Contemplations on the Future of Competitive Splatoon

It’s been almost a year since Splatoon released on Wii U last May. Even before its initial release, a rapidly growing community drawn in by the unique gameplay and cool aesthetic began thinking of the game in a competitive light. It was Nintendo’s first foray into online shooters and many thought it might evolve to be a popular competitive eSport like Halo, Call of Duty, or Counter-Strike before it (albeit expectedly more niche than those other titles due to the system it was releasing on). The competitive Smash Bros. community even tried to do it’s part, setting up the forum “SquidBoards” prior to launch to make a site where players could come together to talk about the game.

Even Nintendo seemed to be getting behind the idea, albeit not initially. Private matches weren’t added until an August update last year, a strange decision that theoretically could be the result of Nintendo’s need to get a game out in the early part of the year (April, May and June had been big for Nintendo multiplayer the last two years with Mario Kart 8 and Animal Crossing: New Leaf gaining easy traction) and a realization that if they hadn’t, they would have had a ridiculously large gap between big Wii U releases between the early Spring and Fall.

Once private matches were added, a push began. With support from Nintendo, Niconico announced a Splatoon tournament with $1 million on the line that concluded earlier this year. And the Nintendo of America Treehouse held its own small tournament in early December in an attempt to show people that Splatoon could be played in a tournament setting and how people at home could do it. Each was interesting for what they showed about Splatoon as a competitive game– and, more importantly, how in almost every facet, there were areas of improvement.

Tournament Game Modes & Map Selection

The Treehouse tournament was set up as a double elimination tournament with the part of the bracket you were in determining what game mode and how many rounds were played. It was an interesting setup, considering no other competitive shooter followed such a tournament setup. Halo and Call of Duty have predetermined Maps and Game Modes, but only for the individual games in a particular match than the whole match itself, while Counter-Strike either lets teams strike maps or sticks to one, all while using the same mode because the community has it down to a science.

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For Splatoon, it would be fairly easy for any tournament to run something similar to Halo or Call of Duty’s setup. Splatoon’s Ranked Online Mode offers three objective-based game modes that could easily be distributed to each game of a best of 3, or extended to a best of 5 or 7. The odd-mode out would be the basic game mode “Turf War”, which most of the competitive community wouldn’t miss anyway. The question then would be what maps to play on. Unlike Call of Duty and Halo, there are no asymmetrical levels in Splatoon. Without the paint and spawn-points, you’d be hard-pressed to tell at a glance which side you started on. That means almost every map is good for almost every mode, so narrowing down 3 maps for 3 game modes could be challenging, or at the very least, divisive. (Except cutting Saltspray Rig. That’s a bad map. The big area on top needs more access routes so that it actually gets used. Though I guess someone has to like it.)

Many community-driven tournaments have used the previous method, but alternatively, the map striking option implemented in Counter-Strike could work. The difference, as I’ve mentioned before, is that Counter-Strike uses one mode for the entire match. So the first thing a tournament using stage-striking would then need to do is decide if they want a static game mode used for the entire tournament or an individual round like the Treehouse tournament did, or the alternative third option that I’ll discuss in a moment.

In my initial thinking for this piece, I came to the conclusion that either the stage or the mode would need to be constant throughout a match if players had a choice over where they played each round to keep competitive balance. After all, if you give more control to one team for a specific mode that won’t appear again, players could argue that they got the short-end of the stick when they next get to pick a map with their own set mode. So it stood to reason that each match would stick to a single map, or a single mode, for fairness.

However, the alternative idea was simply to begin a match by having each team strike one of the three modes, then have the usual map striking to decide on a starting map. The following games would then just have the loser pick one of the remaining modes to use before choosing from the remaining maps.

Any of these ideas could be implemented and work well in most tournaments, and which ones are chosen would likely come down to the discretion of the tournament organizer. Personally, I’m in favor of the set-mode and map used in Call of Duty and Halo, but wouldn’t mind seeing an entire tournament using a single mode that allowed stage striking.

Examining Splatoon’s Modes 

Turf War 

Very early in Splatoon’s life cycle, after the introduction of Ranked Mode, Turf War began to be ignored as a competitive mode in the community. Many felt that the meta had stopped developing around the mode, and it lacked some of the Player-to-Player interactions that allowed certain games like Halo to keep their base Slayer mode in the competitive scene. Compared to the other game modes, Turf War is just a little too unfocused, and definitely falls flat as a spectator sport between how mundane it is until the closing seconds and how hard it can be to follow.

Splatzones

Splatzones gained my personal ire fairly early in my time on Ranked when my team– vastly in the lead– went through a back and forth with the other team right before our points hit zero where we traded owner ship of the base for a minute or so. Once we finally regained control and kept it, one would think we would have been close enough to win. However, the designers of Splatoon made an odd decision. There’s a penalty that gets added to the countdown for losing control of your base, which isn’t that big of a deal in theory– if our two teams traded the base, we would each have stacked up some penalties. The problem is that the size of the penalty scales with how close your main points are to zero. So while my opponent’s team gained only 2-3 seconds per penalty put in place, my team gained about 70 seconds per penalty. By the time we had taken over the base, despite having had control of it for 90% of the match, we were behind by quite a bit.

Now this may come off as personal bias or salt, but it’s one of the reasons that I hold Splatzones in such low regard when it comes to competitive Splatoon. It’s not hard to see why such a penalty was put in place– it both penalizes you for playing poorly and losing control, and the scaling acts as rubber banding to make the game closer, which is exciting for a lot of people, especially viewers. For competitors, the level to which a penalty puts you back is downright egregious.

An additional area to look at with intrigue or concern is how the Splatzones are set up. Some maps have one and others have two (which is better depends on the map and the person, personally I prefer when there’s two zones, but there’s no objective way to say whether one should be used over the other). Strangely, though, some maps with no center spot for a Splatzone still only have one, placed off-center and automatically making the map asymmetrical. The strangest case of this is Bluefin Depot, where the designers clearly showed a willingness to edit the map to allow a central platform for both Tower Control and Rainmaker, but for Splatzones decided to simply place the zone off-center rather than edit the map further.

Most maps, though, keep the sides symmetrical, so this is hardly an issue for competitive play, especially if a tournament tries to use map striking where one team can simply ban it if they feel there’s a competitive advantage. The same holds true for stages with one or two Splatzones. But they’re both important to think about if a tournament has set stages and modes for each round. For TOs, it might be good to consider including rounds with both one and two Splatzones, and picking a different mode for stages like Bluefin Depot.

Otherwise, Splatzones is an excellent King-of-the-Hill type game mode that requires consistent teamwork to consistently be good at. It’s really just the Penalty Timer mechanics that give me caution for this mode in competitive play.

Tower Control

Tower Control comes off as a slow mode. The set track a tower moves on and the consistent speed in which it does so makes it easy for a defending team to line-up where they know the opponent has to go and make a stand. It also makes the mode one of the most tense in the entire game. Often players will find themselves sitting atop the tower, praying it would just move faster before an opponent shows up, checking every corner just in case they missed something.

Personally, I think it’s also more strategically complex than Splatzones, due to how the strategy and best placement for defenders and attackers changes as the tower moves towards the goal. Like Splatzones, winning takes the cohesive play of the entire team, except that cohesion needs to keep up through a developing strategy rather than a static one.

Of course, the mode does offer advantages and disadvantages for different weapon choices and supers, as all the modes do– the most significant of which is how a player can use the Kraken special weapon and sit on top of the tower, invincible, killing any enemy that jumps on while the tower still moves. Such advantages can be a little annoying, but hardly upset the competitive balance of the mode itself.

Rainmaker

Like Splatzones, I also have a story about the Rainmaker mode that exemplifies my opinion of it. On Arowana Mall there is a small ridge before entering the area where a team’s goal is, and past that area is a large ramp atop which sits the team’s spawnpoint. A scenario such as this has happened to me at least twice in my time on that map, but this time in particular was one that stuck with me as the best moment I had with video games in 2015.

My team had just made a push for the opponent’s goal and had just barely fallen short in between the small ridge and the goal. I was the only member of my team that survived and was sitting on the side of the ridge opposite of the goal. Just at that moment, my Special Weapon meter had filled up (an inkstrike), and the Rainmaker had respawned, waiting for the opposing team to burst it open. From the map on the gamepad, I knew that they had just spawned, and I launched my inkstrike right on top of the Rainmaker’s bubble- effectively bursting it and covering the entire area between the goal and I with my team’s ink. Without delay, I jumped over the ridge, grabbed the rainmaker and made a dash for the goal. The opposing team did their best to cover the goal with their ink to stop me from swimming up it, but I swiftly circled around and climbed up the far side that they could not hit. With four opposing players around me, my character slammed the Rainmaker down on the goal, winning the game.

I do not wish to hide the fact that I think Rainmaker is the best mode in the game.

If one team is head and shoulders better than the other, the match won’t last longer than a minute. There is no countdown that you need to wait out. No set track at a set speed you need to go. There is only your character’s swim speed, and your team’s ability to make sure you can use it.

Strategically, that means that the increase in tactics you can use from Splatzones to Tower Control is even greater in Rainmaker. While most of your team is defending your goal, the fourth member can ink a clear path around the map to the opponent’s goal for your team to quickly take when you’ve regained control of the Rainmaker. It stops just becoming about attacking and defending, and it makes sure that more of the map gets used than in either of the other two ranked modes.

From a spectator’s perspective, it’s just more exciting. What it lacks in the tension displayed by Tower Control, it makes up for by the possibilities that any play could end the game. That 4-on-1 does not instantly mean that the 1 loses, as my previous example proves.

The Rainmaker’s respawn bubble makes sure that a team can’t immediately push to goal while the other team is waiting to come back after being splatted, and that at the very least, they will be able to get to the goal in time to attempt a solid defense.

The fact that the Rainmaker replaces all of your weapons when you pick it up acts as a balance to the game as well, offsetting any advantages any weapon might have in that situation and replacing it with arguably one of the worst weapons in the game. (Just imagine if you could use Kraken in Rainmaker. Thank god.)

The only faults Rainmaker has are a glitch that makes the Rainmaker disappear if the carrier falls into water (which may have been patched out at this point), and the strategy a team might take of taking the lead and then running away with the Rainmaker. The latter strategy gets compounded on a stage like Hammerhead Bridge where you can sneak under the bridge on the support beams where the Rainmaker can’t return. Other than that, however, that kind of strategy can also be a huge risk if the opponent splats you while you’re on your side of the map.

With all that said, it’s my opinion that a good order for set game modes per round would go something like:

Best of 3: Splatzones, Tower Control, Rainmaker
Best of 5: Tower Control, Rainmaker, Splatzones, Tower Control, Rainmaker
Best of 7: Rainmaker, Tower Control, Splatzones, Rainmaker, Splatzones, Tower Control, Rainmaker

Tentacle Difficulties 

One of the most obvious issues from watching either the Niconico or Treehouse tournaments was simply how the game was displayed to the spectators. It’s just one of a number of issues that many have been asking Nintendo to alleviate through the game itself for a while. And there are a number of changes Nintendo would do well to implement.

A spectator mode is the first, although it’d be interesting to think about how it would be implemented. Since the game is a first-person game, it would make sense to follow the game like you would any other FPS, by sticking to the first person and switching between players. Personally, I’ve never been as much of a fan of this style. While there are helpful ways a spectator mode from the player’s perspective can make sense of the game for the player– outlining enemy and allied players through objects– often switching between players can be at least a little jarring or hard to follow.

Splatoon is a game about territory control as much as it is about aiming and shooting, and in a first-person mode, it’s hard to tell who is winning in that regard, which is why players have a map displayed on the gamepad. Displaying both a player’s screen and the gamepad screen can be tricky, but there’s another difference between other FPS’s and Splatoon that should not be ignored: its sense of space and physicality. While bullets tend to fly almost invisibly in other FPS games, Splatoon’s ink shots are always visible both in the air and after they land. This sense of visibility makes it much easier to display a game of Splatoon from an overhead perspective like you might do for any other sport– especially for a game mode like Rainmaker.

Of course, that might not be the best way to have it implemented, though personally I’d like to at least see a hybrid attempted in some fashion, just to see if it’d work outside of theory.

Yet, while a spectator mode would certainly be a big improvement for those broadcasting and spectating Splatoon, there are two big changes that need to happen for those that want to play the game competitively, and they’re two things that players, critics, and other observers have been calling for even before Splatoon released– voice chat and LAN support.

This isn’t the first time something Nintendo-related was criticized for lacking voice chat. The lack of a system-wide chat feature on Wii or Wii U even inspired the satirical name of IGN’s Nintendo podcast, “Nintendo Voice Chat.” In-game voice chat for a game that requires team precision seems like an easy call to make, but the developers behind Splatoon decided not to include it after coming to the conclusion that voice chat in other games was toxic and something they should avoid.

However, to support a competitive scene, full voice chat for solo matchmaking against random people online isn’t necessary. Nintendo could very well not implement that as long as they allow party matchmaking, so you can communicate with friends and other people that you know and want to communicate with. At the moment, adding voice chat is probably the one thing that can best improve competitive Splatoon, at least when playing online.

Offline, however, the #1 thing that Nintendo could add to support a competitive scene is far and away LAN Support. At the moment, if you want to hold a tournament for Splatoon at a single location, you have to connect all the systems to the internet anyway– which theoretically should make the connection less optimal than if every system was connecting from it’s own Wi-Fi (depending on how fast the internet is at the tournament location).

LAN Support would offer the most optimal connection, with little chance of connection errors and decreased lag. It’s hard to think of most competitive multiplayer games that require separate consoles operating without it. So why not Splatoon?

Splatoon is a game fully capable of developing a big competitive scene, and the community has clearly showed up to take part. If Nintendo offers the kind of support they need, who knows? Maybe at some point we’ll see the Splatoon Grand Finals on ESPN one day in the future.

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