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Riley “DNZio” Haghian hopes to make a living playing Vainglory. He brought home more than $20,000 in a recent world championship tournament, and he is ranked No. 1 in North America. And he is only 14.
Haghian’s budding career in mobile esports is the tip of the spear for the hopes around Vainglory, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game for mobile devices. I met Haghian at Super Evil Megacorp‘s crowded Vainglory preview event last night in San Francisco, where a crowd was cheering through much of the evening as some of the best players squared off in the game’s new mode, five-versus-five multiplayer. The Vainglory 5v5 update debuts for free in the free-to-play game on February 13.
“If Vainglory gets bigger and bigger, this could become my career,” Haghian said. “The graphics are amazing in 5v5, and they’re doing an amazing job.”
It’s been a long journey to establish mobile esports since Vainglory debuted as a three-versus-three multiplayer game in 2014. At the time, it was the only mobile game of its kind, so Apple demonstrated Vainglory on stage to show off its latest iPhone. But now Vainglory has a lot of competition from other mobile esports games, particularly in Asia.
“The company was founded on bringing uncompromising multiplayer experiences to mobile core gamers,” said Kristian Segerstrale, CEO of Super Evil Megacorp, in an interview with GamesBeat. “When we launched 3v3, there were constraints. But now we can match MOBAs on the PC at the quality level where we want it. We watched devices get more powerful, and we can finally evolve this game to where it needs to be.”
Tom Moss, senior vice president of mobile at Razer, a sponsor for the Vainglory Premier League, said in an interview that 2018 may be the big year for mobile esports.
“If you can get this level of experience with the ease of pulling it out of your pocket and playing, we think it is transformative,” Moss said. “There’s a growing group of publishers who are putting a lot of effort into mobile esports this year. It’s all hitting at the same time because everybody knows mobile esports is coming.”
But so far, mobile esports has been a stepchild. Vainglory drew more than 100,000 concurrent viewers and 15 million views in December for its big event. But Valve’s Dota 2, a popular MOBA on the PC, drew more than 5 million concurrent viewers, and in 2016, Riot Games reported 14.7 million viewers for its League of Legends World Championship.
Overall, market researcher Newzoo believes the esports market will grow from 191 million enthusiast viewers in 2017 to 286 million by 2020. Hundreds of millions of more fans will watch esports on a casual basis, Newzoo said.
Vainglory had 606,000 viewership hours on Twitch in 2017 in North America and Europe, compared with 1.02 million hours for Supercell’s mobile game Clash Royale. China contributed about 20 percent of Vainglory’s revenues on iOS, as Giant became the publisher of Vainglory in China in 2015.
With 5v5, Vainglory has improvements in graphics, such as a “fog of war” effect that gradually illuminates parts of the map as you explore, said Stephan Sherman, chief creative officer at Super Evil. 5v5 features three million polygons and more than 200 million actors with custom animations.
The game can run at 120 frames per second on Razer’s new smartphone, and that’s one reason that Razer has come on board as an international sponsor, Moss said. I played the game on a Razer Phone, and it was pretty smooth. And while it was designed for hardcore gamers, Vainglory 5v5 was a lot easier to play than Cuphead.
“That higher refresh rate is going to matter if you want an advantage,” said Moss. “We’re going to work with them to make the game work smoother in the future.”
San Mateo, California-based Super Evil Megacorp is now ratcheting up its events, starting with the June kickoff of the Vainglory Premier League. ESP Gaming will produce major mobile esports events for Vainglory at a new tournament venue and broadcast studio on the Las Vegas Strip, said Jeff Liboon, president of ESP Gaming (part of a company that produces the World Series of Poker), in an interview.
“From our perspective, we see them as an anchor mobile esports partner,” Liboon said. “They built their community first, with a focus on quality gameplay. That stuff is never fleeting. Now it’s becoming more acceptable — if you are serious about esports — to try a mobile game. We’ve been doing poker broadcasts for 20 years. We’re excited to bring Vainglory to Vegas as an anchor partner.”
As for Haghian’s hope of making a living with Vainglory, Segerstrale smiled and reflected on that.
“It’s scary how many people have had Vainglory as their main job,” Segerstrale said. “We support jobs for developers. It’s a different level of responsibility as the community relies on us too. There are some dozens who make their living creating content or playing Vainglory. If a kid asks us if they should skip school for this, we say don’t skip school.”
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