Reviewing the Evolution of Traditional Sports — Looking to the Future of Blockchain Gaming

Source: PUBG, FIFA, Fornite, CS:GO, Dota 2, League of Legends, Minecraft, NBA 2K, Rocket League, Axie Infinity

PlayFi is a promising route to integrate blockchain technology into gaming. Drawing on the evolution of traditional sports, this article expands on the topic and discusses three quintessential elements of a PlayFi game. No existing games fit the bill perfectly. This presents a large yet under-explored market for blockchain gaming. It’s an open race that still awaits winners to emerge.

TL;DR

  • PlayFi is a promising route to integrate blockchain technology into gaming. A successful PlayFi blockchain game must satisfy three elements, mobile-first, easy to learn & hard to master, and teamwork-oriented multiplayer.
  • A mobile-first game allows maximum accessibility.
  • A game is easy if you can explain the basic rules to your grandma in 15 seconds. Replayability is a measure of “hard to master.”
  • A teamwork-oriented multiplayer game generates much more emotion and is more engaging, but role balance matters.
  • Mobile esports is a large yet under-explored market opportunity for PlayFi. There is room for 3 or 4 mobile games that are at least as popular as CS:GO or Dota 2

Status of Blockchain Gaming

Blockchain gaming had a breakout year in 2021. Popular games such as Axie Infinity and The Sandbox not only became household names within crypto but also attracted mainstream attention. However, the play-to-earn model (P2E) that forms the backbone of blockchain gaming is flawed. The current offering lacks effective in-game sinks for players to store value in an open economy instead of trading for profit. Once selling pressure of NFTs and in-game currency piles up, financial gains diminish, and players (farmers) move on to the next game. The P2E model has not yet been able to achieve sustainable success.

To improve P2E, Delphi Digital introduced a new monetization model called “PlayFi” in The Future of (Crypto) Gaming. PlayFi is similar to the model of professional sports. The game itself is free-to-play and skill-based. Monetization happens around the core game. For example, players need not purchase NFT characters to get started. Instead, they will spend money attending live tournaments, acquiring souvenir NFTs, etc. PlayFi particularly suits esports-esque, competitive titles.

PlayFi is a promising route to integrate blockchain technology into gaming. Drawing on the evolution of traditional sports, this article expands on the topic and discusses three quintessential elements of a PlayFi game. The three elements are mobile-first, easy to learn & hard to master, and teamwork-oriented multiplayer.

No existing games fit the bill perfectly. This presents a large yet under-explored market for blockchain gaming. It’s an open race that still awaits winners to emerge.

Mobile-First

A successful PlayFi game must be mobile-first. The game is designed for mobile devices. Optimizing for a PC or a web explorer is more prevalent in blockchain gaming today, which is not ideal. A mobile-first game allows maximum accessibility. Because PlayFi does not monetize directly from games, PlayFi games must be as accessible as possible to foster a vibrant surrounding ecosystem.

The most popular sport in the world, soccer, is also the most accessible. You only need something to kick around. Other sports require something extra, such as basketball, tennis, golf, racing, etc. The more setup a sport requires, the higher the cost for participation and the less popular it becomes.

High accessibility translates to “must be mobile” in blockchain gaming. Almost everyone who has a computer has a smartphone, but everyone who has a smartphone doesn’t necessarily have a computer. A mobile game naturally enjoys a bigger potential audience than a PC game.

In addition, we can play mobile games anytime and anywhere. It is easy to spot Candy Crush Saga players on a train ride. But nobody plays CS:GO in airport terminals.

Mobile games attract larger player bases. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) PC version, which requires advanced setup to run smoothly, has ~200k active players as of August 25, 2022. Its mobile version has ~900k active players, 4.5 times more. Garena Free Fire is a mobile remake of the original battle royale game on PC. It is particularly suited for mid to low-end smartphones and has ~2.6m active players. Of course, a game’s success depends on many different metrics. But Garena Free Fire’s mobile-first strategy certainly contributed to its insane popularity.

More players convert to more viewers at esports events. While there are only five mobile games in the top 20 most watched esports games of all time, 3 of them make the top 5. The following chart shows the top 10.

This chart proves that a well-made mobile game can attract a larger fan base. It also indicates that opportunity is plenty for mobile games. There is room for 3 or 4 mobile games that have a chance to become as popular as CS:GO or Dota 2. I believe there will be at most 2 PC games in the top 10 list in 5 years or sooner.

In addition, most of the existing mobile game titles are merely remakes of successful PC games. Free Fire and PUBG Mobile are similar to PUBG PC. Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and Arena of Valor resemble League of Legends and Dota 2. But controllers on a mobile device are very different from a PC. While moving around with a virtual joystick on a touchscreen is more straightforward, it is more intuitive to aim with a mouse. This presents additional space for innovation. A new medium should unlock new possibilities, but we’ve yet to witness that in mobile gaming.

Mixed Reality (XR), including VR and AR, is an upcoming human-computer interaction that could replace smartphones. However, with the current development, it requires advanced hardware and is difficult to popularize. Sometimes people overestimate the speed of technological developments. Smartphones will likely remain the primary platform in the near future, where the most popular games reside.

Easy to Learn & Hard to Master

The motto “easy to learn and hard to master” dates back to Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. It has since been regarded as the golden rule of video game design. A PlayFi game is no exception.

Popular sports are also easy to learn and hard to master. All the popular types have simple objectives. It is putting a ball into a goal-ish net (soccer, basketball, golf) or out of your opponent’s reach (volleyball, tennis, baseball). First-time soccer game viewers can understand whether a team has scored without much explanation. At the same time, soccer is complex enough that a significant gap exists between amateur players and professionals. The average soccer player or spectator need not understand the nitty-gritty to play or watch, but the tactical depth is there if one wants to go deep.

It is simple to determine whether a game is easy to learn. It is easy if you can explain the basic rules to your grandma in 15 seconds. Otherwise, it is not. Shooter games are mostly straightforward. It’s about shooting your enemies’ charactors in the head. You hit, you win. You miss, you lose. Rocket League is also easy. It’s a simplified version of soccer.

On the contrary, card games like Hearthstone have a steep learning curve. MOBA games are tricky as well. The purpose of destroying the enemy’s throne is straightforward. But character abilities and map mechanics are designed very complicated. My dear grandma cannot watch and enjoy a League of Legends game without a crash course.

Simplicity matters even within genres. The mechanism design of League of Legends is simpler than the one of Dota 2. And League of Legends also commands a larger following.

Steve Jobs talks about simplicity all the time. His philosophy is well-suited for PlayFi game design as well.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

Replayability is a measure of “hard to master.” Soccer is fundamentally playing the same match over and over again, with differences in the level of players, their play on the field, the quality of the turf, the weather, and even the size of cheers from fans. All of these variables affect the outcome of the match to a greater or lesser extent, and that’s where soccer fans come in. All the successful esports titles are the same as soccer. On the other hand, Pokemon GO lacks tactical depth, which renders little replayability. The act of catching pokemon quickly becomes tedious and repetitive. At its peak, Pokémon Go was drawing in over 250 million people per month, but that number had fallen to less than 50 million within half a year.

Another aspect of PlayFi is that the core principles should not change over time. I can stop watching soccer for two decades, come back, and enjoy the next World Cup final like before. We can probably claim the same about PUBG, CS:GO, and Rocket League. But MOBA games like League of Legends and Dota 2 get more complicated over time. These games never stop adding new mechanics and elements. When Riot Games first released League of Legends in 2009, there were only 40 champions. Now there are over 160. If one stays away from the keyboard for a while, the game will be like a totally new one.

Increasing complexity keeps new players away. Valve released CS:GO in August 2012 and Dota 2 in July 2013. Considering their previous iterations, the original Counter-Strike came out in November 2000, and the first version of Dota in February 2004. Both are incredibly long-lasting. But CS:GO appears to have the upper hand. As depicted below, while Dota 2 gradually loses players, CS:GO still manages to attract new players.

I can confidently bet there will be Counter-Strike players 10 years from now. Valve may introduce a graphically-enhanced version, but the core game content will likely remain the same. I am less hopeful about the prospects of Dota 2.

However, this outlook is very long-term oriented. The ability to remain simple is a plus. While MOBA games don’t necessarily have the same longevity as shooter games, they can still be a huge success during the time period when mobile technology is not fully adapted for shooter games. MOBA games are probably the best choice for the PlayFi model during this time.

Teamwork-Oriented Multiplayer

Humans are social beings. Team events generate much more emotion and are more engaging. Meanwhile, individual events like marathons and chess are much less exciting.

Similarly, a teamwork-oriented multiplayer game is more suitable for PlayFi. Elden Ring is great in single-player mode. But it is not a fitting candidate for PlayFi.

However, designers of teamwork-oriented multiplayer games must pay attention to character balance, which is crucial to the long-term development of the game.

It is easier to play pickup basketball than soccer because one need not figure out who is going to be the striker, who is going to be the defender, and who is going to be the goalkeeper. The line between an attacker and a defender in basketball is vague. Everyone has a chance to score, and naturally there is no need to take the time to determine the roles before the matches begin. On the other hand, soccer has more well-defined roles. A defender rarely has the opportunity to shoot.

In MOBA online matchmaking, tensions usually arise if no one wants to play the support role. Teammates will fight for the carry role. Likewise, tank is the least popular role in Overwatch (out of tank, damage, and support), while there is usually an over-supply of damage. Overwatch had to introduce special loot boxes to incentivize players to pick non-damage roles.

The five members of a CS:GO team are much more balanced. There is no carry or support. Defending bombsite A or bombsite B is equally important. Players rarely fight for a particular spot like gamers normally do in MOBA games. Developers should aim for balanced roles as it plays an instrumental role in the matchmaking experience of players, which in turn affects the longevity of a game.

Being team-oriented has one additional benefit. It enhances fan engagement. After years of trial and error, K-Pop groups now typically have many more members than the traditional four. For example, BTS has seven. Diversification allows fans enough room to pick out their favorite idols, and the company to diversify its revenue sources. The same lesson applies to PlayFi. A rifler, a sniper, and an in-game leader can each attract a dedicated fan base, capitalizing on the long tail.

For the gaming industry to grow, games no longer compete with each other. We are tapping into the general market of social and entertainment, taking on Netflix, nightclubs, and national parks. Being teamwork-oriented helps people socialize in-game and allures them to spend more time and money in the metaverse.

Large yet Under-Explored Market

The esports market has been increasing every year. This is achieved with the primary titles being PC only. If we apply the three elements to existing esports games, only PUBG Mobile and Free Fire seem to fit the criteria. As mentioned before, aiming and shooting are less intuitive on mobile. A melee-based battle royale might be more natural in a mobile environment. Rocket League has released a mobile version, but the gameplay is less exciting due to the constraints of a mobile platform.

Therefore, mobile esports is a large yet under-explored market opportunity for PlayFi. As discussed in The Future of (Crypto) Gaming, blockchain technology provides a superior experience to both players and developers (creators). For example, players are guaranteed digital property rights and may take advantage of secondary market liquidity. Developers enjoy improved creator economics and more funding options. A blockchain-native mobile game will emerge to have a revolutionary impact on human society. It might initiate the first human migration from the real world to the metaverse.

Closing Thoughts

Some criticize CS:GO as boring because the game has not changed for over two decades. Others praise it as the most successful esports game of all time. Both views have merits. But CS:GO deserves to be a role model for upcoming PlayFi titles. The actual blockchain gaming hit will not simply be a mobile version of CS:GO, but the underlying game design will share many features in common.

Blockchain gaming is a segment that has massive potential. Progress made in underlying blockchain primitives will boost the development of user-facing applications. A blockchain game as popular as soccer in the real world will emerge. It will also mark the beginning of the materialization of human beings’ metaverse era.

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