The 5 best competitive games you’ve never played

Professional gaming is big business

Professional gaming is big business. League of Legends tops out at millions of players every day. Dota 2 awards $1.4 million to its world championship team. That’s not chump change.

But eSports aren’t all big numbers and big tournaments with flashy production values. For decades, highly skilled players have grinded out grueling matches for little recognition and even less money, all in games you’ve probably never heard of. There’s a reason players with so much talent have dumped so many hours into these games. They’re phenomenal games and deserve wider recognition—and more players.

If you have a few hours (or weeks) to kill, check out the games we’ve curated below. These are the best eSports you’ve never heard of.

1) Frozen Synapse

One of gaming’s great mysteries is why turn-based tactical strategy games never became more popular. Maybe real-time strategy—which is undeniably a great genre as well—is just easier to grasp. Take Frozen Synapse, for instance: It’s a beautiful game of techno-chess, requiring all the right proportions of skill, luck, and depth.

A good, PG-13 way to describe this game would be “brain candy.” But when the kids aren’t around, you can tell the truth: Frozen Synapse is a drug. The best turn-based tactics title since the criminally underrated Laser Squad Nemesis, this game will have you agonizing over every move and exulting over every little victory.

The player population for Frozen Synapse is pretty small, but you can always find a game online or a sparring partner on Reddit. The top competitive league is held at Rock Paper Shotgun. Fair warning: They’re pretty damn good over there.

2) Altitude

When Altitude made the rounds in 2009, it won awards and got great reviews. StarCraft players—including a former notable Brood War professional named Pillars—flocked to it. It’s still got a good population today and, if you hop on, you might be able to find the right server full of competitive players.

Groups of five have to strategize, coordinate, and execute to destroy an opponent’s bases with unique planes and weapons. Every little thing about the game—from the scoring to the movement—lends itself to genuinely exciting, competitive play.

3) Warsow

Is there a genre more deceptively difficult than the first-person deathmatch?

Sure, games like Quake look simple: Two people with guns try to blow each other’s virtual brains out. But once you take into account the lightning quick movement, the precise timing, and the killer aim required, you’re already 10 frags behind a 10-year veteran—and he’s a newbie by comparison to some of the genre’s old guard.

If you have a history degree in eSports, there’s no genre you miss more than deathmatches. Games like DoomQuake, and Unreal Tournament helped build competitive gaming’s foundations. Sadly, the genre has fallen from prominence.

Warsow has built on that pedigree since it was first released more than eight years ago. The updates have kept coming, albeit slowly (1.0 came in 2012!), and the dedicated players have stuck around. This is a game with an extreme focus on movement. You have to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time and you can dash, jump, and trickjump your way there.

There’s no easy way to master Warsow but, like its deathmatch cousins, there’s not many more satisfying feelings after getting your first kill after putting in the work.

4) Total Annihilation

Sure, you’ve played StarCraft and maybe you even snuck onto Warcraft 2, but have you even heard Total Annihilation? Upon its 1997 release, the game did extremely well with critics and fans alike thanks to its groundbreaking selling points: a vast scope, 3-D units, and terrain and the ability to issue complex orders to thousands of units.

Total Annihilation suffers from a comparison to StarCraft not because it’s a poorer game, but because it never reached the celestial competitive heights that StarCraft did in South Korea. Gamespot’s Bruce Geryk has gone so far as to declare it “superior on many technical levels” to StarCraft. It was only Blizzard’s style and panache—as opposed to substance gameplay or community—that have led to that game’s greater success.

If you’ve ever seen an argument between Dota and League of Legends fans, you have a small idea of what forums in the ‘90s looked like when real-time strategy fans went at it.

Inexplicably forgotten by many competitive gamers, Total Annihilation retains a loving fan base to this day. There’s nothing quite like having 5,000 units at your fingertips. Take it from a huge StarCraft fan: Do yourself a favor and give this enormous game a play.

5) Netrek

We’ve officially entered a time machine. Released in 1988, Netrek is the oldest Internet game still actively played and one of the first titles played competitively online. It’s a Star Trek-themed space shooter in which teams dogfight each other to conquer planets. If you win, you conquer a whole galaxy.

By 1990, inter-collegiate leagues pitted Carnegie Mellon and Berkeley students against one another. Competitions sprouted up around the world before a decline at the turn of the millenium.

If you haven’t played Netrek, you’ve played a game influenced by it. Several designers tried their hands at homages. But this game invented online team play, and you can consider any online game its spiritual successor. Wired called it “the first online sports game” long before the term eSports was on anyone’s mind.

Twenty-five years later (happy birthday!), it seems people will only stop playing this game when the Internet itself ends.

Photo via Mode 7 Games