All screenshots courtesy of 343 Industries/Xbox
About a year ago, in February 2015, I wrote an article titled "Explaining eSports to a Dumbass". That dumbass was me, obviously, and one of the professionals providing me with invaluable insights into the world of competitive gaming was Alex Buck, a.k.a. BUK20, basically one of the best Halo players in the world. He plays for Epsilon, a European team with interests in several titles beyond Halo 5, including Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Smite, and Black Ops III.
Since that article ran, eSports has grown from a fairly big deal to an impossible-to-ignore global phenomenon, with audience figures and prize money ascending to incredible heights (and showing no sign of slowing down). I thought the time was right to catch up with Alex to see how things have evolved for players themselves, the people at the eye of this gaming whirlwind, to discuss newcomers to the competitive market, and whether or not eSports in schools is an entirely sensible idea.
VICE: Last time we spoke, around a year ago, you were training hard in all the time you had off from your day job. What's changed since then? Have you had many major successes in playing Halo? Where do we find you at the start of 2016?
Alex Buck: Well, when I spoke to you back then, that was right before the Battle of Europe competition. We were amongst the favorites to win that, but we came out third, which was a disappointment—we'd underestimated how good our opponents were going to be. So after that, we only played one more event as that team, and then one member left, which was actually a blessing in disguise as it meant I could get my twin brother, Will, back into Halo. So he's playing with us again, after he'd taken a break for a year or two. I rather forced him back, but since then we've won a lot of events. We're on quite a big winning streak. Last year was really good to us, especially the back end of it, leading into the release of Halo 5. We were all quite excited about the new game, so we put a lot of time and effort into it.
Did you get to play much of Halo 5 in advance of its release? I can't imagine (its makers) 343 Industries just dropping it on you at the same time as the public.
We got invited out by 343, actually, to play the game in Seattle, before it was released. So we went out there and played against one of the pro teams from America, and got to play the game for about four days, which was an amazing opportunity for us. We actually ended up playing them in a show match, and we beat them, and that was shown at Gamescom.
Is that a common occurrence, getting the better of American teams?
It depends on the team. Some of the American teams are really hard to match up against. But I think, on Halo 5 especially, we're holding our own. It used to be that the American teams would destroy us, but the gap has got a lot smaller.
Some people still only buy games like Halo 5 for the campaign. Do the pro players bother with the story side of things?
That was one of the first things I did when I got the game, play through its campaign, and I think that's true of the lot of pro players. Even though we're highly competitive, and we love playing multiplayer, the story of Halo is part of the reason why we play the game. Once the campaign's done, though, it's straight onto multiplayer. I think there games' story holds a lot of appeal for pro players, still—I've been a fan of Halo since the first game, back when I was a little kid, and it's great to be following the story to this point, seeing how it's progressed. But the mechanics of the game are obviously a big draw for people, too—it's a fast game, but there's a lot of teamwork involved, and you need to have the right chemistry between team members. It's a lot more about teamwork than a faster game like Call of Duty, where one hit can kill anything. I think that unique feel has been in Halo ever since the first game.
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When you're in the middle of the eSports bubble, do you have any real perspective on how big it's becoming?
I think we've noticed that a lot more, I suppose, "average" gamers have become aware of what eSports is, and what competitive gaming is all about, as people used to think that it was really weird, and really small. That's definitely not the case, as you can see from eSports being on Twitch and YouTube every single day, and we've seen bigger names, bigger companies, wanting to get involved. Also, you've got massive developers, like 343 and (Call of Duty publishers) Activision, committing themselves to the scene, and the people making these games are really prioritizing eSports play. So, that's all helping to push it into the mainstream. And exposure is what we need, really.
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And that's only going to get bigger in 2016. I see the prize pool for the Halo World Championships is currently at over $2 million. That's a pretty healthy sum of money. How important is it, though, to not let thoughts of winning that kind of prize get in the way of training?
We have a document, a Google Doc, within our team, which has a tab on "motivation," and that breaks down what the top 16 teams in the world can win in prize money, through grand finals. So the money is a kind of motivation, but honestly, especially in the UK and Europe, it's all about bragging rights. The money can be great, but the big money for this Halo series comes right at the end, and there's plenty of work to do before we get to that point. We have to get through the qualifying stages for both the UK and Europe, so we really are taking things one step at a time. I don't think the prize money on offer will really hit us until we hopefully reach the grand finals.
Rewind four or five years, did you have any idea that competitive gaming would ever be so big?
I think we always knew it'd eventually come, but I'm amazed at how quick it's come about, especially for Halo 5. And the crowd-funding mechanic that comes into some prize pools is a great help in pushing up those figures so quickly; without that we'd likely not see such large prizes. But here we are, with gamers themselves putting their own money into the prize pots.
We've just seen a public school in Norway add eSports to the curriculum, which shows, I think, that this is being taken as a serious career option. Do you have any thoughts on that?
It sounds pretty crazy, doesn't it? But I'm not sure how a course can really ascertain how good you're going to be in eSports. It's not quite like football I suppose, or other traditional sports, where you can also pursue a career in training, or teaching. It's great to see eSports in education, but from my end I'm not sure how much anyone on such a course will really get out of it. If you want to get into eSports, just play the games and have fun; and if it's more the marketing side of this industry you're into, just do a marketing degree. But while it's strange, it is a good thing to see, this acceptance of eSports in a school.
For all the training that any of us can do, are the very best eSports athletes capable of doing things that no rulebook can teach? Like, I'm imagining Lionel Messi pulling off some individual magic and winning a game for Barcelona—does the same thing happen in a Halo match?
Obviously, Halo is a team game, so great chemistry and reaction times are paramount. You can do various exercises to make your brain that bit quicker, or improve your muscle memory, but it does come down to certain individuals being better than others, too. On Halo, I'm probably not one of the best out there in terms of individual skill, but as a team player, I think I'm one of the best. I understand both how our team works, and how the opposition is likely to play, too. And that's not something you can be taught in a weekend.
You must have witnessed epic turnarounds, though, where it looks like your team's done for and then one of you just goes rogue and eliminates the opposition solo?
Definitely. Myself and my brother, we're more teamwork-orientated, but the other two guys ("Jimbo" and "Snipedrone") are really individually skilled, and we can often rely on them to pull off a clutch play, or a really good kill to finish the game, or give us the lead. And having those people in your team, guys who play the game pretty much 24 hours, means they can be trusted. I think they're superstars in our world, and it's great that they're getting wider recognition these days, for all the time and effort they put in.
Finally, Halo's pretty established now, but what do you make of newer games coming onto the eSports scene? Gearbox are going to push Battleborn heavily, and Blizzard have Overwatch coming very soon. There's loads more besides—surely some are going to simply slip by the wayside and not get played by the pros?
I think that these games are in a position to get a lot of attention from, I suppose, that "average" gamer again. They're going to be great for turning those casual players into more hardcore players. Like, you look at how well Smite is doing—it's a relative newcomer on the scene, but it's got a huge crowd now. So it's all about building the game the right way—manage that, and it's got a chance of being an eSports mainstay. They need the right balance between teamwork and individual skills. And they need to be fun, too—Smite gives players a lot of choice, and time, and lots to do, and that's the sign of a developer having a lot of love for their game. But with more games, we might see splits within player ranks—someone who previously specialized in Dota might try a new game, and that could split the audience. Newer games might try to cannibalize existing teams and audiences, we'll see.
Alex and Epsilon compete in the UK Halo World Championship Finals, the first live event of the Halo World Championship 2016 series, taking place at London's Gfinity Arena on January 15-17. You can watch the action via Twitch, below.
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