When you’re a game publisher how do you compete with the largest, most popular games in the world? That’s the task that Hi-Rez Studios has in front of it with it’s popular massively online battle arena game SMITE.
The over-the-shoulder MOBA launched for Windows in 2014 and the first World Championship took place in January 2015 with a prize pool of over $2 million, which was the third-largest esports purse on record at the time.
Slingshot spoke with Kevin “Adanas” Meier, Commentary and Talent lead for Hi-Rez Studios, and also a former professional player, about the challenges facing SMITE, the business of esports and much much more.
Joe Ragazzo: If you could just tell me in your own words, again, what your role is, how you got into esports, just the basics.
Kevin “Adanas” Meier: I guess I’ll just start from the beginning because it’s kind of changed frequently. So 2013 I picked up Smite and I was a competitive player, playing in the tournaments and at the highest level. I went to PAX Prime 2013 to compete for one of the first invitationals Smite held, with my team. I just kind of got to know some of the members from Hi-Rez. We sucked, so we got fourth. Moving on to the launch tournament, Smite had been in beta for a long time. It launched in March 2014, and I wasn’t on a team at the time, but I was casting a bit on community tournaments. Basically, the friends I had made from around PAX Prime, they needed just kind of like extra hands. I wanted to go the event anyway. They asked if I wanted to come. They said, “Hey, we’ll pay for your hotel. You get to hang out, have a good time and be a helping hand.” So I joined up, helped with production there, and I just did like replays and basic stuff in the back. Basic hands-off stuff. That was when Smite was just getting started in esports and had been testing the waters with these weekly tournaments for about a year.
Then, I came in, (and Hi-Rez said), “We know you’ve been casting, and if you want to keep casting, fine, we can’t offer you a job. But if you wanna do production, come, contract for a couple weeks and we’ll see how it goes.” So I said fine, come out for a couple weeks (and was asked to come on full time). I said, “Fuck yeah.” I was working in grocery before, just going to college at the time. This was exactly what I wanted to do. So I was working production for a year, and last year they needed to expand on commentary as our esports scene had gotten bigger. We had gotten more games. We had a structured pro league. I threw my name in the hat as I was a former player. I was still active in the scene. They liked what I did, it kind of went from there, and at the beginning of this season, our lead commentator had departed. He went to work for YouTube Gaming. That was Bart (Koenigsberg). And they offered me the position. I’m not really teaching anyone how to cast. Everybody’s pretty self-sufficient on our crew, but I’m just taking it away from production, and now I lead the commentary team. We just cast games and have fun.
JR: That brings up one of the things I wanted to ask you first. You have these developed (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games like Dota and League of Legends games that are just massive. So, what is it, first as a player, and then as a caster and in your career, that drew you to Smite?
KM: For me, it’s probably game preference, personally. I can’t comment on other people, but what I’ve noticed from a lot of our pro players, most of them typically don’t come from other MOBA backgrounds. Smite’s third person. It’s over the shoulder. It’s more of that (World of Warcraft) arena feel. And I played a lot of (first-person shooters) growing up, which were mostly free to play, which was good because I didn’t have any money.
It was mostly the movement in Smite, this kind of like ability to juke around and run around. A lot of our community, there are people that convert from Dota and League, but a lot of our community is very new to MOBAs. I think that’s what it was. It was this perfect merging of styles that was appealing to me. It’s just way more enjoyable. I’m just not the biggest fan of point to click. I can play StarCraft. I can play League of Legends and Dota and all that, but it can’t fancy my interest for more than a couple days.
JR: So a lot of it comes down to the feel of the game, the gameplay?
KM: Yeah, I love Smite.
JR: So, that being said, that’s one differentiating factor. As the game’s being developed, or you’re in production and you’re just kind of growing the game, are you conscious of what League and Dota are doing? And do you actively try to be different? Or do you kind of put blinders on?
KM: I don’t think it’s either of those. You have to be conscious (of other games). If you’re not, you’re doing a disservice to not only your game, but your esports community. You need to be aware of what other people are doing, but you don’t actively need to also be like, “I want to go down this path.” You take in everything from these games and you make your own product. We like some of the stuff these other MOBAs have done. We don’t like some of the stuff they’ve done. We are paving our own path, but we’re not trying to be 180 degrees from them, but it’s like, they have some important things.
It’s not a gigantic community. It’s not like TV stations, where there’s 100 of them. There’s like three big ones and the four or five smaller ones. Everybody is watching what the other is doing, and you want to have your own kind of feel to it, but you have to be respectful of others. Because they have great ideas. It’s like, “Why aren’t we doing this? That’s a fantastic idea.” It’s not “No, we can’t do it because League or Dota is doing it.” I think that’s dumb.
Every single person in the esports esports industry is looking at another esport, whether you’re fans or looking for ideas. You’re seeing everything that’s going on. There’s stuff we have done that we noticed League has started to pick up on. It all comes down to what’s best for our viewers, and what’s best for our game?
JR: You mentioned something just now that I’ve wondered a lot. Certainly in production, but also in the development of the games that are becoming esports, what consideration is being given to the games as a viewer product as opposed to just a product that people play? For example, in the NFL, they’re not making the rules only trying to make the most fair game. They’re trying to make the game the most fun for people to watch. Has that mentality creeped into esports yet?
KM: I’d say it has a little bit. It’s not massively, but what Hi-Rez did specifically with Smite — and I learned when I jumped on board — is that the game wasn’t made to be an esport. And I think making a game to be an esport is the wrong way to go about it. What they did was kind of grew the game organically and took feedback from the viewers and not the people playing. If you’re completely ignoring what your people are saying, that’s the wrong path to go down. As an esport, you have to respect your viewers because that’s who you’re trying to appeal to.
So Smite started with weekly tournaments basically as interest roots. We can make this as an esport. So this is something our community wants, our spectators want. So let’s dedicate more resources to spectators. Let’s give it an overhaul. That’s one of the first things that happened when we went into the first season of Smite is there was a full spectator overhaul, and it’s slowly been tweaked as we’ve gone on based on production feedback, spectator feedback.
In regards to spectator, you should be listening. What do they want to see? What’s fun and enjoyable to them? If it’s a bad viewing experience, they don’t want to watch it.
JR: How big can esports get? If we’re using a baseball analogy, what inning are we in as far as esports as a spectator sport?
KM: That’s really interesting. Obviously, right now, esports is the biggest it’s ever been. There’s a lot of people talking about, “Can it reach the NFL, NBA level?” I don’t necessarily think it can. I think that’s a far-off dream people have. But it can definitely get bigger. It’s kind of the changing of the guard. When my parents were growing up, they didn’t have computers or all these video games. They grew up on baseball. They played baseball and they played football. And I did that, too. I’ve played sports. But I grew up playing video games. I can watch NFL, and I do watch NFL and NBA sometimes, but I honestly find more enjoyment watching esports because that’s what I grew up on.
I don’t know if it can get as big as traditional sports, but I think it’s on its way. As our generation kind of takes over, I think esports will start to take a portion out of traditional sports. You just look at some of the big names in the NBA now like (Gordon Hayward), who was all against Colin Cowherd…
JR: You know, I love Colin Cowherd. I listen to him every day. But when he goes on those rants against esports, it’s so anti-him, to be honest.
KM: I do too. I feel like he’s pushing himself to try to be something else, now. But yeah, you can even see, people in more traditional sports are starting to become in tune with esports. These people, they’re big stars, but they also grew up on video games. So they respect them and want to watch them. All these traditional sports stars are now showing the people who watch and follow them about esports.
You look at Turner as well, and they’re gonna put Counter-Strike on TV. I pray Smite can get that big sometime.
JR: I’m gonna press you on what inning is it. If you had to pick an inning.
KM: I don’t like baseball that much, so I’m gonna have to go with halftime of an NFL game. A big momentum stopper, but something could swing real hard.
JR: One of the things I’ve wondered is not if there’s one big (esports) bubble, but if there’s a lot of smaller bubbles that are within esports that could burst but not necessarily derail esports entirely. Specifically one of the areas I wonder about is player salaries. It’s interesting to me because in the Smite world, it’s not salary-driven, it’s prize-driven. I was wondering just your thoughts in general on player compensation, if you think one model is better than the other and why?
KM: So with Smite, I’ll start with what Smite did because we ran into this issue last year in our (first) season. Basically, if you didn’t win an event, you spent hundreds of hours on the game, and you didn’t have a living wage. Our $2.6 million tournament for the first year, the problem was, the players who won it, they’re well off for a couple of years at least, in addition to their streaming and whatever compensation they receive from the organizations. And we didn’t like that, and most of our players didn’t like that. Even our players who won didn’t like that because it’s like, “Well, what if we didn’t win.”
We spread out the money (for season 2), so as long as you make it to our pro league, you’re making a decent amount of money. If you were there for every single split, it would be enough where you don’t really have to do anything else except maybe stream. I think that’s important because you can’t have a sustainable league where all the money is based on placing at events. For these people who put thousands of hours into your game, and they’re playing these players who ended up winning, but they just missed out. And they can’t sustain themselves, and they leave the league, and now you’re losing all this talent.
It’s important to have a spread out prize pool, whether it’s salary or it’s “If you compete in our league, you’re getting at least this much money.” I do think it’s important to have some baseline for players who are competing at the highest level so they’re not just getting fucked if they’re not first or second or third.
JR: So would you be in favor of salaries? Or maybe not yet? Or does it depend?
KM: I think it all depends on how things are working out for your game. There are salaries in (League of Legends Championship Series). But other games, like Counter-Strike, it’s organization-based salary. And that’s Smite as well. The orgs will pay players in addition to whatever money (they win). It’s gonna differ per player and per team, but most players in the (Smite Pro League) will have not only the money they’re earning from SPL, but they also have money they’re earning from their organizations.
JR: That brings me to another question about organizations on their own. I feel there are several different paths to sustainability or the road to sustainability. You have the one model like maybe an Echo Fox, where you have one person coming in and he’s wealthy whether the team makes money or not. Then you have other organizations that are clearly funded by VC, and they’re gonna need a return at some point. You compare that to traditional sports, and it’s pretty much a billionaire’s club. Do you think over time we’ll shift to a traditional (sports) model where we’ll have more wealthy owners? Or do you think these teams can be viable businesses like running any other sort of company where they’re profitable?
KM: I feel like we’re starting to be in the middle of that, where you have the Rick Foxes coming in, and you know Mark Cuban has been decently active in esports lately. These big-name investors are coming in and starting up orgs. You have a million esports organizations, right? You have all these ones with like 100 Twitter followers, but there are only a couple that are successful. I think we’ll see less of the small startups. I think it’s gonna be the people who have been around for five, 10 years like the Dignitas, Cloud9, who have already made their foray. I think there will be people that try, but I think it’s gonna be harder for startups to be successful and run.
JR: There are so many issues in esports. There’s stuff with visas, players not being paid, organizations running entire leagues. So many. What are you thoughts on some of those issues as a whole? Do you think players should have unions? Do you think it’s the best move for developers to be the lawmaker, judge and jury? What are your thoughts on the whole infrastructure?
KM: Hi-Rez specifically takes a pretty hands-on approach. We control our entire league. We don’t want our players to get screwed because there is a lot of shady stuff in esports, unfortunately. It’s stuff that’s slowly starting to get more in the limelight, and it’s hopefully going away as (the industry) progresses. Hi-Rez has always been there to protect its players. Any money won from stuff goes straight to the players, unless there was an organizational deal where it goes to the organization, which then disperses it.
JR: As a former player, do you wish there was a union that you could talk to?
KM: I wish there was something, whether it was a union (or something else). I wish I had some resource to go to. Because I had no idea what the fuck I was doing when I was playing. People will learn after being into it after a while, but when you’re just getting into esports, unless you have another guy on your team who’s been through it before, you have no idea. It is very easy to kind of get screwed over and not recognize it at first. There has to be something for players to go to and learn how to talk to the organizations.
Because a lot of these guys are just kids, right? I was competing when I was 21, so I wasn’t 16 or 17 but I still had never really dealt in any business like that before. I do think there needs to be some resource, whether it’s a union, whether it’s the developer itself. It’s gotta be somewhere the player can go and feel comfortable talking about what they’re signing, especially when it gets to the bigger deals.
JR: Tencent is involved now with Smite, and Tencent is fascinating to me because it’s sort of this, maybe the average player doesn’t know who Tencent even is. But they have their hands all over the place. They have their hands on League, have their hands on Smite. How has Tencent benefited Smite? What has the relationship done for Smite?
KM: They help us with our partnership in China. They distribute Smite in China and the other regions out there. They bring a lot to Hi-rez, this developer that’s only been around 10 years. They’re incredibly successful and have a lot of resources to just help us out and spread the Smite name.
JR: One of the interesting things about Hi-rez compared to Riot, for example, is Hi-Rez has multiple games under its umbrella. Whereas Riot — at least until now — has been a one-game shop. Why does Hi-Rez find it necessary to diversify its games this early? And how do they determine where to allocate their resources?
KM: Smite wasn’t the first game from Hi-Rez. It was Global Agenda, and then Tribes: Ascend, and then Smite. So it’s not really new, but Smite has probably been our most successful game. So growing other games has been a focus from the start. It’s kind of just more active development on multiple titles, whereas before it was kind of one at a time. It’s important to note that nothing has been taken away from Smite. The Smite team is not smaller. It’s continuously getting bigger, and they’re just adding people to actively develop these other products.
It’s kind of this weird shift in the game society. It’s not just you shift (the game) and you’re done. It’s kind of this active development. You’re releasing a new patch every other week. Upgrades visually. It’s an actively developed game, and that’s gonna continue.
JR: Another thing that’s interesting with Smite is it’s expanding to console games. What advantages do you see to that?
KM: It’s literally the fact that the game is enjoyable on XBox. Players enjoy the game (on consoles). It’s not this top-down MOBA, it’s this over-the-shoulder third person, and that just translates really well to console. There’s this market of people not only willing to play Smite, but it’s enjoyable. That’s one of the big things that actually happened. We brought in people to make it its own specific game on XBox. It was, “Let’s develop our Smite brand for console.”
One of the first people Hi-Rez picked up for casting Smite heading into Season 2 was Scott “Gandhi” Lussier. He was a former Halo player and one of the biggest casters in Halo, one of the biggest figureheads in Halo. And he did Call of Duty as well. So we brought him on as just an experienced commentator translated into Smite. And it wasn’t the intention for him to jump on Xbox, but because he had worked on XBoxes for so long, he worked his way onto the development team as the system’s designer for Smite on XBox. He came on to Smite as a commentator. But then it was perfect because he had been playing XBox forever. He helped making it an enjoyable experience for XBox.
JR: What’s the next benchmark of plateau or the next big step forward for Hi-Rez?
KM: Probably, it’s just continued development. We’re working on Paladins right now. Smite is still chugging along doing its thing. It’s making sure all the games we produce, we put the same care into. There are so many people working on Smite, and they put their heart into it and work hard for it. It’s just like continue making quality games people will enjoy.
Photos courtesy of Hi-Rez