eSports in the UK (Updated)

Is the UK behind the game?

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Now updated with a response from Duncan Morrison from Meltdown London

eSports are huge in Korea and the USA, and progressively more popular in China and Europe. What was once a niche entertainment sector, originating out of players’ basements and at LAN or Arcade tournaments held as community events has exploded thanks to the prevalence of high-speed internet into something that can fill large venues in Korea and increasingly in the USA. Common games seen in tournaments include Starcraft 2, DOTA2, League of Legends, Street Fighter, Counter Strike and Call of Duty, with each game attracting its own specific audience in a similar way to how different sports have their own distinct followings. Celebrities have been emerging over the last two decades, whether it’s in the form of players such as Fatal1ty and Justin Wong, or even commentators, commonly known as ‘casters’ such as the entertaining duo Tastosis or the knowledgeable and intelligent Day9. Competition pots regularly run into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and yet the scene is still struggling to take off in the UK. Hopefully that’s all changing right now.

Around seven months ago we moved down to London from Norfolk, expecting to finally find real gaming communities and a gaming ‘scene’ that we could immerse ourselves in. Those first few months were incredibly bleak. GamerBase in the Trocadero was shuttered, the Namco arcade seems more like a seaside amusements every day and there was nowhere you could go to watch professional gaming. If eSports are to gain acceptance in the world, they need to be out in the public eye, not locked away in gamers’ rooms, confined to their own computer screens where they can watch alone, albeit chatting to thousands of other viewers around the world. In London two gaming bars have opened up in the last six months, Soho’s ‘Loading’ and Caledonian Road’s ‘Meltdown’.

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Loading’ is much more of a general game bar They’re listed as a temporary bar currently, and have consoles set up that you can go play games on while you enjoy gaming-themed cocktails the company of other like-minded enthusiasts. They’re regularly holding events such as the launch of Bioshock 2 and themed nights around the launch of Call of Duty map packs.

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Meltdown’ is much more focused on eSports, with two consoles and two PCs constantly set up and a number of tournaments being held over the week. One night it will be DOTA2, and then another it will be Starcraft 2. Aside from the tournaments there are gaming-themed cocktails on offer and the big screens around the bar display the latest streams from big-name tournaments around the world.

Check out our review of Meltdown here.

Duncan Morrison from Meltdown said:

A lack of an RTS culture would be a major [problem], most of the current popular esports have their roots in the genre and the UK’s traditional love of FPS makes it hard to compete in a market where viewing is at least as important as participating, as FPS are notoriously difficult to observe compellingly.

I think it’s just a matter of time and generational shift, as people who have grown up with competitive gaming and esports move into more influential positions in society they’ll bring their love of gaming with them, and if we can do a bit to speed up that process then so much the better!

We offer a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, where you’ll have something in common with most of the people there, so it’s easy to strike up a conversation and get to know other gamers.

And it probably doesn’t hurt to mention that we also offer the ability to play and watch video games while drinking your pint!”

Both of these places are doing something daring, they’re bringing what is often considered a lonely hobby by the mainstream media into the public eye, and turning in to a real community rather than leaving it to languish in the shadows. So far there have been mixed responses, both bars are still open, but it would be an overstatement to say they are heaving. There seems to be a lack of a clear message to gamers about what exactly is on offer at these places. They’re new, and therefore there’s obviously some trepidation, but just go down to visit and you’ll be amazed at what you’ve been missing. Yesterday evening we were sitting in Meltdown, watching the latest matches from the European Starcraft 2 League while professional-level players were duking it out on Injustice at consoles around the room. Gamers were chatting to each other even if they’d just met for the first time and some of the non-gamers we’d brought along enjoyed it as much for the atmosphere as anything. Gaming seems to attract a certain kind of person and once you remove the screaming eight-year-olds from the equation it’s easy to get along with everyone.

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While these bars go a long way to improve the public image of gaming, they will take time. The people who’ll be heading down to Meltdown already know about eSports, that will be part of the reason they’re visiting. While it’s nice to have somewhere like that to gather, it’s just preaching to the converted. At the moment ,if you google for ‘UK eSports’ Google just gets confused and tells you about UK sports. If you insist you can find a couple of organisations trying to get eSports established within the country, but one of the top results, the United Kingdom Esports Association, went bankrupt in 2009. In order for eSports to grow within the UK, there needs to be three things: A leading body or organisation, mainstream coverage and sponsorship.

James Dance from Loading had this to say:

I think there’s still not enough done to welcome complete novice, in the same way late night poker caught on by bringing viewers up to speed, esports needs to have an outlet like that I think. It needs to draw inspiration from other huge sports, people need to be spun a story/characters to really have a hook so maybe more places putting out content about the players/rivalries/tactics.”

These kind of ‘characters’ have appeared wherever eSports have taken off, but we still don’t really have any of our own. There are plenty of excellent British players in every game, but there’s no quote the organisation or publicity to make them commonly heard names outside of their specific fields.

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Paul ‘ReDeYe’ Chaloner, Head of content and Media at Turtle Entertainment (the company behind the Electronic Sports League) said:

“The main problems facing the growth of esports in the UK has historically been “too many cooks”. With so many leading organisations all having their own vision, ideas, platform of choice, game and access to sponsors, the UK has always been a difficult place for eSports to grow with a coherent approach. You have Multiplay, organiser of the biggest LAN’s in the country who have dominated that part of gaming in the UK for the best part of a decade, while also trying to grow eSports alongside the successful bring-your-own-computer setup. Heaven Media took a different approach and led the way with online coverage through sites like Tek9 and Cadred and sponsor deals in the background that then led to hosting shows at places like Gadget Show Live and from there on to esports tournaments hosted around Europe. Add in leagues that cover consoles and other more niche games and you have a ton of people all going after the same pot of marketing money and it becomes a very confrontational industry, just within the UK.

We certainly have the players in the UK and we have some really high quality teams including Dignitas and TCM Gaming for example and yes we could benefit from more top teams, but there just isn’t the money in the system to support it.

We’ve tried many times in the past to bring everyone involved in esports to the table together. Back in 2007, UKESA was formed, mainly from old employee’s of the failing TNWA group with the aim of bringing professionals in esports together with the government, industry leading game specialists and the wider sponsors. It failed miserably, mainly because those involved treated esports like a cash cow and it simply isn’t like that right now.

I still believe esports needs a governing body and in particular one in the UK, but it needs to be government driven or sponsored AND must include the community at large, not just those wanting to profit from esports. It will be a long time before an organisation of this nature can make a profit, but the advantages of a combined, rule defining organisation on standards in esport would help tremendously.
 
My personal belief is that unfortunately the failure of UKeSA (and some other previous attempts) have harmed esports in the eye’s of government and mainstream sponsors to the point where it may be some time before it gets another chance to build itself in to an organised system. For now we are left hoping that companies who profit from esports have a soft spot for it and continue to put money in to support it. Longer term, we need companies like Multiplay, ESL and Heaven Media (for example) to come together and create a super league of gaming where there is enough opportunity for the grass roots, casual player to progress to semi professional level and upwards to the likes of Intel Extreme Masters on a global scale as a professional player.”

In terms of sponsorship, deals are already being made. Companies are starting to see the wealth being made in countries like Korea and the USA, and professional level-teams are starting to find it easier to get sponsors, not just within the gaming sector. Media enterprises and snack-food giants are becoming associated with the scene, and while some may be hesitant to entice corporations into the mix, with sponsorship comes money, and that leads to bigger events, more advertising and bigger prize pools, all of which are going to attract bigger audiences. As soon as UK companies or the government get involved in a big way we’re going to see more tournaments cropping up and therefore more opportunities for community events and broadcast tournaments.

Unfortunately cracking the mainstream media is a much bigger problem. It still hasn’t been solved in the USA as, like in the UK, gaming is still scene as primarily an anti-social and negative activity by much of the mainstream press. The public in the UK in particular have long held the idea that gaming is antisocial and this image hasn’t really changed despite the emergence of online gaming over the last two decades. In many ways gamers aren’t the best ambassadors for the hobby, if you were new to the activity and picked up a headset and joined many online console games, or even many strategy games (particularly DOTA2) the torrent of racist, homophobic and ignorant abuse that comes your way is enough to convince anyone that gamers don’t believe in community.

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Bloggers and Casters attract huge audiences but again it’s only those who are already interested in gaming. Many may disapprove of the inclusion of games like Fifa and Call of Duty in the eSports circuit (they’re arguably less interesting to watch and high-profile tournaments have often been marred by a complete lack of sportsmanship or professionalism) but those are the games that the mass market play, and through those a few might discover the world of eSports. Media networks like the BBC are beginning to report on these mainstream games more and more and they’re going to play an integral role in bridging the gap between the public attitude towards gaming and the scene itself. Many people imagine a Starcraft 2 tournament as… well… nothing at all because they have no idea what Starcraft is. Many gamers I know couldn’t tell the difference between a Protoss and a Zerg, much less between a 10pool and a 6pool. On the other side, the majority of the public are at least aware of Call of Duty and roughly what it entails. The mainstream press can’t cover things that will massively alienate their audiences so at the moment, they tend to leave eSports well alone. This starts off a vicious cycle as a lack of media attention leads to lower viewer figures, which turns off sponsors, leading to a lack of advertising and therefore media attention. It will take something huge to break this cycle, but it’s not insurmountable. We need a UK based tournament with a big-name sponsor such as Virgin, Sky or BT who would be willing to put the money behind representing eSports as something worthy of notice.

I’m cautiously optimistic it will happen. While we might not see the O2 filled for a SC2 tournament like we could in Seoul, I think over the next ten years we’re going to see more ventures like Meltdown and Loading, more sponsorship for a UK based competition, and more young people getting involved in gaming on a level with some professional sports.

For now, I’m happy I can sit in a bar in Central London, drinking a beer, playing in tournaments, and watching world class gamers compete at a game I can play when I get home. I just wish more people were sharing that with me.

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