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Super Evil Megacorp wants the Vainglory multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) to be the next esport. If it succeeds, then it will be a rare moment as most hardcore players haven’t embraced mobile gaming as enthusiastically as they have with esports titles on PCs and consoles.
But San Mateo, Calif.-based Super Evil Megacorp designed its multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game as a mobile-first title. Released on mobile devices last fall, the title has accumulated more than 1.5 million monthly active users, and Super Evil recently livestreamed an event that showed off the celebrities among the competitors in Vainglory. It also unveiled plans for a spectator client with Korean broadcaster OnGameNet (OGN). There’s a lot at stake, as Vainglory was in development for a long time, and it is one of the most ambitious titles in the $30 billion mobile gaming industry.
Kristian Segerstrale, chief operating officer of Super Evil Megacorp, attended the recent event at the headquarters of Twitch, the gameplay livestreaming company, to talk about Vainglory’s progress. Super Evil invited active Vainglory broadcasters and other influencers to the event as part of an attempt to encourage community building. Segerstrale said that the company’s progress should be measured not in pure monthly user numbers but with other stats such as the number of views it gets on YouTube, its following on Twitch, and the review scores on the app stores.
Segerstrale hopes that Vainglory will become an esport akin to League of Legends and Dota 2 on PC. It’s a fast and furious game with a lot of action and session times that last up to a half hour. It has beautiful 3D graphics, generated by a custom engine that the company built. In all those respects, Vainglory is a high-end, console-like game designed for a mobile touchscreen experience. It has few rivals in that sense. Here’s a link to the Vainglory World Invitational on the OGN channel on Twitch.
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We caught up with Segerstrale at the Twitch event a couple of weeks ago. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I saw you had a new number there, 1.5 million MAUs.
Kristian Segerstrale: It’s early. It’s super early. We’re about six months into our first release on high-end iOS devices only, outside China. But we’re happy with the growth. Especially in the sense that we think of ourselves more like a PC gaming company than a mobile games company. We think of this as a beta period. We’re working with the community to add features and add to the early experience of the game. But we’re thrilled by how much the game has grown.
The 1.5 million number is great, but the number we think is much more meaningful is the 270,000 watching on Twitch. And that’s just Twitch. We don’t count regional streaming services in Korea and Japan. To us, that means that if nearly 20 percent of the audience is engaged enough not only to play the game but to watch each other play. That means the core community has a healthy growth rate.
GamesBeat: You were making that point at our conference. Now you have a number that would still impress folks who prefer traditional metrics, though.
Segerstrale: That’s right. We’d never compare ourselves to the next quick hit on mobile. We think the future of core gaming is on touchscreens. We think much more about the kind of metrics we see on PC. We’ve made a good start, but we have a long way to go. We’re excited about the Android release today in particular.
GamesBeat: There’s this new skin theme in there. That seems like some progress toward monetization.
Segerstrale: The first real monetization in the game launched a few days ago. We have a tiered skin system where you can purchase the first tier, but if you want the second or third tiers within a specific theme, you have to collect the right cards to unlock them. You can collect those cards either by playing or by purchasing card boxes.
GamesBeat: So you have to pay, but you also have to play.
Segerstrale: What’s important to us is that the game will always remain endlessly free to play, just like PC free-to-play games. We’re not putting any monetization gates in front of your play. There are no timers, no energy mechanics. Even with a mechanic that’s entirely orthogonal to gameplay, purely about customization, the fact that we’re already in many places in the top 100 grossing charts for a little bit — that’s a nice early signal. We are focused on the long-term growth of the game, though. We’re happy that the community has received the skin system as well as they have.
GamesBeat: Now that is happening, do you think you might be changing your number on the grossing lists? Will people see you rising?
Segerstrale: We continue to think that you cannot acquire an engaged community overnight. It takes a while. Even our Twitch viewership, it tripled between February and May. That’s the kind of growth rate we’d like to stay at. We don’t think many consumers pay attention to the top-grossing lists. I don’t, as a player.
We’re excited by the amount that people play. We’re excited by the Android launch. That probably more than triples our addressable audience out there. And we’re excited about the evolution and growth of esports.
GamesBeat: I was thinking from the company watchers. You did get a fair number of people saying, “Oh, they had a big launch, but…”
Segerstrale: We don’t pay too much attention to the company watchers. Frankly, it’s the journey you’re on whenever you try to do something different in this market. People look at you through eyes trained by how the previous generation evolved. That may or may not be how you evolve.
Our view of the future is clear. We’re convinced that portable touchscreens will be the primary gaming device of the future. Software that creates great core gaming experiences for players will become very big over time. Perhaps two or three times even what PC gaming has become over the past three years. There are more screens out there. All these devices are connected. It’s easier to have an impromptu LAN party on your portable device than on your home PC.
Somebody’s going to go out and build this. But it won’t happen overnight. It’ll happen over the next three to five years. We’re excited by the start we’ve made, but we think it’s a broader industry change. We’re excited to be part of it.
GamesBeat: The people who’ve come to this event — can you describe where they’re coming from?
Segerstrale: We have a lot of star streamers. We have folks like Ezekiel_III, Ms_Vixen, who have hundreds of thousands of Twitch followers, and they’ve recently started streaming Vainglory. We also have DonJon and Blueberryz, the folks who’ve been running the Vainglory league for the past six months. We’ve seen the growth of that community. They’re the casters for the ESL Vainglory Cup series in Europe. They’ve come from Germany. We have StanSmith from Japan, a gaming celebrity there who started streaming Vainglory and became a Vainglory caster a couple of months ago. We wanted to get all the people who’ve shown us love and show them some love back by inviting them over to celebrate the launch.
GamesBeat: We picked up the news that you guys were looking for money. Are you raising a round?
Segerstrale: For myself, I’ve been entirely focused on this launch for a while. Between the feature set we’ve added to the game, the Android support, and the upcoming first international tournament in Seoul, those have been our focuses. As a company we’re completely focused on our players across the board.
GamesBeat: So no comment on fundraising.
Segerstrale: A startup is always fundraising in the sense that you’re always thinking about how to grow or what’s the best way to grow. We feel like we’ve had a lot of momentum with players and our overall evolution with the community. We’ve been very happy with that. Beyond that, we always think if we create a successful business, good things will come, and we’ll have financial choices as well in the future. We don’t spend a lot of time on that otherwise.
GamesBeat: How many updates has the game had?
Segerstrale: We update about every four weeks. Typically what you see is one new hero. With every hero we try to change the meta. We want to bring something new that previously was not in the game. With Rona, the most recent hero who just got launched, she has both a slow field as well as a very powerful short-range melee ultimate, where she spins her axes. That changes how you play other heroes. If you play with her, you’re trying to stun the enemy inside her damage radius. If you play against her, you’d better be ready to get out of that. We try to evolve the game with every hero.
It’s important for us that every hero can be built in multiple ways, too. Rona is perfectly buildable as a weapon damage dealer. She’s also buildable as a crystal-focused, ability-based damage dealer. She’ll feel very different to play depending on which path you go.
We also try to add one marquee feature in each update. In this latest one it would have been the casual queue and the ranked queue, splitting the two. You can choose now. Do you want to play a try-hard match where you can rank up, or do you want to just play a casual fun game with friends where the outcome doesn’t matter in the long term?
GamesBeat: Was there any major learning you’ve found in the last six months, anything that made you decide that this launch would come now?
Segerstrale: There’s been tons of learning. The biggest reshuffling of priorities was around five months ago when we realized that the community was focused on competitive play, and we didn’t have a spectator mode at all. Since then we’ve created an entire spectator-mode-focused track. For us, the fact that people are watching the game is at least as important as the fact that they’re playing it.
Right now, what we’re announcing today, is that we’re also working on a desktop-based spectator client together with OGN in Korea. You can set up eight fixed camera locations, so you can film the game more like a hockey match than a traditional esport. That whole spectating aspect — making it entertaining to watch, helping our community influencers create great entertainment for their users — has been important for us.
That was a pretty big reshuffling of priorities, about five months ago. We’d expected to have to develop the game for a year before anybody wanted to play competitively. As it turned out, they wanted to play competitively right away. We focused on spectator mode, the ESL league, and now the OGN invitational. That was a big deal.
GamesBeat: Did you have to do the spectating part in-house?
Segerstrale: It’s all done in-house, yes. Actually it’s one of the advantages to controlling our own engine technology. We’re able to think about, from a more blue-sky perspective, how we want to use this engine in order to not just focus on great gameplay, but also on great spectator experiences.
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