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A screenshot from Exato Games’s Elo Hell.

A term that describes video game frustration has itself inspired a game from a Seattle-based independent studio. Elo Hell is a new narrative-based adventure from Exato Games.

Not sure what “Elo hell” is?

“Elo hell” is a slang term from video games like League of Legends, where a player is prevented from advancing through their bracket due to bad matchups or unskilled teammates. A lot of players assume the “Elo” is an acronym, but it’s actually the name of the physics professor, Arpad Elo, who invented a ranking system for use in competitive chess. Under the hood, many modern video games’ matchmaking systems (and Tinder) still use Elo’s math.

Some players and developers consider Elo hell a myth, or an excuse that lets a player blame a personal lack of success on external circumstances. Others will argue that it’s a real thing, born out of glitches in the system or problems with a game’s community.

Now comes the game Elo Hell. If it sounds familiar and you attended PAX West this year, odds are you made it up to the sixth floor of the Washington State Convention Center, and you noticed Exato’s homemade-looking Elo Hell booth.

In Elo Hell, which is built in Unreal, you play as a high school senior named Chance Betzinger. Chance is about to embark upon a potential career as a professional player of the brand-new strategy game Echo Star.

E-sports tend to be a team activity, so Chance’s relationships with his friends and fellow players will play a major role in his path to the top, in the spirit of choice-based narrative games such as Life is Strange. If you support your buddy Jeff, for example, he’ll be a solid source of backup in-game when you play Elo Hell. If you decide you’d rather hang out with Brian, Jeff’s “frenemy,” then Jeff won’t be as interested.

However, when Chance sits down to play Echo Star, it’s not abstracted out into a minigame or dealt with as an invisible skill challenge. You as Chance actually play Echo Star, a real-time strategy game with a few MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) elements that’s packed into Elo Hell. The skill with which you play Echo Star determines the success or failure of Chance’s e-sports ambitions.

John Getty and Angelina Tsimberov of Exato Games, staffing the Elo Hell booth at this year’s PAX West. (Thomas Wilde Photo)

“You cannot tell somebody what Elo hell is without making an e-sports title,” said John Getty, the lead game designer and writer on Elo Hell. “It needs to be something strategic, something that makes people think at a macro, high level. It can’t be doing a brain-dead minigame to get to the next bit of dialogue.”

“The whole concept of Elo Hell is in the struggle, and if we want to properly present its philosophy, games in Elo Hell need to be real, challenging games,” he said. “Even our mini games within the episode, representing stuff that the character is doing in real life, are challenging in different ways.”

The idea is that the difficulties of the gameplay in Elo Hell will reinforce the feel of Chance’s narrative. At one point during our conversation, Getty referred to Elo Hell as the ”Dark Souls of narrative games”; he wants the final product to be accessible, but to still pose an actual test of the player’s abilities, in the same spirit as David Cage’s notoriously difficult adventure game Heavy Rain.

The tagline on Elo Hell is that it’s an “e-sports sitcom.” It’s intended to be both funny and a reasonably accurate representation of how it feels to try to go from nothing to professional in the 2018 e-sports scene. Several professional players and streamers, such as Andrew “Kiandymundi” Burrows, are involved as voice actors, and Getty has worked hard to make the game feel authentic to the actual modern e-sports experience.

“The first season of Elo Hell is focusing on what brings the main character to his light bulb moment, of saying, ‘I wanna go pro in Echo Star,’” Getty said. “What triggers him to do that, what kind of butterfly effect springs into that moment.”

“Then, after that, it’s a bit of him fumbling around trying to figure out what he wants to do while also trying to balance his preexisting duties in life,” he said. “He needs to figure out where he’s going to go to college. His friends are all involved, and he’s telling them his plans. What are their reactions to that? Are they going to be supportive or not?”

At the time I spoke to Getty, he was working on forming a partnership between Exato Games and the Washington Gaming Association, the University of Washington’s e-sports team, in order to make the experience of being a collegiate e-sports athlete as realistic as possible. Specifically, the lack of an actual talent pipeline in e-sports will present much of the challenge in Elo Hell.

“Even League of Legends has its top 200 on the leaderboards, and the professional teams don’t really have access to the personal information of those players,” Getty said. “They can’t just go to Riot and ask, ‘Can we have the contact information for the top two?’ They have to figure out how to get to them, or the players have to figure out how to get to play for the team.”

Getty says it’s a disconnect that physical sports solve by having the high school pipeline.

“There just isn’t any good way for people to scout talent in the e-sports industry, because there aren’t arenas in amateur e-sports,” he said. “They’re just behind the computers. So how do you pull them out of the crowd? We’re going to represent that networking steps that you have to take, and show you some of the different events that you have to go to as a pro gamer. They’re not necessarily going to be the way to do it, but they represent a possible step.”

At the moment, Elo Hell has a demo up on Steam Early Access which provides a small taste of the narrative, as well as a relatively full-featured version of Echo Star. Its first full episode is slated for release in the summer of 2019.

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