While soaring over the Atlantic, the freshly crowned champ shared his thoughts on the future of EVE esports.
EVE Esports: A Conversation at 40,000-ft with the Champion StarFleetCommander
Introducing the EVE Esports Global Champion - StarFleetCommander
Some people have a knack for being the best at everything they do. By day, David Griffith works as a VFX artist for one of the worlds most renown CGI companies. By night, he takes a different path, one soaring through the skies as EVE esports global champion StarFleetCommander.
After a busy weekend rejoicing in the revelry and revelations of EVE Fanfest 2022, David was no doubt ready for a relaxing journey back from Iceland to London. Little did he know, the seat next to his was reserved by yet another of the annoying video games journalists who thronged to EVE’s first major convention in years. And my voice recorder was at the ready.
The night before, David, or rather StarFleetCommander, had won a tournament – The Fanfest Global Finals. It was far from his first EVE esports win; having competed for 12 years, David has taken part in more competitions than any other player and won “a bunch”. He is officially the most experienced EVE esports players of all time, and one of the most commended.
While the years when he could dedicate unending hours of his life to exploring New Eden are behind him, David still plays an active role in the community. He plays in tournaments and manages an EVE org and Discord with thousands of members – something he jokes is far trickier than the managerial responsibilities of his job. Like many EVE players, he’s aware of how beneficial the sci-fi MMO has been to his life – claiming that managing the politics of the org has taught him essential problem-solving skills.
And what to do with EVE esports is another problem he’s directed those skills towards.
I’ve been playing this game over half the years I’ve been alive.
EVE Esports Today
EVE esports tournaments have been around for years and draw in a dedicated audience of EVE players, old and new. Unlike easier to follow games, they have, however, never truly made the hyperjump beyond the game’s own community to a wider gaming audience.
The Fanfest Global Finals had many of the thrills of a big esports event: a crowd of at least a thousand, dramatic lighting, flown-in players, livestreaming, casters, post-match interviews, and prizes. Though it would be hard to imagine the tens of thousands of devoted attendees of a League of Legends or Dota 2 tournament crowding the doors.
Considerable cash prizes have been offered for EVE esports tournaments too. In 2013’s New Eden Open II, there was an impressive $25,000 prize pool. The Fanfest Global Finals prize, by contrast, was a high-end graphics cards. Certainly nothing to turn one’s nose up to, in today’s economy especially, but not quite the $40,000,000+ seen at Dota’s The International 2021.
Aware of the ever-increasing importance of gaming’s esports scene, grateful to CCP Games, and passionate about EVE’s success, David had plenty of thoughts on how and why the EVE esports scene could evolve into a spectacle that would truly draw in the crowds.
“It’s so important for a game to have esports. It really does add the next level of play to the endgame with leader boards and prestige – a concept CCP just spoke a lot about in their plans for EVE.”
The Future of EVE Esports According to a World Champion
Epic operatic space battles in custom ships, complex tactics, and freighter loads of ingenuity, EVE Online has all the ingredients required for esports stardom. What it needs is a recipe. The global champion had plenty of thoughts on what that should be.
Making EVE Esports Accessible
One of the biggest changes is something CCP Games are already putting into action, upgrading the user interface. “One of my friends works in League of Legends esports for Riot Games. I asked him to watch my tournament and share his thoughts. The first thing he said? The UI needs to change.”
David makes an astute point. When non-EVE players watch EVE esports, they need to be able to grasp what’s going on, “They need to know who’s been shot and who’s done what, and it needs to be more visually pleasing. I’ve never played Overwatch or CS:GO, but I could sit and watch a game on Twitch and just get it.”
While CCP Games are working hard to change this through initiatives like EVE University, EVE Academy and a revamped career-focused NPE, EVE remains a famously inaccessible, involved game. David’s two-part solution is a revamping of the UI to make it more immediately comprehensible and aesthetically appealing, then working out a way to increase engagement with audiences – and that includes wider audiences, “Right now it’s just the hardcore EVE nerds that know what’s going on.”
EVE Online Esports Formats: Prefits vs Custom Ships
The tournament David had just won was a 2v2 tournament using pre-fitted ships which competitors can chose between. Yet the EVE esports scene is varied; there are large tournaments like the three-week 10v10 Alliance Tournament wherein competing teams fit their own ships, adding a whole new level of complexity.
Somewhat against the grain, David believes that the pre-fitted ship format should be the primary model that EVE takes forward. Firstly, the format is less complex, simplifying things for both crowds and casters who can then report on ships’ stats, damage types and weaknesses in real-time, as opposed to having it all kept secret. Moreover, the live construction of a team, as players pick out their ships in front of a crowd, can form an exciting pre-battle build-up.
While he concedes that raising the stakes by having players field their own expensive ships does add extra tension and excitement, if EVE esports viewership is to be expanded beyond the community, that first means first levelling the battlefield.
David and his team have now won so many tournaments that they boast a veritable fleet of unique and formidable prize ships. He argues that the dominance of a few established teams with OP ships creates a constant cycle of known faces coming first, second, and third. This acts a barrier for new contenders who could be beneficial to the scene.
EVE Online Esports Formats: Team Sizes
Having played in 2v2s all the way up to 13v13s, David has plenty of personal experience when it comes to the most exciting formats.
Flying out dozens of teams of 13 players to live tournaments is going to get very expensive, very quickly. CCP Games is an MMO success story, but their budget is not unlimited. David believes that there could be a future in these big team formats, but CCP would need to build up to it if it were going to be viable from a business perspective.
Tiny tournaments are not necessarily the answer either, “2v2s are great, but they’re over in 10 seconds. Or at least, they’re decided in the first 10 seconds. All players choose cruisers and often whoever has the better ping wins.”
He believes the focus for the immediate future should be on 5v5 and 7v7 tournaments, which remain manageable while giving scope for more gripping and elaborate team tactics.
Will EVE Esports Make It Big?
David believes so. As evidence, he cites the new community team on the case, comprised of dedicated EVE esports advocates and long-time community members like CCP Swift (who has flown into battle against StarFleetCommander) and CCP Zelus. We’ve just conducted an interview with the pair of them about esports and more, so stayed tuned to our blog for their take.
As well as the changes to formats and UI, one considerable remaining challenge is the business perspective. Esports is big business; the viability of expanding it will need to be demonstrated to the higher-ups, such as CEO Hilmar who was also on our flight.
“The more viewable you make it, the more engaging it is, that’s when the sponsors start coming in. That’s when you start getting the Kitkat and HyperX logos everywhere as well as every energy drink under the sun. That’s where the real money is.”
If CCP Games are going to fulfil their vision of “EVE forever”, they’re going to need to target both ends of the player funnel. Their work on enhancing the new player experience will bring in new players and new revenue. Having a successful and accessible esports scene will fulfil the exact same functions. Fortunately, much of the work on UI and graphics that CCP Games are embarking on will benefit both the early game and end game experiences, bringing benefits to the whole community.
I was tempted to go a few seats back and hassle Hilmar for an interview too, but I decided to give him a well-earned rest from pesky journos. Instead, I opted soak in soaring above the earth with StarFleetCommander.
Alex Sinclair Lack is MMO Games' Head of Content, a video game journalist and script writer. He recently had to delete his Twitter and now has a measly 11 followers. Show him some love by making it 12.