Its passionate community is intrigued by the prospect, and they’ll swear by its competitiveness, but Halo Wars may yet be a ways off the pro gaming circuit.
With the RTS genre in the midst of an identity crisis, falling by the wayside in an eSports field dominated by the almighty MOBA, Halo Wars is fighting an uphill battle in an attempt to establish itself as a worthwhile participant.
Having 343 Industries on your side definitely helps. The studio in charge of the Halo franchise has seen an aggressive shift towards eSports, embracing that growth with a Halo 5 game that screams from the rooftops about its pro gaming potential.
Halo Wars 2, however, is a little different. It’s still trying to build an audience that demands eSports involvement.
The audience certainly exists in numbers: upon Halo Wars 2‘s reveal at E3 2016, Xbox said the first game clocked more than one million hours per month on Xbox 360 and Xbox One via backwards compatibility.
However, it may not yet have reached a stage to propel itself into eSports glory, though the potential is definitely there.
“eSports is something we’re very excited about the potential for,” lead designer Clay Jensen told me in a soon-to-be-published interview. “It’s something we’ve obviously thought about since the development began on Halo Wars 2. We don’t currently have plans for eSports support, but that’s very conscious actually because ultimately, any desire for eSports is going to come from the community.”
That’s a fairly common rhetoric: the folks behind Titanfall 2 hinted at similar goals. Generally what we see is that a game is made first, and relative to the interest, passion and competitiveness of the audience, eSports value is determined.
Halo 5 may be the exception to that rule: 343 celebrated the game’s eSports friendliness early in its development. The studio appears to be taking a different direction with Halo Wars 2. “We just need to wait and see how things develop,” Jensen said.
What could propel the franchise into the pro arena is Blitz, a new card game that promises to redefine the Halo Wars experience. There are concerns about microtransactions, but the mode still stands to be an exciting and rewarding introduction to both the genre and franchise.
“If Blitz comes to the foreground as something people want to see played more competitively, we’d certainly look into it,” Jensen explained. “And I think that’s the case.”
If Blitz makes the transition, it wouldn’t be the only battle card game to do so. Blizzard’s Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is currently one of the most lucrative and popular eSports games going around. Jensen believes Blitz has the competitive urge to make it as far.
“There’s a lot of great ways to play Blitz. Even Deathmatch and Domination mode, and Strongholds, which offers more resources that you could possibly spend and upgraded units right at the beginning of the game. That’s a really fun mode with a time frame that would be a great candidate for eSports,” Jensen said.
Much like Titanfall 2, however, Halo Wars 2‘s eSports potential ultimately comes down to fan interest. Respawn’s game was a victim of publisher EA’s bizarre schedule cannibalisation, which may have ruined any hopes for eSports growth.
Halo Wars 2 certainly won’t suffer the same fate: it comes at a great time of the year, when Xbox fans are clamouring for something new. Thankfully, they’re getting a new game by way of two fantastic studios in 343 and Creative Assembly, a developer with an impressive RTS pedigree.
But if you have hopes to take your Halo Wars skills on the road, you’re going to need the support of the community around you.
“It’s an organic process,” Jensen continued. “We just want to get the game into everyone’s hands and see what they want to do.”
Halo Wars 2 launches on Xbox One and PC on February 21.