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Overwatch and Dragon Ball FighterZ have what you need to get ahead in esports: characters

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The importance of know who you’re cheering for

Bandai Namco

Build a great game, and the players will come. That saying is often repeated in the world of esports.

It’s true, to some degree. Historically, the strongest competitive games have risen to the top, whether it’s the original mechanical masterpieces, Quake and StarCraft: Brood War, or the current reigning shooter king, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

But that seems to be changing as the esports scene explodes. No longer is it enough to put out a game that just has depth of strategy and mechanics. It’s becoming more and more clear that upcoming esports titles will need to have fully developed worlds — and fully developed characters — on top of mechanical prowess in order to succeed.

The success of Overwatch is clear; it earned over 10 million viewers during the opening day of its premier league. Dragon Ball FighterZ’s quick jump out of the gate proves that, too, with initial sales of 2 million copies. Both games have beloved characters that make them more enticing for new players, which brings in a huge scene and sets them both up for success in esports.

Granted, Dragon Ball FighterZ is using an established franchise, while Blizzard had to create characters from scratch for Overwatch. But both methods serve the same purpose: popularity by way of fandom.

Dropping like a Spirit Bomb

Dragon Ball permeates popular culture. Characters like Goku, Vegeta and Krillin have been ubiquitous in the West since the Ocean English dubs aired in syndication and on Cartoon Network. Dragon Ball Z has transcended nerd culture and made its way to the mainstream, garnering a massive fan base.

Dragon Ball Z’s explosive combat and heavy focus on dramatic set piece battles made it perfect for a video game translation. And yet, for decades, no one seemed to be able to get it quite right. While the Xenoverse and Budokai series sold relatively well on name recognition alone, they’re not great games.

But then came Arc System Works and Dragon Ball FighterZ. Not only did the developer throw together dozens of characters from Dragon Ball Z and Super, it added elements from the Marvel vs. Capcom series and anime fighters like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. It’s a rare fighting game that managed to bring together players from many different scenes to brawl it out.

The result is the fastest-selling Dragon Ball game of all time. Players who were disappointed by lackluster entries in the franchise were stoked to finally have something great to play that featured their favorite characters. Fighting game fans were happy to have a game that offered strong competition and also widespread appeal, ensuring a growing scene. It seemed like everyone was happy, in fact.

But without the Dragon Ball franchise to back it up, would it have reached the same level of success? Would we see Injustice and Mortal Kombat phenom Dominique “SonicFox” McLean and Marvel vs. Capcom legend Christopher “NYChrisG” Gonzalez fight it out in the grand finals of Winter Brawl 12 without both players’ love of Dragon Ball? It’s possible, but the fans’ and players’ love of the franchise and these characters made it much more likely.

The mainstream appeal of Dragon Ball’s characters also helps ensure its placement in big tournaments. A good game will only get you so far; a good game combined with great characters that bring in a lot of viewers will rocket you to the front of the pack.

Arc System Works not only put out a great fighting game at the right time (considering the struggles of direct competitor Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite), it also took advantage of a beloved franchise. And it was rewarded with huge sales and a quickly established place within the fighting game community.

Cheers, love the cavalry’s here

Blizzard didn’t have the same head start on its characters for Overwatch. It had to earn every bit of fandom the old-fashioned way.

The company was up to the task. Overwatch’s cast was an immediate hit, as shown by all of the fan art, ’shipping and general clamoring for more information on all of them after the initial trailer hinted at the game’s backstory. Tracer and D.Va, in particular, seemed to be instant stars.

You can watch the fandom lose its collective mind over every character, video and even animated short that’s released. Take a look at the fervor surrounding the announcement of Brigitte Lindholm. Not only has Blizzard nurtured love for the existing Overwatch characters, it has gained enough trust from fans that any new character is met with immediate love and support.

Whether it was through simple but iconic character design, or more creative means like comics that delved into the game’s lore, Blizzard pulled off a feat that few companies achieve: It created a world with invested fans. The first cinematic trailer showed off the world and these characters much more than it focused on the game itself.

This wasn’t an accident; Blizzard seemed to understand the importance of character and lore very quickly, and has proven much more nimble than other companies in working with the community to keep interest in the characters high.

This makes spectation of the game much more attractive, not to mention easier. Many fans show up to root for their favorite character as much as they cheer on the real-life players. Very few competitive games have this sort of connection between fans and heroes, and it’s a strength that Blizzard continues to lean into.

The focus on strong, well-loved characters also resulted in massive sales, even if players were latching onto characters that didn’t come from pop culture. They’ve since become pop culture. Blizzard has even launched an official league for Overwatch.

Having a great game helped, of course, but having great characters was just as important to Overwatch’s success, if not more so.

What does all this mean for esports?

Every developer with modern esports aspirations has to create a game that’s endlessly deep, relatively easy to watch and balanced enough to make it through the theorycrafting gauntlet. You can’t just get people interested in characters and then go on to esports success, but getting the fans to love and cheer on the characters themselves can be a huge competitive advantage.

These games have to draw people in to find success in esports. And that’s what Overwatch and Dragon Ball FighterZ did so well. They’ve both used their cast of characters to not just get people to buy and play the games, but to get them interested enough in spectating that they’re becoming esports successes in the process.

Esports is littered with failed competitive games, and it’s only going to get worse as other companies chase the success that comes from a strong competitive scene. But the likes of Overwatch and Dragon Ball FighterZ have raised the stakes.

Companies can no longer just focus on creating a deep, enjoyable game. To succeed, they’ve got to have character. And characters.