Battling in the Dark: How Esports Struggles to Build True Community and Human Engagement

This is the second in a series of posts on Veebit’s work in the gaming industry. The first is here.

When it comes to community and face-to-face engagement, esports presents a frustrating paradox:

Gamers play passionately together side-by-side and fight head-to-head in the fiercest, most intimate battle environments technology can create – yet we never actually get to meet.

With the exception of live tournaments played by an exalted few, millions of esports gamers start and finish every session in Fortnite, Overwatch, and other modern MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) in the exact same way: faceless, friendless, doomed never to truly connect.

We are forever strangers, playing alone in the dark.

What if we could reliably connect with solid teammates ahead of time to build great teams based on our strengths and weaknesses, our personalities and quirks – and even better, our social chemistry?

What if, by embracing and capitalizing on who we are, we could build friendships and cliques and larger communities online, with all the rich camaraderie, culture, and rivalry enjoyed in real-world team sports?

No Clear Solutions … Yet

The esports industry has been chipping away at the community problem since its inception:

In World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and other veteran esports titles, players have long met up informally in threaded message boards outside the game mechanic, teaming up ad-hoc in hopes of playing together more effectively and leveling up faster individually in-game.

GameSpy built community tools to connect gamers in Battlefield and other titles with matchmaking software, voice chat, leaderboards, detailed portable player profiles, and other technologies.

“We were really trying to bridge the gap between the notion of in-game and out-of-game,” says Todd Northcutt,  SVP of Product and Technology for GameSpy’s longtime parent company, IGN before GameSpy shut down in 2014, and now director of technology at StubHub.

Other developers have picked up the community torch by focusing on the basic logistics of finding teammates, says Northcutt. He points to the up-and-coming DreamTeam and Guilded platforms, which help players screen others for desired skills and common experience and interests so they can build and manage better teams.

But most developers are focusing on skills-based matchmaking alone, without effectively solving the nagging, basic problem of toxic players – let alone fully meeting the bigger challenge of helping players sync at a personal level and collaborate efficiently in team play.

“The most important thing (to success) is just being part of the team, as opposed to going after individual glory,” Northcutt says. “A lot of people who play team-based games are out there to be at the top of the leaderboard,” which doesn’t make for team victory, much less enjoyable team gameplay.

There Is No “I” in “Team”

This win-at-all-costs mentality often undermines the benefits of building the human connections that make for winning teams, says Kate Edwards, CEO of Geogrify, former executive director of the International Game Developers Association, and an advisor to Veebit on culture and team dynamics.

Teams work best when players understand and play their own roles and respect and bolster each other’s roles so that they sync as a single unit, she says. “You don’t want a team full of me,” says Edwards. “You need diversity.”

How can this be accomplished? Rather than addressing players’ need to interact better one-on-one, some big developers with deep pockets seem focused instead on building community and engagement at the audience scale, by enabling one-to-many interactions:

The massive game-streaming network Twitch has augmented the success of its in-stream chat function with the “Extensions” toolset. Extensions lets developers (and streamers) engage their audiences with game-data overlays, leaderboards, cheer functions, in-game rewards known as “Drops,”  and even music requests.

Microsoft is building a set of engagement tools into its own Mixer streaming platform in hopes that an in-stream reward currency that lets viewers interact with streamers will help it compete with Twitch.

The global mutiplayer-hit Fortnite built an in-game environment for casual play and interactions, such as the wildly popular dance-move emotes. This drives community with in-game events such as Feb. 2’s DJ set by Marshmello and the fictitious comet that threatened Fortnite’s 200 million players for weeks before finally smashing into them last May.

“If you look at Fortnite, it’s not just a game, it’s also a space where you can goof around and dance together and create worlds and create your own challenges, and create your own rules,  and meet with friends there,” says Celia Hodent, who led user-experience development for  Fortnite and other Epic Games titles.

Players “are not necessarily here just to compete and be number one, they’re also here to interact,” says Hodent, author of The Gamer’s Brain: How Neuroscience and UX can Impact Video Game Design. “Just like when you play with Lego with your friends, you have the pieces of Lego that are the building blocks that we give away to the players, and they make up whatever they want.”

The trick in adding such interactions to already-complex game mechanics is achieving a balance that will make each gamer feel “competent and autonomous,” says Hodent.

Beyond Basic Audience Mechanics

But can crowd-pleasing, audience-oriented mechanics create community at a one-to-one human scale for all of us still playing alone in the dark?

“There’s no magic wand, but there’s just principles we apply from psychology. Selective Determination Theory is a big one,” says Hodent. The goal “is actually making the gameplay more fun without impeding it” with tools that can improve the team and social dynamics of gameplay, as well as community engagement, she says.

Developers must answer one question, says Brandi House, senior product manager for connected games at Unity, the cross-platform game engine used by hundreds of thousands of Triple-A and independent game developers:

“How do we have experiences where players make lasting connections with each other in games?”

Right now, House says, most developers are using custom-built or commercially-available matchmaking logic that puts players into teams based on three or four coarse metrics: skills, network speed, the wait time they’re willing to tolerate before a game launches, and in some cases, profiles of players who have been flagged for toxic behavior.

But this mechanism is failing to satisfy gamers (as we have pointed out), and it has left the industry in “a rut” where the problem of human connection seems unsolvable, House says.

House says that many gamers (herself included) just turn off chat – the one widespread social mechanic for multiplayer gaming that generally works – so they don’t have to deal with other players screaming in their ears.

We Can Do Better

The current matchmaking model “is disappointing, because it says nothing about whether or not that person is someone you might play with for a long time,” says House.  “You have to figure out how to manage people as humans, to be able to communicate with each other about the challenges you’re all facing as a team and decide how to work together to overcome them. … It’s hard to game-design around the fact that we’re people, and that we’re hard to manage.”

Another challenge is that the human factors that smooth out team development for one game might not work for another.

So, Unity is working on a customizable matchmaking framework for its engine that will let developers decide how to let people connect with each other in their games, she says.

Depending on how developers use the framework, it could help gamers find each other based on how well they enjoyed playing together in earlier games, how closely their social graphs are aligned, or other factors, House says.

“I love multiplayer gaming, and it’s a really hard problem to find people that you want to play with every day,” she says. “But when you do it’s magical. It’s just so fun to go home, get online with the same goofy group of people. You know they give you shit, but in a way that’s fun and loving because you’ve built that trust and that relationship, but it’s a fantastic thing when you get it. And it’s really hard to find.”

Veebit is working to answer that very question, by developing technology that identifies the human factors in every player and correlating it with existing matchmaking metrics to identify the Success Traits™ for each type of game, player, and team dynamic.

Gamers play different games for different reasons, so we are developing psychometric models to make sure they can find others with similar mindsets and optimize their team dynamics to nail those targets.

Our goal is to help gamers find the best possible teammates, to have fun, level up together, and to truly connect – even online in the dark.

This is the second in a series of posts on Veebit’s work in the gaming industry. The first is here.




Mack Reed is Veebit’s Head of Product and oversees the information architecture, use case strategy and user-experience design for the company’s products.