I’ve been a big fan of Team Fortress 2 for about 7 years now. Which sounds like a lot, but my 7 years and 900 hours is nowhere near the decade plus and thousands of hours many other players have dedicated to the game. Still, I’ve been able to experience a lot of what the game and its community have to offer, from trading to mapmaking to community servers and much more.
There’s been one part of TF2 that was of special interest to me for a long time, which is its competitive and esports scene. It’s been remarkable and wonderful to see a group so dedicated and willing to invest a lot of travel, money, and time for what is a pretty small part of the overall TF2 community. I too got very engaged with competitive TF2, watching all the leagues, events, and even playing a bit myself. But as time went on I became less and less interested in the competitive scene, and the reason is really quite simple: Team Fortress 2 is not a game that lends itself well to esports.
That’s quite an assertion, but it makes a lot of sense. If you just look at the design of weapons, characters, updates, comics, or pretty much any other official TF2 content, it’s pretty clear the game is designed as a casual experience. I want to take a little dive into the issues with competitive TF2, using comparisons to its younger, more popular, and more loved cousin, Overwatch.
A couple notes here: What I’m saying may be pretty obvious to anyone who knows anything about competitive TF2. This is mainly an exercise in pointing out the features that make a good esports game by comparing it to a bad one. The other note is that most of what I say here applies to other strong esports games; Overwatch just happens to be a game of similar style to TF2. There’s a lot more involved in making a good esports scene, but this focuses on what the game itself should be able to bring to the table.
Developer backing is vital.
While Overwatch is still a newer game, it’s gotten much more support from Blizzard in that time than TF2 ever really did from Valve. Blizzard has had their own share of controversies, but they’ve been more communicative, more supportive of their community, and willing to put in much more developer time. TF2 has not had a major content update in 1197 days (over 3 years) at the time of this writing, while Overwatch got a patch today (with Overwatch 2 on the horizon). he idea here is pretty simple; players don’t want to play a dead game. And TF2 is still littered with bugs and hackers and it’s not a stretch to say the game is just living out the rest of its golden years.
More money = more talent = a thriving esports scene.
Money talks, and for pro TF2 players Overwatch’s prize pool of almost $11.5 million in 2021 is a siren’s song that has brought many players and talent over to the other side. TF2’s pools have topped out at around $15-20k (most of which happened several years ago and were sponsored by ESEA, who has since shut down their TF2 league). Valve themselves are no strangers to pumping money into esports games, with DOTA and CS:GO having some of the largest prize pools in all of esports. TF2, sadly, is left in the dust. Players have less incentive to stay and leagues have less incentive to invest, leading to many pro players taking their skills to Overwatch and some organizations to drop their leagues. In addition, outside sponsors are much more willing to give lots of money to teams and events in a thriving esports scene.
Consistency makes for long-term fans.
A big issue in TF2’s esports scene is that it just isn’t very stable. Funding and venues for most events are barely scraped together by the community, and the amount of those events has been decreasing over time. In addition, each season of each league brought with it a lot of new no-name teams that would usually not last past a season or two, often falling apart and never gaining traction. Overwatch, on the other hand, has a very strongly organized league with teams that appear consistently season over season. This is important because it allows the esports scene to build up a loyal fanbase, and consistency makes fans more willing to support for longer.
The game needs to be “designed for esports”.
I put that in quotes because it’s a vague generalization of certain design techniques, but defining games as “esport titles” has become more and more common in the industry. Many of the games that fall under that label, like Overwatch, share similar design features: consistent game mechanics, highly balanced weapons/characters, low barriers to entry with high skill ceilings, less demanding on hardware, etc. TF2 doesn’t match a lot of these criteria; some weapons are broken (leading to the need of a weapon whitelist), most classes are not viable (the meta is stale at 2 soldiers, 2 scouts, 1 medic, 1 demo), some weapons have random abilities or random critical hits, and it’s all running on an archaic version of the Source engine.
Matches need to be entertaining to watch.
At its core, much of esports is simply entertainment, and if the games aren’t fun to watch then the scene won’t go far. I touched earlier on some design problems, but those do end up making games boring to watch when it’s the same meta on the same maps for years on end. The other issue is that TF2’s esports scene is dominated by the team Froyotech, and while they are very talented, it’s not fun when you know the team that’s won 94% of their games and has been first in almost every tournament since its inception in 2014 is going to stomp the playing field once again. Overwatch has metas and teams that change and evolve much more rapidly while still providing an enjoyable, consistent experience.
What’s the gist here? It may seem like many of these problems can be solved with more money and developer time, no? Maybe, but it doesn’t change the fundamental problem which is that TF2 just isn’t a good esports game. In no world does that make the game itself bad (in my opinion, the game is a pioneer of class based shooters and has some brilliant design and lore), it’s just not designed well for competitive play, and no amount of big prize pools or content updates will really change that.
Getting deeper into my personal opinion here: I wouldn’t want a competitive version of TF2. Myself and many other players love the game because of the absurd lore, funny kill cams, wacky moments, and so many fun combinations of weapons and classes. It has something that Overwatch has tried to capture in some ways but has never really been able to. While I may not be into the esports scene, I personally believe that Team Fortress 2 has one of the strongest legacies of this generation.