Last weekend Melbourne hosted the 2015 SMITE Oceania Tournament. If you're like me—that is, your last foray to gaming was a purple Game Boy Colour with a matching belt attaché—you might not be familiar with the game. Here's a quick catch up: SMITE is a multiplayer online action battle arena (MOBA) that requires a slew of analytical skills. Players work together in teams to battle various gods and mythological figures. Despite barely being a year old, the game has amassed a huge following. The weekend's tournament was a comparatively modest eSports event, but it still attracted Oceania's top seeded teams to compete for a share in a $65,000 prize pool. The winners would progress to the 2016 SMITE World Championships in Atlanta where they'd compete for a share in over a million dollars of prize money.
New to eSports, I figured my descent into the one part of the entertainment industry making money would be easier with a guide. I organised to meet Alex Casico at a Lan café opposite the University of Melbourne on a Thursday night before the competition. Alex is the team leader of SYF Gaming, a mid-tier team mostly composed of adolescent boys. The cafe was fitted out with rows of PCs, and crowded with students procrastinating from exams. As soon as I walked in I was unsettled by the tension in the room. Minutes later an unseen gamer yelled out something about his intention to sexually violate someone aparently nearby. I assumed he wasn't talking to me, but still felt super grossed out.
Noticing my reaction, Alex quickly confirmed things were a bit testy on account of the two top-seeded teams also using the cafe for last minute training (or scrimming). I pictured Kirsten Dundst's character in Bring It On but didn't voice this out loud.
When I tried to ask him a little more about his own anxieties in the lead up to the tournament he politely reminded me, "Look, a Lan isn't the best place to air dirty laundry. Right now we're all in focus mode and you've got to respect people as players".
Pretty soon I realised why it wasn't the bubbly social event I'd expected—for the young SYF Gaming guys this was the first time they had met in person. Alex explained it was hardly unusual, pro teams are born virtually; so going through the motions of getting social IRL are different to knowing someone through your monitor.
Perhaps picking up my fixation with how awkward everyone was, he acknowledged they needed to improve communication. Later I found out he took them to a yoga session to help team bonding. But standing in that buzzing, computer filled room it was an odd social dance to witness, particularly when "the enemy" was scrimming meters away from them.
The next afternoon I find myself in the SMITE Oceanic arena for the semi-finals, a place with the pomp of an American sports arena and the layout of a TV panel show. Commentators took centre-stage, and were flanked by desks with five PCs on each side. Player hunched over their computers, oblivious to the crowd and the gargantuan screen dangling above their heads.
At the end of the round a team called Dire Wolves were announced as the winners. I recognise them as one of the enemy teams silently stress preparing in the cafe the day before. Team's owner Nathan Mott approached me wearing the team's bomber jacket, decorated in their colours and the name of their single sponsor. He quickly informed me that Dire Wolves are one of the top-seeded teams, and were hoping to go up against current number one team Avant Garde to take out the Australian champions.
Despite only being 19, he carries himself as the Australian SMITE Don King and takes this opportunity to fill me in on his vision for the future of eSport globally. He speculates in 20 years it will be bigger than traditional sports, continuing, "We're still growing and people like us are still building the infrastructure for players."
Nathan dropped out of his business degree to commit himself to Dire Wolves full-time. At uni he was told entrepreneurship, technological, and collaborative skills are vital to the workforce of the 21st century. Recognising those traits in his own life already he bailed. "We're breaking gaming stereotypes, and with that you should become a role model of sorts. We're conscious of this so that in three or four years' time, you'll be ahead of everyone else," he says. Looking over his team he muses, "I want to get a return on my investment".
He admits the weekend's not just about winning, but also about finding more sponsorship. As he leaves me, he hands me his card. Nathan is representative of many of the participants here, he knows if he is going to make this a day job he needs to make sure the culture can support him
One person who has managed to pull this off is Brandon Nance, a global SMITE commentator. He left a job in gaming retail after being tapped to do commentating professionally and tells me: "It's imperative that we foster that culture in order for new fans to flock to new players in order for SMITE to be considered home."
The theory is clearly working for him: He's regularly flown around the world to commentate matches. Since starting out, he says he's seen many others make a lucrative career not just playing games, but working in the wider eSport community.
"Last year we had a tournament worth $2.6 million dollars, and it was the third-largest prize pool in eSports history. This year we capped it at a million and our idea was to reallocate those funds in order to increase salaries across the board," he explained to me. People are clearly thinking longterm here.
On grand final Saturday, only Avant Garde and Dire Wolves remained in competition. For the SYF Boys, I imagined it was tough, but expected. These two teams have been the top seeds for a while, and an upset was unlikely. Punters filled the seats and spilled into the isles, the stage was flanked by cheer squads, as Brandon offered a running commentary of the final showdown. Next to him the championship trophy glittered. It looked like the AFL premiership cup.
The favourites, Avant Garde outplayed Dire Wolves for the first two games. Someone mentioned to me they specifically flew their Dutch coach Job Hilbers over to Melbourne for the occasion. It felt like a sizeable advantage considering the SYF Gaming members only just met.
The last match was the clincher. Both teams matched kills up until they had just over 20 on each side, Job visibly clenched his teeth. In a matter of seconds, his team cheered, and he raced on stage and hugs his pupils.
Confetti showered everyone and EDM pummeled the speakers overhead. TV cameras swamped the victors. As a spectacle, it was akin to any sporting grand final, or even Eurovision. In a spare moment, I jumped up and asked team member, Jesse Jade Cullen, why this is such a big deal.
"This is the one of the biggest things I've ever done. I'm just high on adrenaline. I'm just… yeah," he said.
Leaving Jesse to celebrate, I think about what next year's tournament will bring, and the future of eSport in Australia. It's already a religion to these players, and with the community expanding constantly perhaps our stadiums will be increasingly filled with them creating new national rituals. Standing there, literally and figuratively caught in the headlights, I wonder if it's time to pick my Game Boy up again.
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