A team of hundreds here was recently putting its final touches on a video game expected to be one of the biggest sellers of the holiday season.
The game, Halo 5: Guardians, will depict interstellar combat in new levels of graphical realism and offer new twists in multiplayer capabilities. It will be the latest game in the Halo series, one of the biggest in the industry, with more than $3.5 billion in global sales, almost the global box-office take of the “Fast & Furious” movie series.
But Microsoft, the company that makes the game, cannot afford to coast on warm feelings alone for the Halo series, as other big game franchises, like Call of Duty, have overshadowed it. So the team making the game, as well as Microsoft’s marketing machine, is focusing on the booming world of competitive video games – in particular, making sure that it appeals to elite gamers.
The world of e-sports, as the competitive video game world is known, was long an afterthought for game makers. That is quickly changing, though, as e-sports events fill giant arenas and millions of people watch live video of competitions online.
Now, for Microsoft and other game makers, e-sports is considered a crucial leg to the multimillion-dollar marketing push – a way to extend a game’s reach to a highly dedicated group of gamers. As part of that push, Microsoft announced on Tuesday that its Halo competition would give away a total of $1 million in prize money, the most ever for the game.
“The bottom line is all game developers everywhere are looking for ways to turn their games into e-sports titles,” said Rahul Sood, a former Microsoft executive who is now chief executive of Unikrn, a start-up that runs a site for betting on e-sports.
In part, the interest from the companies is the result of the money pouring into e-sports. Revenue from tickets to e-sports events, corporate sponsorships and other sources are expected to increase by 30 percent to more than $250 million this year, according to market researcher Newzoo.
Fans of e-sports are also some of the most dedicated gamers. More than 113 million e-sports fans worldwide, Newzoo estimates. Many of them are the most committed and loyal gamers anywhere, playing the games, watching them online and paying for all sorts of extras to enhance their experience.
“The pros who play e-sports are famous,” said Bonnie Ross, the head of 343 Industries, the Microsoft game studio here in the Seattle suburbs that develops Halo. “They’re icons who people who look up to. ”
That leaves a big moneymaking opportunity for game makers – an opportunity that is particularly acute for Microsoft, which not only makes Halo but the video game console that the game is played on.
The console, the Xbox One, is trailing in sales behind Sony’s PlayStation 4. All games in the Halo series have been available only on the Xbox, and the game has been a leading driver of sales for earlier Xbox consoles. Halo 5, which goes on sale Oct. 27, is the first new version of the game created for the Xbox One, and Microsoft executives are hoping that history can repeat itself.
“It is the singular, defining franchise of Xbox,” said Dennis Fong, a former professional game player who is now chief executive of Raptr, a social network for gamers. “The more people engaged with the Halo brand, the better it is for Xbox and Microsoft.”
Last year, the company introduced its own tournament, the Halo Championship Series, where teams blast each other away for cash prizes. A Halo tournament that ended last month had total prize money of $150,000. Microsoft hopes the $1 million in prize money and better organization will lure more high-level competitors into Halo contests.
For the last few years, Activision has offered a prize pool of $1 million to its own championship for Call of Duty. A championship series for Valve’s battle game Dota 2 has a prize pool of more than $18 million, the biggest in e-sports.