What Does the Future of eSports Look Like?
There seems to be more appetite than ever for gaming as a spectator sport. Last year, eSports drew in a total audience of 443 million people, a 12% increase in growth in 2018. This figure is expected to grow another 11.7% this year. The pandemic has brought even more eyeballs to screens; Twitch, one the world’s biggest streaming platforms for gamers, reported that users watched 5 billion hours of content between April and June, a 63% increase in growth from the first quarter. eSports have also been filling the void live sports have left such as Formula 1’s virtual Grands Prix. Many people have been exposed to eSports for the first time, as some of these were broadcast on major television networks.
But eSports have not been completely unscathed by the effects of the pandemic. Typically, tournaments are held in arenas with thousands of in-person spectators and live streamed. Players are situated in the same room, connected to the same network or LAN (Local Area Network). This type of setup is a more reliable way for multiple people to play simultaneously and they run games much faster at reduced latency.
This year, many of these events have either been moved online or cancelled entirely. Whilst it has been possible to connect gamers from across the globe, players and spectators are insolated, and the atmosphere that makes eSports events special has been lost entirely. Connections are also far more unreliable and more susecple to lag, diminishing player experience. It may be some time before in-person events of this magnitude can return, so what can organisers do to not only keep eSports alive but also make them as immersive as possible for players and spectators alike?
Connecting Thousands of Players Online
Current engines cannot support vast numbers of players and struggle to cope with more than a hundred at any given time. If it were possible to support unlimited players from across the world, online gaming would truly become a social platform.
Muxer is a content delivery network designed to make a single simulation available to hundreds and thousands of connected clients. It runs in edge datacentres, sitting close to the client (or player in this case), ensuring a low latency, globally distributed simulation, and operates an asynchronous architecture which ensures thousands of connections are handled simultaneously without needing a single thread per client. Muxer can help support worlds that are simply too large to ﬁt into the memory and bandwidth of any single client as it processes the urgent information first. For example, in a game, it might not send objects behind the player, (or send them less frequently in case they turn around too quickly).
An example of Muxer being used in a globally distributed simulation
Muxer easily integrates with existing gaming ecosystems such as Microsoft Game Stack which includes Azure, a cloud computing platform, and PlayFab, a backend platform used for managing in-game features such as leaderboards, virtual currency and user authentication. A powerful ecosystem like this can elevate gaming experiences and support games of unprecedented scale and complexity. This exact setup underpinned the third phase of EVE Aether Wars, in partnership with CCP Games. Steam provided a platform for centralised comms and delivery of the game and Microsoft PlayFab handled all authentication requirements, client-side analytics and management of cloud infrastructure on Microsoft Azure. Phase Three drew in over 2,800 players, from 80 countries, for sixty minutes with a peak of 1,901 players all enjoying a fluid game. Using a distributed network of 1,024 cores globally, hosted by Microsoft Azure, players enjoyed a more fully-defined overall game experience compared to previous phases.
Creating Immersive Experiences for Spectators
eSports tournaments generate millions of views on live streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. The most-watched eSports event of 2019 was the League of Legends World Championships which achieved a peak of 3.9 million concurrent viewers for it’s semi-finals. The second most watched of 2019 was the Fortnite World Cup which drew 2.3m concurrent views. Despite being a popular method of watching eSports, live streams are pretty passive experiences and apart from being able to leave comments, there is no other way to interact.
Live streaming platforms such as Twitch are evolving into something that people want to see more interactive and dynamic. This is the promise of Crowd Play, a built-in feature for Google Stadia that allows players to jump into a multiplayer game with their favorite streamers and YouTubers. If there is a high influx of players, players are placed into a lobby to wait their turn for the next available match. There are a host of other new startup technologies that are also adding more interactivity to this experience and creating new ways for non-players to participate in the game. Passive viewers will become interactive in-game spectators, without having to install the game.
This interactivity is also something that Muxer can facilitate; in the same way that it can connect hundreds and thousands of players, it can also connect viewers. Entities are simply ascribed with different properties – for example, a viewer would just be able to see the game and not interact, or be seen.
It may be a long time before traditional eSports tournaments can return. However, out of the pandemic lies potential to kick-start the next generation of eSports and if the right technology can be harnessed, a new era of immersive entertainment awaits.