“Why should I care about eSports?” It’s a question that sits quite neatly alongside, “How does the offside rule work, again?” and the sheer bewilderment most of the world feels at American Football’s heavily armoured, tights wearing machismo. Yet, with a large and growing audience, it’s long been time to at least try and pay attention to eSports.
Last weekend saw the Gfinity CWL Summer Masters held at the Gfinity Arena in London, with two days of group matches leading into quarter, semi and final matches on the Sunday for a share of a $20,000 prize pot. That’s tiny compared to the $3 million on offer for winning the season ending global Call of Duty Championships in September, but it’s one of only a handful of in situ LAN tournaments that are run, with the vast majority of the competitive matches played online, and was another opportunity for some of the very best European teams to test themselves against one another.
In a repurposed cinema from the Vue in Fulham Broadway, two glass booths are sat below the screen with four consoles in each. Whichever two teams are playing at that time sit facing toward the audience, staring intently at their TVs with headsets on for team chat, while those watching are given key first person viewpoints of the action as shoutcasters commentate over the top. Naturally, that viewpoint is streamed over the internet for anyone to watch, and over 120 million people tuned in to watch all manner of eSports events last year.
What’s quite fascinating is seeing the growing popularity of eSports seeping into other forms of media and beyond. There’s the football teams who buy up or sponsor professional players of FIFA, there’s a 24/7 eSports TV channel being launched on Sky and Virgin, and there’s the way parts of a cinema have been turned into the Gfinity Arena, specifically for hosting live eSports events beyond the season ending championships. There’s even talk of adding eSports to the Olympic games or having their own ‘eGames’.
Some of these efforts feel like “old media” trying to understand and assimilate new media somehow – who would watch on subscription TV what they’ve been streaming for free on their computers, tablets and phones? But from my point of view, perhaps the biggest hurdle is knowing who to support.
Take football as an example. Even if you have no interest in watching the sport week in, week out, teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich are inescapable in their global popularity, you’re bombarded by the fact that Euro 2016 is currently underway and it’s easy to tune in for those big finals and appreciate the magnitude of the event.
But that’s really just for the season climax, and many millions of people support a local team or a team that their parents and family support during the season, and do so ardently, investing in the rivalries, sharing in the failures, just as much as the victories. You don’t really have that with eSports, with the foundations in the internet, you don’t have a local team per se, and that makes it difficult to know who to root for.
I posed the question to Jonas ‘Oxygen’ Ferry, part of the very professional, seven-man commentary team that cycled through the three day event. “It really depends,” he replied. “You know, in football, you don’t only see people supporting their own country and their own towns. I’m from France and there’s a lot of people from around where I live who support Barcelona and Real Madrid, and they’re from a different country. OK, so they are the best teams. It helps!
“But I think a lot of it comes down to story telling and marketing around the team organisations and the players having some kind of charisma. A very good example is the UK community, actually. There’s a lot of UK fans out there, but they mostly support the US teams rather than the UK ones, just because they really try to be close to their fans and tell them the stories about why they play, why it’s so important to them. They try to show their personality, whereas the UK players are more reserved.
“It goes with culture. When it comes to France, Germany, Spain and Italy, and the more Latin countries, people are very passionate, they really want to support their countries and the actual celebrities and players make the effort to go on YouTube and do vidlogs, where they tell their life, they tell why they play and everything is at stake for them. It helps the fans identify and choose a team to support.”
The comparisons to physical sports feels rather apt. I’m far from an ardent follower of any sport – the closest I come is with Formula 1, but even there I don’t really have a favourite team – but I still tune in for many of the major events, hoping for a major spectacle and shows of skill. With a year-long season structure split into two halves, with Stage 1 in the spring and Stage 2 leading into September’s grand finale at the Call of Duty Championships, there’s a few key points to tune in for.
The biggest problem for me is that quite a lot of the season structure remains rather obtuse. I’m still not entirely sure where the Summer Masters fits in, or if it even counts towards Stage 2 results – after extensive searching, I’m 99% sure it doesn’t – though I did know that it was half made up of both invited pro teams and those who had to qualify through prior online matches. One thing it cemented in my mind was the potential gulf between teams playing. All but one of the qualifying teams was knocked out during the group stages, and Orbit, the team that did make it through, faced a whitewash loss to Exertus in the quarter finals.
Even between the pro teams, some of the matches were far from close. Millenium vs. Infused was expected by some to be the final, but when they met in the quarter final, Infused were outclassed on this occasion. When it did come to the final between Hypergames and Splyce, it was an utterly dominant 4-0 victory to Splyce.
That’s not to say that these matches were dull, by any means. The general hubbub of the audience chatting away was broken on a number of occasions by the sounds of typically subdued British appreciation for moments of exceptional skill shown on the big screen behind the players – I was told by Jonas that French audiences are much more vocal, and the finales are attended by thousands of enraptured followers.
One particular moment stuck out in my mind, as Infused looked for a way back into a round of Uplink – easily the most sports-like game mode in CoD. Black Ops 3’s extended movement came to the fore, as Infused’s Urban ran along walls outside the edge of the map before popping up and throwing the satellite ball to try and score a point. Except that Millenium knew it was coming, Jurd was there waiting to gun him down as he emerged, though he still managed to get the ball away, only for MadCat to appear quite literally out of nowhere, intercept the ball in flight and fling it off the side of the map. It’s maybe not that remarkable a moment, but shows how well coordinated and skillful these teams can be.
I also have quite a deep appreciation for the ridiculous reflexes of these players and some of the ways that they push the limits of what you can get away with in this game. Infused actually came back from a large deficit to win that round, before capitulating in the fourth, but Millenium had built that lead by learning the particular places and moves that could be used to score from a distance, throwing the ball up through a gap in the window, knowing that it was a practically guaranteed point. Similarly, there are other areas in maps where the boost jump lets them peek over high walls, potentially going for a split second snipe if they spot an opponent while doing so.
They’re all tricks and skills that you can try and adopt when playing the game yourself, and perhaps that’s where the greatest appeal to eSports lies. Just as kids and adults alike lionise and try to emulate the silky skills of Leonel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the playground, players of CoD, CS:GO, FIFA, LOL, DOTA 2 and beyond can see, appreciate and try to adopt some of those pro player feats for themselves.
That’s really the key for Activision to build upon the existing eSports following for Call of Duty – it’s a major focus for them and we have an interview with Jay Puryear, Director of Brand Development about this. Black Ops 3 was the most eSports oriented version of the game so far, with built in tools to make for better streaming, but the biggest and most important feature of all has been building a live eSports viewer directly into the game. After all, who’s more likely to be interested watch the Call of Duty Championship than someone who plays the game themselves?