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The Gears of War series is not one of the oldest in gaming—the first game launched less than a decade ago, in 2006—but it is beloved, with a hardcore fanbase and plenty of popular buzz for each entry. For the upcoming Gears of War 4, Microsoft and the series’ new developer, Vancouver-based The Coalition, are focusing on one area in particular for the next stage in Gears’ evolution: esports.
I played Gears of War 4 recently at Microsoft’s event/lounge space in Venice Beach, Calif. To be honest, it had been a while—I skipped last year’s Gears of War Ultimate Edition, a remastering of the first game in the series, and hadn’t played one in a couple of years at least. And I legitimately forgot just how fun Gears multiplayer can be.
In a room full of friends and colleagues, I jumped out of my seat and yelled when I got an insane kill, and watched my teammates with tense anticipation when I was dead. We played a few rounds of standard team deathmatch before moving on to the brand new “Dodgeball” mode, which is where things got really competitive.
In Dodgeball teams of five face off with a special set of rules: if any players on your team are dead, one will respawn for every player on the other team you kill. That makes for some incredibly dramatic moments, like when a team is down to one player facing the other team’s five, and that one player gets a kill, making it two on four, then another, making it three on three, and so on.
Watch the video below to see what I’m talking about:
But Dodgeball isn’t the game’s only new addition, and it isn’t even the mode that the developers at The Coalition think is going to be most crucial in making Gears 4 a must-have for the competitive esports community.
I spoke with the studio’s director of community, Adam Fletcher, at the event about what exactly will.
Gears of War is a series that has always had a fanbase but it’s never been the biggest in esports, like Call of Duty level. What are you guys doing to try to change that?
The nice part about Gears is that it was always there, since the beginning. It was there before, you know, the YouTube/Twitch generations kind of really exploded, and [Gears creator Epic Games] ended up working with [Major League Gaming]m and World Championship Gaming way back in the past, back in 2006 and 2007. What’s interesting is that even as Epic was working with them, I will say that Epic weren’t completely focused on the competitive side, and it’s something that we want to focus on at The Coalition.
Like the “Ultimate Edition” [with the first Gears game] that just came out this past year, we wanted to focus in on esports and bring that back, and bring the older fans back and the older players back to jump back in, plus some of the newer players in. And we started working with [esports network] ESL for Ultimate Edition, and we have a Gears of War pro league, and we started a Gears initiative with them. We are currently in our second season of the pro league, and we had our first season down in Burbank at ESL Studios and our second season finals is live at [gaming convention] PAX East this year. It’s growing, it’s most definitely growing. We’re seeing the growth between season 1 and season 2, and we plan on keeping that momentum into Gears 4.
One of the new things that we wanted to do and we wanted to focus on was a new competitive mode for those players and for even just casual players to jump into and try out whenever they want.
And that’s what “Escalation” mode is?
Yeah, that’s Escalation. The interesting part with Escalation is that we plan on showing more at PAX East for sure—gameplay there—but everyone’s been playing Execution since day one of Gears, and there’s never been a mode to kind of replace that. But we’ve actually tried Escalation out with some of our pro players, and it’s cool to hear that they really like the objective modes and they like the new gameplay and the new strategy involved of kind of placing power weapons around the map, and maybe fooling other teams and changing strategies from game to game, depending on what you’re doing, and they’ve actually responded back to us saying like, “Hey, you know what? This is a mode that we would totally dump Execution for and actually jump on and play competitively.”
Is there any other mode that it’s comparable to, even in another game?
It is a ring-based mode and there’s multiple rings on the map and you essentially have to get to them at a specific score, but I would say that it most compares to like King of the Hill or “Blitz,” which was new in Ultimate Edition and which was a ring–based mode, but way more intense and a new round-to-round mechanic of essentially being able to start off with no power weapons on the map and have the losing team being able to place power weapons and maybe potentially swinging the game their way.
So there’s more strategy and planning between rounds?
Exactly, and what’s interesting is that even when the losing team is placing the power weapons on the map, the other team has no visibility of that until the second the game actually starts. So let’s say the other team is like, you know what? That team is—they’re really good with the boomshot, but we’re going to put it closer to our spawn and then, you know, the other team won’t actually see it…the benefit is if you’re moving it closer to your spawn, and the other team’s not noticing that until the second beforehand, they don’t get the extra time to strategize about what’s going on.
You can actually use that to the disadvantage of the other team—let’s say that i know the other team is really terrible with the torque bow, I’m going to put the torque bow closer to them, because I know they’re less likely to pick it up. But I might be the most amazing person with the torque bow, so you can end up using different strategies to kind of reverse it back onto those players. It adds this whole new meta to Gears that Gears has never actually had, and it was awesome to see the pro players actually respond to it—way more chatter, way more strategy involved, as opposed to just Execution, where people would just be like “I’m going top, I’m going bottom"—there’s way more discussion happening now.
What’s going to be most important in making Gears 4 bigger in esports? The new modes? Spectator options? Something else?
I actually think it’s kind of a mix, because [Escalation] is still something that social players can have fun with. Like, I can party up with friends and go against other friends as well, or even people in matchmaking, and have these types of discussions, you can still have chats with everyone and figure out exactly what you want to do, and you can ask your other teammates, even if they’re people in matchmaking, like "I’m terrible with all the power weapons! Someone tell me what you’re good at and I’ll move it over here,” and stuff like that. So it ends up hitting everyone.
What’s funny and what’s awesome is that Gears has never had really great spectating and casting options, and now we have this new spectator mode that’s incorporated into Gears 4 that allows for way more options and it makes the viewers, I would say, at ease in terms of watching these games. It was a lot of stress in Gears prior to this because when you’re switching between cameras it would almost make you feel somewhat nauseous, especially with the movements of Gears, because of wall-bouncing and wall-canceling and the camera being so attached. We’ve now fixed that and we’ve added different options that players can use.
We’ve also given way more feedback to viewers—as they’re looking during spectator mode they can see weapons that people are using, they can see when they’re down, they can see even overhead maps of where they’re moving along the overhead maps if they want to view a top-down view. It adds way more variety and way more pleasure to the viewing experience.
There’s clearly so much work being put into making Gears 4 a hit for esports, but we also know from history and other games that the drive toward a game for esports needs to come from players and fans. What has the response been so far from your perspective?
It’s actually really cool because we’re seeing a lot more new players in Gears. Like Ultimate Edition for instance was a great way of being able to get new players back into the series. A lot of people had never played Gears 1 and we’ve seen that we’ve had so many new players that never owned a Gears game prior to the Ultimate Edition—it’s nearly 50 percent, with no Achievement, no back history of playing any of those Gears games. So it gives us this great opportunity of being able to introduce everyone to this series and get them in there.
And the thing with esports and getting people excited for esports is having these new competitive features, like matchmaking or the placement matches, beginning to, you know, different tiers of matchmaking as you’re playing, is a lot more welcoming, and that’s something that some of the prior Gears titles never had. They’ve never had a good matchmaking system where you would end up being paired with another player of equal skill and go against players of equal skills. It would always be crazy unbalanced and it’s something that we wanted to most definitely address.
It’s more welcoming to new players with also the bots that we’ve incorporated. So we want to grow that community from the ground up. Getting people into esports, getting people interested in the game, is something that we’re doing from the ground up. We see other people out there that, you know—they want to have big prize pools and so forth based off of esports events, and we agree those are great, those are always nice to have, but we want to make sure that we for sure grow this from the ground up and we get people interested from the beginning.
That kinds of leads into what I was going to bring up next—there’s a lot of effort toward getting people more involved competitively, but what about the average player who plays for fun or socially who might want to get into it?
With the competitive matchmaking that we have and the different tiers that you can end up growing in…we try to offer stepping stools to players that do want to get into [the competitive side] and maybe even experiment with it, or even just get into it at a lower level. A good example is we do have the Pro League, but we also have something called the Open Series, which is very like, just casual tournaments we run every week. We’ve partnered up with ESL and people sign up for it with their friends. We give out elite controllers and small cash prizes to people who just win these weekly tournaments. It’s actually pretty awesome because we’ve seen some of our more casual teams that were playing in the Open Series during season 1 actually transition [into the Pro League]. We actually had two teams from our Open Series actually qualify for Pro League and knock some of these bigger organizations out, and then they got signed by their organizations, and it’s like, it’s mindblowing. They’re just sitting they’re going, “Holy cow. This is insane! I didn’t expect this to ever happen.”
And this is all happening in the Ultimate Edition release of the first Gears game?
Yeah, this is all in Ultimate Edition. It’s really awesome, and now to see some of these players that were just like “We play for fun, and we were competitive about it, but we didn’t think we would get to this level,” and to see them now against like, Team Envyus or Denial Esports, in like you know, finals, or each week on our broadcast, is like the coolest feeling for these guys. We always showcase our pro players, [so] they’re seeing themselves on social media and stuff like that, and that’s mindblowing to them.
So we want to always make sure that there’s that pathway there for people who want to try it. And not everyone has to do it. People can play in the Open Series and just win elite controllers and free money and stuff like that if they want to. Not everyone has the time to [go pro]. So it’s cool that we have all these different windows and these opportunities for people to try it out.
I know we’re not talking about it today but there’s always the players who will want to just play campaign/story mode or whatever too, some people don’t want to play multiplayer at all. I think people forget about them sometimes.
Exactly. And the Gears story is awesome—I will say, like, a ton of our players really care about the story and what’s going on and what’s going on with this new set of characters, and it’s most definitely that there’s an equal effort. We have awesome teams back at The Coalition, our campaign and multiplayer teams, and they’re working on the game and they’re trying to make the best experiences possible for each type of player. There’s people out there who want the best of both worlds as well, they’ll jump into campaign or they’ll come back into the campaign every once in a while, they’ll play it on insane difficulty and stuff like that, and they’ll also play in versus multiplayer.
And we’re not talking about Horde Mode today right? Is it confirmed that it’s in Gears 4 though?
Don’t know yet. Don’t know yet.
Solid. Had to ask. Thanks Adam!
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. Watch that video to hear him get way too excited about a Dropshot kill, and follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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