Auto Chess: What is it, and Why is it Such a Big Deal?

Auto Chess, the latest new mod/game mode built within Dota 2, was broken off into its own category on Twitch on March 17th, and since then has regularly ranked in the top 10 games on the platform, and rarely drops below 20. What's more, it seems to be picking up steam.

Auto Chess: What is it, and Why is it Such a Big Deal?

The new and wildly popular modification for DOTA 2 recently received its own unique category on Twitch. What is it, and how big is its streaming community? Let's break it down, in the first of what will be a four part series on one of the biggest new trends in streaming.

Long ago, in the before-times, a modification for Warcraft III completely changed the way the game was played. The first version of this mod was released in 2002 and over the next few years, more and more players were drawn to it. By 2005, it became a featured part of competitive tournaments, starting with its large presence in BlizzCon events that year. I'm of course talking about Defense of the Ancients (Dota) and now, all these years later, its sequel Dota 2 is one of the biggest titles in esports and regularly a top performer on Twitch. As T.E. Lawrence said in, "Big things have small beginnings."

I tell this story because it seems it might be happening again.

Auto Chess, the latest new mod/game mode built within Dota 2, was broken off into its own category on Twitch on March 17th, and over that time has averaged 169 streamers and 18,036 viewers at any given moment. It regularly ranks in the top 10 games on the platform, and rarely drops below 20. What's more, it seems to be picking up steam.

Total Auto Chess Streamers Over Time.

Something big is happening. How big? Well, that will take some investigation. We're going to spend the next four weeks taking deep dives into the performance of Auto Chess, so we can answer the big questions. But, before we get to the hard numbers, we have to take care of the basics. So, first, let's answer the question...

What is Auto Chess?

Like Dota before it, Auto Chess is a pretty massive departure from the game within which it was built. The former was one of, if not the, first MOBA, a competitive battle arena that pits teams of player characters with varying skills and abilities, a war to eliminate the other team's "base" within a top-down RTS-style map. The action is frenetic, the strategies complex, and it’s ridden that energy to the top of the world of esports, where superstar teams of competitors have made names for themselves in some of the largest, most watched gaming tournaments in the world (The International).

Auto Chess, however, is not a Moba. In fact, it doesn't neatly fit into any preexisting genre or category, which might speak to why it's becoming so popular; this game might represent an entirely new category.

Games of Auto Chess are one-on-one, and begin when one player picks a "unit” (some sort of warrior, monster, wizard, etc) from a selection of five and places them on the board. From that point on, different options become available based on your selections and placements, and those of your opponent. For example, using multiples of the same unit grants you bonuses, while combinations of units might work better together, using their different attributes to make each other more powerful. Different units provide wildly different abilities, so there's a ton of strategy in every selection and placement. When the pieces have all been placed, the preparation ends, and the battle commences, with the units placed controlling themselves until the game has been decided.

The preparation phase of an Auto Chess match.

It's complicated and the sort of thing you get to better understand by watching it. But, as you might already realize, even at a basic level this game is unique because it combines mechanics from wildly different genres. The set up of playing a single opponent, of selecting units from a "deck" and placing them on the board, all feels very much like a collectible card game, and indeed, that's how much of the gaming community has been interpreting it. This article from PCGamesN, for example, calls Auto Chess an "Artifact rival." And yet, there's still a lot that distinguishes it from CCGs like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. Unlike card games, there isn't any deck-building. Every player has the same options available to them in a game of Auto Chess, and the playing field is level. In that way, it's more akin to, well, Chess, in that there's no strategy taking place before the game itself, no devising the ideal deck for your particular component. At the same time, it also hearkens back to real-time-strategy, with the combat component reminiscent of sending in the troops in Warcraft, putting them in the right place and then just watching and hoping it works out.

All of this combined makes it clear that, while Auto Chess is absolutely using the mechanics of other genres, it's not quite right to say it fits into any of those genres itself. This is a new category of game, and that's what makes this important. It's not just that it's been successful, it's that Auto Chess is really the first stab at what will likely be an entire generation of games trying to refine this new experience. Dota gave rise to an untold number of Mobas. Day Z led to PUBG led to Fortnite and Apex Legends. Valve is reportedly already looking into purchasing the mod, and a mobile version already has over 95,000 players pre-registered. When something unique makes a splash like this, it can lead to an industry-wide wave of similar, increasingly refined experiences. Auto Chess has that kind of potential.

How Big is the Auto Chess Community?

So, we know the Auto Chess community is big, but how big is it, and is it still growing? Digging in to some of the streaming data for it and Dota 2 yields interesting answers.

Towards the end of last year, and prior to the release of Auto Chess, Dota 2 had a very stable community of streamers. In the graph below, you can see that in the final two months of 2018, the number of people streaming the game was at a healthy equilibrium, with an average peak between 800-1000 streams, and very little fluctuation overall.

DOTA 2 before Auto Chess: healthy and stable.

Then, the Auto Chess modification was released on approximately January 12, and quickly, the number of streamers playing Dota 2 began to rise. Below is the same numbers from the beginning of January to the end of February, and it reveals around 25% growth after Auto Chess hit the scene, an increase of about 200-250 channels streaming at any given time.

The Auto Chess bump.

It stands to reason that this increase is mostly composed of Auto Chess players, but the above information doesn’t really confirm it. To learn more, we have to look at what the new title has done on Twitch since becoming its own category (March 17th). First, let’s look at the total number of streamers playing Auto Chess since that point.

Auto Chess streams since breaking off into its own category.

As you can see, after building for the first few days, it wasn’t long before the streamer-base for Auto Chess reached an equilibrium of its own. After only a few days, Auto Chess streamers reached a consistent daily peak of approximately 250 creators each day. This becomes very interesting when you compare it to the decline in Dota 2 channels during the same period. Since March 17th, the average number of Dota 2 streamers has decreased from a peak of just over 1000 to close to 800. This is precisely where the game was living prior to Auto Chess’s release, and the number of Dota 2 players lost closely matches the new player-base of Auto Chess. See below:

Dota 2 streamers both before and after Auto Chess was split into its own category (March 17th).

So, what does all this mean? We can draw a few conclusions.

First: the Auto Chess streaming community seems to have entirely transitioned to the new label. The number of new Dota 2 streamers after the modifications launch almost perfectly match the number that have left and those who are currently streaming under the new label. It isn’t quite axiomatic that it’s been the same players, those who arrived to play Auto Chess and those who left to create its own community, but that synchronicity in numbers is hard to ignore, and seem to accurately reflect the flow of Auto Chess players on Twitch since the modifications release. It seems likely, therefore, that those approximately 250 channels that came to Dota 2 early this year are, for the most part, the same channels currently making names for themselves under the new Auto Chess label.

But, also, look back at the last few days of Auto Chess streamers: It's still growing.

It's reasonable to assume that the initial 200-250 average streamers were those that had originally been streaming under the Dota 2 category, but, as Auto Chess's average creeps up towards 300, without a comparable drop off in the former game's numbers, it becomes likely that Auto Chess is growing entirely on its own. The increase in visibility having its own category on Twitch has provided could be drawing even more players, those who were not streaming the game prior to March 17th. The ability for anyone to discover this mod has dramatically increased now that it's properly off under its own label. This will become increasingly likely if this growth continues in the weeks ahead.

This is part one of a four-part series, click here for part two.

Next week, we'll be diving deep into the data to figure out just which games and communities Auto Chess players are coming from, and what that means. And be sure to follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn for all the latest blogs, announcements, and game marketing news from the team at GAMESIGHT!