The last couple of years I've seen games in various stages of completion making overtures towards the professional gaming scene. Of these I'd say Smite - a third-person over-the-shoulder lane pusher has done the most to convince me of its intentions towards competitive gaming.
I started playing it in order to write a Wot I Think for this very site when the game was released earlier in 2014. Since then my interest has only grown, both as a player and as a spectator. It's partly due to becoming increasingly familiar with the mechanics underpinning the game and partly because of the eSports events I've attended which revolved around its European pro league.
Smite as a game is exciting to play. The matches tend to be fast-paced, and the over-the-shoulder camera gives the act of playing a distinct flavour from top-down lane pushers like Dota and LoL. It's also far more friendly to newcomers – for example, jungle camps will clearly tell you what buffs they provide and there's far less to deal with in terms of active item management.
In terms of the professional scene, both the European kick-off LAN and the regional finals took place in Cologne at the ESL studio. They were well-run, energetic events with informed and engaging commentary and some brilliantly memorable matches – Aquila's second game against Cloud9 at the EU Championships immediately springs to mind as the team pulled back a victory after coming within seconds of being forced out of the contest entirely.
Chatting with pro players from Aquila and SK Gaming (both of whom are heading to compete in the Smite World Championships in January), I found people ready to invest their time and effort into a game they believe could be a legitimate career.
Obviously that doesn't make future seasons of competition a sure thing, but it coincides with Hi-Rez building their first Worlds prize pool with more of a Dota sensibility. By that I mean that they donated $600,000 of their own money in prize funds then turned to the community for more via the Odyssey - a feature where players could buy item chests and, in doing so, donate to the prize pool. The approach worked and has seen the Worlds prize pool swell. At the time of writing it stood at $1,766,392 total.
Of course, this could all be a one-off but the implication is that the community is excited and engaged enough that it doesn't simply depend on the depth of Hi-Rez's own pocket for its competitive viability. The game also takes from League of Legends, particularly in its developer-operated league structures which I think is a good way to try and stabilise lineups and get to know teams while the game is finding its feet with viewers.
The last year or two, so many interviews with developers have involved talk of whether the game in question is courting a competitive scene. The answer is often hopeful but vague; that a professional tier would be just wonderful but that the team is generally focused on just building the best game experience they can and so on. This rings true-er for some games than others and I think few - if any - will actually become competitive games on the same scale as LoL, Dota 2, Starcraft 2, Call of Duty... Smite has spent this last year becoming just such a contender.
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