eSports: The Halo Effect

eSports is exploding, as Millennial-heavy communities engage in global tournaments that can offer paydays in the seven figures. With the Halo Universe deep in the game and exploring new frontiers, Cynopsis eSports chief Chris Purcell – and mastermind behind the April 12 Cynopsis World eSports Summit – asked Frank O’Connor, Halo Franchise Creative Director at 343 Industries, about Halo’s legacy in esports, and what we can expect in the year ahead.

Cynopsis: Given Halo’s influence on pop culture, could you rewind us to discuss the evolution of the game as an esport and the growth strategy for the Halo Championship Series and World Championships?

Frank O’Connor: Actually I think our evolution goes all the way back to 2001 when Halo Combat Evolved first launched. It was before Xbox Live, and so to play competitively, even hobbyists had to create mini-tournaments and daisy chain Xboxes and TVs together with LAN cables. Although the lack of online seems at first blush like a limitation for that game – it actually engendered a culture of collaborative competition and “real-life” events. Not to mention creating thousands of indelible friendships – and maybe the occasional enemy!

And when Max Hoberman and the guys at Bungie approached the online multiplayer modes for Halo 2 – the central focus was on trying to recreate that  hypersocial “couch” feel that the LANs introduced, and finding ways to match players based on skill and specific mode interest. Much of the DNA of Halo eSports was germinated in that transition, and with professional and fan made organizations running their own tournaments, it was for a while the defacto console eSports title, along with Street Fighter and a few others.

Throughout the following years, with Halo 3, Halo 4 and now Halo 5, we’ve learned from past successes (and some of our own mistakes) and gone back to our roots of symmetrical, balanced and nuanced gameplay, to try and create something that’s appealing to mainstream folks certainly, but also something that can withstand the rigors and demands of the professional scene.

We hired some serious competitive gamers during the development of Halo 5 that we called “pro team” and their focused, singular role was to ensure the core game and its component features, could stand up to those rigors. There are lots of fun multiplayer games, but eSports requires a title that is genuinely balanced, watchable and exciting to both play and broadcast. We have lots to do still, but our plans for the future are built on that foundation and a commitment to learning what fans and players really need from a title and adapting and evolving the core nature of our sport.

Cynopsis: What were the primary takeaways from the fans from Halo’s 2016 season/World Championships and how are you leveraging that into growing support for 2017 play?

O’Connor: Well tons, to be honest. Not only did we get feedback about the game content, rules and tournament setup, we also got and continue to get, really useful feedback about how brackets, tourneys and open events are, and could be better set up. We do see interesting feedback on a region by region basis, and the idea that our esports competitors and viewers are all in monolithic agreement – I’m sure I don’t need to tell you – is faulty. So while there’s definitely some hard science involved in the numbers, settings and logistics, there’s also a great deal of art and diplomacy involved in finding settings, venues and timing that works for a global community. Based on feedback coming out of Summer Season 2016, we added back in open LAN events to our roadmap, and for the first time this year, Halo World Championship LAN qualifiers were all open events. We will continue to focus on these and have seen great support and reaction from our community as our attendance, participation and viewership continue to grow. We are doubling down on storytelling and content, and hired a new team member specifically to tell the amazing stories of players and teams from around the globe

Cynopsis: With 2017 play now underway, and more franchises picking up Halo teams, what changes are we seeing this season?

O’Connor: We have a team that is focused on continued support for Halo 5, including basic maintenance, making tweaks and adjustments, playlist updates, as well as a few test scenarios that are focused on learnings for our next big game. Naturally we’re not going to mess with successful bits of the formula, so players don’t need to worry about permanent overshields or active camo, but we may test a few things in well-marked hoppers.

Cynopsis: Why select Las Vegas as a stop? What made the new eSports arena intriguing?

O’Connor: The eSports scene is already massive, and growing every day. So while there’s an allure to Vegas with its rich history of sports competition and giant events, boxing, for example, there’s also the matter of scale. Vegas is big enough to support players and fans in terms of hotel and event infrastructure. Picking cities is easy when you’re thinking about event space and player infrastructure, but it’s also important to have cities that work as hubs and have plentiful air and transport options so that fans can get there – and not break the bank in terms of hotels and entertainment.

We want our events to be welcoming and we’re rapidly approaching events that are as big as, and in some cases bigger than traditional physical sports events. The beauty of our sport is that it isn’t tied to a geographical location, like a single stadium, so we can scale to national and international events quite easily.

Cynopsis: From split screen support to Halo Wars 2, etc., what goodies can Halo fans look forward to in the universe in 2017?

O’Connor: Of course 2017 is going to be another big year for Halo 5 – our qualifier events and the HaloWC Finals in March, but we’re also just getting started with Halo Wars 2, so expect additional content and a few announcements in the coming weeks and months. As for future game features, our CVP, Bonnie Ross, recently announced at the DICE conference, that Halo shooters in the future will include split screen mode. This won’t have an effect on Halo 5,but the team is already hard at work on this and other compelling competitive (and co-op) features for future games. Split screen is really important to fans, since it enables competitive and co-op play with minimal setup and maximum social interaction. We know it is a big deal for a bunch of our fans, and we’re committed to supporting it for future games.

 

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words and in targeted Q&As, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at [email protected].

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