No big deal or anything, but the world Call of Duty Championship is starting right about now – from the 27th of March to the 29th, to be exact. Thirty-two teams from across six continents will converge on Los Angeles' LA Live venue to compete for the grand prize of a cool million dollars. Not bad for shooting a pretend gun at some guys who aren't really there.
One of the crews representing Europe this year is Britain's own TCM, whose ShAnE and Gunshy, aka Shane McKerral and Tomas Jones respectively, got together to tell me about what it takes to compete at the very highest level.
VICE: What differences are there between preparing yourselves for this particular tournament and any other event? Do players feel differently going into the bigger games, the biggest games? Or once you're in front of the screen, do the matches mostly feel the same?
TCM: Playing at the Call of Duty Championship is like no other tournament. It's the most prestigious tournament of the year, and the pressure on the players to perform is like no other. With such a prize pool on the line, nobody wants to miss out on placing in the money. If there was one event in the year to perform at, it has to be the Call of Duty Championship.
In terms of your timetable, how many hours per week do you have to commit to remain a competitive CoD player? Do you eat, sleep, drink CoD?
For this certain competition it has literally been eat and sleep CoD for the past two weeks, with us pretty much playing for ten to 12 hours every day, just grinding as much as possible. For a normal tournament we'll play about six to eight hours in preparation. The reason we play so much for this Championship is because we want to make sure we get the best practise possible, ready to play against the best players in the world.
CoD is massive in the West, but as an eSport it's not so globally regarded as DOTA or League of Legends. Is that a cultural difference, do you think? Or is it something more to do with the genre of the game?
I think the reason it's not big in the East is because Xbox consoles weren't being sold throughout China until recently, and the fact the East is far more into the PC strategic scene than anything else. Call of Duty is similar to Counter Strike, which is also only big in the West.
Do you feel any competition between eSport disciplines, between the different games, for popularity?
Publicly, I don't think there is any competition between titles – I feel like all players from each game want the same thing for eSports, and that's for it to be one of the most mainstream sports out there. Whether that's Call of Duty or LoL, I don't think people are that bothered. Amongst the pro players obviously they'd like most of the money flowing into the game they compete on, but if there's big viewing numbers on another game that's a good thing for eSports in general.
How are European eSports teams regarded by stateside crews? You go to the US as one of the bigger teams this side of the Atlantic – but where does TCM rank beside the teams over there?
The Europeans have always been looked down upon in CoD, but there have always been one or two teams that can compete on their level. At the moment that would be us and Epsilon. Americans have always seen the EU players as having the same skill level with reaction speed and how good their shot is, but when it comes to teamwork that's where the US players come out on top. EU teams have done some damage in the States but not on a consistent level for them to be regarded as the best region.
What would winning in the US mean to a European team? And do you feel, generally, that teams in Europe are beginning to impact on global rankings? You look at the top earners and, generally, we're seeing individuals from the Far East.
Winning in the US is the best feeling for a pro CoD player – if you beat the Americans you can claim to be the best in the world. The reason the individuals in the Far East are wealthier is because they play games that are for individuals, like Starcraft. Not only that though, gaming in the East is far more socially acceptable than in the West; it's like what football is to us over there. Gamers are superstars [in the East], so yes they will be earning more with that much more interest shown from their public people.
The night before the biggest of big games, are you practising like mad or trying to relax? How does a pro-gamer even relax? I'm guessing you don't play video games?
The day before we play a big game we just try to relax and focus on what we have to do to win the next day, having a laugh with the lads. Being stressed going into a big match can throw you off your game quite easy.
When at this Championship – or other big competitions – are you able to mix relatively freely with other teams, or is that frowned upon? If you were out the night before with someone from the opposition, would you get into shit for potentially spilling strategies?
Not at all – there isn't much to hide from other teams, to be honest, in terms of strategy. Everyone gets along with each other very well, and you'll chill with each other a little bit before the event, just seeing how they are. But from when the tournament starts, until it ends, we'll try to focus on just being with the team as much as possible. Then, on the last night, we tend to have a few drinks with everyone and just enjoy ourselves before everyone goes home again.
I've seen some eSports stars get mobbed by fans, to the extent where it looks a little scary. Do you have first-hand experience of that, and can it actually shake you up before a game?
Yeah, it can be surreal to people breaking through to the top of the scene. I have never been swamped so I couldn't imagine how that feels – but when people are asking for autographs, that's fun. A lot of professional players like the feeling of being a superstar to someone, so to take a minute to sign something isn't too much to ask. However, when you get knocked out of a tournament you're normally so mad you just want to be left alone, because all you've worked hard on for so much time has gone down the drain.
There's big money in these competitions, more even than major sporting events of a more "physical" nature – so why do you think some people have such a hard time appreciating the scale of eSports, and even the scale of the global competitive CoD scene? Is it a game growing in eSports popularity?
I think that most of the people who don't appreciate eSports are generally the older generation. People who haven't grown up around video games seem to find it hard that people are making a living from this. In 20 to 30 years, everyone will have been around video games. That's when I can see eSports being on a totally new level. Call of Duty has been increasing in numbers ever since Black Ops II came out. Because of the developer support it had for the competitive players, things like social media exploded. As long as the game developer supports CoD it will increase in numbers for years to come, especially with CoD having the biggest game fan base in general in the video game industry.
What do you actually play for? Your career? Money? Profile? Or can pro-gamers experience something more... well, spiritual, I suppose. It's one thing to be good at a game, but some players must feel a connection with it that's quite beyond thumbs on a controller.
It started off with me just being a competitive person by nature; even when I played sports with friends when I was young, I just wanted to win. You'll find that with almost all professional players, and you need that drive within you to put the time in to be at the top of your game. There is no denying money has kept me here, but it's not life-changing money, and most pro players earn the same amount of money as someone in a [regular] full-time job. It's just we'd rather be playing our favourite game, travelling to tournaments, instead of the day-to-day office job.
Have you ever felt any kind of negative stigma as a competitive CoD player?
When I was in school I'd hide it from my friends, because seven or eight years ago people had no idea what it was and if they knew they would stereotype it as a geeky thing. But as I kept competing I was earning more and more money, and felt like I had to tell people – and when they found out I was surprised that they thought it was cool. It was the same with my parents. When I earned $50,000 from one tournament they could not believe it and supported me from then onwards. Without my success I don't know what they'd think about it, but in general I feel like gaming in our day and age is on the rise. A lot of people don't see it as a negative thing anymore.