The games of esports — skill, chance and everything inbetween
Like in sports, there are a very large number of games and competitions that are played as part of esports. Like sports, they vary in the types and degrees of physical effort, motor skills, cognitive abilities, coordination, and chance.
To the uninitiated, many games in esports may look similar. Even if you’ve dabbled playing esports games, just like their traditional sports counterparts, playing at a competitive level brings in nuance that is not otherwise encountered, and even more so at the professional level.
As esports continues to intersect with the gambling industry, it will be helpful to not just understand what esports is as a whole, but how its various games and genres differ, and how those differences can affect their interface with gambling products.
This will be the first of a series of articles which will shed light on the history and workings of some of the most popular esports genres and games.
Stage 1: First person shooters (FPS)
The first-person shooter, or FPS, is one of the oldest genres in competitive video games and is still extremely popular today.
Its roots can go back to vehicle simulations with vector or line-based 3D graphics used by military trainers and flight simulators. In the 1980s, we had arcade games like Battlezone that featured a first-person viewpoint.
Who fired first—a brief history of FPS
As computing power increased, it gave game designers the ability to take the player out-of-the-box of a vehicle and into the game. The first successful commercial FPS title was Wolfenstein 3D, which itself evolved from a much older, top-down game named
Castle Wolfenstein, where you played a character trying to escape a Nazi stronghold.
This game was one of the first to introduce the signature look that we’ve come to expect from all FPS games today—a view of your character’s hands, holding your weapon in front of you, and that dizzying bobbing walk, which thankfully, can be turned off.
While processing power was still quite limited in the early 1990s, games like Wolfenstein 3D limited the playing areas to narrow corridors that are dimly lit. This actually helped coin the term Corridor Shooter, which was a predecessor to the FPS moniker.
FPS games also popularized the now-common mouse and keyboard control mechanics that resulted in the popular WASD movement control key combination. While earlier games defaulted to the more obvious arrow keys, the position of the arrow keys on a typical keyboard wasn’t favorable, especially for right-handed mouse users. WASD provided much easier access to the spacebar, typically used to trigger jumping, and a wider variety of the other keys on the keyboard with the thumb, while allowing the pinky to reach a series of modifier keys, such as shift, control, and alt, which can be configured to trigger crouching or running. This is not an issue today but in earlier keyboards and computer operating systems, the modifier keys were the only ones that would register while another key was already being pressed—yes, at one point in history, keyboards were not “multitouch.”
While Wolfenstein 3D came first, the game that really left its mark for FPS was Doom. It traded in the Nazi theme for alien creatures, a lot more blood and guts, and the first BFG.
Doom also introduced multiplayer support and created the Deathmatch, dropping ten players into a map and the last player standing wins. This feature became so popular at launch that it was banned in many universities and companies as running multiplayer games crippled their networks. By 1996, it was rumored that there were more copies of Doom installed worldwide than Windows 95.
Doom further fueled the rise of the FPS genre when its creators released the game engine that powered the game, allowing a whole slew of games to be created and improved upon—it became the progenitor of all subsequent FPS games.
FPS titles also continued pushing the boundaries of network multiplayer play, and where network technology lagged behind game technology, that inadequacy created the concept of LAN, or local area network, parties.
These events, often friends and community-driven, congregated players and their computers at a common location to engage in group play. Be it someone’s dorm room, garage, or basement, the phenomenon quickly evolved to encompass more organized tournaments and “league” gatherings at larger venues like campus student centers and hotel ballrooms.
The FPS title that led this was not even a commercially released title in the beginning, but a fan-modified (mod) version of the FPS title, Half-Life.
Half-Life was the typical FPS title of the time, with tasks involving engaging in gun battles combined with both platform and logic puzzles in a science fiction story-driven game.
In 1999, Minh Le and Jess Cliffe took the game and stripped it down to its bare basics—no grand storyline, no science fiction concepts, no puzzles, and no bosses to battle—just combat between two teams in a variety of fixed, themed battle arenas with a specific win objective instead of the then-popular deathmatch.
Two teams, in this case terrorists versus counter-terrorists, with a mission scenario that began with hostage rescue but players gravitated towards the later added scenario of Bomb Defusal, where the terrorist team has to plant a bomb and detonate it in one of several designated sites and the counter-terrorist team has to prevent it, either by eliminating the other team or defusing a planted bomb before it explodes—the FPS tournament format was born.
Shortly after its creation, Valve, the creator of Half-Life, acquired the rights to the mod and Counter-Strike became an official product.
Counter-Strike continued to not only drive the LAN party phenomenon, but it also helped drive the PC customization and build culture we see today among avid gaming and esports enthusiasts. With the increasing technical demands of each subsequent release of games, the need to keep PC hardware up-to-date evolved beyond need into an expression of individuality. This led to the creation of events like Dreamhack, which began as The Gathering, an organized LAN-party where people didn’t just come together to play, but to show off their PC creations. Dreamhack today is one of the largest esports tournaments and gaming conventions held around the world. It is owned by Modern Times Group, which also owns ESL, the largest esports event organizer in the world.
Fast forward to today and FPS games continue to dominate the video game market and the top games in esports. Counter-Strike keeps its popularity as one of the key esports titles in its latest incarnation, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or CS:GO.
Shots heard around the internet—FPS in esports
The modern FPS game has evolved into something with a very recognizable appearance and format.
On screen, the basics include the game world from the first-person perspective with the player’s currently selected weapon visible in hand, a mini-map displaying an overhead view of the immediate area around the player, a targeting crosshair, and a variety of status like health, ammo and game timer.
In terms of gameplay, two teams, typically of 5 players each, compete in a series of fixed thematic arenas, each with a fixed win-objective.
From this point, games will differentiate themselves to a degree by introducing gameplay elements that allow and often encourage players and teams to develop strategies and techniques to utilize the game mechanics to gain an advantage. This is commonly referred to as the Metagame or meta for short. In FPS games, meta can include weapon combinations, team positioning and formation, and in some games, character selection choices.
As with any genre in esports, there are many games that are played. Many of the games are also available on a variety of platforms (i.e. Windows, Mac, consoles, mobile) but often are only played in official tournaments on select platforms. The following are some of the main FPS games in esports and the platforms they are played on.
- Counter-Strike:Global Offensive (CS:GO) [PC] – 5 vs 5
- Call of Duty (COD) [PC / PlayStation] – 4 vs 4
- Rainbow 6 (R6) [PC] – 5 vs 5
- Overwatch [PC] – 6 vs 6
- Valorant [PC] – 5 vs 5
- Gears of War (Gears) [XBox] – 5 vs 5
- CrossFire [PC] – 5 vs 5
Similarly, while many FPS games have a multitude of game modes, maps, characters, and objectives, mainstream tournaments are often “standardized” to a small subset of the modes, maps, and rules. Think of it as similar to how the rules for basketball may vary from the NBA and more regional, local, or neighborhood pickup games.
For example, in almost all mainstream CS:GO tournaments, the only game mode played is “Demolition,” the official mode name of the aforementioned “Bomb Defusal” game objective. Whereas in Overwatch, a tournament will feature two or more game modes that are predetermined before a match begins, consisting of Escort—defending team has to protect a payload through multiple checkpoints to a goal; Control—both teams fight over a capture point and hold it for a minimum amount of time; Assault—attacking team try to take two capture points before time runs out; Hybrid—a combination of Assault and Escort.
As mentioned earlier, while thematically all FPS games fit a mould, there are unique attributes for each game that makes them unique and brings to bear the development of unique strategies or metas.
In games like CS:GO and some COD versions, all members of the team have characters with identical attributes. All of their performance attributes are exactly the same, giving no unique skill advantage to any one player simply through their choice of character beyond cosmetics.
That said, where meta comes to play is what weapons and items a player chooses to equip their characters with.
With games like CS:GO and Valorant, the characters begin each half of the match with only a knife. At the beginning of each round, each player is able to purchase additional weapons with credits, which in round one of each half, the players start with exactly the same minimum amount of credits that is usually enough to purchase a standard pistol and a longer range weapon.
During the round, players may pick up any weapons dropped by another player, whether voluntarily or when they are killed.
At the conclusion of each round, if they survived the previous round, they get to keep the weapon they had. In addition, based on the player’s performance, they are awarded additional credits which can be used to purchase better equipment for the next round.
Teams typically have a strategy where they will pool and manage resources by having better performing players acquire weapons for a player which may have gotten taken out prematurely. Teams can also strategically ration their budget by using the initial rounds as loss-leaders to build up a budget for more specialized weapons.
All of these choices allow each player to specialize into a role for the team even in games where there are no functional or performance differences between characters.
On the other hand, in games like Overwatch and Valorant, the character a player selects to play is integral for team strategy as the games feature a pool of characters with different abilities and skills.
This presents the need for players to take on predefined roles such as the DPS (called DPS as they are expected to have the highest Damage Per Second rating); Tank, the player that helps the team absorb damage; Support, the player that provides support through healing or enhancement functions; some games may also feature Flex positions where the character has more than one potential role and the player can switch between them at will.
These games also often have skills that are unique to the character selected, commonly known as Specials and/or Ultimates (often abbreviated as ults). These abilities take time to charge up and are typically only available for use periodically. In addition, these Specials and Ultimates may be combined for greater effect and are major components in team metas.
With these features, players often develop specialization, similar to a defender, midfielder, or striker in football, and will typically not change their roles during their career as a professional player.
To keep things interesting, some games like Overwatch have presented a situation where certain characters are “banned” during a tournament or season, forcing players to adapt to a greater variety of play styles.
At this point, you are probably wondering why games like Fortnite or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) have not been mentioned. That’s because while those games are technically in the FPS genre, their competitive parameters include enough of a difference that they are more accurately categorized under a separate Battle Royale genre.
Bullseye—extreme FPS skills
FPS games require one of the highest and varied levels of physical, mental, coordination, and strategic skills in competitive gaming and esports.
FPS games in esports pit player against player in a fixed arena. There are no random events or chance elements that can affect the outcome of a game, making the genre one that is purely dependent on the athlete’s skills at the controls. Incidentally, this is one key factor that differentiates Battle Royale games from FPS: most Battle Royale games today, equipment availability is a random factor and that can substantially affect a player’s performance.
For starters, players need to familiarize and memorize the maps they will be competing in, down to the smallest details. As FPS games are essentially virtual combat simulations in what the military call FIBUA or Fighting In Built Up Areas, familiarity of the area of combat is crucial and will provide a tactical advantage.
Since in a game, players do not have the luxury of physical sensations and precise depth perception, it is a trained skill to possess extreme familiarity of the map and with your character’s movement to ensure that they know where they are, where they are able to move, and what their lines of sight are at all times—in real-life, if you back up into a wall or obstacle, you can feel it; in a game, you just stop moving and become a static target.
Situational awareness, like in real combat, is also an extremely important skill to have. As with position and orientation, this is also much more difficult as you do not have all your physical senses available to you.
Knowing where you are, how you may be visible to an enemy, and where your enemy may appear, are all factors that can make the difference between getting a kill to becoming one.
Many FPS games feature maps that are quite two-dimensional and static, but increasingly, games now feature structures that have multiple floors (high spots often nicknamed “heaven”), destructible structures, and walls that will not stop certain types of armaments. This amps up the level of familiarity that a player needs of the map and their situational awareness.
All the above plays a major role in the player’s ability to move their character effectively across the map, but then they have to be ready to aim and shoot at the same time.
The ability to spot a target, identify if it is friend or foe (some games allow friendly fire), decide if you will fire (you may not want to give away your position), and hit the target if you do fire, are all elements of pure physical and visual coordination.
While visual acuity and reaction time are key, many skilled players also have the ability to predict target movement like many skilled soldiers in-real-life (IRL). This allows them to hit a target before they even have a chance to see them. Clearly, being able to lead a moving target goes without say.
Next up, weapon familiarity. Almost all FPS games simulate weapons fire to include some or all ballistic characteristics of penetration, damage, and accuracy. They also simulate how recoil will affect accuracy, and how automatic fire affects that accuracy. Most FPS games also provide two accuracy models, hip fired or aiming down sights (ADS), with the latter being more accurate at the cost of movement speed.
Each weapon will have unique characteristics that can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. For example, a .50 calibre Desert Eagle may have serious stopping power, but it is loud, has serious recoil affecting the accuracy of repeated shots, and only 7 rounds per magazine, compared to a silenced K&M .45 Tactical, where nobody may hear you shoot, but you’ll need a headshot, though you do have low recoil and 12 rounds to get it right before you need to reload.
Most FPS titles also offer a knife by default. Why bring a knife to a gunfight? You can move a lot faster when you have the knife equipped, it doesn’t run out of ammo, and it is the ultimate silent weapon, plus it’s just cool, especially with a Karambit.
Skilled players with fine motor control skills enable them to not just aim with pinpoint precision, but also compensate for weapon recoil by accurately countering the simulated weapon recoil with a mouse movement in the opposite direction. A skilled player in-game can achieve similar performance outcomes as a sharpshooter in real-life, albeit with different muscles.
Many games today feature shooting ranges where players are able to train with a selected weapon to get used to its firing characteristics, reloading times, recoil, and bullet spread for automatic weapons—just like IRL.
While some armies brag about “An Army of One,” in many FPS tournaments, nobody likes a Rambo—teamwork is key. While one great player can carry an entire team in casual and even some amateur matches, at the professional level, that becomes much harder to pull off.
Teamwork, and subsequently, team communications can make a huge difference in a team’s performance. The ability to know what your teammates are thinking and doing is a hallmark of a good team, just like IRL with many special operations squads. It is no surprise that many top esports FPS squads are placed into the same team building and training regiments similar to the top SpecOps teams—it may just be a game, but millions of dollars may be at stake!
Communications, short and precise, is the final element that binds the teamwork together. FPS games feature voice communications similar to IRL radios. It’s a party line but no one can hear anyone if everyone is speaking at the same time. Radio discipline becomes a key factor, communicating tactical information between the team. Some games even allow the coach to interact with the team, adding an additional level of coordination, just like how a mission commander communicates with a squad from SOCOM (Special Operations COMmand) HQ.
All the above are just the basics. Each game may also have unique characteristics that are overlaid upon those basics. These may include unique character skills like Specials and Ults which dictates strategy and their use.
However, this does allow many FPS players with a firm grasp of the basics to switch and adapt to a different FPS game more easily than most other game genres. For example, when Valorant was launched earlier this year, many CS:GO players picked up the game rather quickly as they shared many similarities.
With all this talk about skills, I am sure there are some that will wonder if equipment plays a part to help—yes and no.
Just like any athlete, professional esports athletes prefer to work with good and familiar equipment.
FPS esports athletes are some of the pickiest when it comes to equipment and the configuration parameters of their gaming environment.
One of their common equipment demands is a monitor with a minimum of 144Hz refresh rate with a 1ms GtG rating, combined with a computer that is able to allow the game to run the game at a minimum frame rate at or higher than the refresh rate of the monitor, on a resolution of at least 2k (HD).
The need for decent display resolution is obvious. At 2k (HD) resolution, if the head of a target occupies an area of 20 pixels, at 4k (UHD) resolution, that same head would have four times the area at 80 pixels.
As for the refresh rate (number of times the pixels on a screen are refreshed), GtG (Gray-to-Gray or time it takes a color sub-pixel to change from one shade of gray to another), and frame rate of the game (number of frames per second the game is animated at by the computer), they go to reducing or eliminating motion blur, providing a sharper image to work with.
Monitor size also plays a part. Athletes want a size that is big enough for a clear picture but not so big that it requires them to turn their heads to see their entire field of view. The typical sweet spot is a 24-inch diagonal 16:9 flat display. Yes, curved displays may look sexy but the distortion caused by the curvature can throw things off.
At major physical tournaments, the computer and monitors are standardized between teams, which levels the playing field for both teams, while online tournaments present more of a challenge on the equipment aspect.
That said, just because the computer and monitor are standardized doesn’t mean the athlete can’t further fine-tune the game’s performance and settings to their preferences.
Unlike many casual players who may prefer setting all their graphics quality and effects to high, sexy ray-tracing lighting effects don’t win games for the pros. They will set their game to optimize for low latency, high frame rate, and high resolution.
More personal settings will revolve around target crosshair configurations, similar to how a IRL shooter will customize their weapon’s scopes and reticles, and other parameters like Field of View angle.
Now that we have the output of the game settled, we move to the inputs—the keyboard, mouse, and mouse mat—these would be equivalent to the shoes or the rackets that an athlete chooses to use.
Similar to traditional sports athletes, often the keyboard, mouse, and mouse mat are dictated by the athlete’s or team’s sponsor, but unlike those of us that have to buy our Nikes retail, the top professional athletes do get to custom spec their stuff straight from the factory.
Now, that does not mean that there will be any funny business with the equipment. Top tournaments have strict rules about the type of keyboards and mice that are allowed, often banning the use of equipment with macro or shortcut keys that enable a user to program a sequence of events to happen at one keypress. In addition, to prevent tampering of equipment, most top tournament operators will only accept custom equipment shipped to them directly from the team’s sponsoring manufacturer instead of the team itself.
While there may be equal parts preference and performance, the keyboard, mouse, and yes, even the mouse mat, can make a huge difference when skill and performance require millimeter accuracy.
On the keyboard side, most esports athletes will prefer mechanical keys with a preferred level of resistance. Each manufacturer will have switches that they use on their keyboards which dictate parameters such as pressure, responsiveness, and feedback.
For example, Razer keyboards feature three color codes: green—clicky tactile keys that sound like a typewriter; orange—quieter tactile switches; yellow—short-throw, feather-trigger and linear responsiveness. How do you tell the difference? Pop the keycap off and you’ll see the color coded switches below, for the Razer keyboards anyway.
The choice of mice can be equally demanding, with the key parameters being sensor resolution (measured in dpi or dots per inch to reflect the sensitivity and accuracy of the mouse’s ability to detect and track movement), maximum tracking speed (how fast it can keep up with movement and continue to track accurately), lift-off distance (how high off the mat before it stops tracking movement), and polling rate (how often it updates movement readings with the computer). All these, combined with good switches for the buttons and rollers, make up the specifications for a mouse.
As you may expect, with this level of exacting specifications, the surface that one would operate the mouse on becomes just as important. Mouse mats should provide a smooth, even, and consistent surface for the sensors to operate on, which are optical in nature, to track movement accurately, while providing just enough resistance to accurately feedback to the user. Many tournament-grade mice will also have software to allow you to calibrate it to the mat, further ensuring optimal performance.
Final nuances to the athlete’s environment would be the height of the chair, table, and monitor.
All this applies to PC gaming, but what games that run on consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox, and mobile games?
Many of the same parameters still apply though there are some elements that cannot be fine tuned on consoles and mobiles, making console and mobile athletes less “demanding” in many aspects.
For example, resolution, frame rates, and refresh rates are limited on consoles, and moderately so on mobile games as the devices come with what they come with and they cannot be individually upgraded or modified.
The use of controllers on consoles also limits the accuracy of movement and aiming, with many games providing a level of auto-aim to compensate for that limitation. Interestingly, the use of the controller does create a skill that is unique to console athletes—the best way to hold a controller—with interesting names like The Claw. Understanding how to best use the auto-aim features of the game also goes a very long way.
Customized controllers are available to console FPS players that provide levers or additional buttons positioned to facilitate access to more buttons simultaneously when compared to standard controllers. However, most tournaments will similarly limit the use of controllers that possess programmable macro or shortcut features.
Mobile FPS games are probably the most challenging. Between the small screen and interacting with a touchscreen that provides zero tactile reference and feedback, competing on the mobile platform presents a totally different level of physical finger skills.
With these differences, it’s probably no surprise that PC players often refer to themselves as the PC Master Race, exerting their superiority over those that may play on consoles or mobile devices . Likewise, PlayStation players will look poorly upon Xbox players, and you will often find console players scoffing at mobile players asking them to grow up and play a real game—the competitive nature of esports athletes never stop at the screen.
|Esports genre:||First-person shooter (FPS)|
|Games include:||Counter-Strike:Global Offensive (CS:GO) [PC]|
|Rainbow 6 (R6) [PlayStation]|
|Gears of War (Gears) [XBox]|
|Call of Duty (COD) [PC / PlayStation]|
|Free Fire [Mobile]|
Hai Ng is integrity ambassador for the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC) He is also co-founder of Neomancer, a unique technology strategy and management firm. Hai has more than three decades of experience in the technology sector, with a decade in igaming.