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Was Halo esports ahead of its time?

Bungie’s Sci-fi shooter, Halo, boasts one of the most storied esports legacies out there - however, its competitive journey since originating in 2001 has been turbulent. Once sporting a bustling professional scene that had broken significant ground for the next wave of esports, Halo now stares down the barrel as official pro-circuit operations cease until the release of Halo: Infinite in 2020. With Halo 5 failing to maintain a competitive landscape for a franchise once described as “a pop-culture phenomenon” by Shane Kim, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, many of us are left wondering what Halo could have been in today’s esports ecosystem. image2-3.jpg At one point in time, Halo’s popularity well surpassed that of any first-person shooter on the market; the release of Halo 2 in November 2004 was so explosive that cable news networks across the country covered the midnight release far and wide. From local LANs to innovative experiences fostered by Major League Gaming (MLG) in Halo’s adolescent stages - the production, talent, viewership and competition budding from the franchise was something we had never seen before in North America. Halo commentator and Head of Talent at ESL UK, Richard Simms, spoke to Halo’s popularity. “Halo 2 & 3 [as well as] the MLG pro scene was years before its time and Halo 3 especially just came out 10 years too early,” Simms said. “Halo was the Fortnite of its time, everyone was playing it and everyone knew about it.” It’s no secret that competitive Halo viewership has dwindled since it’s so-called ‘golden era’ when Halo 3 was in the limelight. Beginning with Halo: Reach, the inclusion of spartan abilities and sprint continued to change the game in fundamental ways that were too large to ignore. The divide between ‘enhanced movement’ and what would come to be known as ‘classic Halo’ seems to be an argument based more off competitive viability rather than passion. Ex-professional player and CEO of Str8 Rippin, Tom “Tsquared” Taylor, elaborated for us on what made classic Halo so appreciable. “Halo has always been about balance.” Taylor said. “I think throughout Halo 1, 2 and 3, they did a really great job with the maps, spawn system and the little things while still staying true to the game with an overall good pace and flow.” Halo possessed this unique rhythmic pace in earlier renditions that would set the standard for what players and fans came to love and expect from the game. At its core, Halo was actually a simple game in terms of its mechanics - you could move, jump and shoot, and that was it. “Halo has always kept it fundamentally simple but with an insane skill ceiling.” Simms told us. In this sense, the game was incredibly easy to pick-up and continuously welcomed the next wave of players into its hemisphere. On the other hand, this foundation placed a weighty emphasis on positioning, teamwork, communication and strategy which encompassed leveraging many of Halo’s seemingly minimal nuances into great tactical advantages. image3-1-300x200.jpg “Compared to a lot of competitive games at the time, it stood above the rest.” Ex-professional player and commentator, David “Walshy” Walsh, said recently in an interview about Halo 3. While Halo was undeniably blossoming into an organic esports titan - well before esports was even a household term - timing would prove to be critical in its competitive prosperity. Today, esports has attracted the attention of recognisable investors, brands and organisations that has given it a stamp of legitimacy. Back in 2010 when Halo 3 was coming up on its last event, esports were still arguably in an infant state despite Red Bull and Dr. Pepper taking introductory steps into the space within Halo. The lack of validation during this time affected the development of professional gaming - the competitors being one of those components according to ex-professional player and now Competitive Systems Manager (Battlefield) at Electronic Arts, Eric “gh057ayame” Hewitt. “Being good at video games was always seen as this nerdy thing,” Hewitt told us. “You didn’t want people to know you were playing all these video games. There was this weird taboo about it.” Beyond the reputation and stigma around professionals gamers back during Hewitt’s time as a player, he mentions it was difficult trying to convince others gaming was a plausible career. “It just seemed like something you were wasting your time on.” One prominent ingredient to esports widespread success has been the integration of Twitch; tournaments, players and content creators can stream for free all the while generating revenue enabling them to devote more time to these crafts. It was an unfortunate fate that Halo 3 would be replaced by Reach as the primary competitive title less than a year before the inception of Twitch - creating viewership opportunities for a game that was widely unpopular when stacked up against its predecessors. “I think it would have done really well. Back in the day, it used to cost a lot more money, time and energy to setup a streaming service compared to today.” Taylor spoke to how classic Halo could have fared in today’s esports ecosystem. As Halo’s popularity plummeted in an atmosphere which esports as a whole was on the rise, it would prove to be an untimely recipe for disaster for the franchise’s competitive panorama. The combination of diminishing viewership and other titles on the upswing in this newly bolstered esports arena would be the beginning of the end for Halo. image5-300x100.png Streamers and influencers are a key element of bringing awareness to a game and with Halo 5 being aged and unpopular, there is little incentive for those individuals to be playing. Simms admits social outreach is a hitch of this model. “One massive failing Halo has right now is lack of social interaction and influencer outreach.” Simms told us. “Start to lift up the YouTubers, the streamers, the playlist grinders and help them reach new heights and audiences. This in turn will help Halo's ecosystem on the web and hopefully attract new players in the future or at the very least, make people aware of Halo’s presence and that the scene is still here.” The esports audience is very technically-savvy, likely due to the nature of the digital sport and primarily younger demographic. For this reason, the esports industry has adopted Twitter as the primary communication medium - a tool that has brought players, teams and tournaments organisers closer to fans than ever before. And while Twitter was available during the pinnacle of Halo esports, it’s acknowledged that it wasn’t as widely utilised as it is today. “You got to wonder, what did that fan base look like back then?” Hewitt said. “There just wasn’t this type of interconnectivity that was provided over the course of the last two decades.” All hope isn’t lost for Halo as a competitive title, though. The Halo 3 2v2 Showdown at DreamHack Atlanta was a glimpse into what classic Halo could be; this, coupled with the announcement of the Grassroots Initiative paving way for tournament organisers and content creators to keep supporting the franchise has opened up a wealth of opportunities until the release of Infinite in 2020. image4-1-300x153.jpg Two classic Halo events were announced alongside the Grassroots Initiative - Ultimate Gaming Championship’s (UGC) Halo Classic featuring a $35,000 prize pool as well as Gamers for Giving’s Halo 3 2v2 in late-March. UGC has reportedly sold 64 team passes in just three days - a true testament to the interest around classic Halo.