The world of esports is moving from PC to mobile, but is it still possible to win big money playing games when that game lives on your smartphone?

Have you ever dreamed of playing video games as a career? You’re not alone, but up until a few years ago the idea of making money by playing your favourite games was fanciful at best. Not today though – the esports dream isn’t just real, it’s a big deal.

Want proof? Let’s talk numbers. The IEM World Championship in Katowice, Poland, as just one example, drew a live crowd of 104,000 in 2015 alongside the many millions of people watching the action as it happened online. And we do mean millions. Last year’s League of Legends World Championships saw an incredible 36 million people tune in online over its five-day run, and the industry as a whole has been valued this year at a whopping $463m. Because of this, big name news outlets like the BBC and ESPN have now started taking esports very seriously indeed, with each offering their own dedicated channels.

“The esports industry as a whole has been valued this year at a whopping $463m”

But, at the same time, change is in the air: competitive gaming is going mobile. Traditionally the sole preserve of high-end PCs in packed out arenas, esports games are quickly finding a new home on smartphones, where players can duke it out on the go over their data connection.

One such title that’s found a huge mobile audience is Vainglory, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) for Android and iOS which condenses the best of genre giants League of Legends and Dota 2 down into your pocket. It boasts over 1.5 million monthly players, but how did we get here? And what’s next for the world of competitive mobile gaming? To find out, we sat down with Heini Vesander from Vainglory’s developer, Super Evil Megacorp

Evolving the genre

“We’re all PC gamers at heart,” says Heini, talking about Vainglory’s original influences, “so when we were going about developing the game we wanted to create the same passionate experiences that we had on PCs growing up, only for the new generation of gamers on touch devices. We all grew up playing intense competitive games like Warcraft III and Unreal Tournament, and it’s those kinds of enriched multiplayer experiences we’re after more than a specific kind of genre or set of mechanics.”

And it’s those in-depth mechanics that Heini says were really important to get right when it came to bringing the multiplayer experience to mobile:

“We looked at how we could create a fun and immersive 20-minute match with the kind of tactical and strategic depth that core gamers expect, and worked hard to evolve the genre as well as bringing it to a new platform. Our map design, item trees, hero design philosophy are all entirely unique to Vainglory. It helps compress the game play and provide maximum flexibility in play style and team compositions. But perhaps most importantly, Vainglory lets you have a LAN party everywhere. Everyone has a connected touchscreen in their pocket these days, so it’s never been easier to team up and play a game together with anyone anywhere.

vainglory-3-618

“Our mission has always been to bring the visceral gaming experiences that had only been accessible on PC or console to new platforms, and add the intensity of face-to-face matches amongst friends.”

That foresight and game design prowess has quickly seen Vainglory become a darling of the esports scene. And, with a big fan base comes big business…

“The Vainglory professional competitive scene has grown really quickly,” says Heini, “with big names like Amazon and NVIDIA sponsoring tournaments, as well as backing from large multi-esports organisations. We also work closely with organisations like Twitch (the gameplay streaming giant). It’s hard to imagine that all this has happened in 9 short months since the first major tournaments were organized.”

Play to win

Fancy getting involved? Simply download the app and get playing. Get good enough, and you could end up winning big, as Heini explains:

“One of the great things about our community is how diverse it is. The professional scene is just an extension of our player pool, so we see players get involved in all sorts of ways; we have teams competing who meet in the game’s chat and now fly out from different parts of the world to compete together. One of our youngest players, MrKcool, was originally playing in the amateur bracket in the UK but got scouted into a winning team as a result of strong play. So we invite anyone and everyone with an interest in gaming competitively to download the game, join a team and sign up for our quarterly regional qualifiers.”

And from there, you could soon find yourself in line to compete on some of the biggest stages in gaming:

“In North America and Europe, Vainglory has a seasonal structure in which players have three months between championships to earn the highest possible skill tier for themselves and their teams. At the end of the three months, teams can register for regional Vainglory qualifiers and battle their way to the North American or European Live Championships.”

vainglory-2-618

“Our entire esports structure grew out of the community,” she adds. “We were very hands-off at first, because true ‘esports’ credibility wasn’t something we expected to happen for a couple of years. But as it turns out the community felt differently, and started organising tournaments when we didn’t even have spectator mode in the game. No one can ‘create’ an esport,” she says, “either a game is worthy of competitive play or it isn’t, and at PAX South 2015 we saw how much fans loved to watch competitive Vainglory play.

“After showcasing matches on the Twitch Stage we received requests for a way to watch each others’ matches. We rapidly released Vainglory’s spectator mode and began reaching out to organisers to ask how we could help and how we could support the growing esports community. One of our first moves was supporting the founders of the game’s community-run esports organisations, like Vainglory league (VGL), with the focus to keep the esports side very much community driven.

“We also partnered with OGN in South-Korea (the hugely popular TV channel dedicated to esports broadcasting) early on to organise the Vainglory Invitational Premier League, which is now in its third season.”

vainglory-618

It’s impressive stuff for such a young game, and there are now genuinely impressive sums of cash up for grabs at each of Vainglory’s many tournaments to prove it. In fact, Vainglory currently boasts the record for the biggest amount of prize money ever dished out for a mobile game, with competitors taking home a collective $350,000 from tournaments during the autumn 2015 season.

But even with all that being the case, mobile esports is only set to grow even bigger.

“We’re still very young,” says Heini, “but our viewership numbers have tripled between the last two Championship Finals. And potential growth is the most exciting part of Vainglory and other competitive touchscreen games, especially when you consider that there are three billion touchscreen devices in the world compared to 700-800 million gaming PCs.

“And it’s even more exciting when you think how easy it is to get involved in mobile esports,” she says in closing. “To play Vainglory, all you need is a smartphone or tablet and a data connection.”

If you want to join the mobile esports movement, you can download Vainglory right here.

More on mobile gaming… How has Gameloft grown from indie upstart to one of the biggest development outfits in the industry? Here’s the secret story behind the games.