INTERVIEW: Stewart Chisam, president of Hi-Rez Studios, on breaking into eSports with Smite

After developing the critically-acclaimed first-person shooter Tribes: Ascend, Hi-Rez Studios decided to make its move into eSports with a brand new MOBA title – Smite.

Stewart Chisam tells MCV about the firm’s journey into the world of pro-gaming

How did Hi-Rez get involved in competitive gaming?

We made our first foray into competitive gaming with Tribes: Ascend, starting in late 2011. While it never became huge, Tribes had and, still has, an incredibly passionate competitive player base that helped us gain some early experience with eSports.

We made some mistakes with our initial eSports efforts with Tribes. But the work we did on that game helped us pick up some of our core eSports talent at the Studio, and really helped us gain a better understanding of the work we needed to do to make Smite successful in eSports.

Both HirezBart, one of our top casters and eSports manager, and HirezAPC, our eSports producer, joined us initially because they were passionate about Tribes and what we were doing there.

How has your approach to the eSports market evolved during your experience working in the sector?

With each month that passes, we have really just become more bullish on eSports. The whole segment is just exploding. And, as a publisher, we find that eSports provide a great anchor point for our community activities and give us new ways to interact with our players and fans – which we love.

So you have seen us putting more effort not only into having larger and larger tournaments with larger prize pools, but into improving the production value of our eSports broadcasts, and into growing the ecosystem around Smite eSports and doing things like Fantasy Leagues to increase the engagement of the fan with the players and the sport.

"As a publisher, we find that eSports provide a great anchor point for our community activities and give us new ways to interact with our players and fans."

Stewart Chisam, Hi-Rez Studios

How else does Hi-Rez invest in the eSports market?

We are huge believers in crowd-sourcing. You saw that with our Smite World Championship in January, where the fans of the game crowd-sourced over $2 million for the prize pool through our Odyssey program, on top of the $600,000 that we initially seeded the pool with. It’s just mind-blowing.

Based on those successes, we have really gone all-in as a studio on eSports. We have a dedicated in-house group of around 14 people that focuses almost solely on eSports and growing the scene for us. It’s something we take very seriously.

Smite is another in a long line of MOBA-like titles to attempt breaking into the eSports sector. How do you cope with the challenge of facing off against games such as Dota 2 and League of Legends?

I think right now the entire eSports market is growing, and the success of other games does not diminish the success of Smite. So, versus viewing them as a competitive threat, we actually root for League of Legends and Dota 2 to continue to do well and grow as eSports – because that helps eSports as a whole.

The more eSports as a segment grows, the more Smite will grow. We know we have a great eSports product, so we want as many people across the world engaged in eSports as a whole as we can.

Smite seems to have succeeded where many other MOBA titles have failed in building up a healthy community following – why do you think so many MOBAs struggle to sustain their audience?

Our community is awesome, and they are really the drivers of our success. I think it may be disingenuous for us to take full credit for that – versus just being grateful for it.

We spend a lot of our time and effort just trying to support the great things that our community has started doing organically without our help. And we try to listen them closely and respond to feedback quickly.

Overall, I try to tell our team that our focus as a studio needs to be first on making sure we build an awesome game, and second that we support and listen to the community as best we can. Other traditional marketing will take care of itself if we do those two things exceptionally well.

Hi-Rez previously developed popular FPS Tribes: Ascend. Why develop an entirely new game (Smite) with the aim of bringing it to the eSports market, rather than adding new features to the already popular Tribes to turn it into an eSports-compatible title?

I am not sure there is anyone in the world that is a bigger fan of Tribes: Ascend than me. I love that game to death and it is my favorite game of all time.

But Smite has been a lot more successful than Tribes. Not just in aggregate numbers, but in terms of the key engagement factors, such as retention, monthly playtime per player etcetera, that drive and predict long-term growth. That was true from the earliest days. And I am sure we can all debate things we might have done better along the way to change that.

But as great as both games are, there are just more people in the world that want to play the hell out of Smite than there are people that want to play the hell out of Tribes: Ascend.

At the end of the day, our investment in eSports followed the success of the games.

What barriers remain to more widespread acceptance of gaming as a legitimate sport?

I think a lot of it is generational at this point. There are a lot of people my age and older – 40-plus – that honestly just don’t get it. It’s not something that people my age grew up with or have a real grounding in.

Until you experience a live eSports event and see the enthusiasm of the fans and the excitement of the action, it is just hard to really understand and appreciate fully.

I think as eSports continues to grow and expand, more people will have the chance to experience that – and the growth and acceptance will follow naturally.

What are the most popular eSports titles and events currently? How has this changed from five years ago and how do you expect it to change over the next decade?

There’s no question that the eSports landscape today is very different than it was five years ago.

MOBAs like League of Legends, Dota 2 and Smite have had a lot to do with it, I think – as there are just aspects of the MOBA genre that make it really compelling as a sport to watch.

But some of that growth is also due I think to the technologies such as Twitch and other platforms that have enabled eSports to be brought to the masses in a very ‘bottoms-up’ manner.

Over the next five to 10 years, I think you are mainly going to see eSports becoming more and more mainstream, and taking on more and more of the characteristics of the traditional sporting world. You already see that with events being hosted in huge stadiums and drawing TV audiences. But as that becomes more commonplace, I think the ‘sports’ component of eSports will continue to grow more and more to become a close cousin of the major traditional sports around the world.

What developments and technology do you expect to shape the eSports market over the next decade?

Virtual reality is extremely interesting, although we will have to see how that winds up touching on the eSports landscape and how long it takes to become mainstream.

Overall, over the next few years, I think you are going to see more and more technologies evolved to make the spectating experiences for fans of eSports, both live and online, be more and more engaging and immersive.

How does the UK eSports sector and events differ to those in the rest of the world?

Smite has been lucky in that we have been really successful in the UK, and some of our best eSports players are from the UK.

In fact, the highest earning eSports player in UK history is a Smite player – Ataraxia from Team Titan, which was the runner up at this year’s Smite World Championship.

I think one thing that distinguishes the UK from much of the rest of the world is that it is relatively console-centric – so it will be interesting to see how the console eSports scene grows over the next few years in the UK.

What’s next for Hi-Rez and Smite in the eSports sector?

Our Smite Pro League Season 2 begins this month. There are some really exciting new improvements to the game, including a new Conquest map and many new items, that I think are going to make the game even better and more engaging, and improve the diversity of play in the eSports world.

I really expect 2015 to be a breakout year for Smite and Smite eSports. The game continues to grow each month in Europe and North America on the PC, and we expect to also see really huge growth this year in Asia and South America.

Add to that our upcoming Xbox One version, and we are really excited for this year.

The eSports rocket is taking off. Hop on board and enjoy the ride.

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