By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about Cliff Bleszinski’s new studio, Boss Key Productions. And perhaps you felt excitement swelling within after Boss Key’s first game, Project Blue Streak, was announced yesterday. As a lifelong fan of the arena shooter, I was already looking forward to a new Unreal Tournament (even as an entrenched member of Team Quake). And then a second free-to-play arena shooter appears? That excitement has only increased over the last few days. I’m looking forward to playing both UT2014 and Blue Streak, not only because of the anticipated competition between the two, but because both titles could very well dictate the future of shooters in eSports.
I’ve been largely inactive since becoming a full-time writer, but there was a time when I took competitive gaming pretty seriously. I competed at high levels in Battlefield 2, Battlefield 2142, Counter-Strike, Call of Duty 4, the Enemy Territory franchise, and Team Fortress 2. While I hung up my mouse and keyboard a few years ago, I still follow the various eSports scenes with a close eye. Some genres have taken to eSports like a fish to water, particularly the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) segment. One look at Valve’s The Invitational 4 and its $10 million prize purse affirms that. And the StarCraft II-led RTS genre is also very healthy, especially in Asia.
There’s a lot we don’t know about both UT2014 and Blue Streak, but the greatest unknown from an eSports perspective is cold, hard cash. Not cash in the context of development budget, but rather, “how much money are we going to put into competition?” Back in my day, $40,000 in an 8-versus-8 Battlefield 2 tournament was an impressive sum. Now? It needs to be six figures or bust, at minimum. Is Epic going to put up that kind of prize purse? Should I expect a $1 million Unreal Tournament Masters event? And what about Nexon? What kind of eSports events will they partner on?
But the FPS genre has been struggling. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Call of Duty rule the competitive FPS roost, but the prize purses are not at levels I would call impressive. The largest prize for a first-place finish in a CSGO tournament was $100,000 at Dreamhack Winter 2013 (awarded to Team fnatic), while the 2014 Call of Duty Championship winners (Team Complexity ) received $400,000.
Neither of those prizes purses are anything to sneeze at, but let’s keep them in perspective: Dota 2 has the aforementioned $10 million tournament happening right now, and the League Championship Series is a worldwide phenomenon, fueled by a 2013 $1 million-plus grand prize that will surely grow in 2014.
It could be worse for team-based shooters, but arena shooters? The leading lady is still Quake Live, a 2008 FPS that offers little to the average eSports viewer. It’s a six-year-old title, based largely on Quake III, which was released by id Software in 1999. Arena FPS fans are relying on a game with technical roots going back 15 years, and that’s simply not good enough. And the Quake Live prize money is comparatively paltry, at best, with QuakeCon tournament winners nabbing $25,000, while Dreamhack winners take down roughly $8,000.
If one current shooter cannot meet or exceed other genres in eSports, then it’s time for new blood. I’m not expecting immediate and unprecedented success from either Blue Streak or UT2014, but there is serious potential. Both have an established name behind them (Epic for UT2014, and Bleszinski for Blue Streak), rock-solid publishers (Epic and Nexon, respectively), and both will — for better or worse — have an entry point of zero dollars.
Not every game needs a vibrant eSports scene to thrive, but if “arena” is in the description, the cash needs to be there, without a doubt. And if Epic and Nexon don’t understand that, then they shouldn’t bother with releasing arena shooters in the first place.
I’m very excited for both Unreal Tournament and Blue Streak, but that excitement is not shared by all. Die-hard Unreal Tournament fans, including our own CJ Miozzi, view the Blue Streak announcement — both the name and the timing — as an affront towards Epic and the soon-to-be-revisited UT franchise. And I can’t blame CJ for his feelings to a certain point — for me, it would be like Grim Fandango 2 being announced, sans-Tim Schafer, only to have the industry luminary announce “Return to El Marrow,” a short while later. Conflict abound!
I empathize with cranky UT fans, yes, but I hardly view Blue Streak as an FPS conspiracy. Bleszinski, who left Epic Games in October 2012, has been talking about his post-Epic work since at least last August. Are you really surprised that his next project is an arena-style first-person shooter? Is gullible written on the ceiling?
Epic and Bleszinski are both making free-to-play sci-fi arena shooters, and they’re both coming sooner rather than later. You know what that tells me? Bleszinski — and this is absolutely speculation on my part — wanted to revisit the Unreal franchise while he was at Epic, and either wasn’t allowed to, or didn’t like the initial direction of the project. Epic is a powerhouse, and sometimes the vision of the top brass doesn’t jive with the top creatives or technical talent. It happens more than you know — just ask John Carmack.
Two rival arena shooters will, at worst, not impact each other in any significant fashion. But I’m an optimist, and the mere existence of Blue Streak will push the UT team at Epic to create a truly special product. And the same can be said when the roles are reversed; knowing that Epic will make a big splash with Unreal Tournament can only serve as motivation for Nexon, Boss Key, and Bleszinski.
The rivalry could also go beyond ideas and eSports, and cross over into the technical. If both titles are built on Unreal Engine 4 (again, pure speculation when it comes to Blue Streak), it will be a treat to see which company implements the platform in a more compelling fashion.
Competition in game development is good. It’s great, in fact. The mere existence of Blue Streak is good for Epic because it will (hopefully) light that proverbial fire under their rear end, or make the existing fire even bigger.
I’m pulling for both games to be huge hits, if only so I can dust off my competitive gene, and get back to my heady eSports days of yesteryear.