The fire rises.
On the floor of the Copper Box Arena in London, two fire dancers wave flaming batons in time with a martial drum beat. Each one stands next to an ornate brazier set within the stage; as the sweep of a baton reaches its peak, the flames from these fire pits surge a few feet into the air. Far behind them, at the opposite corners of the court, stand two large, inflatable cartoon kings staring down at the play field, which is covered with a projection that makes it look like a deep, lava-filled pit. Massive screens overlook everything, running a constant stream of fantasy-themed computer animations interspersed with live shots of nervous young men. This ceremony can only mean one thing: the next round of the Clash Royale 2017 Crown Championship World Finals is about to begin.
is one of the most popular mobile games in the world today, with over 100 million downloads across all platforms and over $1 billion in revenue since its release in early 2016. Part collectible card game and part tower defense, it pits two players against each other, using pre-constructed decks to call forth warriors, monsters and spells to destroy their opponent’s three towers. They lay their digital cards down on the tablet screen as they accumulate more elixir, the currency that regulates how they expend their cards, pointing ogres and golems down one of the single-screen map’s two lanes and watching them lumber into enemy territory. It’s Magic mixed with League of Legends, but with the ease of touching a screen and streamlined rules that make it easier to understand for non-players than most videogames. And that’s why Supercell, the Finnish game company that created Clash Royale, thinks it could be the next big game in esports.
2017 is the first year for the Crown Championship World Finals, the official Clash Royale world championship created by Supercell. The tournament in London in early December caps off an inaugural season that started with an open in-game event that drew over 27 million players in August. Players who made the cut went on to events that took place around the world, and by the end the 16 best players made it to London, representing 10 countries across three continents. The best-of-three-rounds, single-elimination tournament ends with one player taking home $150000, the largest single slice of what began as a $1 million prize pool for the entire season.
As Tim Ebner, the Virginia-born, San Francisco-based esports manager at Supercell, explains, the Crown Championship grew out of a need to support what players were already doing with the game. “We launched the game and we saw players creating tournaments, playing tournaments and watching them,” he says in a players’ lounge deep in the bowels of the Copper Box. “It’s fun for people to watch and cheer on their friends, and we saw players doing that after we launched the game, so esports is just about supporting that. And we think it’ll keep players engaged with the game longer. Which is our ultimate vision for the company.”
That player engagement is what makes games like Clash Royale so lucrative. It’s a perfect example of the “freemium” model that dominates mobile games. The game itself is free, but to play it at length or to the level needed to really master it, optional purchases are basically needed. Players can spend real money to buy “gems” to play in tournaments or speed up the unlock times for loot won in matches. For a dollar you can get 80 gems; for $100 you can get 14000. There are various price tiers between those extremes, from $5 to $50. The most devoted players will typically wind up spending far more on this game they downloaded for free than they would on a standard $60 PlayStation or Nintendo game. This is how a free game rakes in over a billion dollars in a year.
The expansion of esports has continued apace in 2017. It’s moved past hobbyists watching streams online, establishing basic cable beachheads on such TV networks as ESPN and TBS. Blizzard’s Overwatch League, which is following a traditional sports model with teams based in specific cities, started its first preseason in early December. Activision continues to support the Call of Duty World League, renting out the Orlando Magic’s NBA arena for its recent world championship. League of Legends and Dota II remain the biggest games on the scene. They all have something in common that Clash Royale doesn’t share: those games are played on PCs or videogame consoles by diehard videogame fans. Unlike Clash Royale, they aren’t mobile games.
One of the biggest challenges with the Crown Championship is getting the attention of the Western esports world, where mobile games aren’t a priority for either viewers or the media. Despite its massive popularity, and its higher profile in Asia, where mobile esports have caught on more than in the West, Clash Royale flies under the radar of the American esports establishment, in part because it’s something you play on phones and tablets. Instead of viewing its relatively streamlined and straight-forward nature as a gateway game for people who might not quite understand more complicated esports like League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, it’s overlooked in favor of games that boast more of a “hardcore” pedigree. This is borne out by the demographics of the press covering the Crown Championship on-site in London; Paste and a small handful of other Western outlets were dwarfed by sizable media contingents from China, South Korea and Japan.
Where some might see an uphill battle for Clash Royale in the esports world, Ebner sees an opportunity. ”[Esports] very much feel like a hyped thing,” he says. “What’s fun for me, if I talk to press, is that we have an interesting story in that we have a popular game with lots of players, and it’s on mobile, and outside China mobile esports has not become a big thing yet. it seems like there’s an opportunity for us. Whether or not we can succeed and be as big as other games out there, I don’t know, but I like that we’re able to work on that.
”[Clash Royale] requires enough skill that [being a mobile game is] not an issue. I haven’t actually heard many people being skeptical about the skill-based nature of the game. I think people may initially have a bias about a mobile game or a casual game but most people, at least that I’ve talked to, I haven’t gotten a sense that people think it’s not skill-based enough to be an esport.”
Sergio Ramos and the South Korean player known as X-Bow Master climb two towers on opposite ends of the Copper Box’s court, a computer-created battle field stretching between them. Previously known as the Handball Arena, the Copper Box was built to house handball and pentathlon during the 2012 Olympics. It can seat 7000, but for the Crown Championship it’s configured for a capacity of 1500. Those seats are maybe three-quarters full when Ramos and X-Bow start what turns into the longest match of the first round.
Every match in the tournament is divided into three three-minute rounds. If a player doesn’t destroy any of his opponent’s towers in that time, a round goes into a three-minute overtime period. If no tower is destroyed when that ends, the match is a draw. Ramos and X-Bow Master play two rounds for the full six minutes, ending with two draws. In the press room a journalist jokes that we could be seeing the esports equivalent of the endless Nicholas Mahut vs. John Isner Wimbledon match from 2010. Clash Royale isn’t tennis, though, and the tournament rules are set up to end ties as quickly as possible; the third round is a tiebreaker, with the loser of the round and the whole match being the player with the tower with the least amount of hit points at the end, whether a tower falls or not.
Ramos, one of two players in the tournament from Mexico, just wants to finish it. Not content with merely doing enough damage to win via hit points at the end of the tiebreaker, he makes an audacious move to collapse one of X-Bow Master’s towers. After taking a big blast to a tower from one of X-Bow’s fireballs, Ramos sends a giant and a cannon down X-Bow’s left lane, surviving a tornado and an ice wizard long enough to deal massive damage to X-Bow’s left tower. All Ramos needs to do to finish it off is roll a spiked log right through the tower. It collapses with 50 seconds left, the only tower to fall in the match’s third and final round. Ramos takes the match with a record of 1-2-0, in a suspenseful display of tactics that matches traditional sports for drama and excitement.
Jonathan Dower recoils at the term “game lead.” The bearded leader of Clash Royale’s development team would rather go by his original title of game artist. He didn’t just design how people play the game—he helped come up with how it looks, too, and he’s proud of both facts. With a background working for Disney’s now-shuttered Australian animation studio, the native New Zealander got into games through art, working on a variety of kids games and serving as a storyboard artist on L.A. Noire before going to work for Supercell at its Helsinki headquarters.
He admits to getting a kick out of seeing his team’s work brought into the real world at the Crown Championship. Pointing to a Clash Royale logo hanging on the wall of the player lounge, Dower beams, “I worked on that logo. I know the scratches and the dents on the S because I spent hours looking at it. Just seeing that and these set design elements with the chests, it’s a crazy cool buzz.”
The self-professed “guy who speaks for the team,” Dower acknowledges that Clash Royale wasn’t designed with esports in mind. “It wasn’t the plan,” he says. “The plan, with us at least, it always starts with the gameplay. We spend so much time just trying to make cool, comfortable gameplay that anyone can pick up but that still has this potential depth to it. Easy to—what’s the phrase—hard to master? You know the one. It was definitely not esports.
“But then we had this sort of big company get-together and we were testing out, before it went global, actually even before we went to soft launch, and we all had just a competition. We’re all sitting around, drinking beers and having fun, and it was just super clear that this was a very watchable game. Even forgetting the competitors, when you think about the spectators, to me that’s the cool thing. It was very watchable and lots of laughs and yelling. That’s when we thought, hey, let’s give this a shot. Even then, once we went global, people organically were doing competitive events. And now it’s all about trying to support that. And grow that.”
Since it wasn’t designed specifically for esports, it’s easy to wonder if any kind of changes in play or rules were necessary to tweak the game for competition. Dower says nothing like that had to happen to make tournaments possible. “Not rules,” he says. “We try to make it as close to the real life game as possible. We definitely are keeping an eye on it. I’d never say we never would, but we do want to try and keep the game the same. But there may be things under the hood to support it. More technical stuff.”
Dower admits to being more of a casual player of Clash Royale, but doesn’t fail to display his enthusiasm for the Crown Championship. “I love the spectating,” he says. “I’m hopeful that there’ll be lots of laughing and cheering and some cool moments. I’ll probably be keeping my eyes out for cool new decks that I can try out in my game.”
In the second round Sergio Ramos routs the only Israeli player in the tournament, a charismatic teenager who goes by the name ElecTr1fy. This earns him a spot in the semi-finals, where he goes against the oldest entrant in the tournament, the 34-year-old Vietnamese player known as Tali. Tali was so determined to make it to the Crown Championship that he missed his daughter’s birthday for a qualifier. Despite that commitment, Tali comes up short, losing to Sergio Ramos two rounds to one.
Sergio Ramos barely escaped the first round after drawing twice with X-Bow Master, and now he’s poised to compete in the championship round for $150000.
His opponent isn’t a pushover, though. MusicMaster, a California high schooler, cruised through the opening rounds of the tournament. MusicMaster’s story is one of the most compelling in the Crown Championship: he mastered Clash Royale at home, never telling his parents that he was one of the best players in the world until he qualified for the tournament in London. He had to come clean to them to explain why he needed to fly to England for a few days right after Thanksgiving. Like most players in the Crown Championship, MusicMaster promised to use any winnings to help pay for college, which was still a year or so away.
The drum beat starts again, pounding through the Copper Box Arena. Ramos and MusicMaster approach their positions opposite one another, ready to tap on the screens in front of them. The space between them now looks like a yawning celestial chasm with a precarious strip of rock connecting their two stations. The crown they’re vying for spins and levitates a few inches above a pedestal between the fire pits several feet away. After the online tournament, several qualifiers, and a full day of the Crown Championship, the best-of-five finals finally begin.
As much as any sport, esports is about the numbers. The size of the field gunning for the top prize, the dollars on the line, the damage done and the time it takes: all those numbers are crucial to understanding these games and the professionals who play them. When it comes to evaluating the popularity of an esports event, the most important numbers are total viewers and the total amount of hours spent watching it. As esports continue to grow more popular, the biggest events can pull in tens of millions of viewers across Twitch, YouTube and other streaming video sites.
The semifinals of this year’s League of Legends World Championship was watched by over 80 million people, according to Riot Games. The finals pulled in almost 58 million unique viewers. Together those viewers watched the League World Championship for over 1.2 billion hours. League is, by far, the most popular game in esports.
The International, the championship event for Steam’s Dota 2, which has the largest prize pool in esports, peaked with over 10.9 million viewers for the August event, according to the site Esports Charts. The vast majority of them came from China. Together they watched over 500 million hours of the tournament.
Clash Royale is not nearly at that level. A publicist for Supercell reported that, in the first week after the event, the Crown Championship Finals had over 7.9 million views across Twitch, YouTube, Facebook and “multiple platforms in China.” That’s total views, and not unique viewers, and only for the finals. The five separate YouTube feeds for the full event, split between English, Spanish, French, Italian and German, have combined for 4.2 million views since the event happened on Dec. 3. Separate English-language YouTube videos for each Crown Championship match at the official Clash Royale YouTube page are collectively averaging well under 40000 lifetime views, excluding the finals, whose video currently sits at just under 140000 views on YouTube. According to ESC Watch, the Twitch stream during the event reached a peak of 24345 viewers. (This doesn’t include data from the top streaming sites in China, where mobile esports are more popular than in the West.) Despite its huge success on phones and tablets, Clash Royale isn’t guaranteed instant esports success, and the first Crown Championship shows there’s a lot of room for growth.
It can be hard to gauge the true success of an esports event, though. The most important numbers of all aren’t viewership stats, but dollars. Underneath the entire esports apparatus lies one single goal: to make more money off a game. For Clash Royale, that means to get more people to download the game, and to sell more gems to those who play it. This entire production—the Olympic arena, the elaborate sets, the levitating crown and fire dancers—all boils down to a commercial for Clash Royale.
The promise of esports is inherently aspirational. That might be truer for Clash Royale than most games—these are regular players, just like you, the Crown Championship says, as it touts the open tournament held in-game that eventually resulted in the finals in London. Mobile games are an act of seduction—if you want to keep playing and get better, they say, you’ll need to give us more money. Mobile esports take that to new heights—if you keep playing and keep spending, you might get good enough to win large cash prizes in exotic foreign locales.
MusicMaker, the furtive teen champ, winds up being no match for Sergio Ramos. Ramos quickly dispatches the Californian in four rounds to win the first Clash Royale world championship. A computerized portcullis is raised on the screen behind Ramos and a wave of CGI gold coins cascades around him. He walks to the pedestal and puts on the crown, confetti swarming around him, his braces glittering under the spotlight as he smiles. The braziers still blaze at the front of the court as Supercell representatives present Ramos with an oversized check for $150000. That can buy a lot of gems. The first Clash Royale Crown Champion is crowned, and around the world players tap their phones to buy more gems, spending five, 20, 50 dollars at a time. Some of them probably hope to be here next year, playing for that large ceremonial check. The fire rises.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.