Rainbow Six Siege may have had a shaky start but is now a serious contender in the esports scene.
Its most recent high-profile tournament, the 2018 Paris Major, saw the worlds best teams go head-to-head, a legion of die hard fans in tow.
With a prize pool of $350,000 and a peak of 257,275 viewers during the Grand Final, those are some impressive numbers and Ubisoft expects them to grow in the months and years to come.
Although there have been ups and downs, everything is going according to plan. That said, Siege becoming a popular esport didnt happen overnight, nor by accident.
From day one, the team at Ubisoft Montreal made an unspooling series of decisions that would create an online gaming juggernaut.
“Can every game become an esport? No, not at all,” Brand Director, Alexandre Remy told The Daily Star.
“I believe there are two categories of game: one that I call game-as-entertainment. Think about it, a game that is close to a book or TV series, where you do have a finite amount of content and once you are done you are happy with it until the next sequel.
"Then there is the game as a hobby and the best analogy for a hobby is sports and those games, whether they are strategy games, FPS, fighting games, they are games that are usually multiplayer, that are easy to access but complex to master so are games that have extreme longevity.
"Those are games that have potential to be esports. But at the end of the day, thats up to the players, organisation, community tournament organisers to make a game an esport or not.”
Although the practice is now commonplace, Rainbow Six Siege was among the first multiplatform games to utilise the “games as a service” concept effectively.
Instead of paid-for map packs, every chunk of playable content is free and new operators can either be purchased for money or unlocked through grinding.
While not completely free-to-play, this approach removed an archaic barrier that has previously stopped players returning to a multiplayer game several months post-launch.
Part of Sieges success also comes down to how different it is compared other online shooters, as Esports Director, Francois Xavier Deniele, explains:
“We are in a good situation because we are growing fast and offering something different – we have a unique offering in terms of gameplay because of the operators and the preparation as well as the pick and ban phase.
"We are in the middle, between a MOBA and an FPS.”
Drawing from both genres has allowed the team to concoct its own winning formula.
While theres definitely an element of reflex and skill involved, the mishmash of unique operators, map layouts, and destructible environments each add their own dimension, making Siege far more tense and tactical then your typical shooter.
With that in mind, Ubisoft knew that Rainbow Six Siege definitely had the potential to become an esport and according to Deniele, that was a key driver for the team during development.
However, when the Tom Clancy shooter launched in late 2015, it was met with a mixed reception.
Despite being previously showcased as a multiplayer-centric game, a number of fans and critics had wanted it to fall in line with previous Rainbow Six titles.
More pressing for Ubisoft were the technical issues players were encountering, especially in terms of matchmaking.
“As soon as the game was released we encountered issues,” Deniele admitted. “But we were really sure we had a unique premise with Rainbow Six Siege so we decided to continue working to fix the game.”
Ubisoft took a two-pronged approach. While expanding the game with new maps, operators, and features, it continued to deploy technical fixes too.
However, for some players it wasnt enough – they were still being disconnected from games and plagued by bugs. To keep them in the fold, Siege needed stability and consistency.
So, last year, Ubisoft decided to spend an entire season improving the core game. Dubbed “Operation Health” it sought to rework and update the matchmaking, brought in faster servers, and restructured the way the team rolled out new features.
Where previous attempts had only plastered over festering wounds, Operation Health saw Siege make a vital recovery – a serious investment in the games future.
“That was a moment when we had to cancel the content that we had planned for that season,” says Remy.
“Honestly, we were all fearing about the reaction from the community and theres just been so much support. Theyve been patient with us and and that shows how much they are attached to the game.”
Those dog days seem like a distant memory though Siege still has some challenges ahead, both in terms of the games development as well as nurturing its growth as an esport.
Speaking with Game Director, Leroy Athanassoff, he explained how juggling a growing cast of characters has been problematic for the team.
“There is a baseline of at least one hundred. We are far from that number; we want to reach one hundred so that means when we are creating new content, when we are creating new characters, we need to keep in mind the meta and balancing the game. We know we are going to unbalance it by adding new characters.”
“When you make a decision right now, you need to be sure that you are not closing a door for the future. And sometimes we make those mistakes.
"We took a decision and didnt anticipate the effect it would have two or three years later. We can test new content and, while fun, since we took a decision two or three years ago we cant add that content to the game because it wont fit and thats too bad.
"You need to have a vision which is not only of the present, not only of the past, but also the future and make sure that what you are pushing today matches and is balanced with the current state of the game.”
Its a tough task for the Montreal team to say the least, planning a constant stream of new content while making sure it doesnt negatively impact the existing meta.
Its a balancing act, and one that requires them to look both to the past and future of Siege to create the best possible experience for its current player base in the here and now.
As for the esports scene, Ubisoft is still learning. Having originally started with North America and Europe, the Pro League has continued to expand to other regions.
Again, this wasnt something that happened by chance, Ubisoft had to take risks and have an active hand in nurturing that community.
“The big challenge now is the fact that we are becoming more and more professional in terms of the esports scene,” Deniele said.
“[Ubisofts esports division] is a bigger organisation and we are mostly everywhere in the world except some territories. We are covering everything but want to develop the “other side” of esports.
"Meaning that here, at the Paris Major, you have the professionalism, the pro players which are very visible but what is important is to develop the other levels of competition – the grass roots and semi-professional leagues as well.
"My strategy for the coming years is to develop every step. Every level of esports starting from the ranked mode to the professional level.”
For Deniele, seeing events like the Paris Major come to life has been hugely rewarding, seeing not only the teams but the way their supporters exude passion and zeal in a way that mirrors traditional sports.
As G2 and Millenium took to the stage for their quarterfinals match, a large section of the audience cheered on their home team, singing the french national anthem as they waved their flags.
Meanwhile, for Athanassoff, seeing Rainbow Six Siege where it is now has been a huge personal milestone:
“Its these kind of moments, being here at a massive venue, seeing the best teams around the world, being able to make them fly.
"To me its exciting because before I started to work in video games I used to play Rainbow Six at competitive events so I used to take my 19-inch CRT and my big PC tower in the trunk of my car, driving through the night between Paris and Marseilles to a super small area where they hosted LAN events with no prize pool, no organisation. Nothing. So it was super low profile.”
“Now, today, being here? Its insane. Its a dream: seeing people that were me when I was young. Its come full circle. I think this game is probably my last game – I dont think there could be something as exciting or as good for me after this.”
“Siege will last forever.”