Skillz Blog

Why Competitive Games Drive More Player Engagement and Retention

Games have been around for almost as long as human civilization. Archaeologists have found game pieces more than 7,000 years old and competitive games that are more than 5,000 years old. There are no regions of the world where games are not part of ancient history, and historians like Johan Huizinga have argued that play is core to the formation of human culture.

Today, the world’s love of games shows no signs of slowing down. Research firm Newzoo reports that global video game sales generated $108.9 billion in 2017, up nearly $8 billion from the year before. Mobile games are actually the biggest single piece of that pie, accounting for more than $46 billion in revenue.

Unsurprisingly, developers are spending millions chasing that money. Development teams are constantly hustling to get the latest batch of content out the door, often at a breakneck pace, in an effort to keep users interested in their game. They’re putting millions upon millions of dollars toward trying to create that next hit game.

In the midst of all this hustle and bustle, it’s interesting to note that there are some games that have been with us for hundreds of years that are still popular today. Games like Chess, Backgammon, and Go have withstood the test of time, still maintaining vibrant player communities and professional competitions. It has also been quite a long time since anyone felt the need to release a content update for Backgammon or update the graphics for Go.

What exactly made these games so evergreen? Why should studios need to burn the midnight oil grinding out new levels for their Puzzle games, while Chess and Backgammon have already found the key to longevity and sustainability?

First and foremost, these classic games are competitive. Rather than relying on a constant stream of new content from developers to keep things fresh, these games depend on a steady supply of opponents with different skills, strategies, and perspectives to remain interesting and timeless.  

As a matter of fact, the vast majority of games throughout human history have leveraged competition for consistent excitement, with the industry only starting to change in the era of the modern computer game. Many early video games were much more focused on presenting users with puzzles to solve, sometimes intertwined with a story. This began to shift player expectations for games, moving from a highly repeatable battle of wits against a live opponent toward a more consumable piece of media, like a movie or a book – something you take in once or twice then discard, rarely looking at it again.  

The changing industry landscape put game makers in the unfortunate position of spending years of their lives creating pieces of content that users would consume in a couple hours or days before losing interest and seeking new sources of entertainment. For games that hope to keep users engaged for months or years, like most modern mobile games, this means a frenzied and expensive drive to keep building a never-ending content track in front of the consumption train.

Competitive games simply don’t have this issue. A well-designed competitive game entices the user to play over and over, looking for just one more chance to beat their opponent – rather than a chance to simply finish the next level. This means that as long as a game has no clear dominant strategy and a steady stream of competitors, it can survive (and thrive) with a much slower stream of content releases. Look at “Hearthstone,” a popular collectible card game from Blizzard Entertainment that releases new cards only three times per year. You can also take a look at any of our massively popular titles on the Skillz mobile eSports platform, such as Tether Studios’ “Cube Cube” or Touch Mechanics’ “Strike! Bowling.” The Skillz player community enjoys fun and exciting experiences through the thrill of competition, without our developer partners needing to continuously fiddle with the content or gameplay.

In fact, making major ongoing changes to the rule sets of successful competitive games can be a pitfall. Few tournament Chess players would be happy if the rules changed tomorrow to allow bishops to jump over other pieces like knights. This would completely invalidate the strategies and knowledge players have spent decades building and would likely lead many to ignore or abandon the game. This is one of the key reasons we really enjoy working on competitive games at Skillz – because we can get the game right, and then let our player community enjoy it without having to fiddle with it constantly.

However, it’s not like you can just drop competitions into your game and expect staggering success to happen overnight. Games also need to support their competitive infrastructure with fair matchmaking. It’s not very fun for a player to get rolled over by an opponent that is much, much better than they are – and, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not that much fun for a strong player to steamroll a weak one. Neither player gets the opportunity to test or improve their skills if they compete at this level of disparity. Rather, both players simply sit and witness an easy sacrifice.

For players to have consistently satisfying competitive experiences, it’s important that a game enables players to find opponents of similar skill. Many competitive games use ranking systems for this purpose. Typically, these games give players a numeric ranking based on their past performance. Each time a player wins a game, their rating goes up, and each time they lose, it goes down. In well-structured systems, the player’s rating goes up much more when they beat a stronger opponent, and less when they beat a weaker opponent. The skill rating system on the Skillz platform enables this kind of player matching in any kind of game, using a proprietary machine-learning technology to ensure fairness and validity.

Players also need a known place to gather: a competitive hub. This could be a physical location, like your local game shop holding a “Magic: the Gathering” tournament, or it could be an online meeting place like But regardless of whether the meetup spot is a website, a mobile app, or a brick-and-mortar location, it needs to ensure a healthy supply of opponents to make sure that players can find a fair match at convenient times. Ideally, it should also offer tournament structures that let players test their skills against a wide range of opponents to learn where they fit in the greater community. These larger tournaments can help players build a sense of the long arc of their careers; they are not striving just to win, but also to take on more challenging and formidable groups of opponents, and to be rewarded and recognized for their success. That’s exactly why Skillz offers players a wide variety of tournament types, including head-to-head matchups, multi-round brackets, and 50,000+ player live events.

In summary, games have been a critical part of human civilization since the very beginning. Global civilizations have created some evergreen games that have fostered large, engaged communities of players without constant changes or upgrades for centuries. Those games have some key elements in common:

  • Competition: Making the game a competition between real opponents, rather than a series of puzzles or challenges for a lone individual to solve.
  • Fair matchmaking: Having a meaningful player rating system that tracks performance, and using that rating to provide the player with a consistent stream of fair, competitive matches.
  • Competitive hub: Providing a central place, in real life or online, with a sufficient critical mass of competitors to enable fair head-to-head matches and well-populated tournaments.

At Skillz, we partner with game studios of all sizes and genres to bring robust, seamless competitive support to mobile games. The Skillz design team helps developers figure out how to tweak their games to maximize engagement and optimize competition. Our full-stack, turnkey technology helps developers bring a critical mass of players together from all around the world, and match them fairly for fun and exciting tournaments. We believe (and the numbers prove) that this is exactly where the future of mobile gaming lies: in fair, fun, competitive, evergreen games that players can enjoy at any time and any place, right on their phones.

If you’d like to learn more about how fair play and demographic targeting are key to driving the success of a game, then register for our free November 28th webinar!