Before February 2018, “Rainbow Six Siege” — both the game and the esport — was a small fish in a big pond. “League of Legends,” arguably the premier esport, was booming. A competitive league spun up around the popular shooter “Overwatch” was in its inaugural season. The Call of Duty League was preparing to relaunch.

By comparison, “Siege,” which released in 2015, hadn’t exactly taken off commercially, and the esports scene hadn’t seen much investment from teams interested in playing. The game was also plagued with all manner of quirks, bugs, and crashes. Though amusing at times, the novelty of being stuck in a wall for an entire round wore off quickly.

In 2017, the developers undertook the gargantuan task of turning the game around through an overhaul titled Operation Health. In that time, “Siege” was placed into something like a medically induced coma: for three months, the developers didn’t release any new content, and focused wholly on resolving core issues with the game’s playability. Problems relating to netcode, bugs and server issues were fixed or at least markedly improved.

“Operation Health was a kind of a gamble that fortunately our company, our community, bought in on, and that paid off really well,” said Maxime Vial, an esports product manager at Ubisoft.

Operation Health, which ended in August 2017, essentially saved “Rainbow Six Siege” the game. But even if the game was fixed, esports was a different story. Its savior would be the 2018 Six Invitational, “Rainbow Six Siege’s” marquee annual competitive event — alongside an essential revenue-sharing program implemented soon after.

“I think SI 2018 is really the first event where we, ‘Rainbow Six,’ made the statement that we are here to play with the big names,” said Vial. “We are here to be a major esports title.”

‘It just needed that extra push.’

Internally, at Ubisoft, there seemed to be some doubts about the long term viability of “Siege’s” esports scene. That changed at the 2018 Six Invitational.

“Senior management even up to our CEO came to the event in Montreal [in 2018],” said Vial. “[SI 2018] really proved that there was potential. The game and scene started with having esports ambitions. Now, clearly, it had the means to reach its ambitions, but it proved that it had the ability to reach its full potential at this event. It just needed that extra push.”

The 2018 Invitational happened on a scale no one involved with the game’s esports had ever seen before. The $200,000 total prize pool in 2017 (split between PC and Xbox leagues) shot up to $500,000 in 2018 (which went exclusively to PC players). SI 2018 reached a peak concurrent viewership of 321,000 across all channels — a 184% increase from 2017, according to Ubisoft.

The size of the team working on the esports side at Ubisoft has more-than doubled since 2018, and it’s largely due to the success of 2018, said Vial and Wei Yue, esports director at Ubisoft. Approximately 40-50 people were brought in on the production side, greatly increasing the size of the team working on the Invitational itself.

“I was at the 2017 [Invitational] and it was cool,” said Kevin “Easilyy” Skokowski, who participated in the 2018 SI with Rogue. “Then I got to 2018 and I saw the stage, … I saw how many fans were going, I looked at the venue, and it was kind of surreal.

“At 2017 it was like maybe one observer, a couple admins, handful of stuff. And then in 2018, we have a full [Electronic Sports League] staff, we have team managers … we have an actual practice area that we can boot camp in,” said Skokowski. “In 2017 it was just like, a backroom with a couple PCs and Xboxes. In 2018 they stepped it up and got a whole practice area, had full on catering. … The whole event was just probably twice as big, maybe even more.”

For most “Rainbow Six Siege” fans, the 2018 SI grand final is the consensus greatest series of all time. The grand finals pitted Penta Sports — a dominant European team that had won everything there was to win in 2017 except the Six Invitational — against the Evil Geniuses squad that had won SI in 2017. A victory for Penta would cement their status as the world’s best. Penta won in the most dramatic possible way: The first pair of maps in the best-of-five went to Evil Geniuses, after which Penta netted three maps in a row, winning 3-2.

In 2018 Ubisoft greatly increased the number of teams invited to the event from six PC teams to 16. They added bells and whistles, like flashing red lights in the venue when the defuser was planted. Most importantly, they made a call that turned SI into the event it is today.

Vial and Yue say the two largest inspirations for the Six Invitational are Valve’s International for “Dota 2” and BlizzCon, both of which heavily feature aspects of their games that aren’t strictly esports: game-related announcements, cosplay contests and other ways for fans to feel more engaged. Moreover, Ubisoft tied the release schedule of new content in “Siege” directly to its marquee esports events. New seasons and operators are announced right before the grand finals of each Major, Pro League Finals, or SI.

“[The Invitational is] an insane grand final, teams are playing for a million dollars, but then at the same time, you also have the community,” said Skokowski. “They’re just as important to the game, as the players and the teams and the whole esports side of things. I feel like [‘Siege’] is kind of the only shooter that does that. I would even say [‘Siege’] is probably the most involved community esport that I’ve ever seen.”

Revenue-sharing pays dividends

Operation Health laid the groundwork for a healthy game. SI 2018 planted the flag for “Siege” esports. The aspect that’s kept teams invested in the title through the tough times has been the R6 Share program.

Originally known as the Pilot Program when introduced in June 2018, R6 Share operates as a revenue generating and sharing program for the organizations that field teams in “Rainbow Six Siege.” Organizations enrolled in the program hire artists to design weapon and operator skins, which are then sold via in-game store. There are three tiers of participation. The highest guarantees a full re-skin of an operator; tier two grants a “charm” with the team’s logo and a weapon skin; tier three offers a weapon skin alone. The highest tier also grants organizations exclusivity periods in the store.

Teams keep 30 percent of their proceeds from R6 Share items, which double as in-game advertisements for their team. Returns from the program have encouraged teams to invest in the scene.

“It’s no secret that esports as a business is still figuring things out, so giving us opportunities to earn revenue in a straightforward way is an incredibly positive development,” wrote Mark Flood, CEO of Disrupt Gaming, in an email to The Post. “The question ’what role should a publisher have in offsetting league participation costs (player and staff salaries, content, etc.)?' is a really important one for this industry. I don’t have a specific answer for that apart from ‘a reasonably substantial part of it.’ And R6 Share does that.”

It also makes the game easier to enter — and stay in.

“I can’t exactly pick up the phone and dial a fortune 500 company for sponsorship the same way Faze Clan does. Therefore we have to be really smart about what games we get into,” said Flood. “When you survey the landscape of the major esports many of them require an initial capital investment of $10-30 million. That’s prohibitive. … Some of the other options that are out there like ‘Valorant,’ ‘CS:GO,’ ‘Dota’ don’t require an upfront investment, but their path to revenue or profitability is really gray. You could easily spend a million dollars in any of those games and at the end of it have absolutely nothing to show except some social media presence.”

“Siege,” on the other hand, essentially guarantees teams at the highest tier some level of income without upfront expense.

The arrangement isn’t entirely team-sided: Entry into R6 Share includes salary requirements for the players, signing content creators that play “Siege,” and other hoops for teams to jump through. The majority of the terms aren’t public, but as the program evolved, an application process was instituted.

The R6 Share program paid dividends when the covid-19 pandemic hit. “Siege’s” future was bright following a rash of new announcements at the 2020 Six Invitational in February. The old “Pro League” branding was scrapped for distinct regional leagues, more Majors were announced and the prize pool for SI 2020 shot up to $3 million. Then, less than a month after SI 2020, North America instituted covid lockdowns. It was devastatingly bad timing.

“Covid definitely hit us a bit harder than other competitive titles out there just because we implemented a new [regional league] system at the same time, which needed time to grow,” Yue said.

The pandemic was brutal to the North American “Rainbow Six Siege” scene. Evil Geniuses, eUnited, Tempo Storm, and Luminosity, all top-flight esports organizations, left the NA scene during 2020. But during a time of global esports turmoil, the vast majority of non-North American “Siege” teams in the regional leagues remained in the scene and continued to invest.

Though Yue said he couldn’t disclose exact figures, he told The Post that the R6 Share plan was lucrative enough to convince many organizations to keep their R6 teams through the pandemic.

Global competitions were paused during the pandemic, but in May, “Siege” returned with the Six Invitational. The event is a celebration of a community brought together almost literally by design. The twin revitalization efforts — of the game with Operation Health, and the esport through SI 2018 — brought “Siege” back from the brink.

At the 2021 Invitational, NiP defeated Team Liquid to take home the crown. The event, hosted at the Palais Brongniart in Paris didn’t have the usual throngs of fans. Even still, it almost felt normal.

Hunter is a veteran freelance journalist from Texas. He has an emphasis in “Rainbow Six Siege,” “Valorant” and “Halo.” You can follow him on Twitter at @DiamondbackGG.

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