"Any major esports event can trace itself all the way back to some Quake competition." That's Tim Willits, Id's studio director, and one of the developers that's been there, more or less, since the beginning. He's also proud of the fact that he's the only Id employee who's attended single QuakeCon, the world-famous LAN party that's been running since 1996, which has improbably remained grassroots driven even following Id's acquisition by Bethesda. Though it seemed destined to become a for-pay fan convention, there's still no charge to attend to QuakeCon; you just have to be willing to haul yourself (and perhaps your gaming rig) to the Dallas area.
Some flavor of competitive tournament has been on QuakeCon's menu since the gathering spawned out of an IRC channel in 1996. But now, with Quake Champions emerging as a game with serious esports ambitions, things are sure to look a little different than they did in the days of Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel. Leading up the E3 earlier this week, Bethesda announced a $1 million tournament for Quake Champions, which will culminate in a grand final at QuakeCon. I spoke to Willits about how he's squaring up Quake's grassroots origins with its Big Esports ambitions, what the game's one-on-one focus means for the nature of its competitions, and where he ultimately sees it all going.
What's it like bringing Quake back to esports in a significant way? That world has changed quite a bit in the last couple of decades.
We've run Quake competitions for 20 years at QuakeCon. This is going to be our 21st year. We've always had competitions but they were very grassroots – they were always open tournaments, so people could just show up and compete.
In 20 years, [esports] has gone from unorganized play, no sponsorships, small prize pools, to millions of people playing, millions of people watching, and millions of dollars on the line. Quake fits really well into that because most of the esport players love playing Quake. The guys that own all the esports companies started by playing Quake, and it's always been a skill-based competitive game. When you watch some of the world's best Quake players go head-to-head, it is truly amazing. Last year at QuakeCon, we had Rapha, the best Quake player, probably, in the world, versus the best Russian player. They went nine overtimes. It was the most amazing Quake Live match. We want to bring that spirit and that energy and that "esports" vibe to the world with Champions. It's the perfect game for it.
Developers often say that they aim to make the best competitive game they possibly can, and hope that esports will follow. Do you think there's anything developers can do to help that process along if they're determined to make their game an esport?
That thinking is no longer really accurate. It won't really work for game developers. You really need help push the title into competitive gaming. You need to support – well, first of all, you need to make a great game. You need to put the features in that make it esports-friendly. Spectator mode – there are so many games that don't have spectator mode. That's a requirement. Then you need to have game modes that are easy to follow, that people understand. And that's why one-versus-one is so great, because it's easy to follow. Then, as a publisher, you have to support these tournaments.
We're going out the gate with a million dollar tournament. We're throwing the flag down and we're making a statement that we're serious about this. Those are the types of things that you need to do as a publisher – you need to grow your community, you need to grow your grassroots, you need to support the small tournaments, you need to have a platform for players to enter the game, compete, know their rank, join these teams, and play. It's naive to say that, "I made a good game and people play it in esports." It's really the whole package. You need to push it forward.
Isn't a lot of this out of their control? A game first has to catch fire on a grassroots level, right?
Yeah. But you can light the match.
How are you guys lighting the match? Through the competition? A million dollars?
We have a million dollars. And the pro teams, they follow the money. Make no mistake. And the fans follow the pro teams. The very nature of Quake Live is competitive. We have the Sacrifice game mode, which we're running as our team game mode at QuakeCon – we've changed that game mode three times, based on pro player feedback. Partnering up with ESL, being showcased the next two days, they're helping us with the tournament at QuakeCon – we're laying the bricks to a good, solid foundation.
And the pro players like playing the game. Rapha, who currently plays on an Overwatch team, spends a lot of time streaming Quake Champions online. His manager may not like that, but we won't tell him.
Have you found that pro players who primarily compete in team games are hungry for a one-versus-one game to showcase their individual skills?
You want to know who the best is, you want to know how you stack. That's why, for the Quake World Championship in August at QuakeCon, we have two paths. We have our team game, which will have eight teams there competing, and we have our duel, which will have 32 people. A lot of those guys who play in the team game also play duel, which is very interesting because they have to practice and train differently.
But we do believe that there is a void in competitive first-person shooters in the esports world, and that's 1v1. Quake has always had a 1v1 following. It's very conducive to that, we've made special maps for it. We think we can definitely fill that space.
Is it a challenge to balance a game simultaneously for 1v1 and team-based formats?
No, not really. One of the things that John Hill, our esports manager and former pro player – he said that he's been surprised at the champions that different pro players have brought into matches. He hasn't seen the perfect combination yet. Even based on different levels, people change their strategies. So that kind of metagame – that added depth and strategy – I think will make that 1v1 even better for spectators. Just think about it – you have a story of one guy, and the story of another player, they come onstage and the draft comes up. The shoutcasters talk about the map, then player one picks a champion. That's a discussion. Then the other player picks. Did they pick that champion because that's what they want? Does it counter the first champion? And it goes back and forth. That's a lot to talk about. Then the match starts. I think people will really gravitate towards that.
Why do you think the competitive 1v1 FPS has been dormant for so long?
I just think it's the games. For years, everyone's been playing Call of Duty, and these other big team games came up – there just wasn't that space. People build these big levels, they have these objective-based game modes, you spawn in – if you spawn in with a weapon loadout and your class, what can really do in a 1v1 match? But when you spawn in in Quake, there's no loadout, you have to run around and pick up the weapons, pick up the armor, you have to time the items – you have that total arena combat where you can get hit from any direction. It really is a hunting-type game that other games just aren't.
Even five years ago – ten years ago, people laughed at esports. 'Why would you want to watch a bunch of kids play video games?'
So you consider the 1v1 format as Quake Champions' secret weapon?
That's what we're hoping for. We do really hope that people gravitate towards it. It's such a spectator sport now, with the personalities of the players and their fans – it can really drive that 1v1.
How has the esports establishment reacted to Quake Champions?
The great thing about the big organizations that run esports, like the ESL – all the CEOs and guys at the top played Quake. They're like, "We love Quake! We want to have it!" Same with the big events – the DreamHack folks? They love Quake. That has opened many doors for us. That just feeds into the sponsors, our media partners – Bethesda has a lot of really good relationships with bigger, broader media partners that will also help us in the future.
It sounds like you're going all-in on. How does that square up with the QuakeCon's grassroots, community focus?
Esports is popular because millions of people play. It's a huge community of fans. If you look at the stats, the industry believes that by 2020, there will be more people in North America watching esports than baseball, basketball, and hockey. If you look globally, within 10 years, the experts believe that esports will be the number one most-viewed form of entertainment in the world. It's ridiculous. It's growing in North America, but if you look at Asia – Asia is still the biggest for esports audience. Europe is actually bigger than North America. So there's a huge potential in North America to bring in more fans, and there's a huge potential in those territories like Asia, that have the fans, to bring in more games.
Are you bullish? Do you believe those numbers?
I would not believe those numbers if I had not seen the last couple of years. Even five years ago – ten years ago, people laughed at esports. "Why would you want to watch a bunch of kids play video games?" And now, the stats are ridiculous. There are 43 million people who viewed the final game of League of Legends in 2016, compared to 32, I think, 32 million who viewed game seven of the NBA Finals.
There are more people in the world globally that play video games than participate in organized sports. It's ridiculous!
Where are you hoping all this will go? What do you want to see five years from now?
We want to have a huge league. We want the best players to continue to play. We want to fill our stadiums. But we also want that dark horse story – we want that kid, who just started playing Quake and worked his way up, and found a team to play with, and found a pro team, and stands on the stage, and wins a million bucks.