Although esports as a whole is incredibly popular, you’d be mistaken to think that it’s easy to break into the industry with a new title. Like inventors binning dozens of ideas before achieving a breakthrough, the esports industry is unapologetic, harsh and even just plain mean sometimes.
A number of games have tried to become the “next big thing”, yet there’s seemingly no rules as to what makes a successful esport. Some, like Fortnite or Apex Legends, hit it big right off the bat, while others struggle to maintain relevance or are dead on arrival.
Rocket League and Rainbow Six: Siege — two relatively new titles — have both been around since 2015, and Overwatch since 2016. Call of Duty and Halo see new releases but are age-old franchises. Dota 2, CS:GO and League of Legends are all around a decade old.
Enter, Splitgate. The newest contender to the competitive FPS throne comes to 2022 guns blazing and wants to shake the industry up. Of course, that is much, much easier said than done, and one might wonder: why do Splitgate developers 1047 Games believe that they can succeed where a plethora of others have failed?
The game first rose to prominence in 2021 when it proved to be a hit amongst a number of Call of Duty content creators. The game was a big success in the summer of 2021 and was praised for its originality yet resemblance to rival FPS title Halo. Splitgate had around 60,000 peak players on Steam in August 2021, but that number dropped staggeringly to around 3000 in early 2022.
The game is now hovering around two or three thousand players on Steam, though the game is also popular on consoles. Splitgate’s team was incredibly small — which makes the late 2021 success even more impressive. It’s apparent that there is potential, but that potential needs to be realised if Splitgate wants to reach the upper echelons of the FPS genre.
Splitgate’s competitive element was always built into the game, but the first official esports tournaments only started late in 2021, after 1047 Games completed a funding round of $100m. Then, in December, a new esports series was announced with a prize pool of $500,000. That’s more than a lot of esports titles with far bigger player- and viewer-bases can boast.
Splitgate’s first competitive efforts were a success, Ian Proulx, CEO, and Co-Founder of 1047 Games, told Esports Insider. Interestingly, Splitgate attributes a lot of that success to an unusual third party; Logitech. The peripheral company’s Esports Services branch worked closely with the game’s developer in creating a competitive landscape that appealed to newcomers — the half a million dollars probably helped as well, though.
Logitech Esports Services’ Head of Partnerships, Andrew Tagher, said that the company fully supports the vision 1047 Games has and aims to support it long-term. This means that Logitech’s expertise will help steer the game and its esports ecosystem.
Splitgate is trying to focus on stable growth, Proulx said. The team hopes to grow each season, and thus reach new audiences and widen the ability for the game to attract bigger sponsors and partners. Everything is still fresh, but 1047 Games can focus on making the game as polished as possible with the funding they have.
Proulx is not a naive man. There’s no doubt that the competitive FPS market is hard to get into, and even harder to stay relevant in. Proulx told Esports Insider that the team was lucky to have a game that was already compelling to watch and had a high skill ceiling. They did not have a lot of manpower to build other aspects of the competitive ecosystem, such as tournament design, broadcast production, and player relations. Logitech took over some of those tasks, and we’re now looking ahead towards the first real competitive season of the Splitgate Pro Series (SPS).
The main appeal of the game, according to its developers, is the addition of portals, a twist on the otherwise familiar competitive arena FPS setting. Imagine playing Portal, but also shooting other players. Or Halo, but with portal jumping.
An interesting twist for Splitgate — and one that could make or break its esports ecosystem — is the inclusion of a promotion-relegation system. Splitgate’s competitive landscape now has two tiers: a top-tier league called the Splitgate Pro Series, and another league called the Challengers Series. While the Pro Series is open to professional players and teams, Challengers is there to provide aspiring teams with the chance to get into the big league.
The system allows for the best teams from the Challengers Series to get to the Pro Series, and the lowest-place team in the Pro League to get relegated at the end of each season. Even though you’re a professional team, you still might not participate in the League two seasons in a row.
Proulx said the thinking behind this is to “open the door to our community, many of whom are really phenomenal players, and maybe discover the next Pro star for our growing game.”
“We think relegation will be one of the SPS components that creates heightened excitement and viewership from fans – which sponsors will appreciate. What’s most important is that we’re enabling our community players to develop their careers and play alongside Splitgate’s best.”
The problem is that professional teams and sponsors want to see their players at the top echelon of the competition, so having a pro team that gets relegated into the lower tier of competition can hurt sponsorships. That’s one of the reasons franchised leagues like the LEC and the CoD League exist: if there’s no risk of relegation, the teams are more valuable for sponsors — they know that the team is going to play every week no matter what.
Yet if you can be relegated, you’ll likely try harder to stay in the League, thus making it more competitive. At the same time, Challengers Series teams will fight hard to reach the Pro Series. The model is more in line with that of traditional sports across Europe, and it remains to be seen whether Splitgate will benefit or bleed from this tournament format.
Splitgate is now in an interesting position. The game’s developers have money to grow and have enlisted the support of Logitech to help with partnerships and logistics. Proulx concluded that the studio plans to grow the game “to an AAA level” during 2022, and grow the studio team along with it.
There are reasons to be optimistic about the title’s esports future, especially considering that the game is fun to watch and has a substantial pile of money to offer to teams. Still, esports is a fickle beast, and even solid fundamentals don’t always ensure success in the incalculable world of esports.