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.