I've been playing video games for 30 years, but while I'm well aware that eSports is a rapidly growing offshoot industry, branching from the core business of gaming and establishing roots on every continent, I'm a complete noob to the ins and outs of it all. But with an ever-growing schedule of massive annual tournaments, and prize money for winning teams reaching into the millions of dollars, it's probably time to pay some bloody attention.
So I am. And to help me, I got on the phone to a pair of eSports experts. Glen Elliott is the founder of the European Gaming League, a network ("set up by gamers, for gamers") promoting eSports tournaments in Britain and on the continent, as well as numerous online events. The company's slickened itself up in recent months, now rivalling the glossy looks of Far Eastern and American peers. Alex Buck, aka "Buk20", is a professional Halo player and a member of the continent-covering Epsilon Sports team, launched in 2008.
I spoke to both ahead of the EGL's recent Halo Championship Series "Battle of Europe" showdown, where the top Halo teams on this side of the Atlantic competed not just for a tidy €10,000 prize, but also the chance to enter the Stateside Halo Championship Series finals held in Boston on the 7th and 8th of March.
VICE: What's the European Gaming League all about, then?
Glen Elliott: I founded the EGL five years ago. I was in the finance industry, and I got bored. I've always been a gamer, and I've followed eSports for years. So I saw an opportunity – nobody in Europe was running console eSports events. It was getting quite a lot of momentum in the States, with Major League Gaming, so I invested some money, and we held our first EGL event in July 2010. We've since grown into Europe's largest console eSports company, in terms of team numbers, and we did that on almost zero budget, with no full-time staff. Last year, I decided I wanted to start taking it more seriously, and raise capital to take us where we want to go, and a chance meeting with (ad agency) Bartle Bogle Hegarty led them to invest in us. And we haven't looked back since.
These eSports events aren't as big here in the UK as they are in the Far East or United States. Why's that?
Alex Buck: There's just more public interest in eSports in America, and more big gaming companies that work out there. There's Major League Gaming, and a bunch of PC-platform organisations. So they get more sponsors, which means more money, which means more financial backing for teams and players. There's more incentive out there for people to commit to playing a game full time.
Which still sounds funny to me, the very idea that you can play a video game, full time. What was the reaction of your family and friends, Alex, when you told them that you can make money this way?
AB: It was very frowned upon when I started, because I was still in secondary school. I played in my first Halo tournament when I was 15, coming second in the XLEAGUE.TV playoffs. I got £600 or something, as the team won over £2,000. Both of my parents came to look after me on the day, as I wasn't old enough to be there by myself. I think once they saw that, and the events that I played in afterwards, they realised how big this could be, and how it's worth investing time in. I could be out on the streets, hanging around shops and stuff – they preferred that I played Halo.
Team Epsilon plays Team Vibe at the "Battle of Europe"
I've seen footage of eSports tournaments our East, and some of those players get absolutely swamped by fans. Is that what we need in Europe for the competitions to grow in public appreciation – a standout megastar performer?
GE: Yes, 100%. We need that face – a David Beckham of gaming, or something like that. Someone who's massively successful in gaming, but really relatable. Scotland actually produced one of the best-ever League of Legends players, "Snoopeh" (aka Stephen Ellis). He went to America to play professionally. He was a great personality in the scene, and did very well – but if you ask anyone on the street if they've heard of him, they'll be like, "What, the cartoon dog?" He's now a presenter for League of Legends tournaments, and an analyst, and he retired from playing aged just 23. Crazy. We need one of the top players to be the face towards the mainstream. I think that's coming, and we'll see it in time.
Does the press in the UK play any part in holding eSports back, too? It's not like it's reported on in the mainstream media, really.
GE: Well, it doesn't help with the mainstream media approaching eSports as it does, sometimes. The BBC did a report on an event, in the summer, and the presenter looked like he didn't want to be there. He was sort of poking fun at the gamers, rather than understanding why there were so many thousands of people there. But on the flipside, I've seen other, more positive things, where they're trying to make eSports sound great. There are a lot of old-school journalists who just don't get it, and that might be because they're scared of the subject, or that they simply don't care.
What kind of commitment do you need to exhibit, to make it as a professional eSports player?
AB: I work in the daytime, at the moment, so I generally play in the evenings, online. In the lead up to a regular tournament I'll be playing for at least three hours every night after work. Building up to the "Battle of Europe", I've been playing a lot more – I'll get back home from work at seven, and start playing straight away and go on through until midnight. So it's quite demanding, but hopefully it pays off. It's weird to speak about eSports like "normal" sports, because it's not a sport as such, but it's about practising, and playing the game a lot. And one of the main things is that you have to play against top-level opposition. It's all well and good practising every day, but if you're not playing against the best, then you're not going to improve.
And when you're playing online, are you able to really develop that team bond you need, when it comes to the big day?
AB: Most of the time when I'm playing online it's as part of my team, as that's the more beneficial practise. Halo teams are a bit like football – players swap between squads over the years. But I've known one of my teammates for six years now, through gaming, and the other two, I've known them for about a year and a half. For general practise we'll just play online, but as we get nearer to an event, we'll meet up to play in the same room, or participate in a warm-up tournament. So our team was in Paris the other weekend, and we won a tournament there. The best French teams were there, and we beat them, so that was good practise for the EGL tournament.
Do you put a lot of research into the teams you're going to be playing, in the tournaments?
AB: We're always thinking about how other teams will play the game, as there are several different play styles you can adopt. Last night we spent a few hours going through recent games against other teams, to see how they played against us. We watch footage back after we've had a match, so we can see what went wrong, what we can do better next time, and analyse what other teams are doing.
Do players stick just to their one game, all the time? And I mean that in the sense that it's all they play, ever, regardless of competition – like, you don't have to be into gaming culture to be an eSports contender, if you're dedicated enough to just that one game?
GE: That happens, all the time. Again, it's rare that you get a player who can cross over, and be good at a few games. Gaming can be really tribal, and "eSports" is just a general term, with each game within that its own, individual sport. Fans are tribal, too – sometimes a Call of Duty eSports fan will be up in arms because we're running a Halo event, so they'll be online saying how rubbish Halo is. There's a lot of one-upmanship, even at events where there are multiple titles on show. Fans of one game will stick to their own pods, and they'll socialise with just those people. It's difficult to get people to cross over, but it'll be interesting to see how these fanbases branch out as eSports grows.
Are there any barriers between someone who's good enough to play professionally, and them getting that opportunity? Do you feel there's any discrimination in the scene, as when I look at photos I see a lot of dudes playing these games.
GE: With eSports, there should be no discrimination. The news that came out of Asia regarding the restriction of gay and transgender players, that's so ridiculous. We have girl teams entering our tournaments, and mixed teams too. I see gaming as being equal, with no restriction on being able to compete beyond if you're good at the game or not. There are some great female eSports role models out there – they just need to be publicised more. For example, there's a nurse in Northern Ireland, a maternity nurse, who is a kickass Battlefield player.
AB: I think that some girls are put off attending events because they might be seen as being there purely to attract attention to themselves. But when they're playing well and competing properly, taking it seriously, of course they're totally accepted.
Is there any ceiling, do you think, in terms of how big eSports can become? It's huge online, but mediums like TV aren't touching it.
GE: Education is the important thing, here. And if we get a couple of big brand names involved in European eSports, we'll see more recognition, outside of the online audiences. If a couple of brands come in, that'll really help stabilise things. And we need to make sure the eSports companies are run professionally – you don't want Coca-Cola coming in to sponsor an event, and then that event falls flat on its face. We've had to pick up those pieces before. It's a very young industry, so there are very few companies run by people with business experience, with a mature head. That's held eSports back a few times over the past couple of years – companies have promised big prize pots and then disappeared without a trace. And the bigger sponsors won't come into an industry run by a bunch of cowboys, basically.
AB: I don't know whether TV is the right place for eSports, but coverage that reaches a mainstream audience would help people to appreciate what these games are, and how they're played professionally. People just don't understand the level that pro-players are at – they're playing in a way that nobody has ever seen before. There's much more to it than just sitting down and playing a game for an hour or two – this takes so much practise, so much determination, and you have to be a part of a team as much as you are individually skilled. So there's a lot of educating to be done.