Esports Ready is an opinion column reflecting only the thoughts of one individual SiegeGG editor. Despite reference to the “esports ready” meme, this column seriously explores topics relating to the long-term viability of Rainbow Six: Siege as an esport.
Well, according to the Ubisoft website, Season 8 of Pro League is finally set to begin next week on June 25th. Great news, but let's first reflect on how we got to a two week delay.
Imagine that during the off-season the National Basketball Association decided to move the three-point line further back based on data points they had accumulated over the last few years. The league identified 24 feet, rather than the current 23 feet and 9 inches, as the optimal shooting distance to help nerf the Golden State Warriors and shake up the ranged shooting meta in the upcoming 2018-2019 season. On top of that, Spalding, the official manufacturer of basketballs made the call to increase the size of all their basketballs. However in the process, they inadvertently threw off the balance and spin of the basketball when shot—something that youth and casual players might not notice or care much about, but an intolerable defect for professional players. Naturally, professional players would crave as much time as necessary for a permanent fix and to adapt to the new three-point line.
Comparisons to traditional sports are tired, contrived and often unfair. Yet, these established sports leagues provide a starting point for analyzing the state and health of Rainbow Six’s esports, particularly given recent events. We reported on how players revolted at proposed esports changes before Ubisoft pivoted to accommodate their concerns. Days before the first play week ESL has still not delivered a finalized rule book to teams and the public, contributing to confusion over new roster change policies. And most notably, Ubisoft has, twice, delayed the start of Pro League’s eighth season due to technical issues.
That said, in traditional sports and even more established esports, a series of misses before a highly anticipated season would raise eyebrows and suggest at least a lack of preparation, and at worse, a loss of confidence. Rainbow Six: Siege, entering in its eighth iteration of a pro league season, is still graded on a curve. Should it be?
The consensus opinion from the community is straightforward: more time to fix bugs and allow players room to adjust to the new meta is a good thing. This is true, but it’s also obvious; nobody wants to see unfair match results and constant rehosts due to glitches, nor do we want to see strong teams whimper out of the gates with underdeveloped strategies on foreign bomb sites. The more important question that begs attention: what, if anything, is preventing more delays from happening in the future?
One perspective that extends beyond “unforeseen technical issues” is that Ubisoft has made two sets of promises to two distinct groups of stakeholders. To the thirty-five million current players and countless prospective players (plus its shareholders), Ubisoft has committed to continuous seasonal updates on its journey towards 100 total operators. To the competitive Siege community including players, orgs, potentially interested orgs, sponsors and fans, we were presented with a more mature and stable esports roadmap, beginning with Pro League on June 11th. That date has come and gone, and we’re still not quite sure when the next season will begin, or what this delay means for teams aiming to qualify for the next major in Paris (particularly APAC teams, whose constricted regional LAN schedules could cause serious problems with international visa turnaround time). The delay is forgivable -- Ubisoft Montreal must be permitted the time it needs to solve technical problems. Its choice to focus their development primarily for the general public (for whom some bugs are more tolerable) rather than esports is also, without question, the right call by the publisher given the revenue those 35 million generate for the business. However, if Ubisoft is ready, able and willing to make Rainbow Six: Siege esports the mega success it deserves to become, then the publisher needs to refine its esports roadmap to play nicely with Ubisoft’s existing business and development philosophy of delivering new content each quarter. After all, it’s impossible to imagine Spalding and the NBA not working together to ensure a smooth transition to the newer basketball size.
Serving two audiences is an immense challenge that many esports encounter. Indeed, League of Legends’ competitive community is frustrated about shakeups to the meta due to RIOT’s recent patch.
Ostensibly aimed towards more casual players, professional LCS players did not enjoy the creative changes. Unlike basketball, which saw game additions like the three-point line implemented over decades rather than weeks or months, the differentiator (and part of the excitement!) of software-based sports is that they evolve much more quickly. For Siege, which has added 20 operators in less than 30 months, the challenge doesn’t just lie in how it impacts the meta for competitive players, but also the near exponential increase in test scenarios to account for during QA (quality assurance testing) before any new build of the game is released to the masses.
Outside of SiegeGG I’ve spent the better part of a decade building software. I have a more nuanced understanding (more than most of Rainbow Six’s Reddit and Twitter communities, at least) of just how complex delivering products can be. Whereas initiatives like Operation Health (a delay in the release of Year 2’s seasonal content to focus on technical issues) might have received a muted response from an impatient casual player craving new content, I welcomed the opportunity for the dev team to wade through their swamp of technical debt (inefficient or unscalable code) and re-architect their systems to support Siege’s growing player base by enabling devs to release future patches more quickly. Like real-life debt, failure to pay off in a timely manner comes at the cost of a high interest penalty. Ubisoft developers that I’ve spoken to have insisted that Operation Health was critical to the game’s longevity.
All software has bugs. The problem, then, is when players cannot connect the dots or feel the dividends from efforts like Operation Health or even the Tactical Test Servers. Multiple severe bugs, including the reload animation glitch, were flagged during the TTS active period, but also made their way into the final build. In some cases, we’ve even seen regressions (bugs that were previously fixed) from pre-Operation Health days come back to haunt us in Para Bellum. According to sources close to the development team, much of the problem stems from a lack of clear steps and conditions to reproduce some of these bugs; if developers have trouble reproducing a reported issue themselves, it delays their ability to actually rollout a fix. It did not help that the reportedly buggy Para Bellum patch was released later in the week on a Thursday (the weekend being an obstacle for hotfixes--yes, developers have lives, and they deserve weekends off too), rather than the typical Tuesday rollout. Additionally, some developers and development team liaisons were understandably busy preparing and facilitating Ubisoft’s E3 event. An action-packed calendar consisting of LAN Finals in Atlantic City, Dreamhack Austin 2018, Para Bellum patch day, E3 and Pro League Season 8’s debut is enough to make any hardcore Rainbow Six fan salivate, but the meticulously planned schedule was too rigid in the end, and left no margin for errors like the ones that were encountered in the most recent build.
So, what do solutions look like? The most radical idea is to create a separate, stable build designed specifically for competitive play and used over the duration of Pro League seasons. Patches would be rolled out more conservatively and the threshold for acceptable bugs lowered. New content perhaps even delayed to avoid tectonic meta shifts in the middle of an ongoing season (after all, how meaningful are seasonal or historical stats when large changes to the game occur mid-season?). There’s no need for the NBA to immediately adopt Spalding’s new ball if the old one worked perfectly fine, right? This, however, is much easier said than done in a game development context given the additional resources required to support divergent builds. It would also fragment the player base to an unhelpful degree, starving the online competitive community from cross-pollination with the best players to help identify and develop the most effective tactics available (META).
Another possibility is conducting a proper pre-season on test servers. This would allow the more discerning competitive players to not only identify and record show-stopping bugs, but also adapt to offseason roster changes while testing new strats and game balancing. Going back to the basketball metaphor, the NBA only implemented the three-point line after multiple tests, some of which occurred at the collegiate level or during professional pre-seasons. In fact, this already occurs through TTS scrimmages, so it would just be a matter of formalizing and elongating what teams are already doing. Ubisoft could also lean on other leagues, such as CCS, to test new concepts and builds before graduating to Pro League.
Delays are not the end of the world, and in the end we’ll all be happy the dev team was afforded the time to fix critical issues. But delays of this magnitude do not reflect well and have downstream impact for many involved parties, including players balancing their schedules, league and production staff and yes, even we the press. Since this year’s Six Invitational in February we’ve been patiently waiting for the eight season of Pro League to bring the kind of stability that would allow new viewers, potential esports organizations, and sponsors to properly appreciate not only how special our little game is, but how promising its future could be with even more investment by orgs like Cloud 9. Ubisoft should respect these new guests by aiming to show up on time, or risk additional big orgs like CLG losing confidence and withdrawing from the scene.