The H1Z1: Fight for the Crown finally aired, and everyone can finally stop holding their breath on that NDA - Obey won, with all five of their members managing to stay alive. An impressive feat, to be sure, and congrats to them.
But anybody who's glanced at Twitch in the last few months knows that there are some serious badasses playing H1Z1. Combine that with some of the premier esports organizations in the world (CLG, Cloud9, and Echo Fox, among others), and it was obvious going in that it would be a raucous, bloody good fight.
But the quality of the competition, especially in this day and age of esports, wasn't up for debate. Most eyes were on the show.
The CW is no stranger to esports, having already picked up Machinima's Chasing the Cup series last year. Some nagging annoyances remain from their previous shows, but it was never in question whether or not the CW and newcomers Vision Entertainment can pull off a great presentation. The question instead was, is H1Z1: King of the Kill ready for primetime?
It pains me to say this, but it really wasn't.
The Esports Game Show
The broadcast (the first of which from newly launched Vision Entertainment) was top notch, comparable to other slick productions like Turner's ELEAGUE. The intricacies of the game were explained well enough for a layman, and you could tell that a lot of passion went into making the show a capsule of the adrenaline-pumping bloodlust that longtime fans know well.
It was all arranged in a neat, polished package that just screamed esports. Casters Goldy and Ceez had their allotted times to analyze and recap, maps were displayed so viewers could easily follow the action, and the drama of following each player's loss or victory was all there, tied together with reactions and seugeways from host Jessica Chobot.
In some cases, these were arguably presented even better than online esports, due to the nature of it being pre-recorded. The magic of editing is a huge advantage when it comes to competitive games, and with this template, virtually any game could conceivably be broadcast to a wide audience. It's not hard to envision a future of esports "game shows," wherein each event is merely an hour-long special.
The future of League of Legends or CS:GO? No. The future Twitch-killer? No. But entertainment is entertainment, and this show was, at its core, entertaining. If all a publisher wants to do is take a game, plop it into a studio, and be able to say "we have esports," they can do that, and the CW's Fight for the Crown is your proof of that.
The problem, then, comes down to the game itself. While Fight for the Crown was a testament to the power and potential of televised esports, it was also an indictment of H1Z1: King of the Kill and its place within the ecosystem.
Not Ready for Prime Time
I'm going to be honest here, the game badly needs to be iterated, evolved, and in some cases, fixed dramatically if developers Daybreak Games want it to have a respectable lifespan in competitive gaming.
Competitive gaming is an experience tailored for spectators almost as much as the players themselves. And unfortunately, H1Z1's graphics look like they're right out of the PS2 era. The "art style" defense falls flat when your graphics are clearly aiming for realism. Yeah, the quality of the visuals don't really matter to games; they certainly don't make a game more or less fun. But they sure as hell matter to television!
But the visuals aren't even the biggest killer. Mechanically, the game could use some work.
Everything just feels floaty. When you're watching a shooter like this played on a high level, you want to be able to feel every impact and shot, not feel like players are essentially ice skating while trying to make a shot. The drama should come from how well a competitor plays the game, not how well the game played them at any given moment.
This really comes down to a question of priorities for Daybreak. New skins and cosmetics are added to the game on a consistent basis, while complaints about its net code and mechanics run rampant in the community. It's beginning to make even the most dedicated of H1Z1's audience look elsewhere, like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.
Why, then, did Daybreak spend their time working with Rick Fox's Vision Entertainment on turning the game into an esport before its time, rather than fixing the game and making sure it's at least functional beyond a base level?
It's not hard to understand their motivation. The sweet allure of revenue now, from cosmetics and microtransactions, is a stronger incentive than slightly fewer software crashes on AMD chipset systems. An esports event, which promises sponsorships, publicity, and new strategic partners within the industry, is almost too much for most game publishers to pass up in 2017.
An esports title comes with a certain amount of responsibility - both to its professional and casual playerbase. Compare the state of King of the Kill with Riot's League of Legends or Valve's CSGO, both constantly being upgraded (both mechanically and graphically) to look and feel as pleasing as possible to players. Even Ubisoft, who in the past has not been known for their community interaction, has started to step up and host weekly town halls to let players know what's coming down the pipe for their competitive titles like For Honor. Put simply, support for your game as an esport goes far beyond events and prize pools.
But here's the thing: H1Z1: King of the Kill is a really cool video game. The core Battle Royale gameplay, the passionate Twitch audience - it's clear Daybreak have captured a moment in gaming. Yet that moment could prove fleeting, and all the slick television production and crate sales won't save them.
The Fight for the Crown really is a fight for viewer's interest - and if that's the fight Daybreak was trying to win, they should've brought their best to the event. As it stands, it looks like they brought a knife to a gun fight.