Rainbow Six: Siege has just held its biggest esports competition to date, as Penta Sports' victory at the Six Invitational tournament in Montreal was not just the culmination of 16 teams battling it out for a $500,000 USD prize pool, but also the culmination of two years of hard work for the game. Season 1 of the game's third year of content was revealed at the event as well, and the developers also announced that big changes are still on the way, but it's been a long road to get here for Rainbow Six: Siege.
While originally slated for release on October 10, 2015, the game was delayed and eventually released in full with 20 operators on December 1 of that same year. Upon release and in the following six months on Steam, the average player count on Steam hovered at below 10,000 concurrent players, but as pointed out by brand director Alex Remy at the Six Invitational, player numbers have grown immensely since launch, as there are now an average of 63,000 concurrent players on Steam as of January, with overall players surpassing 25 million (now up to 27 million, as Remy told us in Montreal). But why is this?
Well, in the beginning, it's safe to say there were a few problems, hence why growth was slow and there wasn't an initial impact made on the market. The matchmaking issues were probably the biggest of the lot, as beta tests before release weren't exactly promising, and once released the servers were on an incredibly low tick-rate and there were latency problems aplenty, not to mention frequent bugs and frame-rate drops. With Ubisoft promising to release patches every month at launch to improve the game, it seemed to many as if they were scrambling to save a game in a worrying state, not helped by the fact that there were microtransactions in there to further dent its public image. It wasn't a sinking ship, but it seemed to be taking on a bit of water.
Once six months had passed things started to clear up for Siege. As with any competitive shooter, issues and faults remained, but player growth slowly started to increase, helped in no small part by the release of new operators and maps as part of new Operations (or seasons) every three months. By the time 2017 came around we had received eight new operators to the game, four new maps, and player numbers on Steam had doubled; things were definitely looking up.
These Operations have become key to Rainbow Six: Siege's continued success. Every year since launch we have received eight new operators, and the first year brought us some of the most beloved (and used) in the game's history, including breacher Hibana, offering a nice alternative to previous powerhouse Thermite; infamous roamer Caveira, who brought a slightly different and deadly way to defend; and Valkyrie, who pushed detection to a whole new level with deployable cameras.
Fast forward to February 2017, a year and a bit after the full release of the game, and we had another big milestone - the Six Invitational. This event was lauded as a celebration of Siege's competitive aspect, which at that point had seen various finals for the Rainbow Six Pro League featuring competitors like Penta Sports, Continuum, and GiFu. Six Xbox teams and six PC teams descended on Montreal, and we witnessed the peak of competitive play.
What proved vital for this esports growth was the introduction of the Pro League very early on, with the Year 1 Season 1 finals first taking place in May of 2016. Here we would see the roots start to grow, with current world champions Penta Sports taking on GiFu (now Ence Esports) in those grand finals for the first-place prize of $25,000 USD, and although it wasn't at a point even by the first Six Invitational that most players could play it professionally for a living, it was still a major esports event, and a big moment to close off Year 1.
Year 2 kicked off with Operation Velvet Shell, introducing two new popular operators, Jackal and Mira, but it was Season 2 that caught the most attention. In an attempt to improve performance and quality, Ubisoft decided to forego the scheduled two Polish operators and a new map in order to launch Operation Health. This involved introducing new and more powerful servers, one-step matchmaking, a higher tick rate, better hit registration, the technical test server (TTS), the ability to roll back quicker to previous systems if needed, and much more.
With a whole season gone - the Polish operators dispersed between Year 2 Seasons 3 and 4 respectively - there was a bit of grumbling among the community, and high expectations considering that a ton of content was moved to accommodate this season, but the results have been impressive. Performance increased noticeably, and with 100% server-based features everything became more reliable. As with any game, it's not totally without problems (which usually leads to some of the community scoffing at Operation Health as a waste of time), but there was a marked improvement and, most importantly, solid foundations laid for the future of the game. As Remy has said, there's not going to be an Operation Health 2, after all.
If evidence was needed that Operation Health actually made an impact on the game, Ubisoft provided graphs at the Six Invitational this year to indicate the change that has come with the new servers, and importantly this hits at the heart of the original criticisms raised towards the game in terms of performance, server, latency, ping, and hit detection:
Year 2 wasn't just about Operation Health though, as we had another two operations after that, bringing six operators and two maps with them. Admittedly Season 3's Theme Park hasn't been the best-received map, but operators Ying and Lesion were popular from the start, as are Season 4's Vigil and Dokkaebi, not to mention both Polish operators Ela and Zofia (Ela especially so). With Ela and Lesion doors could now be trapped; Ying provided new ways to stun the enemy; and Dokkaebi allowed unprecedented access to defending cameras as an attacker.
At the end of Year 2 we also had the Six Invitational 2018 this past weekend, and that just goes to show how far Siege has come in a number of ways, the first of which is obviously with regards to esports. Back at the Pro League finals in November 2017 Ubisoft showed off concept art for a new circular stadium for the Six Invitational, and in practice this was leaps and bounds ahead of not only last year's competition but also all other Pro League competitions that there have been. It was big, it was professional, and it was unprecedented, especially when you consider there were 16 teams and $500,000 USD at stake.
As Ence's player Niklas 'Willkey' Ojalainen mentioned at the event - a player that's been in competitive Siege since the very first season - the game has grown to a point where it's no longer a hobby to compete anymore; it's becoming a very real possibility to play Siege professionally, especially for top organisations in the Pro League. For the esports scene to stay healthy players need to have that stability, so while we're not completely there, it's great to see more money both being invested into the competitive side and being distributed among the players.
Moving into Year 3 then, there are even more technical improvements coming our way, building upon what was laid down with Operation Health, including two new data centers launched alongside Microsoft Azure in the south of France and South Africa (which should lower latency and ping), and more improvements and investments being promised for the future.
Year 3 also marks a bit of an experimental year for Rainbow Six: Siege in terms of content too. As Alex Remy told us, this is a year of maturity for the game after two years of steady growth, so there's room for experimentation, which is exactly what they've done. Take Operation Chimera, for instance - the first season of this third year - which features two attackers for the very first time in the game's history in an attempt to place more emphasis on the attack, rather than the preference on defence, also introducing map-wide effects like buffing all teammates with Finka and detecting moving defenders with Lion (both of which you can learn about in our preview).
That's not half as experimental as what's coming instead of a map with Season 1 though, as we're getting the temporary event Outbreak (something we've also previewed). While this is essentially a zombies mode within Siege, there's much more significance to this than first appears, as it's intended to be disruptive and a reward for the fans that have stuck by the game. Also, it shows that Ubisoft has recognised the community's desire for more narrative/storytelling for each operator, hence why there are fully-voiced campaigns featuring icons like Tachanka, Bandit, and Doc. Along with three detailed maps, a totally new tone, and tons of new and exciting enemies, this is a really big deal for Siege, one that we may well see returning after its stint as a limited-time event.
Looking further forward Seasons 2 and 4 will have the same Operator/Map combo we've come to expect, but there's something yet again experimental coming in Season 3, which is a map rework. Hereford will be the first map to get a rework as part of this season, which you can see below, but the whole philosophy of these reworks are to revisit both level and art design. As a result, the new Hereford is set 30 years prior to the previous one, featuring a whole new building style and layout, and part of the reason these reworks are happening is because Ubisoft wants to make Bomb a core game mode, except there are issues right now with maps not being suited to the mode. Now, though, the team are moving bomb sites away from windows and totally redesigning maps to make them better not just for Bomb but in general, with Chalet also being considered for a rework too.
Map buffs are also coming too, which are super important for players, as these are more regular updates (Ubisoft is aiming for one every season) that change maps in smaller ways, one of the first of which will be Clubhouse in Season 2 of this year. The aim here isn't for a total rework but to redesign certain areas that are unsatisfactory for Ubisoft, like chokepoints, so walls might be replaced by a balcony, for example, to open up new lines of sight. These regular updates should optimise the experience for everyone and make sure the maps currently available are the best they can be.
All of this is coming to the game for everyone, but there are also key changes for esports over the next year as well, the biggest of which is Pick & Ban. As of Season 2 of this year, a system will be in place exclusively for the Pro League that does exactly what it says on the tin: allows players to pick and ban operators. At the beginning of the map each team can ban one attacker and one defender for the duration of the entire map, with the catch being that those are banned for them as well as for the opposition. After that phase, the full lineup of operators is then revealed, and teams have another phase that allows them to hide one operator from the other team, meaning they can either change it for a hidden one, or keep it the same as a kind of bluff.
Another dramatic change coming to the Pro League is the structure. As of right now teams need to alternate between attack and defence, but a new system is coming whereby one team plays their five attacks in a row before playing their five defences in a row, allowing teams to adapt to the situations much more easily, according to Ubisoft, and improving the viewer experience to make things a bit more coherent.
Most importantly though, Ubisoft revealed that there are even more ways to compete as part of their two-year esports commitment, all of which Remy says is with the aim to make Rainbow Six a "viable choice as a career". This obviously includes the new six-month format for the Rainbow Six Pro League (meaning every team can now play against one another twice, as well as a league system, not a tournament system) and existing grassroots competitions like ESL's Go4 Leagues, but also new Minors coming as part of the DreamHack circuit. These competitions are a level below the Majors like the Paris Major in August this year and the Six Invitational, and provide more LAN/offline competitions for fans to enjoy as well as more chances for aspiring low-level teams to shine.
It's not hard to see that Ubisoft is not only continuing their existing commitment to Siege, but the fact that they're trying new things is incredibly important. With Outbreak they're showing confidence in their existing fanbase to try something new, and while they claim its a celebration of the community, we think it'd be more apt to describe it as a milestone - a marker where they feel they can try this new and self-professed 'disruptive' content due to their confidence in the solidity of their player base.
This also applies to Chimera, since they've moved away from the attacker/defender operator format to put two of the same in for the very first time. Remy called this a year of maturity, and so there's less emphasis on growing and expanding the game with sheer numbers now, but working out how to make the game better and more refined with each update and Operation, hence why we're seeing attempts to shift the focus onto attacking a little bit more, surgical map changes in existing maps, total map reworks, and a lot of changes we haven't even mentioned thus far (including new gadgets, a rework of observation tool, and a mysterious new approach to defusing that was teased at the Six Invitational).
Ubisoft has every right to feel confident at this point too. With the aforementioned increased player numbers, the game has seemingly reversed its poor fortunes at the beginning of its life two years ago, and now is at a point where it has a dedicated community that enjoys this approach, as the Operations have been tried and tested eight times over these two years. Fans like the changing meta that comes with Siege, and the issues have been smoothed out enough to put the USPs into the forefront - destructible environments, unique operators, and tactical shooting.
It's also proven itself a success in the esports space too. Sure, it's worth mentioning that the Six Invitational is the biggest esports tournament in the game's history, and it's a very impressive milestone, but the commitment more big organisations are showing to Siege as an esport is also worth noting. This isn't just a competitive game for small organisations like GiFu any more, as more and more recognisable brands are jumping into the scene to sign proven talent, like FaZe Clan, Team Liquid, Evil Geniuses, and more. Now seems like the best time for big names to sign rosters, as it'll only get bigger from here with the extended commitment Ubisoft has promised for at least the next two years.
It's not just brands supporting teams though, as Rainbow Six tournaments are also getting major support from all over. ESL were the main partners that helped make the Six Invitational and its massive stadium possible, for example, and HyperX has just signed a partnership to support all tournaments moving forward too, including equipment like headsets.
Of course, the money is also a key factor in making esports possible, since without money there's no incentive to join. Back in the first season of the first year players were competing for their share of $50,000, for instance, and less than two years later the Six Invitational was held with $500,000 dollars up for grabs, followed by a $350,000 Paris Major in August. This is no small leap in that space of time, and although we wouldn't like to bet that it'd continue at the same growth rate, the smart money would be on it continuing to grow at least a little bit more.
At the Six Invitational Alex Remy told us to "expect more Rainbow Six in your life for quite some time", and we find it hard to disagree. There's been a public commitment to esports for at least the next two years as well as a solid outline for content coming over the next year, and what's important is that they're not doing the same thing again and again. Ubisoft is thinking of ways to constantly better their game and make sure its mature enough to continue healthily for years to come, especially since they're hoping to reach 100 operators in the game at some point. If they keep making intelligent changes, rather than just piling content in for the sake of it, we can see Siege going on for a very long time, which is no less than it deserves after producing a stunning two years thus far.