With successful first tournament, ‘Smite’ makes an esports statement

Over $200,000 in prizes were handed out in Atlanta this weekend in the inaugural tournament for Smite, the newest challenger to the esports throne currently occupied by games like League of Legends and Dota 2

Over $200,000 in prizes were handed out in Atlanta this weekend in the inaugural tournament for Smite, the newest challenger to the esports throne currently occupied by games like League of Legends and Dota 2.

In Smite, players assume the role of gods from various mythologies and religions, such as the Egyptian god Isis, Norse god Thor, and Hindi deity Kali, and battle against each other in two teams of five. It plays like a combination of a first person shooter and a traditional multiplayer online battle arena, merging the twitch gameplay of the first genre and the strategic depth of the second.

That appeals to those who may enjoy the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) format popularized by League of Legends and Dota, but who don’t like the point-and-click movement and camera jostling of most games in the genre.

Hi-Rez Studios, the game’s developer, kept Smite in beta for nearly two years before finally going live on March 25. Hi-Rez celebrated the official release with last weekend’s tournament, the rather unimaginatively titled Smite Launch Tournament. The top four teams in America and top four teams in Europe clashed to determine the best Smite team in the world.

Team SoloMid (TSM) took the title in convincing fashion, winning every single game they played on the way to a $104,596.80 payout. That doesn’t mean their win was easy. They had to beat America’s top two teams, COGnitive Gaming and Dignitas, to claim the championship.

The Danish squad TSM dominated the European portion of the qualification process, winning seven of 10 weekly qualifying tournaments. But their counterpart in America, COGnitive Gaming, had an even better record, winning 90 percent of their matches. And that’s before mentioning Dignitas, the No. 2 ranked American squad and champions of the PAX Prime LAN in September, who had never lost in a live tournament before now.

The Europeans, however, were dominant. TSM focused on late game lineups that outlasted early aggression from Dignitas and COG, backed by amazing play from tournament MVP Mark “Gamehunter” Horsten. His use of the god known as “the baby”, Vamana, lived up to Horsten’s nickname, “Godkiller.” His pentakill against Dignitas was the play of the tournament.

Smite’s three million registered users is a far cry from the atmospheric numbers posted by League of Legends (70 million in 2013). But its been enough to drive a thriving esports scene. The free-to-play game hit 900,000 users during its one-year long closed beta period and has grown exponentially since moving to the open phase one year ago.

Hi-Rez coughed up $100,000 for the tournament’s prize pool, but the community tacked on over $100,000 more with purchases of in-game items, a scaled down version of Valve’s crowd-funded efforts to boost the cash prize for Dota 2’s The International.

In terms of production values, Hi-Rez certainly put on an admirable show, though it fell short of the high standards set by bigger tournaments such as Dreamhack or the International. The announcers were knowledgeable and professional. The analyst desk was two sizes too small, but that didn’t stop them from doing their jobs.

We weren’t fans of the jazz fusion cover of Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog between matches. But in some ways that quirkiness seems like part of the Hi-Rez package. 

The company has taken a lot of criticism for the way it abandoned their first two titles, Global Agenda and Tribes: Ascend. The two games received critical acclaim, but never built the player bases required to sustain a free-to-play business model.

Company CEO and co-founder Erez Goren is a passionate front-man for the business. He’s tried to assuage community fears that Smite may suffer the same fate as their previous titles, addressing the issue in a post on Reddit. His energy was omnipresent during the Smite tournament. While awkward at times, like during the impromptu employees-vs-pros showmatch he conjured up, Erez provided a window into the spirit that drives the company.

Hi-Rez seem to realize it has something that can last with Smite, and act thankful for it.

Indeed, the future for Smite is promising. In August 2013, Hi-Rez partnered with Chinese mega gaming conglomerate Tencent to bring Smite to China. Tencent owns Riot Games and publishes a huge portfolio of games in Asia, and the partnership could open a potentially huge market for Smite.

Another big ticket tournament will close out 2014, this time incorporating Chinese teams.

It seems unlikely Smite could challenge League of Legends or Dota 2, but if their growth continues, who knows? “We’re not the number one MOBA… yet,” joked Hi-Rez co-founder and COO Todd Harris at the award ceremony, throwing three fingers toward the crowd. “But we’re number three!”

That remark started a chant of “three” from the crowd, and shows the kind of attitude prevalent in the game’s creators and its fans. Smite doesn’t need to be League of Legends or DotA 2—or even surpass them. It’s a game with engaging gameplay that targets a growing group of players large enough to support a sustained community, and a sustained esports scene. And that’s not bad at all.

Screengrab via smitegame/Twitch