As game developers look to capitalize on esports, projected to be a billion-dollar industry by 2020, an unlikely title is entering the field. It’s nothing like Blizzard Entertainment’s high-profile Overwatch League, which filled Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in July of last year, nor Riot Games’s franchised League of Legends Championship Series, with its $10-million team buy-in. Instead of weapons, there are hay bales, combine harvesters and a whole lot of tractors.
Swiss game developer Giants Software announced this week its Farming Simulator League, a 10-tournament esports program that’ll kick off later this year with €250,000, or $284,000, in prize money. By nature of the game — Farming Simulator is quite literally a farming simulator — it’s not as obvious where competition comes into play, as with multiplayer games like Fortnite: Battle Royale or League of Legends. Nor is the league’s audience potential immediately apparent, given its agrarian activities. In past experimental events, Farming Simulator teams competed in timed hay bale-stacking events. The new league will feature a new, three-on-three competitive mode.
Like Farming Simulator itself, the esports program is based in reality. After all, there are competitive farming events, like tractor pulling and bale stacking, at farm conventions, rodeos and town fairs all over the world. But it is unfamiliar — and hard to picture — in the world of esports. Competitive play will remain based in farming activities but framed in ways that make it competitive and scorable.
“It won’t be tractors transforming into monsters to battle,” Giants Software PR and marketing manager Martin Rabl said. “It’ll stay realistic with a few additions that bring a tactical element into the game.”
Initial response to the Farming Simulator League is a mixture of surprise, delight and bewilderment. The esports industry and beyond questioned how a game about farming could possibly be competitive.
The competitive element of Farming Simulator emerged naturally, Giants Software chief executive Christian Ammann told The Washington Post.
“It was very grass roots,” Ammann said. “It was sometimes a bit crazy and unorganized when we started with multiplayer in 2010. People were having fights on a bridge between two front-loading tractors. The one that lost was the one that dropped off the bridge.”
Giants Software became involved in competitions in 2017 with its first tournament, which was ”something more serious and controlled,” Ammann said. Competition turned back toward the reality of play that drew players to the game, with focus on a competitive mode that tasked players with forming and stacking hale bays using tractor equipment.
Farming Simulator has seen multiple iterations across its decade-long life span, the latest of which — Farming Simulator 19 — sold more than one million copies in its first 10 days after release. Rabl estimated the game has sold more than two million copies sold since its launch in November 2018, but could not provide an exact number.
Farming Simulator League won’t be the next Overwatch League or League of Legends Championship Series, Ammann said. “The best role model for us at the moment is Rocket League,” he said. “It’s [developed] by an independent publisher like us. They started small and are growing every year. They support grass-roots tournaments. I think to compete with the big ones would be a bit too crazy.”
Developed by Psyonix and launched in 2015, Rocket League is consistently well-ranked on Twitch as the esports audience continues to grow. Rocket League Championship Series had its best year for live Twitch viewership in 2018, according to analytics firm Newzoo. Fans and players watched 18 million hours of Rocket League esports in 2018, up 28.2 percent from 2017. Psyonix also landed a deal with NBC Sports Group for the Rocket League Universal Open, which was broadcast on NBCSN last year.
Giants Software’s league announcement this week was met with lots of press, likely because of the sheer bizarre nature of it all. Who plays this game? Who’s the audience for the tournament? Despite its popularity and dedicated fan-base, Farming Simulator often flies under the radar. Two German competitive Farming Simulator players, Alexander Schwartz, 32, and Manuel Zeiler, 34, told The Post they’re often met with confusion and laughter at the mention of the hobby. Both players have won previous Farming Simulator events in the past year.
“Most players don’t get it why we’re playing this game and why there will be a esports league now,” Schwartz said.
“It’s like any other online game. Doesn’t matter if it’s Fortnite or whatever," Zeiler continued. "There’s a group of people that play together online — talk about everything, laugh together, and drive tractors and combines around fields.”
Rocket League sounded silly at first, too, Rabl said. “It’s cars with a giant ball trying to score a goal,” he said. “But the game’s competition isn’t silly at all. It’s entertaining to watch and easier to understand than something like League of Legends for someone that hasn’t played. It’s a skillful game, and the guys who play the best, they win.”
Giants Software is focusing the league on its core players: keeping the existing player base interested in the title. But there’s the side benefit stemming from intrigue in the league as new players may take a look.
“There’s now a chance for us and for players that are more into competitive games to look at Farming Simulator and try to compete,” Rabl said.
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