For someone who’s been attending events that have been masquerading as an outlet for wannabe professional gamers for the better part of the last decade, the last couple of years have been a wonderful sigh of relief. Events have finally grown past the point of being held in the dank, smelly corner of internet cafes. Production values is a phrase that is no longer a simple aspiration, but a worthwhile objective, and sponsors are now an expectation instead of wishful thinking.
With that kind of improvement in the competitive side of the scene and the growth of console gaming, organisations like the Esports and Gaming Network are an inevitable – and welcome – byproduct. But what was especially positive about ESGN’s Winter event at the University of New South Wales – the same venue used by the Australian Cyber League a couple of months ago – was seeing the PC and console versions of Call of Duty side by side.
Apart from the beautiful synergy between players of both versions – loud, brash and occasionally offensive – it was just nice to see events continue to walk the path that is essential if Australia is to build up the infrastructure necessary for a burgeoning pro-gaming scene.
What’s equally important is the move away from netcafes into more impressive venues, although doing so successfully requires a good deal of foresight and experience. I was told that only a single 3.5G stick was purchased for the venue and the stick was only activated after the event was due to start.
This is the benefit of experience – and being ESGN’s first event at a live venue, there was always going to be teething problems. While the console side of things was progressing nicely – the FIFA players were using their scheduled breaks to play games more quickly, a welcome change from the norm – there was some substantial delays in the League of Legends tournament. Thomas “Gin” Erben, captain of Gamecom’s League of Legends squad, told me that they were forced to wait up to seven hours for their first match, having arrived at 8.30am.
The PC side of things for Call of Duty had a hiccup of its own with an unfortunate power outage, but the tournament had gotten back on track by the time I arrived at 1pm. I managed to touch base with one of the managers of Exile 5, the multi-platform pro-gaming team, who is always good for a chat about the scene and where things are headed.
One of the most interesting moments took place when the manager of x5 went up to the top level (after greasing the wheels with the security guard) and was taking photos from above. He caught the eye of one of his players, and then some sort of zen-like understanding occurred where the player just quietly and very naturally shifted everything out of the way that was blocking the view between the camera and his team shirt.
One of the notable points is that there’s a lot more sponsored teams and players at these events, and there’s a lot more players in general. According to a freelancer who flew up from Melbourne for the event, around 150 people were waiting at the doors yesterday morning. Jessica Rozema, the co-ordinator for PR and community relations at ESGN, told me that 250 players registered for the event with an extra 100 guests.
The guests included people like myself, managers and the few girlfriends/boyfriends around happy to play the role of moral support. Sponsors turned out a good showing at the event, which is always important, but the most interesting one had a range of t-shirts for sale. I’m sure I intended to look at the t-shirts at some point, but a giant NERF-style gun and/or water pistol was sitting next to the shirts, and given that I used to dream about owning a water pistol with the force of an M1 Abrams as a child, it’d take a miracle or three for me to remember the designs.
One tournament that progressed fairly deep was FIFA; the format meant that the 1v1 bracket would begin and finish on the Saturday, with a 2v2 competition to run the following day. Most of the big names progressed through the group stages without many troubles, although a couple had concerns about the setup. From an observer’s perspective, the FIFA area looked great. The TVs were clear as a bell and it was easy to watch the action, but the TVs were at such a high point that it was a little uncomfortable for the players sitting down.
That minor quibble aside, by the time I left in the late afternoon all the tournaments were progressing smoothly. ESGN also had a special VIP area with arcade cabinets, lollies and pool tables for people to enjoy, with special gift bags that included a mini Mars-bar and free coupons for a burger and other fares from a nearby BBQ. Having gained the experience of ACL Sydney, I left the coupons and freebies for someone else and made a beeline for the nearby poolside cafe.
Providing a BBQ with burgers, hot-dogs and so on was certainly an ambitious move on ESGN’s part given the manpower and resources it takes away from the main event. Many others would have simply opted to make more use of the cafe, and it’ll be interesting to see the admins take at the end of the event whether the effort was worthwhile.
But the fact that people are prepared to go that extra mile – the VIP area is a great touch if you have to wait, and it’s also a nice place to relax from the steady din of the crowd – is a sign of how far events have come in the last five years. Another sign of how far things have come was the number of females not only spectating, but playing.
Many were extremely enthusiastic about the future as well: one League of Legends admin quietly told me that Riot Games, developer of the free-to-play behemoth, were looking at Australia as the next untapped market and as a location for a new server. He was confident that Riot’s involvement would convince the major gaming organisations – Intel Extreme Masters, Major League Gaming and so on – to bring a piece of their pie down under. Having only met him at the event, I’m in no position to judge his assessment, but the positivity is certainly a far better signal than indifference.
Competitive gaming is a complicated recipe: it requires a good dose of community, developer support and public interest to even think about getting off the ground. Once there’s a strong enough combination of all three, then a fourth element is needed – the mixer, organisations like ESGN.
I’d expect by the time you read this, things will already be progressing at a steady beat in the UNSW Roundhouse; first day tremors seldom survive the night. But what’s even more exciting is the continued promise of console and PC gamers sharing their competitive passion under the same roof – because in all truth, that’s the only way organisations and competitive gaming will survive in Australia long-term: as a combined unit, not as separate entities.