Even good ideas can't save a game sometimes.
Yesterday, the Melbourne studio behind Shooty Skies announced something that I thought would be right up my alley: a management sim crossed with esports. It's called Total eSports Action Manager, and it sounds great on the surface. Picking any esport means you've got various maps, strategies, champions, the attributes of those champions, not to mention player personalities, salaries, managing their health, egos and public personas.
But the actual crux of any management game is agency, the ability to make decisions and watching the results of those pan out. TEAM misses this point entirely.
The game starts with the player selecting an icon and a randomly generated name - you can't choose your own team name, which sucks for the Samurai Pizza Cats squad I was hoping to see finally win a tournament. From there, you're thrown into the first match of a full League of Legends-style split, where 10 teams battle it out over 18 matches before heading into a staggered playoffs stage.
Most of the management is done in the leadup to a match. During a game itself, the only agency you have is to press a pulsating circle above each player at the right moment. How fast that circle fills depends on the individual stats of the player, but the game might go so fast that you never need to use it. Some matches ended in less than 30 seconds, and it wasn't until I got to the finals that the games started to go back and forth, more like an actual Dota or League match.
There's no actual management - you barely even have time to pay attention to the commentary. But if you've handled your team's schedule well before then, you might not even need that - especially once you get to hiring new players.
Speaking of which, you can't fire the existing five players you start with. I made the mistake of recruiting two stars at the beginning of the game, only to find out I was stuck paying their salaries for the rest of the season.
There's nothing principally wrong with that, but if you're going to lock in players and contracts, why not give the player the option of hiring from an open market before the game starts? It's par for the course for any management sim, whether you're dealing with cricket, racing, theme parks, or anything that has a modicum of staff management. On top of that, a key facet of esports teams is managing personalities.
Each player has four main stats: their ego, form, teamwork and their current level of rest. Within that, they'll also have a certain amount of skill in their chosen lane, separate stats for their attitude, level of respect within the team, fame and overall clout. TEAM adds a second set of meters for their overall wellbeing and stress.
Those metres are impacted by factors out of the player's control. One of the players I started with hated streaming, but I'd hired a top-tier talent to replace them. I couldn't get rid of them, so I couldn't account for the drop in salaries, so the only reasonable option was to have them streaming as close to full-time as possible. They'd get angry and depressed, so eventually I'd have to pull them off the stream to have a chat to workout, lowering their stress enough so their unhappiness didn't influence the rest of the team house.
Most of the gameplay actually takes place in this isometric overlay, where you move your players from one station to another over the course of three days. If a player's ego is too high, they'll take risks beyond their skill level and potentially cost the team a crucial fight in-game. If it's too low, they'll be too timid, which could also cause the team to miss out on opportunities.
So to boost that, you drop someone on stream for a little while. If they need to boost their form, you leave a player in solo queue for a while, and if you need to boost a player's teamwork, then they all hop on the green PCs together.
The problem is that you're never actually making any decisions. Because you don't have a choice in your starting players, all you're really doing is deciding who you can afford to bring on - or who's going to get stuck streaming for eternity. Your goals are always the same though: You want form and teamplay to be as high as possible, so you're simply moving your starting roster between those while ensuring they get enough sleep and exercise in between.
Because you're not actively managing anything beyond shuffling players around - and it's sometimes difficult to move players because of how cluttered the UI is - TEAM starts to drag on very, very quickly. It doesn't help that the game's random encounters frequently repeat, often asking you to spend $100 or $180 on a gift or a pizza party to improve morale. You'll see other prompts if the team's wellbeing is more sullen, but because the difficulty of managing that is so low, often you'll just be telling players that the "team is going to go places".
TEAM only lasts for one season, so once you're knocked out of the finals or declared global champions, the game is over. You're given a high score based on the team's attributes, followers, wins and other bits and bobs, which goes onto a leaderboard that's accessible from the main menu. It's a pretty shallow ending, and takes about two hours to reach (even if you're not fast forwarding through games).
Total eSports Action Manager is a neat idea that falls through completely on the execution. One saving grace is that the game is relatively cheap and short, but there are still better things you could be doing with your time.