Where would esports be today if it wasn’t for the extremely fast-paced action FPSs that came up in the late 1990s and early 2000s? Game franchises such as Quake and Unreal Tournament were essential parts of many LAN parties along with good old Counter-Strike and WarCraft III. Of course, such demanding games that are easy to learn and hard to master are especially suitable for competition. As a consequence, these games developed large, enthusiastic communities that played the game together in order to improve. In one way or another, those teams formed the base of modern esports in Europe and America.
However, the days of LAN parties seems to be long gone. Nowadays, gaming is all about Internet culture and playing online, streaming and watching professionally broadcasted events. While Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has become a tier-1 esports title, we've heard little of Quake and Unreal Tournament in recent years. But why is that? Is the golden age of arena shooters over for good? Are they too hard to play for the newer generations of gamers? Are those games and their mechanics maybe outdated and simply not fun anymore? Or are developers unable to do justice to their legacy?
This article tries to answer all these questions while focusing on Unreal Tournament. Not only will we analyze the past of the game and its effect on esports but also its potential to stage a comeback, and become a fan favorite once again. But let’s start at the beginning.
Unreal Tournament – A Short History
Unreal Tournament offers different game modes such as Last Man Standing, Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and others. The players can fight each other or A.I. opponents featuring a large set of different weapons. The map and game mode variety of Unreal Tournament, and its sequels, put Overwatch and other later shooters to shame. The game was well-received by critics and fans, and is still regarded as a true classic of video game history among older players.
Unreal Tournament became big during a time, when people had no or very slow internet connections. Accordingly, it featured a very personal community as LAN parties and tournaments were the way to go if you wanted to play competitively.
As people gathered to play their favorite game, this very special social aspect helped to establish the heart and soul of the scene. In fact, it was easier to make real-life friends, find teams, get better, and find your way into the game because the communal spirit was much stronger. Although people are in touch all the time thanks to social media and Whatsapp nowadays, it’s still something more personal if you get to know people on a LAN event, speak to them in person, and establish bonds between different communities of gamers.
Unreal Tournament had two heydays, one during the early era of the original UT99, the other a few years later when UT2k4 (Unreal Tournament 2004) was being played. The original and 2k4 held various pro-circuits and professional tournaments. Most prominently, UT was featured at the World Cyber Games (WCG), the esports equivalent to the Olypmics, from 2001 to 2004.
Not only had the game massive support from its community but also from sponsors that increased prize pools and made it possible for gamers to earn some money on pro level. This was by no means as professional and well-developed as it is today, especially in comparison current tier-1 esports, but can be considered a very early example of professional gaming in Europa and America.
After 2005, sponsors got interested in other games and started to drop Unreal Tournament causing dissatisfaction among the pro players. Also, Unreal Tournament 3 was not able to revive the hype around the game as Epic Games missed the opportunity to promote their game by investing more into UT’s esports scene. There were very few cups and tournaments that would justify the players’ dedication to the game. On top of that, many purists stuck to the older versions like the original UT or 2k4. Although the game is not regarded as a real failure today, UT 3 was just not able to build on its legacy.
Unfortunately, UT has not been able to benefit from the current esports hype yet, that has started around 2010/2011 when StarCraft 2 heralded the Twitch era. Epic Games has been working on Unreal Tournament 4 for some years now struggling to create the perfect contender for the FPS sector. The pre-alpha version of the game is already playable for free, but it’s still a long way until it can claim its place in the esports scene. Which trends does it try to cater to and will this work out in the end?
Outdated Gameplay or Successful Restauration?
Back in the day, competitive UT was mainly played in team deathmatch or in 1v1s, the so-called duels. The team or player having more kills after the timer runs out wins the match. Although there are competitive communities for other game modes as well, these are those predominantly played on pro level. UT 4 uses the very same formula with some adjustments and improvement of graphics. For today’s standards, this sounds very basic especially considering current trends. One being the apparent requirement of arena and MOBA shooters to have a pool of heroes or champions you can pick from. Is UT 4 doomed because it lacks this feature?
Klaus Wiedemann aka “frag^m” doesn’t think so. The 34-year-old pro player has started a new UT team for mousesports a few weeks ago after he quit playing Overwatch. He argues that Unreal Tournament has actually some significant advantages over Blizzard’s casual FPS. Although Overwatch offers an immense variety of playable characters, the skill cap for each hero is rather limited due to their restricted role. As a result, each champion is relatively easy to master. This applies to the movement skills, too. In Unreal Tournament, you can do dodge jumps, wall-dodging, wall-running, slide on the ground, and the like, while OW and CS:GO depend to a large degree on positional play.
This means that map control is critical in UT as well. Thanks to the item mechanic, players cannot stand still for a second. They have to hit the timings when items respawn so that their opponent cannot get them. Besides, static targets are a lot easier to hit than moving ones. Of course, there is map control in other FPS, too, however it has a different role in UT, because you can hardly camp one spot but have to impose your control over the entire map. Consequently, Epic’s arena shooter has a much faster gameplay flow.
Likewise does the round-based gameplay of CS:GO and others slow down the speed that is typical for arena shooters. One mistake can kill a player who is actually much better than their opponents. In UT, you respawn immediately, thus promoting true individual skill. After longer non-stop battles, the better player almost always emerges victorious (That is of course not to say, that CS:GO, Overwatch, and the like do not require any skill at all. You just have a bigger, permanent impact in classic arena shooters).
But what about the team aspect? It is not too bold a claim to say that the most successful esports titles are team-based games. UT is also a traditional team deathmatch shooter, still it does not cater to this aspect as much as OW or CS:GO do.
Wiedemann’s conclusion is that individual players don’t have as much impact in modern shooters anymore, since they serve only a certain role. Additionally, they have four or five teammates which diminishes each single player’s importance. Such things, however, promote a rather negative mindset as players tend blame their teammates instead of reflecting their own performance.
As a matter of fact, it is often suggested that players in general tend to refrain from games that apply too much pressure on them as an individual. For this reason, we see much more gamers playing team games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike or Dota. This could be a huge problem for UT 4. “In this day and age, where games even reward losing, some players might lose their motivation after their first decisive loss. Newschoolers need to learn how to lose,” says Wiedemann.
Thinking about that, it becomes clear that Unreal Tournament 4 is going to be more for hardcore gamers than for casuals. Despite being fun to play, it can be too frustrating for newcomers who think they suck at that game after playing only for a few hours. But can it make an impact on the esports scene then?
Unreal Tournament 4
Can Unreal Tournament 4 restore the series's former glory? It will surely have a hard time competing on the esports market. Thanks to its timeless gameplay and modern engine it might succeed, though.
Source: Epic Games
Has UT 4 chances to compete on the market?
frag^m does not like comparing UT to games like OW and CS:GO. He suggests that they are too different from each other. In respect to game mechanics, he is absolutely right. But still the question remains, if all these games havn’t communities that overlap? Epic Games is not in direct competition with Blizzard and Valve to attract new players, because they mainly seem to address hardcore gamers, non-teamers, and oldschoolers. But they need to adjust their game to make it suitable for younger generations of players, if they want to have long lasting success with UT 4.
Also, Klaus admits that losing in UT is a little bit too harsh. One game which seems to be inspired by Overwatch's success is Quake Champions, UT 4’s greatest rival in the arena shooter genre. That being said, one has to keep in mind that purists and pros often criticize champion selection systems in shooters which seem too powerful and diminish the importance of the individual player's skills. Because of that, Epic Games must apply modernizations carefully that satisfy veterans and introduce new players at the same time – an incredibly hard task.
mousesports seems to believe in Epic Games new UT, though. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have shut down their Overwatch team and open a new UT squad only a few months later. “Back to the roots,” states Klaus, “UT used to be the crème de la crème of esports titles. Even if there is not much prize money on the line at the moment, UT4 has the potential to be part of it again soon. Furthermore, we as a team, and accordingly mouz as an organization, can show the people out there, how much fun fast-paced arena games are.”
Other (former) pros have returned to Unreal Tournament 4 as well, and play it when they have the time to. One of them is frag^m’s old comrade Christian “GitzZz” Höck the two-time WCG winner. Epic Games seems to do be on the right track after all.
Releasing their game as a free-2-play shooter is another necessary step to increase UTs player base, if they want to compete with Quake Champions. The Bethesda shooter is already in the beta phase, features hero abilities that aren’t too impactful (if we may believe recent previews), and looks magnificent. On top of that, it is a very fast FPS that will certainly attract some pro players who would have chosen Unreal Tournament 4 as their new competitive game under different circumstances.
To be honest, time is not working for Epic Games. Unreal Tournament needs to enter the beta stage soon, if they don’t want to challenge an already supersaturated market. It has definitely the potential to be a contender in the arena genre, and maybe in the shooter segment in general. Nevertheless, the developers need to increase their efforts and work a little faster.
It would be a pity if Unreal Tournament 4 remained a mere niche phenomenon, as the game’s pre-alpha is already really fun to play. On top of that, the franchise deserves a new game that does justice to its history which is inseparably connected to that of esports.
Thank you very much Klaus ‘frag^m’ Wiedemann for your help! This article wouldn’t be what it is without your advice!