It’s not easy to build a game with esports in mind. In fact, many would argue you shouldn’t do that. It’s trickier still when the odds are stacked against you. Rewind to December 2015, and Rainbow Six Siege was, arguably, not launch ready, let alone esports ready.
Even without a rocky launch, the global climate at the time – including recent attacks in Ubisoft’s home city of Paris – meant Siege went on sale without the aid of marking, not to mention the fact that the late-to-launch (effectively) multiplayer-only shooter had missed the typical months of Christmas sales.
Fast forward just over a year and an improved Rainbow Six Siege had its first world cup, the Six Invitational 2017, in a small studio that seated a few hundred people, located off an easy-to-miss icy alleyway. It had a US$100K prize pool, with teams fighting across Xbox One and PC. At the event, Ubisoft made the ballsy but divisive call to axe the Xbox One Pro League and focus, instead, on the steadily growing PC community.
One year later, despite the sole PC focus, the Six Invitational 2018 had swelled in size, with a US$500K prize pool complemented by a much more spacious TOHU venue in Montreal. Esport Director François-Xavier Deniele openly admitted that the Six Invitational 2017 was an experiment and they didn’t know whether they’d get a chance to do another one. Clearly the experiment paid off.
"It was just another example of how Ubisoft Montreal actively upsets Siege’s meta multiple times a year to keep things fresh..."
It was at the Six Invitational 2018 that Ubisoft announced some big changes to the competitive scene. The introduction of a five-round rotation on attack/defence. Transparency of operator selections between teams, albeit spliced with an optional secret sixth choice. Plus the addition of operator bans to complement the already existent map bans.
These new tournament features were in effect for the first time at the Paris Major and it was just another example of how Ubisoft Montreal actively upsets Siege’s meta multiple times a year to keep things fresh. This generally comes quarterly in the form of new operators and new maps, but unlike other competitive shooters, Ubisoft Montreal doesn’t take the approach of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Sometimes the tournament changes are concerning even on paper.
Initially, I feared that the introduction of five-rounds of attack/defence per team would result in a bevvy of 6-0 whitewashes. While those did happen, they weren’t as common as I’d feared, despite the belief among commentators and certain players that defending is harder than attacking. I raised this point with Lead Designer Leroy Athanassoff and Lead Map Designer Jeremy Dowsett and they both disagreed this was the case.
For Dowsett, maps certainly aren’t developed with an attacking bias in mind. Athanassoff argued that the opposite was true, given the asymmetrical nature of Siege. He has a point. After all, if the attackers do nothing or run out of time while defenders are still alive, the attacking side loses. It’s a good point to make, but when Siege is being played at the highest level, it’s hard to not listen to the pros.
Chatting with Fnatic – the only ANZ team to qualify for the event and a team that’s evolved from both console to PC, and Aussie esports team Mindfreak to the global Fnatic – there’s a strong argument for why defending is trickier. Ex-player and Fnatic coach Jayden “Dizzle” Saunders highlights operator concerns that might potentially take years and multiple seasons to address. Put simply, according to Dizzle, attackers have a breadth of operator sub-ins that defenders do not.
At the Paris Major, this was made most evident by the consistent banning of Mira. She’s a risk/reward defensive operator who splices passive intel gathering (via one-way mirrors) with precious time-wasting insecurity for the attackers. On certain maps, Mira’s damn near essential to a cohesive defensive plan; on others, she’s a strong choice regardless. It seems Ubisoft Montreal has anticipated this, though, which is why Clash – the first defensive operator with a shield, and a transparent one at that – is being introduced to the roster with Operation Grim Sky.
But Mira isn’t the only critical intel-gatherer. Dizzle argues that the banning of other critical intel-gatherers like Valkyrie and Echo (who’s also a denial specialist) can leave a defence vulnerable, too, especially given how easily the fixed camera locations are instinctively destroyed by attackers. Given there are currently slots for the banning of two attackers and two defenders – the first (attacker) and last (defender) selections by one team, and the middle two (attacker, defender) by the opposing team – it wasn’t uncommon to see both Mira and either Valkyrie or Echo taken out of the equation.
"That said, Maverick is more meant to punch smaller murder holes in soft/hard cover, and he’s already being balanced prior to official release..."
As for the attackers, well, Dizzle rightly identifies an overlap. Ban Lion and Dokkaebi can still force players to stand still for precious seconds. Even Jackal can be used to hunt defenders, albeit in a different way. Deny attackers a hard-breaching Thermite, and they can still use the arguably superior Hibana. Shoot yourself in the foot and ban both, and Grim Sky’s new attacker Maverick can be used to cut a way in, if required.
That said, Maverick is more meant to punch smaller murder holes in soft/hard cover, and he’s already being balanced prior to official release. This is actually a somewhat new step for Ubisoft Montreal in terms of Rainbow Six Siege. When there were concerns about the very apparent OPness of Lion in his prelaunch state, Ubisoft Montreal stuck to its guns and refused to balance the attacker without sufficient telemetry data.
On one hand, this is admirable, in that player-created telemetry data quickly shows the truth of a very vocal community’s outcries about anything related to Siege’s delicate balance. On the other hand, it’s become a bit of a trend to launch operators that err closer to OP than weak. Again, this is both a pro and a con. By launching them “a bit OP”, as Brand Director Alexandre Remy put it, it ensures they’re picked a lot to help with balancing.
But then that becomes a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: where data is needed to tame OP operators, but operators are launched in an OP state to ensure there’s enough data to balance them. I do feel for devs in this regard. No matter how much internal testing you perform, those hours pale in comparison to the collective hours of Siege’s 35-million-odd player base taking a shiny new operator for a spin as soon as they’re live.
In the instance of Maverick, though, Ubisoft Montreal has softened its stance and rightly so. His ability to near silently synergise with every attacking operator – and, specifically, Blackbeard, Twitch, Glaz alongside any frag-wielding attacker – and the distinct lack of a hard counter is concerning. It’s also odd to hear Athanassoff admit the lack of a hard counter for Maverick at the Paris Major given how he stressed the importance of both synergies and counters for new operators at the Six Invitational 2018.
For the pros, this means that both Bandit and Mute – two defenders skilled at denying hard-breachers access to a site, particularly from externally facing walls – have big question marks over their heads for future tournaments. Their other-side-of-a-solid-wall counters are now a whole lot easier to counter thanks to the arrival of Maverick.
You don’t really need a crystal ball to see that, like Mira, Maverick will be the next no-brainer operator who’s first on the chopping block during the banning phase. And like Tachanka or Fuze, two operators who are never or rarely picked by the pros, an operator who’s always insta-banned is just as bad as one that’s never picked.
More to Dizzle’s point about Pro League defending being trickier than attacking, almost every attacking operator is competitively viable, specifically in terms of their utility. Meanwhile, defenders have two trappers who aren’t competitively appealing (Kapkan and Frost) based on their pick rates (or lack thereof), an intel-gatherer who’s more risk than reward (Caveira), and two defenders who are picked more for their ACOG gun sights than anything else (Doc and Rook).
The silver lining amid these potential cons is that Ubisoft Montreal continues to listen, admit when it’s made mistakes, and transparently evolve...
On top of this, that secret sixth operator choice was strangely underused at the Paris Major, despite the transparency of both teams’ lin-ups. In fairness, Dizzle predicts the sixth operator choice will become more integral as Siege’s operator pool edges closer to 100 and he appreciates its inclusion sooner rather than later.
The silver lining amid these potential cons is that Ubisoft Montreal continues to listen, admit when it’s made mistakes, and transparently evolve. It’s the kind of rare AAA approach to live-service gaming that instils loyalty, even when the balance feels out of whack for a tournament or a season.
Ubisoft paid for my flights, accommodation and meals at the Paris Major