While I enjoy esports, I’m most excited about indie video games, and the incredible potential both have to help each other grow. More than 75% of all PC games are created by independent game developers.
That includes esports hits like Rocket League, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), and League of Legends. Speaking candidly, it’s likely that more than 75% of ALL video games are created by independent game developers, but the PC ecosystem is the only one that provides free access to that data. Unfortunately, because game discovery has been broken for over 30 years, indie games only make 2% of the global gaming industry’s revenue.
If it looks like nobody is playing indie games, based solely on revenue, then how can they be the future of esports? It seems counter-intuitive at first, maybe even a little crazy, but I’m sure you’ll agree with the logic here.
While AAA game studios are more driven by creating concepts that have mass-market appeal, indie devs are more driven by creating niche, novel gameplay experiences. It’s that focus on novelty, that inspired an indie dev team to create a soccer game that you play with rocket-powered RC cars: Psyonix’s Rocket League was born. Fun fact: Electronic Arts created the “EA Originals” program “to find the next Rocket League”; ironically, the Rocket League team had actually pitched their concept to EA in the past, and EA turned it down.
We can even thank indie games, for the entire Battle Royale trend. PlayerUnkown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) was created by Bluehole Studios, an independent game development studio in South Korea. The Bluehole Studios team paid Epic Games to enhance the Unreal Engine so that it could create a game that supported 100 players. Epic Games saw so much potential in Bluehole Studios’ game concept, that “it inspired them” to apply it to a poorly-performing tower defense game. You and the rest of the world know that game now as Fortnite, and the rest is history (including the lawsuit). As you can see, by the sheer volume of games produced by indie devs, it’s only logical that the majority of esports titles will naturally be indie games.
That covers the supply side of the esports equation, but what about the demand? Think about how many people in your family played video games, because Nintendo made them accessible via the Wii, WiiU, and/or Switch. Nintendo showed that family-friendly video games can appeal to people of any age. Compare that to the typical parent’s sentiment about more mature games like Mortal Kombat and Call of Duty. Now, consider the political climate and public opinion related to violent video games.
It’s my professional obligation to inform you, that research indicates there is NO statistically significant link between violent video games and gun violence. In speaking with multiple universities about esports events, I can confirm from first-hand experience, their apprehension of being associated with any games that involve guns or are mature-rated. That impacts 60% of the top 10 esports games of 2019.
If you’ve been playing any new games since quarantine began, there’s a good chance you’ve played indie video games this year, too. Fall Guys and Among Us are both “newcomers” (the air quotes are important later) to the gaming industry that have exploded in popularity these last few months. Both of those games were also created by independent game development studios. Their tremendous success in such a short period of time (both are up for the “Best Game of the Year” award) highlights the value of bringing fresh ideas into an ecosystem becoming increasingly stale by first person shooters and MOBAs.
I’m in awe at the brilliant simplicity of the indie video game Fall Guys. The indie team (they’re one of the largest in the UK, so diehards might debate you about if they’re still “indie”) at Mediatonic Games took the “Battle Royale” experience that Fortnite made popular, and removed all the violence. As a result, the family-friendly experience has become the most downloaded game on PS4 of all time. It’s truly remarkable to see K-12 and Higher-Ed schools eager to bring Fall Guys on campus, when many of the same institutions have prohibited other games like Call of Duty.
While it wasn’t hosted in a traditional sports arena like you might expect from the likes of Call of Duty, indie video game Among Us has certainly made a name for itself. It’s been downloaded over 217M times, generated over 4B views in September, and has even become a favorite for a number of politicians around the world. In fact, Among Us has become so prominent in the esports ecosystem, that FaZe Clan hosted their own invitational tournament. That’s incredibly significant, when you consider that FaZe Clan has a total of 80M followers in its social media community, and that Among Us was created by 3 game developers.
Speaking of FaZe Clan, I was intrigued to see their Chief Revenue Officer recently suggest that FaZe may consider developing its own indie video games. His rationale was that esports teams/organizations don’t have a seat at the table with the established/popular games, so FaZe may need to create their own games if they want sustainable revenue. FaZe seems to be following in the footsteps of Tempo Storm, an esports oganization that raised $3M to fund the development of their own card game. Tempo Storm’s CEO has past experience in game development, and seems to be scratching a Hearthstone “itch”, so his decision to make his own game makes sense to me. However, I caution other esports orgs trying to jump blindly into game development, just because they want a larger slice of the revenue pie. As FaZe Clan already knows first-hand, It’s easier said than done.
I just stopped myself from going off-topic on a “the harsh reality of game development” tangent (that’s for another article/time), so i’ll just leave you with one statistic and two recognizable names instead. 1,181,019: that’s the number of games that exist in the industry, as of Q1 2019. When you consider that Steam averaged 30 new game per day in 2019, you get a sense of how competitive the games marketplace is. It’s a concept that’s difficult to truly understand, unless you’ve dedicated years to studying the problem. Did you hear about the colossal flop of Amazon’s esports title Crucible? Keep in mind that Amazon has direct access to 140M monthly active users through Twitch, and nobody is playing Crucible. Amazon launched Crucible on May 20th, and after just 5 short months, announced they’d be permanently shutting it down.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Gears of War. Well, GoW’s famous game designer Cliff Blezinsky decided to start his own game development studio too. He created Boss Key Production in 2014, but despite his celebrity status in the industry, he had to close his studio in 2018 due to lackluster sales. Oh, and Among Us technically launched back in 2018; practically no one played it for 2 years, and the team had actually moved on to another game, when Among Us accidentally went viral. Again, I’ll do a deep-dive into the challenges of game development later, so for now let’s get back to the value at the intersection of indie games and esports.
The massive opportunity for esports and indie games, is how they complement each other. Esports brings massive visibility to games, but needs creative and family-friendly games to reach a broader audience. Indie games provide novel experiences, and even create new gameplay genres in some cases, but are in dire need of more visibility to larger audiences. Take Brawlhalla, for example. This family-friendly game from indie studio Blue Mammoth Games improves on the Super Smash Bros. formula in nearly every way, which is why i’m not surprised that their indie studio was recently acquired by the AAA game publisher Ubisoft.
Together, indie games make esports more accessible to family and schools, while esports delivers the mainstream exposure that indie games need to succeed alongside AAA games from publicly-traded video game companies. Don’t be surprised, if a clever entrepreneur finds a way to combine the best of both worlds. In the meantime, keep an eye out for indie games like Rift of Raigard (above), from the Dun Rite Games team in San Diego; you’ll be seeing big things from them soon. You can also read more about Dun Rite Games’ founder in my new book.