With Halo 5, Microsoft Seeks to Lure E-Sports Players Back

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With Halo 5, Microsoft Seeks to Lure E-Sports Players Back
A team of hundreds here was recently putting its final touches on a video game expected to be one of the biggest sellers of the holiday season.

The game, "Halo 5: Guardians," will depict interstellar combat in new levels of graphical realism and offer new twists in multiplayer capabilities. It will be the latest game in the "Halo" series, one of the biggest in the industry, with more than $3.5 billion in global sales, almost the global box-office take of the "Fast & Furious" movie series.

But Microsoft, the company that makes the game, cannot afford to coast on warm feelings alone for the "Halo" series, as other big game franchises, like "Call of Duty," have overshadowed it. So the team making the game, as well as Microsoft's marketing machine, is focusing on the booming world of competitive video games - in particular, making sure that it appeals to elite gamers.

The world of e-sports, as the competitive video game world is known, was long an afterthought for game makers. That is quickly changing, though, as e-sports events fill giant arenas and millions of people watch live video of competitions online.

Now, for Microsoft and other game makers, e-sports is considered a crucial leg to the multimillion-dollar marketing push - a way to extend a game's reach to a highly dedicated group of gamers. As part of that push, Microsoft announced Tuesday that its "Halo" competition would give away a total of $1 million in prize money, the most ever for the game.

"The bottom line is all game developers everywhere are looking for ways to turn their games into e-sports titles," said Rahul Sood, a former Microsoft executive who is now chief executive of Unikrn, a startup that runs a site for betting on e-sports.

In part, the interest from the companies is the result of the money pouring into e-sports. Revenue from tickets to e-sports events, corporate sponsorships and other sources are expected to increase by 30 percent to more than $250 million this year, according to Newzoo, a market research firm that analyzes the industry.

Fans of e-sports are also some of the most dedicated gamers. Newzoo estimates more than 113 million e-sports fans worldwide. Many of them are the most committed and loyal gamers anywhere, playing the games, watching them online and paying for all sorts of extras to enhance their experience. For them, e-sports competitors are celebrities of the highest order.

"The pros who play e-sports are famous," said Bonnie Ross, head of 343 Industries, the Microsoft game studio here in the Seattle suburbs that develops "Halo." "They're icons who people who look up to. These are people that fans aspire to be."

That leaves a big moneymaking opportunity for game makers - an opportunity that is particularly acute for Microsoft, which not only makes "Halo" but the video game console that the game is played on.

The console, the Xbox One, is trailing in sales behind Sony's PlayStation 4. All games in the "Halo" series have been available only on the Xbox, and the game has been a leading driver of sales for earlier Xbox consoles. "Halo 5," which goes on sale Oct. 27, is the first new version of the game created for the Xbox One, and Microsoft executives are hoping that history can repeat itself.

"It is the singular, defining franchise of Xbox," said Dennis Fong, a former professional game player who is now chief executive of Raptr, a social network for gamers. "The more people engaged with the 'Halo' brand, the better it is for Xbox and Microsoft."

Last year, the company introduced its own tournament, the "Halo" Championship Series, where teams blast each other away for cash prizes. A "Halo" tournament that ended last month had total prize money of $150,000. Microsoft hopes the $1 million in prize money and better organization will lure more high-level competitors into "Halo" contests.

It was not that long ago, though, that Microsoft did not pay much attention to e-sports. In the mid-2000s, "Halo" became an organic hit with the fledgling scene of competitive gamers who played for prize money. It was an impeccably designed shooter, with one of the best multiplayer experiences in games, which became an essential ingredient in games.

Major League Gaming, an early e-sports business that brought more professionalism and organization to game tournaments, made "Halo" the pillar of its competitions.

But then interest in "Halo" among professional gamers and spectators began to slip. In 2012, Major League Gaming dropped "Halo" from its tournaments, teaming up instead with Activision to feature "Call of Duty," a combat shooter that was attracting more attention.

"We pulled back our investment on 'Halo,'" said Sundance DiGiovanni, chief executive of Major League Gaming. "Audience numbers were going into decline. The community wasn't as engaged."

"E-sports at time just wasn't a priority for the studio," said Che Chou, franchise media director at 343.

It didn't help the game's standing among professional gamers that a new version of "Halo" that came out in 2012, "Halo 4," frustrated many of them. It was the first original game in the series developed by Microsoft's 343. (Bungie Studios, the creator of the "Halo" franchise, spun out of Microsoft in 2007, leaving Microsoft with ownership of the franchise.)

In gamer parlance, "Halo 4" was "poorly balanced." At the start of a match, the game sometimes assigned players weapons and other equipment that were far more powerful than those given to other players - a jetpack, say, that allowed them to snipe at rivals from above. That kind of randomness can appeal to casual players but it is abhorred by professionals, who want competitive bouts decided based purely on playing skills.

"They were not happy about those elements at all," DiGiovanni said. "It was very hard to play the game."

When "Halo" fell out of favor among e-sports players, other games began to take off, often ones that were created with high-level competition in mind and that came from developers that invested heavily in events for professionals. Riot Games has turned "League of Legends," its multiplayer online battle arena, into the most watched e-sport in the world, with 40,000 attendees at its finals in South Korea last year.

For the last few years, Activision has offered a prize pool of $1 million to its own championship for "Call of Duty." A championship series for Valve's battle game "Dota 2," occurring in a Seattle sports arena this week, has a prize pool of more than $18 million, the biggest in e-sports.

To make sure the game appeals to competitive gamers with high skill levels, 343 has put together an eight-person team of professional players who test "Halo 5" every day. Frank O'Connor, franchise development director for "Halo," said the game would have the balance in game play that once made "Halo" so popular with e-sports competitors.

"With 'Halo 5,' we're getting back to what the core of the game is," O'Connor said.

Professional "Halo" players said Microsoft's new support for e-sports, including clearer rules and better prize money, will help the competitive "Halo" scene grow.

"For us players, it makes life that much easier," said Michael Chaves, a professional "Halo" player who, like his peers, is better known by his online gamer name, Flamesword. "Microsoft is listening."

© 2015 New York Times News Service


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