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As ‘Halo Infinite’ esports enters year 2, teams express cautious optimism

Bogged down by a rocky debut year for ‘Halo Infinite,’ the pro scene marches on with subdued expectations

( Reece Martinez/Halo Esports)

Ten years ago, professional “Halo” was big. The video game was a main attraction at popular Major League Gaming events across America, and the release of “Halo 3,” the best-selling game in the series to date, had cemented the franchise as a cultural touchstone.

“Halo Infinite” — billed as a soft reboot of the franchise when it came out in November 2021 — had the potential to revive that era, and return Halo esports to the kind of competitive relevance it enjoyed a decade ago.

Fans have since had to temper their expectations about “Infinite” and its esports scene. Bubbles of enthusiasm, mostly centered on the game’s excellent core mechanics, fizzled soon after launch. To many players, “Infinite” felt unfinished. And after a strong start to the esports season, viewership of tournaments declined. Several teams left the game entirely.

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Still, esports team owners who spoke with The Washington Post — including some who readily admitted the first season’s faults — also expressed optimism about the game’s future. The financial model of the Halo Competitive Series (HCS) partnership program is a vital lifeline of revenue for esports organizations. And the recent addition of Forge mode, one of the series’ enduring hallmarks, promises to attract more players.

“We're obviously betting on HCS,” said Jason Lake, CEO of Complexity Gaming, an organization that recently secured a partnership slot. “I'm not surprised at all to see some teams bow out, but we're not deterred by that in the least.”

‘People just kind of got bored’

“Viewership is absolutely critical to the success of this ecosystem,” wrote Tahir “Tashi” Hasandjekic, head of esports at 343 Industries, the subsidiary of Microsoft that developed “Infinite,” in a blog post Jan. 2022. At the time, the HCS was riding high on the popularity of its debut tournament, and the competitive scene was a bright spot in an otherwise dimming constellation. Some of the biggest esports teams in the world, like OpTic Gaming and FaZe Clan, had eagerly joined up for “Halo Infinite,” signing veteran stars and top emerging talent. The U.S. Marine Corps partnered with the league. (A spokesperson for the Marines declined to detail terms of the deal). At peak vewiership, more than 267,000 Halo fans were tuned into the game’s first major tournament concurrently.

“Infinite” esports is more popular than the subdued “Halo 5” scene ever was. Still, it has struggled to deliver on early hype. In another blog post, Hasandjekic mentioned the “virtuous cycle,” in which a game’s broad popularity generates interest in its esports scene. That didn’t materialize.

Team owners readily agree that the first year of the game was rough. “People just kind of got bored” with “Infinite’s” lack of content, said Shawn Pellerin, CEO of the esports organization Spacestation Gaming, whose team is officially partnered with the HCS.

The Marine Corps haven’t yet committed to continuing their HCS partnership in year two.

“We are in the preliminary stages of discussing future partnership opportunities with the HCS Team, but it is uncertain at this time what that may or may not look like,” wrote Jim Edwards, a representative of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, in response to The Post’s inquiries.

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The offseason, too, has shown signs of the ecosystem’s waning health. The OpTic Invitational, a major in-person tournament announced during the World Championship and scheduled for Dec. 9, was abruptly delayed Thursday due to the “state of Halo” and issues relating to roster changes and volatility among partnered teams, according to a video shared by the OpTic Twitter account.

Some esports organizations have had enough of “Infinite.” In early November, the partnered team eUnited dropped both their competitive roster and their “Infinite” content creators. Fnatic, another partnered team, followed suit; a later tweet from the organization suggested they had no immediate plans to sign another roster: “We’ll have further updates about our future in the title to come.” Cloud9, a third partnered team, also dropped their roster, the runners-up at the World Championship.

Neither eUnited, nor Fnatic, nor Cloud9 responded to The Post’s request for comment.

These organizations joined others that had already stopped competing in the HCS. XSET, an esports organization which had applied for the revenue-sharing lifeline of partnership in the HCS and was denied this summer, left Halo esports after the application fell through.

“We appreciate the efforts of 343 in doing the best they can to create a compelling and successful esports scene,” read XSET’s departure announcement. But despite XSET’s “significant” investment in Halo, “esports is also a business and as an organization we must at times make tough choices on where we continue to invest resources.”

Mark Josey, the CEO and co-owner of Pioneers, another team that left HCS competition this summer after their partnership application was denied, said his biggest issue with the HCS was its lack of transparency. In a phone call, Josey told The Post that his organization showed a level of dedication to the “Halo” scene that few others matched, detailing lavish spending and community outreach in support of the game. But those efforts were met with indifference, Josey said.

Josey drew a comparison to another esports scene which limped on for years, suffering declining prize pools and viewership, supported by a tiny but passionate fan base.

“As the player base goes down, the competition goes down,” Josey said. “And you wonder, does this turn into Gears of War?”

‘It’s tough right now across the board’

Despite the issues with the first season, team CEOs also say “Infinite” is trending in the right direction. Pellerin and his peers are hopeful that the second year of the game will bring an influx of casual fans back to the game, breathing some life into the “virtuous cycle.”

“The first year was almost like a beta,” said Kenny Vaccaro, CEO of Gamers First, or G1, a non-partnered team that intends to continue competing in the scene.

Some team executives believe that the recent addition of Forge mode, which allows players to build multiplayer maps of their own, will bring fans back to “Infinite.” Both Vaccaro and Pellerin also mentioned their hopes for a battle royale mode to come to the game in the future. The “Roblox”-like sandbox of Forge and the huge maps of a Battle Royale mode, they argued, have greater intrinsic interest than the small arenas where high-level Halo is at its best, and both expect these genres will continue to dominate streaming ecosystems.

There isn’t, however, uniform agreement that improvements to the casual gameplay of “Infinite” will bring fans to the HCS. Pellerin, for example, doesn’t see competitive “Halo” gaining much popularity from a resurgence of the casual player base enjoying themselves with community-created content in Forge.

From 2021: ‘Halo Infinite’ is embracing esports. Now teams want in.

While Pellerin says he’s happy with the viewership numbers as they are, more would help drive revenue to his team. He confirmed that revenue earned from the partnership program decreased as players left the game.

“People need to play the game to buy the skins,” Pellerin said. “But the numbers were still pretty good.”

That’s a common sentiment for those in the HCS partnership program: Things are pretty good as they are, and will likely improve. Pellerin calls the partnership system “almost necessary” for esports, praising 343 for the specifics of the deal’s structure, which also allows esports organizations to sell products based on the Halo intellectual property. He said the Halo shirts Spacestation Gaming made were the organization’s best selling merchandise to date.

Pellerin’s Spacestation Gaming has no intention of getting out of Halo — just the opposite. The roster shuffling after the World Championship created an opportunity for them: When Cloud9 announced they’d dropped their second-place winning roster, Pellerin swooped in to pick them up.

Complexity Gaming, which recently won a HCS partnership slot, is another team that thinks “Infinite” is a solid bet. Speaking on a video call after the partnership announcement in November, Lake, the CEO, stressed that the short-term volatility in the HCS is a mere blip. He also noted the broader issues affecting esports in general.

“Frankly, it’s tough right now across the board,” Lake said. “So teams are really needing to kind of pick and choose where they want to place their bets or where they want to invest their money, their time and their IP.”

Those outside the executive suite in Halo esports are more reluctant to speak on the record about the game’s future. Ganza, the player who joked about being on unemployment after Worlds, was fined $3,250 by the HCS in May for criticizing the game. (Hasandjekic, the 343 esports lead, clarified that Ganza’s fine was levied because his criticism was delivered in an “unprofessional/destructive” tone, a violation of the HCS code of conduct for its partnered teams). One Halo coach, who insulted the HCS in a series of tweets earlier this year, declined to speak with The Post, citing his intent to “keep his toes in” competitive Halo.

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In the HCS offseason, “Halo Infinite” viewership continues to tread water. In November, average Twitch viewership hovered just shy of 1,500 viewers, according to the analytics service Streams Charts. A brief and small spike when Forge was released has come and gone, returning the game to its usual modest numbers. By this measure, the game remains about as popular as “Euro Truck Simulator 2.”

For now, the HCS may have to reckon with a diminished place in the landscape. Competitive Halo is simply not as popular as it used to be. At the moment, it’s outmatched by its longtime franchise peer, Call of Duty, and by the finely-tuned development cycles of massive games like “Valorant” and “Apex Legends.” Compared to the trickle of “Halo Infinite,” these titles pump out fresh content like it’s coming out of a fire hose.

“That’s just the name of the game,” says G1’s Vaccaro, referring to his hopes for the eventual release of a battle royale. “Gaming in general’s changed. You almost have to have a battle royale rollout with every game you’re developing. That’s just what people want.”

Ethan Davison is a freelance writer covering games, books, and culture. He’s on Twitter @eadavison_.

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