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Balance, the key to everything

In the words of the great John Wooden, next to love, balance is the most important thing, and that is just as true for esports as it would be for life, relationships or basketball, Wooden’s field of expertise. We’ve seen practically limitless whining about the topic when it comes to CSGO, with the price reduction of the scoped AUG having prompted many pros to complain, and the conclusion of the Rainbow Six Invitational in Montreal also threw up some interesting stats about operator picks and the balance of the game at the top level.

For those not in the know, Rainbow Six is somewhere between Team Fortress 2 and CSGO, where tactical, objective based play combines with specific operator abilities that interact with the map and the players in certain ways. Think Overwatch, but instead of it being a multi-coloured, fast moving blur, the game is a bit slower, and easier to understand, especially if you already have some playing experience.

The recent Invitational, with a $2m prize pool and international audience, was a real success, but also highlighted some issues with the operator balance, and specifically two characters - Fuze and Tachanka. Neither was picked during the entirety of the event, making it pretty clear they have no place in high-level play, and none of the information Ubisoft released about their plans for the future suggests that is going to change anytime soon.

Counter-Strike's crisis

Rainbow Six is far from the only game with such issues, as CS is currently undergoing a crisis of identity. For years the game was about hip fire, unless you were a sniper, but a small reduction in the price of the scoped AUG has made many top players realise it’s actually superior in many ways to the de facto CT gun, the M4. So far the ones to adapt have come out on top, while those who cannot change are complaining, but that’s only a small part of the issue.

Within CS, there are many guns that simply never see play at the top level, regardless of the map or opponent. Things like the M249 and Negev are only mentioned if they are bought by accident, while the autosniper is a one-round-a-half novelty if you have money to piss away and an in-game leader who is feeling indulgent. The same applies to almost every shooter going right now, both for abilities and guns, and has done since developers first gave the player a choice of how they want to play.

The main, and most obvious reason for this is that games do include variety, normally for the casual player, but esports is all about finding the best way to win, rather than the most fun way to play. You might have a blast running around with a shotty in CS, but outside of a few spots you’re never going to find the advantage over a rifle user, and the same goes for Rainbow Six. We all love Fuze for the memes, but when it’s the lion’s share of $2m you’re playing for, fun has to take a back seat to necessity.

Developer’s nightmare

This is an issue for pretty much every game developer seeking to create a competitive scene, due to the fact they all need a more casual player base for their title to turn a profit. Even a 20-year-old game like Smash Bros Melee is going through the same growing pains, as low-level players campaign for a ban on Wobbling, a technique that has little to no effect at the top level due to it only being good if you are bad or lazy in terms of your preparation.

Part of the issue is the fact that developers have a history of acquiescing to user requests, at least in the FPs category, although the number of times that sort of behaviour has led to improvements in the game can be counted on the hand of a blind butcher. Part of the problem is also that players are simply not able to grasp the game at the top level, and the difference between what they see on screen and what they are able to execute themselves, and would rather blame the game than any lack of skill on their part.

The question for developers is therefore simple, how far do they go in order to appease the professionals, knowing that their bread and butter is the casual market? In Ubisoft’s case, only two of the 44 characters not being used suggests they are getting it largely right, while CSGO has equally demonstrated how robust it can be in the face of change too, but there are going to be titles that have to make a decision, or lose their competitive integrity.

Happily, there is space for everyone if only people know what they are doing, and what they want from their games, with Fortnite probably the perfect example. As long as the game is being pushed toward esports, it will face criticism, and rightly so, as it is designed to be fun for everyone regardless of skill level. Once the developers realise it can be an exhibition game at best, rather than a fully competitive title, the users will also have a better time and be able to enjoy more of the events and special occasions the game does so well.

There are great reasons for chasing esports too of course, but maybe down the line people will understand that every great shooter doesn’t need to be a competitive title too, and stop chasing games that are balanced for elite play. The grave of Bungie’s Destiny should serve as stark reminder as to what happens if you let the lunatics take over the asylum, and esports can’t afford to see R6S, let alone CSGO to go that way.

Image: ESL R6