The emergence of the Auto-Chess genre was one of 2019’s biggest gaming surprises.
Propelled to popularity by the original DOTA 2 Auto Chess mod, it wasn’t long before the biggest names in the game tried to capitalise on the situation with their own spins on the subgenre. Valve unveiled Underlords. Riot revealed TeamFight Tactics. Blizzard bet big on Battlegrounds.
However, as of February 2020, the popularity of all three games has declined significantly on Amazon-owned streaming site Twitch.
As per Twitch analytics site SullyGnome, Dota Underlords has fallen from a peak viewership of approximately 60,000 and an average viewership of 27,000 when the game launched in June 2019 to only a couple hundred viewers (and a couple dozen streamers) on almost any given day in January 2020.
The SullyGnome statistics for TeamFight Tactics tell a similar story at a greater magnitude.
July 2019 represented a high-point in the popularity of Riot’s entry in the Auto-Chess arms-race with 350,000 peak viewers and 180,000 average viewers. These numbers have subsided since then.
In January 2020, TeamFight Tactics had around 12,000 average viewers and a peak of 26,000 viewers. Compared to the 99% drop in viewership that hit Underlords over the last six months, that’s a somewhat-more-manageable drop of “just” 93%.
In September 2019, Riot said TeamFight Tactics had a monthly active player base of 33 million. The company has not disclosed any numbers or statistics around the game since then.
It’s a little more difficult to discern the popularity of Hearthstone Battlegrounds, since streamers playing the mode are bundled in with those playing regular Hearthstone. Still, SullyGnome and other Twitch analytics resources like TwitchMetrics do track a significant bump in the popularity of the game coinciding with the release of Battlegrounds in mid-November 2019.
Prior to the announcement of Battlegrounds at Blizzcon 2019, average daily viewership for Hearthstone floated between 10,000 and 20,000. Once the new mode is announced and subsequently moves into open beta, those numbers improve significantly. For our first impressions of Battlegrounds, click here.
In January 2020, Hearthstone hit an average viewership of 28,000 and a peak viewership of 61,000. Though likely padded out by the popularity of Hearthstone’s core audience and subject to a shorter time-frame, the Twitch trends here could be seen to suggest that Blizzard have done a better job of holding onto the audience for Battlegrounds than the competition.
Though undoubtedly more popular on mobile and overseas markets than on Twitch, it’s also worth taking stock of the how the popularity of the standalone version of Auto-Chess (made by the team behind the original mod) has also declined on Twitch over time.
In March 2019, Auto Chess attracted peak viewership of over 60,000 and average viewership of over 20,000. These days, the game is lucky to crack a couple hundred viewers. Even if the "official" Auto Chess is still around, it feels like the game's five seconds of fame has long passed.
While the fact that less and less people are streaming these titles isn’t (and shouldn't be taken as) a direct 1:1 indicator of how many people are playing them regularly or how profitable they are, it does say something about how the popularity of the subgenre has shifted over time and it might hint at where things are going.
Of the four Auto-Chess games examined above, the two titles that are standalone (as opposed to being embedded within another game client) have seen the most precipitous drops in popularity. For that reason, It’ll be interesting to see if Valve looks to more tightly integrate Underlords with DOTA 2 as the game approaches its official launch on February 25th.
The other characteristic that seems to be separating the more successful efforts from the less successful ones is IP.
Hearthstone is based on and part of Blizzard’s enormously successful Warcraft franchise. TeamFight Tactics leverages the popularity of League of Legends, which is (arguably) the most popular PC game in the world.
None of this is to underrate DOTA 2 - which remains popular many years after it originally launched. In 2015, Valve were said to be making US$18 million off the game every month and even today DOTA 2 still has hundreds of thousands of players on Steam.
However, I would make the case that Valve hasn't been as successful at harnessing that potential value by getting consumers to invest into DOTA as an IP and a franchise in the same way that Riot and Blizzard have - and that’s something that’s reflected in the fast-declining popularity of Underlords and the struggles faced by Valve’s card game Artifact.
DOTA 2 can sustain itself but the evidence thus far does not suggest it can also sustain a spin-off.
The ultimate question here is profitability.
At the end of the day, all four Auto-Chess games are free-to-play titles that rely on recurring revenue. Unlike a single-player game with a fixed price-tag, they need to constantly convert free players into paying ones at a volume that covers the cost of their ongoing development and maintenance.
While Underlords is currently monetized through a season / battle pass akin to games like Fortnite, Riot are relying on the same cosmetics-focused business model they’ve been refining for years through League of Legends.
Riot have yet to release any public numbers around microtransaction revenue for TeamFight Tactics.
However, given that League of Legends is reported to have generated US$1.5 billion in revenue in 2019, it seems safe to say the company has a degree of expertise (or at least competency) in terms of making a profit off the free-to-play model. The launch of TFT on Mobile will likely accelerate their efforts to replicate this success in 2020.
Keeping that in mind, Hearthstone’s Battleground mode feels like the odd one out in that it currently has no monetization attached to it. Players who purchase the most recent Hearthstone expansion do get access to bonus Battlegrounds content but there's no specific way to buy that content on its own.
Back in November, Blizzard’s Dean Ayala told Gamasutra that the development team involved was “not really that concerned with what happens with revenue and Battlegrounds in the next 3 months.”
Given Activision CEO Bobby Kotick’s all-too-public desire to realize Blizzard’s “full potential”, it seems likely that this will change in 2020.
Like digital card game gold rush and the battle royale boom before it, it seems self-evident that the auto-chess audience is more than large enough to sustain more than one popular title. Nevertheless, whether the developers involved can keep players engaged after the initial lustre of the genre begins to wear thin is shaping up to be the far more difficult ask.