From March 18th to 21st, 16 Age of Empires 2 players will compete for Hidden Cup 4’s nearly $68,000 prize pool. It’s the largest AoE2 tournament since last year’s Hidden Cup 3, which peaked at 57,922 viewers, but the biggest prize pool before that dates back to 2002. How is it that a game from 1999 has enjoyed such a resurgence?
Saved by the Fans
AoE2 released to strong sales and reviews but, after a 2002 mythological spinoff and a divisive third installment in 2005, developer Ensemble Studios moved on to Halo Wars before folding. There was no particular reason to suspect that AoE2’s competitive scene would survive the ravages of time any better than its contemporaries, like the multiple Command & Conquer games that enjoyed similar critical and commercial success.
But after official servers went down, a fan named scripter16 created a patch that added new features to the game and squashed lingering bugs, and a small community used a platform called Voobly for multiplayer. A team of modders eventually created a fan expansion, and their work became official when Microsoft recruited them to work on a 2013 HD re-release. The accessibility of Steam attracted enough new and returning players to justify several more expansions, although the game remained obscure enough that 2018’s first Hidden Cup attracted only 6,000 viewers and a $1,443 pot. Still, there was demand for a 2019 Definitive Edition and another expansion in 2021. AoE2:DE included a graphical overhaul, new tutorials to ease players into 20 years of strategic subtleties, and quality of life improvements, and today AoE2 hovers around #35 on the list of Steam’s most played games.
That’s the short version of a long story, but the point is that people have always been happy to play AoE2 as long as it’s accessible. “I’ve played a fair amount of games, the one thing about AoE2 is that the replay value is almost infinite,” pro player Hamzah “Hera” El-Baher tells me. “There’s so many different civilisations, maps, playstyles, and players to play against. Every game is different, and it’s just so much fun.”
The build and destroy basics of AoE2 are typical for the genre, but its intricate web of units and civilisations with subtle strengths and weaknesses has created lasting appeal. A few standard openings lead to a sprawling midgame of punch and counterpunch where players have plenty of options, but also plenty of demands on their attention.
Hera noted that “RTS is a hard genre to get into, because of how many things there are to learn and consider. But one thing about AoE2 is that the game is fun at [every] level.” Its medieval setting helps; not only is it an intriguing time period (the game inspired Hera to take history classes in university), but while it may not be obvious what counters the mythical units of a fantasy RTS, even a neophyte can deduce that they shouldn’t send their knights into a bristling wall of pikemen, or attempt to chase down cavalry archers with plodding infantry.
A new player can therefore find immediate success in the game’s robust solo offerings. But ranked multiplayer is AoE2’s lifeblood, and Hera is one of several players to make a living from his Twitch, YouTube, and tournament winnings, which would have been impossible just a few years ago.
A Game Older Than Its Players
At 21, Hera is one of several pros younger than AoE2 itself. The Canadian was introduced to the game by his brothers, found the popular YouTuber ZeroEmpires when searching for tips on the single player campaigns, and then got into multiplayer, where he’s earned about $48,000 in winnings since his first tournament in 2015. Known for his fast, aggressive play, in 2020 he was the runner-up in three “S-tier” tournaments, including Hidden Cup 3.
Hera was swept in the best-of-seven finals by Ørjan “TheViper” Larsen, who won 11 of 13 major tournaments between 2013 and 2020. That stretch of dominance included the first three Hidden Cups, but while Viper is the winningest player in AoE2 history, he isn’t invincible. Three recent tournaments sponsored by Red Bull produced three different winners, and collectively they show how far the game has come.
2020’s first Red Bull Wololo (named after a memorable AoE1 sound effect) was won by Mr. Yo, a Chinese player who observed that the game is still gaining traction in his country. The second Red Bull tournament, also in 2020, was won by Kai “Liereyy” Kallinger, who was defeated in 2021’s third edition by Darko “DauT” Dautovic.
Their thrilling final went the full seven games, and served as a microcosm of AoE2’s depth and generational appeal. The 18-year-old Lierry is arguably the best in the world at micromanaging his units, making rapid precision clicks to milk every possible efficiency. But the 35-year-old DauT, who made his first tournament winnings in the same year Lierry was born, triumphed with unique strategies and unexpected unit compositions.
“I always loved strategy games,” DauT tells me. “I started playing chess when I was five. When I got old enough to play PC games my favorites were Warcraft 2, Heroes of Might and Magic 3, Red Alert, and finally Age of Empires. I am a big fan of history, especially medieval history, so naturally I fell in love with AoE2 right away.”
He adds that the “huge variety of unit choices” has made AoE2 feel uniquely fresh for decades, and that while he never expected to be playing in top tournaments at 35, he’ll continue to “play every year like it’s my last one.” There’s a sense that these tournaments are increasingly anyone’s game; while just a couple of years ago Hera would only spend a few hours preparing for a tournament, he spent “30 to 40 hours a week, for a couple of weeks” getting ready for Hidden Cup 4. He took time off from his job of streaming AoE2 to treat Hidden Cup 4 as a job itself, and he assumes that most of his competition did the same.
That preparation includes the study of new maps created for the tournament before putting theories into practice. Hera admits that “A couple of years ago I had pretty good mechanics but the strategies I brought were lackluster,” and as more players embrace the game’s thoughtful side tournaments may get more intense. The format of Hidden Cup provides another wrinkle — player identities are hidden behind pseudonyms. Hera notes that while this means you can’t prepare for a specific opponent’s playstyle, it also means your opponent’s identity can’t get in your head.
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Advancing to the Next Age
While Hidden Cup is the biggest date on the AoE2 calendar, smaller tournaments include the recently concluded Queen’s Clash, a $5,000 women’s event won by Gabriela “__Gabi” Lopes and co-hosted by the Australian LilTrouble who, while a sound player in her own right, is best known as a commentator.
As a child, LilTrouble loved the sprawling iron age battles of AoE1. She only picked up AoE2 in 2019, but was immediately hooked by its depth. “What I love is that each time I play it’s completely fresh, and I learn something each time,” she tells me. “I found a game that can be very easily picked up, as essentially the combat comes down to scissors/paper/rock, and learning all the different ways you can gain an advantage keeps me coming back. AoE2 is a versatile and accessible game that can be whatever you want it to be.”
AoE2 isn’t immune to the harassment problems that plague Twitch and eSports, with LilTrouble saying “I don’t think you’ll find any female streamer who hasn’t had to deal with harassment online. I’ve received plenty, but thankfully I have a wonderful mod team.” In late 2020, streamer TinyTriss launched a community for female players, Age of Queens, and Queen’s Clash was their next step.
“I see [Age of Queens] as a safe space where we can be authentic, and can find comfort in being with people who understand what it’s like being a woman in such a male-dominated space,” LilTrouble says. “We wanted a tournament that gives women the opportunities they so often miss out on. What we’re hoping to accomplish moving forward is to be visible to other women who may feel isolated or intimidated. AoQ is not a means of separation, but rather integration into the greater community. We realise equality is a long way off, but any step forward is in the right direction.”
While AoE2 has had hiccups, such as the bug-riddled rollout of its latest expansion, the gameplay is healthy and 2020 saw its top tournaments hand out a collective $246,059. But that still makes AoE2 a relatively small eSport, and most of its growth comes from the community itself. Not only did its current development team start as fans, but Hidden Cup is made possible by popular commentator T90 and a host of volunteers who create maps, handle administrative tasks, and develop key tools for streamers.
Going forward, Hera hopes to see more collaboration with streamers of other games, while DauT thinks the game should embrace Empire Wars, a mode introduced in DE and used by the Red Bull tournaments that eliminates the game’s slower, more technical opening stage, which he believes is “too long for eSports standards.” Despite how far AoE2 has come, there’s still room to grow.
The continued success of AoE2 led to the 2019 reveal of Age of Empires 4 which, while it still has no release date, could ironically be the greatest threat to AoE2’s pro scene. But at this point it feels like AoE2 can survive anything. “I can see myself playing AoE competitively for as long as the competitive scene exists,” Hera tells me. “The big question is, when AoE4 comes out, will we move to that? I would say the only reason I would stop playing AoE2 is if 4 was just the better version. But otherwise I’ll still be playing AoE2. The game is great, and it’s just so much fun to be a pro.”