It was a crisp Fall afternoon as more than a thousand eager Summoners War fans lined up outside the Maison de la Mutualité in Paris. They were waiting to see some of the top players from Europe, North America and Asia compete to take the crown and $100,000 in prize money at the third annual Summoners War World Arena Championship.
The vibe inside once the crowd was let in was steaming, not just because organizers left the air conditioning off to maintain the smoke effect they had set up around the stage, but because Summoners War has a hefty and passionate fan base. Since 2018 the game has received over 90 million downloads and the arena was packed with fans eager to meet fellow players and see some of the best competitors go head to head on stage.
Summoners War is an online strategy game where players summon monsters to fight in turn-based battles, working with attacks and passive abilities to gain the upper hand. There are over 1,000 monsters that players can summon and fight with, some with better abilities than others, so the possibilities for different types of strategy are expansive. But the thing about Summoners War is that it wasn't designed to be competitive when the game launched in 2014.
Like many other mobile titles, Summoners War is a free-to-play game, meaning you can download it for free but there are options to invest in microtransactions in order to advance faster. Players can get it and build a team for free, but they have to invest a serious amount of time or money (or both) if they want to get more monsters and build the best team possible. You can imagine the conflict that system brings up when South Korean game developer Com2Us started organizing competitions for it in 2017.
"There are three different elements, fire, water and wind, and each element has their counter. So it's kind of a rock-paper-scissor game," American finalist Thompson "Thompsin" Hsu told me a day before the competition in a near-empty arena. "So behind the paywalls, there is still this strategic, rock-paper-scissors type of game. The game is more determined on the draft than it is with paying. You could be a smart player and still get really hot without paying much at all."
Like every esport, a meta has been built around top competitive Summoners War play. Certain monsters are used more than others, including the incredibly versatile Dark Dragonite that half of the players competing owned, and are seen as the best strategy during tournaments. Monsters like those are difficult to get as the summoning process includes many random factors, and you're not guaranteed the monsters you want. Paying increases that chance.
Com2Us has introduced a number of viable free-to-play monsters that let players build a competitive squad without paying anything. Some competitors, like the UK's Yuhan "Baus" Gao or Peruvian finalist DRMZJoseph who played at the championship in Seoul last year, have proven that winning with these free-to-play teams is possible. Although some players still believe that if you don't have a team built, at least partially, from meta-defined monsters then you could struggle at a higher level of play.
I asked another competitor, fan-favorite American Youngik "Tree!" Choi about whether or not he'd have an advantage if he was in a match where he had monsters based on the current meta and his opponent did not. "A better chance of winning? Yes," he said. "Could I beat him though? I'm not sure. I'd put it at 3-to-7 odds where I had the better chance. He would need to have found a good way to counter my monsters."
Other players said they didn't think the odds were that skewed, but still in favor of the person playing with a meta build. Some players told me they had spent a lot of money on the game while others said they had spent very little, but they all agreed that the meta is considered the strongest way to play.
Com2Us has said they know the game is still unfair and are working to improve it. Outside the free competitively viable monsters, balances patches and updates have addressed some community concerns.
"It's something that we are working on, but I think we are in a good place," said general manager at Gamevil Com2uS Europe David Mohr during a match in Paris. "Summoners War is a very complex game, so it's more important for players to have knowledge of the game. There are over 1,000 monsters they can use. There is a very complex Rune system. The strategy is the deciding factor."
Mohr mentioned that Thompsin was playing with a unique approach to the meta, using the character Giana at a slower speed instead of the quick pash she is known for. It's an unusual composition that's hard to get used to.
"We keep adding monsters on a regular basis, we change how current monsters work, and we give out free things, like boosters to players," Mohr said. "We're also thinking about game modes with certain sets of rules or limitations, but it's too early to tell."
If you look at the some of the final matches of the tournament in Paris between Chinese player L'est and Thompsin, several meta-dominant characters like Hathor, Fran and Josephine were instrumental in L'est's victory. Still, metagames are often built by communities by word of mouth, and the key to finding new ways to win is testing out strategies.
"Right now the meta is very heavily in the free-to-play side," said Summoners War community manager and caster Evan Wright, who began as a community member. "The Light Cow Girl, Fire Vampire, Elucia the Water Fairy as well as some of the four-star monsters are very easy to get. The game is ultimately very complex, but you can get very far into the competitive side without spending a dime."
While many players and community members told me they believed the game was moving in a fairer direction, they did say that Summoners War was a lifestyle for them. Both Thompsin and Tree! told me they dedicated hundreds of hours to playing the game, grinding experience and planning strategies. They told me that the time investment is needed, just like any other esport, in order to understand the intricacies of the game and that paying wasn't a guarantee for success.
Both work regular 9-5 day jobs and consider Summoners War a hobby, but one in which they've made tens of thousands of dollars. "I know a lot of great players. I fear that haven't spent much on the game," Thompsin said. "Not only there are counters, but there are also runes. And runes are where you have to hunker down with all the permutations of the game. You have to have to do a lot right to get the most out of the game, and that takes time."