a snowball rolling down a hill. While games are won and lost over a long period of time, the mechanics of the game allows swings to happen periodically. One player gets caught, killed or outplayed and, all of a sudden, the losing team has a window to come back. It can be a hard game to fully understand, but the basics are simple: Every kill is important, and could turn the tide of the match.
We see a similar idea in Counter-Strike: An amazing play by a single player can turn an expected loss into a shocking, and riveting, victory. Those are the moments that make these games not only enjoyable to learn and play, but to watch.
Splatoon doesn’t provide the same opportunities for drama to play out. There is a lack of growth over the course of a match. Teams come in at a certain level of strength, due to the clothing, weapons and abilities that they have equipped before the match begins. That strength level does not change over the course of a match. It’s static.
While there are certainly tournament-based games out there that do not use a match-based growth system like League of Legends, in which players grow in strength over the course of a match and then reset at the start of the next game, none of them have found the same success as League of Legends, Dota 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.
The exception to this rule is Blizzard’s Overwatch, which is on the shortlist to be the next big thing in esports. The difference between the two, however, is the strategy in Overwatch’s win conditions and its highly impactful character abilities.Players have an emotional connection not only to the players, but also to each character. Team composition matters and can change at any time. A team’s Mei may not gain more abilities as the match continues, but she could turn into a Genji after any death, and change the tenor and rhythm of the match.
Overwatch’s game modes are actually very similar to Splatoon’s ranked game modes. Splatoon has Splat Zones, a game mode where each team must capture several different areas, Tower Control, a game mode where players escort their tower to the end point of the map while stopping the enemy team from doing the same, and Rainmaker, a capture the flag game mode where the flag is just a giant paint cannon carried by one player.
Overwatch has Assault, an attacking team tries to capture a series of points on a map while the defending team defends the points, Escort, an attacking team escorts a Payload (a big truck on rails) through the map and into the defending team’s base while the defending tries to stop the attackers, and Control, a round-based game mode where two teams fight over one neutral point in a best two-out-of-three scenario.
While several of the game modes in Overwatch are similar to Splatoon, Overwatch allows for a more focused viewership experience by having specific attacking and defending teams. Top-down games like League of Legends and Dota 2 can have two teams vying for similar objectives at the same time, destroy the enemy's base while defending your own, because the perspective is easy to follow.
Splatoon suffers by having neutral objectives being attacked by both teams in every game mode. Two sides with two very different goals make for a clear spectating experience in these types of games, and Splatoon doesn’t offer that option, nor again will the team composition or power ever change during a match.
Overwatch also has a roster of unique, baseline characters, each with their own very clear abilities. Splatoon offers minor abilities that players can choose to add into their loadout before a match starts, as well as a special weapon that they can charge up and use in match. But these specials are not tied to anything specifically because there are no unique characters in Splatoon.
Having a unique character system like Overwatch or League of Legends allows for characters that are recognizable and are built to have specific strengths as well as weaknesses. This allows for a diversification of strategy, as teams pick compositions of characters based on exploiting the enemies weaknesses while covering their own. Having unique characters allows Overwatch to have exciting swings and powerful, fluid combinations of characters.
That is not to say that only games with unique characters can be both strategic and exciting. Like Splatoon, Counter-Strike does not have any unique characters. Instead, it has a unique money system where players buy their weapons and equipment at the beginning of every round, first to 16 rounds wins the match, with currency earned from completing objectives, allowing players to adapt to enemy strategies mid-match. Even a team that is trying to be conservative and save their money can make a beautiful comeback.
For all of Splatoon’s strengths, it does not possess the same ability to cultivate drama as its competitors. Splatoon just isn’t built to offer that one, amazing moment.
Which isn’t a bad thing for a game in general. Splatoon is enjoyable, but its design goals are simply incompatible with what’s expected in a game that’s fun to watch.
Re-Mixing the Paint
Nintendo shouldn't be counted out. While they are notoriously late to a lot of modern expectations, such as baseline-acceptable online features, they always seem to find their own, unexpected ways to meet and exceed current expectations.
If Nintendo’s goal with the Switch is to join the modern era of video games, then esports makes a lot of sense for it as a next step.
But, selfishly, a part of me doesn’t want to see Nintendo grow up and join the rest of the world. For as much as I love esports in almost all of their forms, I don’t want to see Splatoon in the line-up. Splatoon was built to be a fun, silly game where you play as a kid and also as a squid.
Nintendo built an easy-to-understand, easy-to-play shooter that’s as nonviolent as you can get. Figuring out how to turn that game into an effective spectator sport runs the risk of breaking the design rules that make it so much fun to play. It’s fitting a circular peg into a square hole.
It is a Nintendo game through and through. Splatoon was designed to be a casual shooter, which is exactly what it is. I want to see it maintain its innocence, and esports would not allow that.
Nintendo could certainly bring us something that allows for high-level competition — a game with stakes, tension, match-based progression and unique characters, along with a better system for spectating. We can see a lot of potential for a future Splatoon in some of the ranked specific game modes on the Wii U version, but they need to be tweaked before they can cultivate real drama.
I have no doubt that Nintendo could make a game that’s fun to watch, and the Smash Bros.a series is already a huge hit as a spectator experience. That’s a series that offers everything you need to deliver those amazing moments and exciting turnarounds, and it doesn’t have to compromise its own design language or goals to do so.
Nintendo can make esports work, and I hope we see more games on the Switch that are as fun to watch as they are to play. But Splatoon is not that game.
Ryan Gilliam is a staff writer for The Rift Herald. While he spends most of his time playing and watching League of Legends, Ryan has been known to spend some of his free time playing far too much World of Warcraft and being terrible at Counter Strike: Global Offensive.