How Critical Force is building grassroots mobile esports momentum

While mobile esports has a significant presence in Asian countries, it has continued to be a tough nut to crack in the West. We’ve seen companies pour considerable resources behind mobile esports efforts in Western countries, such as Tencent with Arena of Valor and Super Evil Megacorp with Vainglory, without enduring or expansive success. Only Supercell has continued investing on a large scale for titles such as Clash Royale and Clash of Clans.

Critical Force is trying out a different kind of path. After inconsistent esports efforts in the past, the Finnish developer is building towards an esports future for mobile first-person shooter Critical Ops by starting small. While a future of splashy events and professional leagues is certainly a possibility, it’s a far-off one. For now, Critical Force hopes to nurture its competitive scene by empowering community groups and tournament organisers.

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Critical Force Critical Ops
Image credit: Critical Force

The mobile Android and iOS shooter has previously held officially-sanctioned online tournaments, and had an offline competition as part of an Amazon Mobile Masters event. After that, Critical Force partnered with Battlefy to operate its tournaments.

“Battlefy was able to really help us manage a lot more things, and at the same time, it was great because they were able to give us more data about how often the users would host and players would play,” explained Watkins “WattieX” Lam, Esports Manager and Senior Community Manager for Critical Force.

After about a year and a half without an esports push, due to the studio refocusing its efforts on in-game improvements, Lam has taken on the Esports Manager role to help guide the future of Critical Ops esports and better communicate the studio’s plans to the community. “Although Battlefy was great to have for our players, I believe that it’s more important for us to be even more connected with our players,” he added.

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Right now, Critical Force is purely focused on building grassroots support before considering grander competitive ambitions. A new tournament organiser program will allow community TOs to host online tournaments promoted by Critical Force and backed by in-game credit prizing. Various improvements to Critical Ops’ competitive infrastructure will also help create smoother and more engaging tournament experiences, Lam said. 

Credit: Critical Force

“We believe that these organisers are really the foundation of the competitive scene,” he affirmed. “I really feel that this is the first step of the foundation of making sure everything is going well, and that we can make sure to help them grow.”

Following that first step, Critical Force will launch a Critical Ops circuit composed of official tournaments that players can participate in. Lam said that the studio currently has plans to host two seasons of tournaments, each lasting a few months, and then will evaluate next steps after that. He said that the circuit won’t be considered a professional league, but that such a competitive structure could follow if there’s enough interest.

It’s quite a different approach compared to Supercell, which hosts multiple leagues with million-dollar prize pools and lavish events. However, Lam – who came out of the Critical Ops community as a fan himself – has witnessed the fates of past mobile esports games that have attempted big moves in the West and then faded away. He hopes that a small, centralised, and more gradual approach will help grow Critical Ops esports over time and eventually cement it as a sustainable competitive game.

“Not many people have done it and been able to grow esports to a certain level in mobile,” Lam recalled. “We’ve seen some other titles try, and they don’t have esports anymore, which is really unfortunate. There’s no right path yet on how esports will grow in the West, but I believe the things that we’re doing – very organic, grassroots kinds of things – really help to get players playing.”

“I don’t think anybody has the complete right format yet, but I think the steps that we’re taking are some good steps towards the development of mobile esports,” he added. “There’s just so much potential.”

Read other interviews and features in Edition 5 of The Esports Journal.