LOS ANGELES -- In a snug corner of Hollywood on Aug. 20 at the Kimpton Everly Hotel, some of the biggest esports minds and brands congregated together to discuss the potential and strategy behind the launch of the Clash Royale League. The massively popular Supercell mobile card-battling strategy game was getting its shot for a close-up, and influencers were ready to pounce.
Several months later, the CRL season is nearing its end, with the six-team finals beginning at 9 p.m. ET on Friday with a $1 million prize pool to boot. The tournament is taking place in Tokyo with representatives from North America, Europe, Latin America, China and two from Asia.
But that list of participants just scratches the surface of the CRL's surprising start. The list of teams in that ballroom in August was impressive: Counter Logic Gaming, Cloud9, compLexity Gaming, 100 Thieves, Immortals, Team Liquid, NRG Esports and Tribe Gaming were on-hand for the North American league's first steps.
That alone secured some legitimacy behind the idea of Clash Royale as the next game to watch. Mobile gaming remains a reductive term in the U.S. esports scene, but with burgeoning popularity overseas and growing crowds even in Los Angeles arenas, there's a very real chance the future of esports is in the palm of your hand.
For Arhancet, investment in the league came from his role as a fan first.
"It was generated by my own personal interest of the game - I'm a fan of the developer and game. It reminded me a lot of Nexus Wars from StarCraft, and I played the hell out of that," Arhancet said. "I went to the King's Cup tournament, and I enjoyed it with the same psychological effect as a League of Legends, and I knew it could be an esport."
Still, there are hurdles. Despite Clash Royale being one of the world's best-grossing games in terms of money and more than 25 million players at the time of the North American league's launch, the transition from casual player to captive spectator is a puzzle that the CRL hasn't quite figured out.
Noah Winston, CEO of Immortals, acknowledged that while the platform was mainstream and the numbers for YouTube views that involved Clash Royale were increasing, he viewed the league as a great opportunity to build perspective in handling mobile esports. He reinforced the point that because the community was so established that the league could easily create a world-class experience. As for what that kind of experience could be, Steve Arhancet, Co-CEO and owner of Team Liquid, provided insight.
"You have a dedicated and strong developer that invests into the ecosystem with the best team brands in the world and have content that will be done right," Arhancet said, citing how well Clash Royale's friendly and self-deprecating approach resonates with fans. "The milestone for success with be through the development of its player personalities. The narratives have not come to bear yet, the human element, but it will have a lot to do with the future for the league."
CRL worked at that throughout the season, and Friday's event in front of a live audience in Japan, without major leagues like League of Legends and Overwatch League in-season, might be its best opportunity to showcase its storylines and appeal. "The correlation between the ration of content consumption and esports viewership is not there yet," Tribe Gaming CEO Patrick Carney said in August, "but the success can be there with a proper league around it."
That faith translated into dollars for the CRL. The team's starting investments were impressive, with most of the organizations promising utilization of their full facilities and resources to the Clash Royale players. Even with prior mobile titles such as Vainglory, there was never this level of intention from some of the biggest names in the space. Mobile esports might be a dirty word to some diehard fans of the competitive gaming space, but that's not the case for team owners.
"These teams are treating Clash Royale as any other esport and giving it the promotion necessary to succeed," Carney said. "If teams can see past the stigmas and recognize the power and opportunity of mobile, the fans will see it too."
Clash Royale developer Supercell did not fall for the old tropes of previous mobile titles by creating an inaccessible title that alienated an audience based off pay-to-play tactics, and the developer also took a creative approach to marketing the league to its established player base. The developer created a combine for players to showcase their skill and market their potential for a draft. Teams were allowed to truly invest in a player that fit their respective checklists and characteristics.
"The big thing is collaboration. If developers, teams and players are not working in concert with one another, you're going to run into a lot of problems," Brett Lautenbach, President of NRG, said. "Everyone is very communicative on monetization, competitive structures, how the game works and what is best from a player's perspective."
Supercell created the league with esports in mind and made sure that its first foray was serious. In addition to inviting top-flight esports teams, the level of communication between the two parties was a positive point of discussion. Tim Ebner, head of esports at Supercell, noted that the league's first season was a shared success and that discussion and debate between teams and developer was not only necessary, but healthy.
"The communication level of Supercell to shape the league was unprecedented in esports," And Counter Logic Gaming COO Nick Allen said on opening day, "and we could not be more excited for this."
On Friday, that excitement will reach its peak in what might be a step toward making mobile esports palatable to hardcore esports fans and a general audience alike.