Competitive gaming suffers from a serious case of complexity creep, which, while not always crippling, stands in complete opposition to the progression of competitive gaming into the mainstream gaming community. The problem is simple: games create new content to keep players interested, but the constant additions of new variables into the competitive scene dilutes the mechanics to the point of alienating any new players and established competitive players at the same time. For example, Marvel vs Capcom 2 is often heralded as the best in the Marvel Versus series, but it also has 56 playable characters, each having three assist options to be put into a team of three possible character selections. This means that, in an alternate timeline in which Capcom constantly balanced MvC2 to keep at least a majority of the roster competitively viable, players would have to memorize all 56 characters move lists, their assists and what teams they fit into best. Thankfully for Marvel players, Capcom did not patch the game significantly and instead let the chips fall where they may, which lead to only four characters being competitively viable (i.e. Sentinel, Magneto, Storm and Cable) with a spare few characters left over for their strong assists (i.e. Cyclopes, Psylock and Captain Commando). Although the game was initially complex, Marvel has been boiled down to its bare essentials in terms of competitive play and is much more approachable, at least in terms of the sheer amount of knowledge players must study before being able to play competently.
The Transition From Pay-To-Play to Free-To-Play
On the other hand, patching and updating competitive games is almost mandatory now, thanks mostly to the fact that most games have transitioned from a pay-to-play model to a free-to-play model based on micro-transactions. Allowing players to play for free leads developers to create a more progressive product with a long shelf life, instead of one content filled game that is sold and then forgotten. Players grow bored easily and game developers quench their audience’s thirst with new content and balance patches. Sadly, complexity creep ensures that this process is not always beneficial for the game overall. A game like League of Legends, which bases its financial model on appealing to the more casual crowd also risks scaring away competitive gamers who don’t wish to memorize hundreds of heroes with thousands of moves that can equip hundreds of different items and fit into millions of different team compositions.
Luckily for both competitive gaming developers and gamers alike, the problem of complexity creep can be easily avoided. Take a game like Magic the Gathering for example: MTG has thousands of thousands of cards from more than twenty years of development, yet still maintains a small and strict competitive environment that avoids the problem of complexity creep. Wizards of the Coast simply split their game into several different modes of play; Standard, Modern, Vintage, Legacy and many more. These modes limit players on what cards they can use, which allows for different competitive environments to flourish independently and allow players to have their cake and eat it too in terms of choosing between ease of access and competitive depth. Games like League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients or Street Fighter could learn from Magic the Gathering and adopt a similar model in which they separate their game into modes that gate off certain content to allow newer players or more competitive gamers to play within an environment conducive to their level of investment. Street Fighter could easily separate their character releases into seasons, allowing players to play competitive matches with only characters from the current season instead of having to sit down and learn every character from a ridiculously sized roster. Heroes of Newerth already attempted this model by adding a Core Pool mode which includes only characters that most exemplify the competitive nature of the game. These characters are not necessarily simple, but are effective at their roles on a team and are mainstays in the competitive scene since their release. If more games adopt a similar model, then developers will be able to maintain their content release schedules without creating a gigantic bloated mess of a game that they’re then forced to masquerade as an Esport in an attempt to appeal to both the casual and competitive gaming communities.