Autochess Esports - Underlords vs Teamfight Tactics

When it comes to PC-based MOBA games in 2019, the two main esports titles that still remain relevant in the marketplace are DOTA 2 and League of Legends, each with their own unique gameplay elements. While the “original” mainstream MOBA was Defense of the Ancients, League was able to appeal to a wider audience with better timing on crucial gameplay features. The end-result was Riot building the biggest game title in esports history. Still, the rivalry between Valve and Riot continues.


Related: Best TFT cheat sheets: Patch 9.14 comps, items and builds

Today, we’re witnessing the birth of a new genre: Autochess. As a mod made in DOTA 2’s powerful custom game tool, DOTA’s autochess quickly became a phenomenon that attracted even League of Legends players to it. Valve was quick to recognise the potential and purchase the game itself, relaunching it as DOTA Underlords. Riot were forced to respond, and began developing their own version.

With Valve beating Riot to the punch this time around, the question remains: Which version of Autochess is more likely to succeed as an esport?

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Circuit - Open or Closed?

Neither game has developed their audience enough to separate the Autochess viewership from the main game. Most people interested in watching either title on Twitch, are generally fans of the original Dota 2 or LOL.

This is where the type of circuit becomes incredibly important. DOTA, which generally has an open circuit where anyone can organize a tournament, has more opportunities for people to host small tournaments from a grassroots level. Instead of requiring an entire league system, something Riot is famous for having perfected, Valve incentivises people to build their own events and broadcast the action on any platform they like.


We’ve seen numerous examples of leagues in recent history that have top-down enforcement and haven’t produced stellar results. Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm proved underwhelming. There have been times when the COD World League haven’t been able to translate their massive social media reach into numbers. And if you’re willing to go back far enough then the CGS, featuring Counter-Strike Source, failed due to the same kind of top-down design.

The advantage of the market dictating the short term spectator experience can be colossal, but that reliance on the market can be a problem too. It is undeniable that League of Legends has flourished under Riot’s firm hand, growing year-on-year. If Riot are able to build a successful closed circuit for Teamfight Tactics, then they will lead the way for production quality.

Riot initially did have an open circuit for their flagship game. ESL, and multiple other tournament organisers invested heavily into the League of Legends community, before Riot slowly weaned them off. Something similar could happen with TFT, assuming Riot can stomach the risk of tarnishing their image of having “The Perfect Broadcast”. Given the pros and cons, our money is on the DOTA open circuit taking an early lead, particularly as initial success comes down to the playerbase. Here, we look at Asia.


Market Penetration

Teamfight tactics has been successful in the West, but surprisingly enough, Riot hasn’t been able to reach Eastern markets quite as well. If you compare the Google searches for TFT and related terminology to that of Underlords, then the geographical reach is completely different. Excluding Korea, Riot’s TFT shows the highest amount of interest in European countries, Canada, Australia and parts of South Brazil. In comparison, Autochess is heavily searched for across Asian countries.

In the past, Riot has had a brilliant distribution strategy, tying in with PC café culture in Asia. Valve, however, has come out ahead with thier mobile app, giving them a massive boost in these markets. Although the viewership is currently much stronger for TFT, the cultural spread of turn-based games can cause an Asian cult classic to be born.

There are many examples of games in the East massively beat out their Western counterparts. Crossfire is soon to have a franchised esports league introduced in China, outranking Counter-Strike by far. The Asian market is made of customers who stay very loyal to their particular game because of the strong social network effect. Players are used to gaming in a group, particularly visiting PC gaming cafés together, and this is a huge factor determining success of a title.

On the other hand, Western audiences have higher spending power. This makes them more lucrative for organisers when looking for esports sponsors, and creating the revenue sources needed to grow an esports league.

Ultimately both sides have certain advantages but one thing is for certain. If Riot misses out on the Asian market due to the delay in releasing TFT on mobile, it’s going to be incredibly hard to grow after Underlords has already taken root. On the other hand, the Western market could be swayed by the proven success and marketing power of Riot. The recent Battle Royale craze, demonstrates that the right product can work anywhere in the world.


Influencers and Reddit

Influencer marketing is the current zeitgeist in esports. Games like Fortnite, PUBG and in the past League of Legends, have all had massive influencers boosting viewer numbers and bringing new fans into the game continuously. Valve games, on the other hand, have traditionally been less effective at producing as many big influencers.

The success of a new title in esports can be strongly tied to how often it appears in the top games list on Twitch. Breaking the hegemony of Fortnite, CS:GO, League of Legends and other such popular games can be difficult even at the best of times. Teamfight Tactics has the advantage of a long list of existing influencers, possibly due to the difference in demographics. It usually maintains its position in the top five watched titles, despite not capturing the Asian market in the same way as League. Part of this can be chalked down to large League of Legends streamers who have been drawn to the game as an easy transition from their old LOL beat.

Underlords hovers closer to the top 20 mark, with viewership generally seen around the 10-15k mark. Although the introduction of tournaments could see this changing, Valve haven’t been as active in trying to help build up the streaming community on their own, maintaining their hands-off approach to the game. By contrast, Riot has already partnered with Twitch Rivals to host a $125,000 tournament, with the Rivals brand bringing with it a slew of big influencers. We're already seeing people like Hafu making their way towards the top of streaming in TFT, and it’s understandable why the viewership for TFT as a whole hovers between 80-120k viewers. It probably helps that unlike DOTA, much more of the League viewership has transitions over to watch TFT streams.

Just as important as influencers is the reddit community that builds around your game. The bigger your community, the more content creators will want to get involved, the more viewership comes through, and the more positive feedback you get, and the cycle continues. The League subreddit is famous for being a content creator’s dream, and Teamfight Tactics doesn’t look to be changing that at all. Although Underlords marks an impressive community of their own with 55k subscribers, TFT is more than double the size at 114k.

A lot of this could be due to a stronger reach in the West where reddit is all-pervasive, but there's no doubt that this leads to a cycle of influencers, Twitch clips, Youtube content, and articles continuously written about the game. A large subreddit doesn’t always mean a community ready to embrace esports too, as Overwatch has demonstrated, so we’ll have to wait to see how the trends unfold online.

The Verdict

Teamfight Tactics could be the next esport title that everyone in the mainstream is talking about if Riot's strategy goes to plan. Strong viewership and lucrative markets mean that Teamfight Tactics is the title most-likely to break into the 2020 esports calendar. If you’re wondering which title will have more mainstream coverage, it’ll probably be TFT.

Underlords, however, has the potential to grow from its cult following in the autochess genre, especially in the Asian markets. With the explosion of esports in that region, we might see more longevity in Valve’s title rather than the influencer-reliant TFT. Esports with a firm grassroots foundation are more likely to stick around longer, and if Riot is solely reliant on influencer-marketing then they may find themselves losing the Autochess race for dominance.