H1Z1: King of the Kill is a “massively multiplayer arena shooter.” If you find that confusing, think of it this way: What if the film Battle Royale was a game? What if you hunted your enemies across land and water, urban shock zone and open field? More importantly, what if you did that competitively?
I spent some time at Dreamhack Atlanta watching H1Z1 to figure out what the hell these games look like when played in a competitive way. My interest, I will admit, was selfish. I’m an avid player of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a game that shares much of its DNA with H1Z1. They are games that are largely similar, but also different in a lot of small-yet-significant ways, and I thought that watching H1Z1 being played would give me a sense of where my own favorite game (right now) might go once it is out of Early Access release and into its completed version.
These games both proceed in a few different phases. The first, whether you are playing in the free-for-all Solo mode (where everyone is trying to kill everyone else) or the Team mode (where it is, you know, teams), is the looting phase. It’s about ten minutes of dead time where players try to find items that will help them win the game. These items are, variously, weapons, smoke grenades, and healing items. As the game goes on longer, the available play area gets smaller, and the more utility items you have at that final stage, the better off you are (remember, this is just like the film Battle Royale).
This is, to put it lightly, incredibly boring to watch. I was sitting in the dead center of fifty or sixty people for one match, and more than half of them were looking at a Halo tournament while this phase was happening. This is dead boring. This is the kind of stuff that games die on.
If you’re watching H1Z1 on a Twitch stream or a YouTube video, this is solved by the streamer or commenter. They fill up the dead air of nothing happening with fun and interesting commentary, or maybe more realistically, screaming for no reason.
To be fair, the work being done by commentators Jason Burns and Rich Campbell at Dreamhack was superb. I have been in a lot of live e-sports rooms at this point, and I’ve certainly watched hundreds of hours of streamed e-sports content across dozens of games, and I can say that this pair might be the best I’ve ever heard. Their ability to calmly and patiently explain the game is something that is critically missing within most e-sports games, and it points to some of the benefits of a large-scale game where rushing your opponent isn’t a viable strategy. One gets the feeling that H1Z1 is a game with the kind of breathing room that it takes to onboard a new viewer into actually understanding what is going on at any given moment of a game.
To me, H1Z1, Battlegrounds and games of their ilk are at the sweet spot for getting casual fans interested in e-sports. It’s relatively easy to understand what is happening at any given moment in the game: that person is hiding in a cloud of smoke, that other person is on a rooftop, and this one is shooting that one with a shotgun. They are slow enough that commentators have the ability to cogently explain all the angles. While the speed of e-sports is great if you want to pack your viewing session with the most content possible, it also means that the commentary time that, say, football has between plays, is hard to fit in. Arena shooter games have that time built in, and they’re better for it.
They can also become boring, and the Dreamhack tournament had several implementations for their H1Z1 content to make it a little spicier: the Team portion had “bounties” of $100-per-kill in a bid to increase the aggressiveness of players, and the Solo portion had a point scoring system that took kill counts into account for final place rankings. These are transparently an attempt to create commentable, clashing moments in the mode of other e-sports, and I think they’re a mistake.
H1Z1 and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are both games that could break incredibly wide as viewable, compelling e-sports. While they are certainly rival games, they will sink or swim together, as there are enough similarities that watching one makes the other one understandable. My biggest hope is that the commentating methods from Dreamhack Atlanta are adopted widely and that the increased pressure for “action” in the game is relieved in favor of strategy and tactical challenge. These games will get bigger by leaning into what is unique about them, not by making them live every other e-sport.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.