As the knightly woman Grace, I lunge towards the enemy to start a combo of hits while shields surround me from the front. But as I give chase, they move to the safety of the turret. I manage to escape the volley of fire with only one sliver of health on my gauge. After recovering at base I make my way down the lane with a teammate. We alternate taking enemy attacks. Just as we were about to both go down, I activate my potion and bring us from the brink of death. I protect my teammate with a healing and shield spell as we take down the enemy and the turret.
In another match I was playing as Catherine and hid in the bushes near a mighty dragon, waiting for my teammates to come over so we could take on the beast. But an enemy teammate had the same idea, jumping into the bushes with me. After an awkward pause we engaged each other. Thankfully my team joined up and with the help of my heals, barriers, and silencing ultimate we were able to fend off the enemy team and take on the dragon ourselves. With the dragon at our side, we plow through the enemy base.
That was a few of the experiences granted by Vainglory‘s brand new 5V5 mode.
Heavy.com was invited to the Folsom Street Foundry in San Francisco, California for a celebration of the new mode with key people from developer Super Evil Megacorp and tons of fans. Super Evil announced the new mode’s release date of February 13 along with two strategic partnerships that they hope will secure Vainglory‘s place in eSports. The first partnership is with eSports production company ESP Gaming, who will make Vainglory their flagship mobile game for eSports. The other is with gaming hardware developer Razer, who will work with Super Evil to optimize Vainglory with its hardware. With the Razer Phone, the game runs at 120 frames per second with three million polygons and 200+ fully animated moving actors according to a press release.
Following the game’s successful World Championship in Singapore last December, Vainglory eSports will be renamed to the Vainglory Premier League and will commence its first season in June 2018 with a preseason in April 2018.
Super Evil was formed in February 2012 by veteran game developers at Rockstar, Riot Games, Insomniac Games, Blizzard, and more. They got to work on the game shortly afterwards. The game was announced at the September 2014 Apple Keynote, where Apple used the game to demonstrate the power of the iPhone 6’s graphical capabilities.
Heavy.com got a chance to speak with the people behind Vainglory‘s joint ventures as well as some of its biggest pro players to see just how much the eSports community around Vainglory has grown and will continue to grow with the arrival of 5V5.
How Super Evil Megacorp Created a Game that Was Ripe for eSports
Super Evil Megacorp CEO Kristian Segerstrale and the team grew up playing PC games all night during LAN parties and wanted to recreate that experience for mobile game players. But rather than emulate 5V5 MOBAs, they focused on 3V3 because of the technical limitations of mobile devices back then. Plus the 3V3 format was more approachable for the mostly casual market on mobile at the time. They were blown away by the size of the community that had grown around the game and their desire to play it competitively. They didn’t even know while making 3V3 if anyone was interested in that style of play. So they quickly wanted to double down on bringing the full 5V5 experience to mobile.
The team couldn’t provide us with exact numbers on monthly player counts, but Segerstrale did tell Heavy.com that the game is being played by millions and millions of players every month. And to give a sense of growth, he told us that the World Championships for the game two years ago were watched by 5,000 to 6,000 people. A year later the World Championships bumped that number up to 25,000 to 30,000. The World Championships last year had a peak of over 100,000 people watching.
Segerstrale said that the key to making a game ripe for eSports is to build a great game first and worry about the eSports aspect of it later as Super Evil have done. By making a game that is competitively well balanced and that the community loves to play competitively, eSports will follow. The eSports following along with support from pro players and sponsors is a great vote of confidence, but it’s not an end in its own right.
He also said that you have to understand that building a community around your game takes time and you have to be patient as you work with the community and understand how to collaborate together. “It’s like building a garden,” he said. “You can’t force it.”
Segerstrale said that the community was very important for deciding the direction of 5V5, with people testing the mode since August of last year. “So much of the design decisions in 5V5 we owe to that feedback,” he said. “We owe everything in terms of our success to the community and the dynamic that we’ve had between us and them.”
One thing the community had been very helpful with was figuring out the best length for matches. MOBAs on PCs can be 45 to 50 minutes long, which doesn’t work so well on a mobile device. But at the same time matches have to be long enough to allow for the strategic depth and narrative that a competitive game needs to have. Other things the community influenced included movement speed, pacing of matches, and the overall sense of fun. Their job isn’t done, however, as they are continuously looking at feedback. They know immediately if something was competitively unfair. Segerstrale said that the fact that the eSports community is so active is great proof that they’ve done a good job on their competitive balancing.
As for designing for mobile devices, Segerstrale said that “the most foundational learning for us has been that the touch screen generation cares just as much about strategic, tactical depth and control accuracy as gamers on any other platform.” They care about those sensibilities and that’s why they’ve been uncompromising in their commitment to quality graphics, framerates, control accuracy, and tactical depth. Making the game accessible to newcomers is also important, but at the same time the team wanted Vainglory “to be a game where you play for thousands of hours and still feel like you’re learning.” Segerstrale is especially excited that mobile gaming can match the capabilities of consoles, with Vaingory running at 60 fps on most devices just like most PC games. He said that other mobile MOBAs released over the past few years have featured joystick controls, short matches, and play a bit like a brawler. He felt that they’ve dumbed down the formula and that “mobile gamers deserve better.”
Segerstrale is very proud to partner with Razer to optimize the game for their hardware not only because he feels that they make good hardware but because it represents a recognition in the gaming industry that mobile gaming has arrived and that people are starting to care about the capabilities of their mobile devices as much as their PCs or consoles.
How ESP Gaming Is Leading the Charge
ESP Gaming formed from their sister company Poker Central, who are responsible for broadcasting World Series of Poker. A lot of the team behind Poker Central have moved over to ESP Gaming.
ESP Gaming President Jeff Liboon said that they wanted a mobile game partner for sure as one of their anchor partners because the opportunity for mobile eSports is infinite. And when they were looking for potential mobile partners, Vainglory came up immediately. They wanted to partner with someone who took a lot of pride in their production and had a community-first approach to eSports. When you take into consideration the hardware limitations Super Evil were working with, the strategy around the gameplay, and how its constructed from a skill-based level, Vainglory is “arguably one of the best mobile games ever created as a straight game,” Liboon told Heavy.com. “When we’re also saying we want to do premium production, it makes our jobs a lot easier when we’re partnering with someone who takes that same lens with their own game and game creation.”
In fact, ESP Gaming are so confident in the game and its growth that they’ll be creating a brand new studio in Las Vegas where they will host all the Vainglory premier league events every single week along with poker matches for Poker Central. They’re going to announce the exact location of the studio in about a month or two but Liboon did say that it will be in the heart of the Las Vegas strip.
Another reason they made the partnership is the fact that Super Evil has a lot of experience in eSports and community building as they were one of the first developers to bring MOBAs to mobile devices. Liboon believes that competing eSports production companies will likely face challenges that Vainglory has already faced. That experience will complement the experience gained by ESP Gaming from Poker Central’s +20 years of broadcasting. Liboon also said that they’ve hired former team owners, influencers, and players of Vainglory to be on the board full time.
Liboon said that the team already made poker a very viewable experience and wanted to do the same for Vainglory. And really, broadcasting eSports isn’t much different from broadcasting poker or any other competitive activity. For Liboon it’s not necessarily the game of poker that interested people; it was the story of the average Joe or Josephine making it through a poker tournament, getting to the final table, and playing for millions against professionals. “It’s not about poker, its about the journey of that guy,” he said. They want to apply that same philosophy onto Vainglory. They wanted to show why people are dedicating their whole lives to the game, why they are coming together to make a play at a championship, and how they got there in the first place. That way once you get down to the competitive aspect of it, you can get behind the players. Those stories are what makes Vainglory interesting for the community, and that translates into not only bigger player adoption but more people enjoying the game as well. “That takes it out of ‘it’s just a game’ to… storylines that people can get behind whether you know Vainglory really well or not,” Liboon said.
Segerstrale agreed that ESP’s heritage and expertise in running live production was a contributing factor in deciding to partner with them above other production companies. He also admired their high production values and professionalism. For them, going all in with a joint investment has been very interesting and exciting for the team.
The Story of Vainglory‘s Biggest Players & Why They Love The Game
One success story to come out of Vainglory is the story of Michael “FlashX” Valore. He got his introduction to Vainglory while watching the Apple keynote in college.
Valore, 25, always loved DOTA and DOTA 2 and even tried going pro while studying biology in college. But as soon as his skills would go up, his grades would drop. He would then have to get his grades back up but then his pro gaming skills would drop. Rather than have this constant balancing act, Valore decided to focus on school.
Valore planned on serving in the Marines after graduating, but a prior soccer injury was so severe – way more severe than he thought at the time – that it completely disqualified him from being in any armed services. He spent the next four months at the campus gym on a stationary bike three to four hours a day. It got boring after two days, so he downloaded Vainglory on his iPad and begin playing while working out.
He quickly fell in love with the game and its impressive graphics. All that time spent playing the game made him very good at it. After he moved out to Colorado, he graduated, started working in sales, and his team ended up winning a tournament that qualified them to head to Seoul, South Korea for the Vainglory World Championships.
Expectations were not high for the team, however. One of their 14-year-old players was forbidden by their parents from making the six week long commitment for the tournament so they had to hire a substitute. But they promised themselves that if they could win at least one match, they’d be happy. They ended up living with a reigning champion from America and practiced for eight hours a day. They ended up winning the entire World Championship.
After that, eSports organization Team SoloMid asked if they were interested in signing up with them. It was a no-brainer for Valore him and his team to sign up.
“After watching The International for DOTA 2, it really was an absolute dream to be able to play eSports professionally,” Valore said. “I’m incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had up to this point and I’m very lucky to say that I love my job.”
Valore told Heavy.com that Vainglory has many things that make it unique from other MOBAs that extends the skill cap much farther. “The mechanical skill cap in Vainglory absolutely dwarfs that of some of its biggest competitors,” he said. He admitted that he may be biased as a pro player of the game but he did say that if you asked anyone objectively they could attest to that.
The key thing for Valore was Vainglory’s touch screen controls. He said that other MOBAs are reliant on joystick controls and there’s only so much you can do with them. The touch screen controls elevate things much further than that.
Valore also said that the jump from 3V3 to 5V5 is massive. 3V3 for him was a very mechanically demanding game. That is, it was very dependent on players having faster reflexes and better positioning. But with 5V5, mechanics are still a big factor but the extra players and lanes add so much more strategy and depth.
Valore is actually in the process of transitioning away from being a pro player and becoming a coach and a manager for Team SoloMid. He feels that his years of experience with 5V5 MOBAs will make him a great coach and mentor for younger players. Many younger players grew up with touch screens, getting mobile devices in middle school. While younger pro players know touch screens inside and out, Vainglory was their first MOBA and 3V3 was all they’ve ever known. A lot of the strategy of 5V5 will be knew to them and so Valore feels that his experience with the mode will help them achieve their potential a lot quicker and more effectively than a lot of other teams.
Valore feels that Vainglory‘s popularity will only grow from here. Some games may be more popular right now, but Valore believes that it may have to do with a bigger advertising push. He sees mobile eSports as a whole growing astronomically as teams become more interested in it and understand it a lot better. Nearly everyone has access to these devices and that’s going to help the market a lot.
If you’re interested in being a top Vainglory player, Valore advises you to seek out the video and steaming content of pros. “Anyone who is looking to be good, the best thing to do is emulate the pros,” he said. He also said that the more you play, the better you get at it.
Riley “DNZio” Haghian, 14, of team Tribe is another Vainglory success story. He got his start with Vainglory after playing it and then consulting guides by Rumblysuperset and other pro players. After playing with friends he got into a team and started really getting into it. After his team lost a tournament, they were approached by better players and formed a super roster. He describes this time as being a roller coaster of winning and losing. But eventually they won the World Championship. Haghian was even the MVP for the tournament and the youngest winner of a Vainglory tournament in the world.
For Haghian, one of the hardest parts about being a pro Vainglory player is balancing work with school. During middle school he had a lot of time on his hands. Now with high school he had to get better at time management. He said that he can be a huge procrastinator, but getting into a consistent routine is a huge help. He said that being a pro player requires a big time commitment but you’re guaranteed to get better.
Haghian agreed that 3V3 was based too much on mechanics and since there was only one lane it was all about pushing lanes with no lane management to speak of. 5V5 not only adds more lanes but adds more of a competitive strategy and mindset.
You’d think there would be a lot of pressure during tournaments, especially at such a young age, but Haghian isn’t actually too phased. In fact, he found that he performs a lot better on stage than when not. “When you have a bunch of people supporting you, it makes you motivated and you want to impress people,” he said.
Chief Pat was one of the first dedicated mobile gaming channels on YouTube when he started in October 2012. He first got connected to Vainglory via mutual friends and ended up playing 3V3 matches with Segerstrale. Today he’s the owner of team Tribe.
The game was an instant fit for him. As a team owner, he has to make sure that the games they invest time in have a great spectating experience without a five or 10 man death ball of abilities and chaos. He especially likes the intensity of the late game because the respawn timer gets bigger as the match goes on.
Chief Pat also agrees that 5V5 is a gamechanger. 3V3 had a lot of strong mechanical players but now you need to be more cerebral as you deal with three lanes of continuous wave management and two objectives. He also liked how the touch controls elevated the skill ceiling. With a joystick there’s an ease of entry and some games will even auto target. But with touch controls you need to be so precise with your movements and you have to be very tactical and technical with how you play. He said that he can’t be in the same match with a pro player because they’re just going to wipe him out due to the touch controls. He also said that the activatable abilities you get from the shop require a steep learning curve and he still misses a lot of the prompts today.
Chief Pat is very excited for what 2018 has to bring for Vainglory, especially with the new premier league in June and the game’s growing viewership. “We’re excited to try to retain our World Championship,” he said.
What We Think
We got a chance to try out the game on the Razer Phone. We definitely agree that the touch screen controls add a whole new layer of both user-friendliness and skill onto the game. While virtual joysticks work just fine, it’s great to be able to zoom in on the mini map, select where you need to go, and then just run there automatically. You could even head to the fridge for another soda if you wanted to. But this doesn’t automate the combat. You often need to bounce from attacking something to falling back and then attacking again, and all of those actions require screen taps. Plus certain hero abilities such as Lance’s lunge attack and Gwen’s ultimate require you to be in the right direction for the attack to hit. Thankfully the touch controls are accurate enough for the task; every tap is deliberate and functions exactly as how you would expect it to. It’s not like you tap on an enemy and just move to the space next to them. However, it does take some getting used to for tapping on a new enemy after defeating one. And I found navigating the mini map to be a bit too sensitive. While the Razer Phone gave me adequate space for using the mini map, smaller devices may struggle with this.
The graphics are spectacular, of course, and on the Razer Phone it kept up its butter smooth 120 fps throughout my matches no matter how crazy things got. But I was equally impressed that I could later play 5V5 on my 2013 Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and have it run at a consistent 60 fps. The game also features the colorful, cartoon/fantasy aesthetic that you’ve come to expect with MOBAs. You can have the best technical graphics but they’re nothing without a cohesive, appealing art style to take advantage of them, and Vainglory has both.
We also love how automated the shop system is. At the beginning of each match, you can select from different builds for your hero from ones that specialize team utility to ones that specialize on raw damage. Once you have that selected and as you accrue gold, items that help that build pop up in the corner of the screen and you can tap them to purchase them when you’re at the base or jungle shop. It can be a big waste of time to constantly look at the flow chart for buying items in the middle of a match and figure out which one would be the most useful, so its great that the game does that for you. You do have the option to buy the items yourself from the flow chart, if you so choose.
Activatables are also a great addition. These items, which can be purchased from the shop, add healing, barriers, speed boosts, and more to you and your allies in the form of extra abilities. As a more supportive player, these items are a welcome addition and it’s convenient to activate them from the side of the screen.
The inclusion of the dragons are also interesting. These monsters appear at certain periods of the match and grant certain perks if defeated by a team. Ghostwing provides a significant protective buff to your teammates while Blackclaw attacks enemy turrets as it moves to the enemy core down the central lane. These perks provide the extra push to earn some more progress to objectives and not have matches feel too long, especially in the late game. It can feel pretty distressing when a dragon mows down your turrets, but the beast can be defeated if you coordinate your attacks. And it’s also very satisfying when you have the massive dragon by your side instead.
While Vainglory has many things that make it a bit more accessible to newer players, it’s still a hardcore MOBA first and foremost. It’s hard to defeat opponents and even harder to survive them. Every decision you make needs to be deliberate and well thought out lest you be washed up by the enemy team. And it can be heartbreaking to spend so long in a match only for the enemy team to dominate you. That will be a turn off for many players, but I do have to applaud Super Evil for their commitment to this style of game. They set out to create a hardcore MOBA on mobile devices with a very high skill ceiling and that’s exactly what they did. And judging by the dedication shown by the community from pro players to the fans at the event, that commitment has paid off. It will be interesting to see how Vainglory will grow from here with the arrival of 5V5, but it’s looking pretty bright so far.