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No $4,000 PC needed: To dominate mobile esports, you just need a phone

Seated in the front row, I had a prime spot for watching the opening rounds of the 2017 Vainglory mobile esports spring championships, and I was totally focused on the big-screen entertainment in front of the stage, where the players were seated. I leaned forward, along with the other spectators, as the action increased. The chatter in the event space intensified, turning into shouts and gasps, while fans yelled encouragement. A crucial move was executed, and I shouted with the crowd, clapping as one team neared its first win of the day. I was absorbed by the game, the experience, and the spectacle. Yet less than 48-hours earlier, I wasn’t even aware of its existence.

It came as a surprise to learn Vainglory is the world’s number one mobile esport, and this year is its second championship season; but that doesn’t mean it’s widely known. PC and console games may dominate esports, but to mainstream audiences the concept is still relatively niche. Mobile eSports even more so; but this may not remain the case for long. Kristian Segerstrale, CEO of Vainglory developer Super Evil Megacorp, says the smartphone’s ubiquity will create “borderless esports.” Digital Trends spoke to him about it ahead of the first day of the Vainglory Spring Championships in London.

Vainglory is the world’s number one mobile esport, and this year is its second championship season.

“The opportunity with mobile, now the devices are capable of PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 level graphics and the networking has become very stable, is that real-time play is now possible,” he said. “Mobile is such a democratising device, and so many people have one, we are able to bring a form of entertainment that has been somewhat niche until now, to potentially billions.”

Comparing it to PC esports, he used traditional sports as an analogy to drive home the point. “It’s the difference between something like ice hockey, where you need skates and all the right equipment, and something like football, where all you really need is a ball.”

That makes it way more approachable than PC or console esports

“If you have a phone you can download the game, it’s free,” Segerstrale said. “We find a third friend and that’s it, now we’re a team. It’s that easy.”

However, anyone who follows mobile tech knows there’s still a performance difference between a smartphone that costs $100, and one that costs $800. Do Vainglory pro-gamers need to own the latest and greatest devices, or face a disadvantage when playing others equipped with them? Vainglory will run on pretty much any device made in the last four years, Kristian told us, before bringing Alessandro Palmarini, known as Palmatoro and a member of the Fnatic team in London, into the conversation.

Palmarini said the choice of device is more about gameplay style preferences than performance, in a similar way that many PC esports players use a particular mouse and keyboard to play. Palmarini’s device of choice? An iPad Pro, because of the extra screen real-estate.

Palmarini began playing Vainglory on an iPad, and despite trying, he cannot convert over to a phone. Others may not share his feelings, and will avoid a big-screen tablet because of the time it takes to move fingers from one side of the screen to the other. Milliseconds count here.

The majority of players I saw used a tablet, although one player was using his thumbs on a smartphone, and I was told of another major player who uses a finger and a stylus. It’s completely individual, but one thing was clear, the power of the device is largely irrelevant. This further democratises mobile esports, because there’s little incentive to rush out and buy the newest device the moment it’s released. The game runs on a server, so the phone is effectively just a controller. Network speed is considerably more important.

[Palmarini] never set out to be a pro-player, and hadn’t competitively played another game.

Palmarini’s got involved with Vainglory competitively after seeing the game during Apple’s 2014 keynote presentation, when it was used to illustrate the new Metal API to enhance game performance. He then promptly forgot all about it. Fast forward to when his parents took away his PlayStation, as he was supposed to be studying for exams, he downloaded Vainglory and started playing. He never set out to be a pro-player, and hadn’t competitively played another game.

Palmarini qualified for the first European championship in Poland aged 15, convinced his parents — who had never heard of Vainglory or esports — that he should attend, and went on to win. When asked about the amount of time he has to spend practicing, just to maintain this high standard of play, Palmarini said, “I’m not really practicing because I have to, it’s because I actually want to play.” Now part of Fnatic’s Vainglory team, he will take a gap year to concentrate on his pro-gaming career, before thinking about university.

The live Vainglory Spring Championship, which took place at the famous O2 Arena in London, has considerable importance. Not only is it the first time Europe met North America on home soil, but the European teams hadn’t beaten a North American team competitively at that time. There’s also the lure of a $75,000 total prize fund, and the potential for drama is obvious. However, for mobile esports (and esports in general) to become successful, it needs to engage spectators.

I went in as an almost complete beginner, never having even played the game. The night before attending the event, I spent a couple of hours watching YouTube tutorials, and reading up on the game’s characters, setting, and objective. That was enough for me to follow the proceedings, and understand the commentary. This was also a surprise. I didn’t want the commentators to be irritating, and it wasn’t. Instead, it was informative and fun, just like it should be. Having watched League of Legends competitive gameplay before, and finding it almost impenetrable, this event was refreshing, and Super Evil Megacorp has worked hard to make it happen. Kristian told us the team tailors every aspect of the game, “from how the camera moves, to how the characters communicate on screen” to make it as clear as possible.

Andy Boxall
Andy Boxall

Vainglory wasn’t really conceived as a competitive esport.

“You can’t make a new sport,” Segerstrale said. “What we can do is try to create the most fun competitive experience we can, that you can play with friends, and hope the community will pick it up and start playing it competitively.”

Today, there are more than 6,000 competitive teams registered with esports organizations around the world, and it’s growing all the time — it’s safe to say these ambitions are being met.

However, it’s what happened after leaving the spring championship that shows how mobile is on the cusp of bringing esports to everyone. Vainglory is now installed on my phone, and if my schedule had allowed, I would have returned to watch the finals a few days later. Instead, I caught up with the livestream. North American team Cloud9 took the title, but not before G2 broke Europe’s bad luck streak and won two games against North American teams.

I’d looked at esports before, and was interested in the concept; but found it too complicated, too exclusionary, and too time consuming to learn the associated rules. Vainglory captured my attention at a polished and enjoyable live event, and turned me into a fan after a few hours research. Not really as a player, but as a spectator, and that’s perhaps more important to the sport overall. Vainglory is leading the mobile eSports pack at the moment, but others are sure to follow, making this an ideal time to get involved.

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