A New Age of Competition

(This was an article I wrote for a magazine writing class during my undergrad)

Davin wakes up every morning between the hours of 10 am and noon. He goes to his kitchen to make coffee and goes back into his cluttered bedroom to his desk. While wiping the sleep from his eyes, he boots up his computer and begins checking emails and social media feeds, responding to messages from fans and emails from sponsors and professional organizations. Davin then posts on Twitter that he’ll be starting a stream soon, usually around 1 or 2 pm. He boots up H1Z1 and his work day begins.

  He will be at the desk for the next 10 to 15 hours. This is the life of an Esports athlete. 

Davin has made his livelihood through the burgeoning scene of competitive gaming and streaming. He streams his matches through the live video service, Twitch, a platform centered around video game-related content. On Twitch, players commentate their gameplay live for an audience that is tuning in from around the world. The platform has grown exponentially in recent years, with content creators making millions showcasing their skills and charisma. Twitch creators get paid based on the number of people that subscribe to their channel, as well as through donations made by their fans through the website. Davin makes his living in a combination of money from Twitch and his earnings from tournaments. 

There are quite a few games in the esports scene at the moment, but Davin’s game of choice is H1Z1. It is a “battle royale” shooter, a fairly new genre that pits a group of approximately 100 players against each other in a giant arena. When the game starts they must gather supplies and weapons to take out other players and be the last one standing. It’s a bit like a video game version of the Hunger Games. 

“H1Z1 was the game I thrived on most. It just clicked with me, I can’t really explain why,” Davin said.

The “battle royale” genre has become immensely popular with two titles controlling the genre— Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. The latter has been making headlines for its meteoric rise to fame. In December of 2017 the average number of concurrent viewers was 40,000 and as of May 2018 that number has increased to 150,000, according to PCGamer.com. One Fortnite streamer that goes by the handle of “Ninja” was recently featured on NBC for his reported income of 500 thousand dollars per month from Twitch. Another well-known celebrity in the world of gaming goes by the name “Dr. Disrespect,” a bit of a living caricature of himself. At the yearly convention for Twitch streamers and fans, he lived up to his own bombastic persona. 

“Dr. Disrespect showed up in a Lamborghini, because obviously he would,” Davin  recalled.

On Davin’s streams he stays fairly quiet, letting his top-tier gameplay speak for itself. Most of the screen on his broadcast is dedicated to the game, with the bottom left corner showing a view of his face. Like most streamers he also keeps a playlist of music going, usually of some new hip-hop music. The rapper Post Malone is on fairly heavy rotation during his stream. Periodically during his games he’ll respond to the messages from his viewers and interact with them in real time. He says that this has always been his favorite part of streaming, talking with the viewers. 

H1Z1 is one of the earlier attempts at the battle royale genre, being released in early 2016. It was around this time that Davin started spending most of his time practicing the game. During the 10 to 15 hours of his day while streaming his content he is tirelessly practicing. He’ll take notes on strategies and keep track of his kill-count and his wins and losses. After playing he reviews the footage of his past games to analyze what worked and what didn’t, refining his strategy for future games.

Competitive video game playing requires a different skill set than most professionals, but it takes just as much effort and time to perfect. Lightning fast reflexes and complex decision making are two of the key factors that come into play when separating a casual player from a professional. For shooter games, services such as 3D Aim Trainer have popped up to provide players with a way to test and improve their reaction time and aiming skills. These services provide millisecond-accurate data on how fast their player is aiming. Often before a tournament, players will spend several hours practicing with these tools to warm up before they play. It’s not all that different from a football player running drills or an olympic runner stretching before a race. 

Another tool in the Esports players toolkit is usually found in the gear of mountain climbers— hand warmers. If you watch a live stream of a tournament, you’ll probably see players using hand warmers before the game. The purpose of this is two-fold: they keep the hands warm to improve circulation as well as keep your hands dry. In high adrenaline situations it is common for someone’s hands to become cold and sweaty. When players are in a situation where thousands or even millions of dollars are on the line. Any improvement in their play, no matter how seemingly minute, can be the difference between winning and losing.  

Behind the faces of the players, the lights and spectacle of stages and the glory of competition lies the business side of this rising industry. The companies that work most closely with the players are player agencies, of which there are many. These organizations help organize their teams and get them into higher profile, larger prize pool tournaments, provide them with travel and hotel arrangements, design and provide their jerseys for events, and manage sponsorships. They range from multi-million dollar organizations such as Optic Gaming to smaller tight-knit groups such as Sway Gaming. 

Sway is based out of New York and was started in 2008 by Anthony Pellone and Anthony Morris. They go by the handles of “Kuoda” and “Hostility” respectively. In Pellone’s day job he works for an environmental science lab while Morris holds a job in state government. They work on Sway in their spare time and most of the money invested in the business has been their own. Despite Sway not being their primary source of income, Pellone and Morris run their organization like a machine, while never forgetting that the players make it all possible.

“The hierarchy of Sway is set up in a sort of governmental aspect. We’re the two people deciding on things at the end of the day, but we make sure everybody gets a voice. Everybody gets asked about sponsors, everybody gets consulted,” Morris says. 

They started the organization in 2011 after going to local tournaments and seeing the growing interest in competitive gaming as a lifestyle and as a profession. Both moderately competitive players at the time, they also wanted to foster a community for like-minded people to share their passion for this niche culture. 

It would take until 2013 for Sway to get involved in supporting players for tournaments. In that time they began slowing growing their business and their brand, as any small business does. In the world of Esports expansion consists of finding better and more talented players to become part of your organization. They look for these players like most other talent scouts, attending tournaments and Esports related conventions to scope out players and subsequently follow their progress online through their streams. If they find a player or team that they think has promise, they’ll approach them about being part of their organization.

When Davin went to his first major Esports tournament in Dallas in 2015, his performance was noticed by Esports recruiters. He was soon after signed onto Circa Esports as a professional H1Z1 player. He spent about a year and a half with Circa until the Esports organization disbanded in early 2018. After that he was picked up by Mortem Esports, who still represents him. 

Much of the financial backing for these groups comes from the sponsors. If you’ve ever seen a basketball game where all the players are wearing Nike sneakers or seen Gatorade logo covered coolers on the benches of a football game, then you’re probably familiar with the concept. Brands will pay people to use their products or put their logos somewhere on their clothing. While brands like Nike or Gatorade are big players in sports, Esports has brands such as Dell, Intel, Red Bull and even Coca-Cola sponsoring them. 

Smaller organizations such as Sway have smaller companies sponsor their players. They’ve been sponsored by Gamer Gloves, a company that makes gloves intended to help players with sweaty hands keep a grip on the game; Squid Grips, a company that makes rubber grips for controllers and Scuff Gaming, who make customized controllers for players. A company called GFuel makes energy drinks marketed specifically to Esports players and fans. There are a myriad of different companies that want a piece of the action.

 

The expansion of competitive gaming in America has been a long time coming. The world of Esports has its origins and its largest following in South Korea. Gaming as a whole has a more prevalent place in Korean culture than it does in America. Online gaming is a standard part of life for most Korean children and has been so since the early to mid 1990s. Companies like electronics giant Samsung were some of the first to get major companies like Nintendo and Sega to bring their game consoles into the Korean market from Japan. 

With the increases in computing technology and, just as importantly, internet speeds, online gaming became a staple of Korean culture. As internet prevalence grew, love for gaming intensified and inevitably players began to compete. Gaming for many South Koreans takes place in a PC bang (which literally translates to “PC room”), a type of gaming center where people can come in and play as long as they want for an hourly fee. Usually the fee runs between 1000 and 1500 won, which is approximately $0.90 to $1.35 per hour. These PC bangs have become a place for young adult gamers to congregate and spend time together doing something they all enjoy. Many PC bangs are open 24 hours a day and sell food, drinks or anything else one might need during a several hour gaming binge. 

In the early 2000s professional gaming began to be taken seriously in Korea. Players  became celebrities and fans would travel from all over the country to see them play. In 2005 the first stadium entirely dedicated to Esports was erected in South Korea. South Korea is where the world championships of some of the most popular games such as League of Legends and Starcraft are held. A South Korean League of Legends team called the “Samsung Galaxy” won the League World Championship in 2017, winning $1,540,000 in prize money.

With the resounding success that Esports have had in South Korea, the trend has begun to spread west. Many European nations such as the UK and France began expanding their Esports facilities and franchises and in the last two to three years America has started catching up. In March it was announced that Arlington, Texas will be building a 100,000 square foot Esports stadium in their city, far and away the nation’s largest competitive gaming venue. The stadium is being built just a mile away from AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys.

Organizations like those that worked with Davin are now numerous and commonplace and those that grow and become international in the Esports world go on to become massive businesses. Team Liquid, an American Esports organization, has partnered with Alienware computers to build a 8,000 square foot training facility for their players. 

One shining example of the rise of Esports in the United States is the Overwatch League. Overwatch is a team based shooter that was released in the spring of 2016. It’s an online game centered around intense competition, making it perfect for the Esports scene. The developers of the game, Blizzard Entertainment, knew this and founded the Overwatch League to drive the popularity of Overwatch. 

The Overwatch League functions in a similar way to the NFL or the NBA. There are twelve teams divided into Pacific and Atlantic divisions and named after cities, mostly American, such as the Los Angeles Valiant, the New York Excelsior or the Shanghai Dragons. The teams are owned by both massive Esports organizations as well as private owners. Cloud 9 owns the team London Spitfire and Optic Gaming owns the Houston Outlaws. 

There has even been an intersection with the traditional sports world. New York Excelsior is owned by Jeff Wilpon, the COO of the New York Mets, Philadelphia Fusion is owned by Comcast Spectacor, the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Los Angeles Gladiators are owned by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment which own the Los Angeles Rams and the Denver Nuggets. 

The Overwatch League is also one of the only American Esports events that runs on a consistent schedule. There are several matches every week, airing on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. They take place in an arena in Los Angeles and are broadcast via Twitch to an audience of millions. The broadcasts contain commentary from a panel of shoutcasters who in some ways have become as popular as the players themselves and include advertising from massive brands such as HP and Intel.

When watching an Overwatch League game you will see the same rabid fandom you can see at any tailgate party. Fans come dressed in their favorite players’ jerseys, they make signs, they try to get on camera when they see it passing through the crowd. In many ways it feels like a new age in sports. It provides an outlet for fans’ unwavering dedication to people who are the best of the best at what they love. 

“The Overwatch League has sort of become a glass ceiling right now for what Esports has become, but someone will make it even bigger some day. It’s really exciting to be a part of this,” Anthony Pellone said.  

Players like Davin and so many others practice tirelessly, dedicating their lives to becoming top tier players in the hopes of achieving the glory that comes with winning on a world stage with millions watching. Organizations like Sway, led by two devoted fans trying to build a community, can grow and blossom into a massive empire, giving those players a chance to live out their dream. 

The American Esports scene may still have some catching up to do with South Korea or Europe, but the grassroots passion that exists within those fighting to push their passions further will show how massive Esports can get. So next time you see someone grinding away on Twitch for 10 or 12 hours, the next time you see them might be on a world stage.

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