The Rise of eSports

Rochelle Kirkham | @RochelleKirkham

The video game industry is booming, but here in Australia eSports is playing catch-up with the rest of the world.

eSports is professional competitive video gaming and it has taken countries like South Korea and Germany by storm. A high degree of skill and talent is required to battle it out in various games, as part of a team or single player environment.

It is not only participation, but spectatorship of video game competitions that has seen a surge in past years. Popular competitive games include names such as League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter Strike and Call of Duty.

And not only is interest in the industry booming, it’s generating big bucks. This year it is estimated eSports will produce a revenue of about $621 million worldwide, according to a report from gaming research company SuperData.

In spite of this, the Australian eSports industry has fallen behind the rest of world. Professional players find it difficult to forge a career in the sector due to a lack of financial support and an inability to compete regularly on an international level.

Young gaming pros have backup plans, attending university or working other jobs; with employment security being something eSports in Australia is unable to provide. But it is their passion and love for the game that drives their commitment, training for hours comparable to that of any other ‘traditional’ professional sporting athlete.

Aaron ‘Chuzchuz’ Bland is one of Australia’s top League of Legends players, competing as a member of the Legacy eSports team. At 19 years-old, Aaron is a young player unsure about his future in the gaming world. Studying communications in digital and social media, he juggles uni and eSports commitments, an act that may prove to be increasingly challenging coupled with a recent lifestyle change. Aaron moved into his team’s gaming house in January, a living space he shares with four team mates and a coach, and an environment which allows deep team bonding and intense game training. Juggling the two is not a rarity. He says another of his team mates has just finished uni and one, like him, is also studying.

Aaron has been involved in the professional gaming scene since he was 17-years-old, the youngest you can be to play League of Legends competitively.

“I have been playing games ever since I was a kid,” he says.

Introduced to League of Legends by a friend, they used to play together after school. Aaron says he continued to improve as he spent more time playing the game until he was asked if he wanted to join a competitive team.

“I had no idea of the existence of eSports at the time,” he says, “and thought it was quite surreal people were being paid to play video games.”

But he was hooked after winning his first tournament at a small internet cafe in Sydney. After winning a bigger tournament later in his career, he had the opportunity to compete in Germany, New Zealand and throughout Australia.

“It’s a dream job for me,” Aaron says. But his hope is to one day be able to support himself financially by playing League of Legends in Australia, a reality not achievable in the current environment. “That’s why a lot of players travel overseas,” he says. There they can earn a salary from sponsorship and winning tournaments with prize money.

“A lot of people like to say we are at least five years behind the rest of the world in terms of the eSports industry,” Aaron says.

“Australian eSports really didn’t get going until about three years ago, which is when I stepped in.”

Gaming houses like the one he lives in now, are the future of eSports in Australia according to Aaron.

“If professional teams don’t have a gaming house, they will simply be left behind.”

There are currently two teams living in gaming houses in the country, but he says the teams that do experience a high rate of improvement. Common in other countries around the world, Aaron says gaming houses are a step in the right direction for the advancement of eSports in Australia.

Meet Jake ‘BL00DLocK’ McNamara, tournament organiser, competitive Dota 2 player and member of team Invidious. Jake says it is an exciting time for Australian eSports, in particular the gaming scene surrounding Dota 2.

“An Australian player made top eight at the international championships,” he says, “which is massive considering Australia is so isolated from the rest of the world.”

Previously, a Dota 2 team hadn’t made it to an international level since 2012. A recent tournament in the country saw two Australian and two international teams battle for a $55,000 prize pool. It is these achievements, Jake says, that shows Australian eSports in the last twelve months has moved in the “right direction” and is becoming more widely recognised.

For Jake, playing video games began as a casual way to have fun with friends and fill a competitive need. As he became more passionate about the game, he began organising events as well as playing competitively as a way to give “back to the community” and to “try to help the eSports scene grow”.

Jake says it is both stressful and rewarding organising gaming events, both physical and online appearance tournaments. It is his passion for the game that drives his commitment to organising events in both a casual paid capacity with the Australian eSports Association and a volunteer capacity on his own initiative.

“If we get good events going and are able to attract sponsors and get funding then we can have enough money to pay players to compete and provide prize pools,” Jake says, “to make sure players are getting back what they are putting in.”

Ben Green, an eSports host and commentator, worked as the stage host for the eSports Call of Duty Black Ops 3 event at Crown in Melbourne earlier this month. Two international teams and six Australian teams battled fiercely at the tournament. Imagine being in the crowd at the cricket, rugby or even AFL. This, Ben says, is what it feels like to be at an eSports tournament.

“It’s not sport, but to me the term eSports really comes into it’s own because it feels like a sport,” Ben explains.

Spectators can be fanatic, rooting for their favourite players and teams. “There are lights and big screens, the guys will be sitting at computers but the crowd will be super loud.”

Chris Smith, involved in the eSports world since 2010, has been a top level competitive player, managed teams and run events in Australia.

“I get a kick out of giving people the ability to come to events,” he says, “by either running them or sponsoring players.”

The Electronic Gaming Association Australia (EGAA), started by Chris, works as a body to protect players rights. The association, he says, aims to provide accountability and legitimacy in gaming by helping players understand contracts and ensuring tournament promises are kept.

Chris is excited to be a pioneer for eSports in Australia. But he believes focus should not be on entering mainstream media to advance the industry.

“We ourselves are building the next eSports culture, we don’t have to worry about what the culture is currently,” Chris says. He describes the next generation as moving away from mainstream media. He, at 25, has no television connection in his home, but enjoys digital entertainment through YouTube and eSports streaming websites.

Aaron, Jake, Ben and Chris say the future of eSports in Australia is uncertain, but for now, it is on the rise. And it is individual passion for the gaming scene, they say, which will push the Australian industry to run faster to catch- up with the rest of the world.

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