When it comes to mobile esports, discourse has gone from completely dismissive to a tone of genuine intrigue over the last few years. Certain mobile developers are now household names within the esports community.
Tencent, the Chinese Goliath in the mobile esports space, has attracted global attention with Honour of Kings (known as Arena of Valor globally), the 5 v 5 MOBA that had 200 million active users in China in 2017. Then, of course, there’s Supercell — the company that gave us Clash Royale, which generated 2.1 million hours watched on YouTube thanks to the Clash Royale League.
However, there is a mobile gaming platform that has been gaining momentum right under everyone’s noses. Skillz, headquartered in San Francisco, offers casual matches and tournaments where players can win real money. In a press release from 31 January, Skillz announced that its top 10 competitors won over $8 million in prize money in 2018.
To put this into perspective, the Clash Royale League offered a $1 million total prize pool at its world finals. By offering a variety of familiar games such as Solitaire and Bubble Shooter, Skillz has attracted a diverse player base. Indeed, seven of the last year’s top Skillz earners were women.
“When I first started competing on the Skillz platform, I never realized this was something I could do professionally,” says Jennifer “jpark87” Park, a college student from Westland, Michigan. “The prizes I’ve earned from playing Skillz games have helped put me through college.”
While terrific and impressive, this list presents an important question for what it means to be successful in esports: Is the end game to simply accumulate as much wealth as possible? With online communities continuing to grow and add to the esports experience, the answer may not be so clear.
A quick look at the FGC will show that money isn’t, and probably shouldn’t be the defining metric for what it means to have a successful career in competitive gaming. The “grassroots” mantra of the FGC has plenty of merits, not the least of which is long term sustainability. Street Fighter: 3rd Strike still pops up at international tournaments to this day, attracting new and aspiring talent to show what they’ve got on the big stage. Fans and players who love fighting games have always shown support, even when the money wasn’t there. Players such as Justin Wong have fought their way to worldwide fame through different iterations of Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, Tekken, and other fighting games that have always had a “community first” approach.
Overwatch has its toes in both pools, with players grinding for a spot in Blizzard’s prestigious Overwatch League, and streamers producing weekly content for hundreds of thousands of viewers. Some have thrived in both worlds such as Felix “xQc” Lengyel and Brandon “Seagull” Larned who both played for the Dallas Fuel last season. Today, they are arguably the most important talents in Overwatch’s streaming world. While their streaming income is substantial (xQc supposedly pulls in about $550,000 annually from his stream alone), the money wouldn’t be there if their contributions to the Overwatch community weren’t meaningful.
To that extent, there are plenty of community leaders in esports circles that don’t even play a game for a living. Brandon Padilla, an Overwatch journalist for The Game Haus, made a name for himself by producing quality content alongside his persona as “Seagull Man.” Engaging content plays a huge role in the longevity of a competitive title, and can often boost the popularity of professional players.
When it comes to Skillz’ games, most of the important components of esports are still missing. Sure, people are playing their games and winning money, but there really isn’t a whole lot in the way of meaningful community engagement. A simple Reddit or Twitter search for Kmamba1090 yields no results, for example. There is also no content to engage with or consume outside of the games themselves. Or if it is out there, it certainly isn’t easy to find.
Arena of Valor, Clash Royale, Vainglory, and even non-esportsified mobile titles such as Marvel Strike Force have pro players and community leaders that you can easily find on social media and Reddit. They discuss strategies and meta shifts that the community is interested in, and often have giveaways and prizes for followers.
Of course, the simplicity of Skillz games could be to blame for these pitfalls. There’s only so much you can say about Solitaire or Bubble Shooter before the discussion becomes dull. So, then — Is it fair to call Skillz games “esports” titles? Though the prize money is there, it seems misguided to discuss these games in the same way you would more pure esports titles that have their own fanfare and rabid communities. On the flipside, Skillz does have some of the similar non-endemic investors that some of the other leagues have attracted.
Skillz’ CEO Andrew Paradise posits that “Similar to how radio and television revolutionized the future of sports, Skillz is using mobile technology to do the same for esports.” Perhaps we just need to see more big moves from Skillz, but this grandiose sentiment seems a bit far-fetched compared to what other mobile developers have already done. If Skillz can figure out how to cultivate a genuine esports experience without focusing so much on player numbers and prize money, then perhaps we can have that discussion.