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Extreme eSports: the very male, billion-dollar gaming industry at a stadium near you | Sport

Extreme eSports: the very male, billion-dollar gaming industry at a stadium near you | Sport

Whenever an artist scheduled to play Qudos Bank Arena at Sydney Olympic Park doesn’t sell enough tickets, the venue tactfully drapes black cloth over the empty seats in the theatre’s uppermost section. Filling more than 18,000 seats is quite an ask, which is why only top-flight acts like Pink, Katy Perry, Shania Twain and Kendrick Lamar are attempting it in coming months.

The black cloth is not needed today. Sydney gaming enthusiasts have filled the venue almost to capacity for the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM), a three-day professional video game tournament that rivals anything Qudos has hosted in terms of scale and spectacle.

Two groups of five men are onstage, seated at computer monitors. Headphones on, hunched forward, they sit almost completely immobile save for their flickering hands and darting eyes. Their coaches pace grimly behind them, watching the screens and muttering directives into their microphones.

Behind them, two enormous television monitors broadcast their onscreen actions. On the dusty streets of a Moroccan village, a band of balaclava-clad separatists is shot to pieces by a matching squad of Special Forces soldiers. Thirty seconds later, the soldiers are the ones cut down, caught in the crosshairs of a sniper as they stumble through a veil of smoke. A bomb planted on a cache of chemical weapons ignites, presumably killing thousands.

From the VIP seats to the nosebleed section, the enraptured crowd watches on, occasionally roaring its collective approval or disappointment. It is overwhelmingly male, although not noticeably more so than your average rugby league match. The main difference to any other sporting audience is that of age: the vast majority of attendees are in their 20s and 30s.

While large-scale eSports events like IEM are relatively new in Australia, tournaments overseas routinely attract tens of thousands of attendees and millions of livestream views. Photograph: Helena Kristiansson/Helena Kristiansson, ESL

During lulls in play, they amuse themselves in the time-honoured way of bored Australian sports fans everywhere: by batting around a few beach balls and taunting security’s efforts to stop them. Chants of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” are just as regular and inane as they are at the cricket. When events onscreen reach a climax, the immense amphitheatre thunders with the crowd’s euphoria.

If this scene sounds made-up, you have officially missed the boat on the eSports phenomenon. Competitive gaming is a billion-dollar industry, and Sydney has become the field’s domestic epicentre.

IEM is dedicated to Counterstrike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), a multiplayer first-person shoot-’em-up where teams of five compete against each other in simple, objective-based rounds. Teams either assume the role of “terrorists” trying to plant a bomb, or Special Forces-style “counter-terrorists” trying to stop them, with much carnage resulting.

From the VIP seats to the nosebleed section, the enraptured crowd watches on.

From the VIP seats to the nosebleed section, the enraptured crowd watches on. Photograph: Helena Kristiansson

Sixteen professional CS:GO teams from as far afield as the European Union, Brazil, the United States and China are competing at IEM for a share in the $310,000 prize pool. Individual games take less than two minutes, with tournament rounds decided via a best-of-30 format. Whichever team wins 16 games takes the round, like a set in a game of tennis, and the team that wins two of three rounds wins the contest and advances to the next stage.

For competitors, this is not an amateur pursuit – it is a livelihood, and a possible ticket to sponsorship and stardom. While large-scale eSports events like IEM are relatively new in Australia, tournaments overseas routinely attract tens of thousands of attendees and millions of livestream views.

For competitors, eSports is not an amateur pursuit – it is a livelihood, and a possible ticket to sponsorship and stardom.

For competitors, eSports is not an amateur pursuit – it is a livelihood, and a possible ticket to sponsorship and stardom. Photograph: Helena Kristiansson

As the scene has become increasingly professionalised, competitive eSports has begun to resemble traditional sport far more than the old cliche of nerdy kids playing in a basement. Like any other sport, it has its own doping scandals, injuries and pay and contract disputes.

Teams are increasingly joining the World eSports Association, a peak body designed to standardise pay, conditions, rights and regulations across the industry. The major brands – Fnatic, Cloud9, Legacy – attract the same loyalty and fanaticism of elite sports teams. Their uniforms are adorned with the logos of hefty sponsors like Audi, Dr Pepper and Vodafone, and they scout lower pool-stage tournaments for talented players to sign.

Australian Oliver Tierney, known by the handle DickStacy, turned 21 three weeks ago and has been playing professionally for a year. Tierney has already played at international CS:GO tournaments in London, Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia and New Zealand, and is headed to Dallas in two weeks with Australian team Grayhound Gaming. His celebrity with the IEM crowd is evident by the reception he receives when he tries to use one of the venue’s bathrooms.

Ollie Tierney

When you go to the male bathroom at IEM, and proceed to stand in the middle of the urinal of 15 guys to take a piss then a fellow gentlemen says, “IS THAT DICKSTACYS DICK!?” All eyes then turn to your penis. Good times.

May 5, 2018

“I love the competitiveness of it, I love the group aspect,” Tierney says. “I never thought I’d be here in a million years.”

While Tierney has established himself overseas, he’s also keen to grow eSports domestically.

“The industry’s just going to keep growing and growing,” he says. “We’re completely behind in Australia at the moment; our internet’s too patchy, no one takes games seriously, the culture’s not there yet. But every kid these days knows what eSports is. The new generation coming through is where it’s going to happen.”

As the 16 male teams battle it out, the CS:GO Women’s Sydney Open plays in a side room. Around 100 people sit in the audience, making it the only space at IEM with more than a handful of women at any given time.

It’s a sober reminder of the gender disparity that permeates both sports and gaming culture. Like almost any other sport, women eSports players are woefully underpaid compared to their male counterparts. The two women’s teams in the grand final – Sydney Saints and Control ESports – are only competing for the lion’s share of $10,000 in prize money.

The Intel Extreme Masters final takes nearly five hours, but when the team finally complete the whitewash, the arena erupts.

The Intel Extreme Masters final takes nearly five hours, but when the team finally complete the whitewash, the arena erupts. Photograph: Helena Kristiansson

The fact that eSports are gender segregated at all points more to the sexism present in the wider gaming scene than any disparity in ability. The 2014 Gamergate scandal, which saw female gaming journalists and critics of gaming culture’s more boorish aspects targeted by waves of online abuse, was the first rumbling of what would become the weaponised misogyny of the Trump campaign and the violent “incel” movement.

Nicole Constantine is the Sydney Saints’ manager, handling their schedules and day-to-day logistics. She thinks that while gender equality in eSports is a way off, the “step-by-step” work of women like the Saints is wearing down the barriers.

“If you give girls the opportunity, they will perform”, Constantine says. “Constantly criticising and comparing them to the boys’ leagues is useless, because they stand on their own.”

By Sunday, the 16 male teams have been whittled down to two: FaZe Clan, the home crowd favourites, and Astralis, hyped by MC Oliver D’Anastasi as “possibly the best team in the world”.

Despite FaZe Clan eventually blitzing the best-of-five rounds contest, the final takes nearly five hours. When they finally complete the whitewash, the arena erupts.

As Sydney goes about its Sunday, unaware of the growing phenomenon unfolding in its midst, 18,000 gaming devotees stand to cheer their new champions.

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eSports analyst receives death threats after thanking men on women’s day | Games

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A prominent eSports commentator revealed on Thursday that she received “death threats and hundreds of hate messages” in response to a tweet expressing gratitude to men on International Women’s Day.

Soe Gschwind-Penski, the Overwatch League host and analyst known as Soembie, had sent a tweet earlier on Thursday offering “a special shoutout to all the men in our lives who have supported us, gave us a voice when we had none, fought for our cause and treated us the way we all ought to treat each other…like a fellow human being – no race, no gender”.

Soe Gschwind-Penski

It’s #InternationalWomensDay I’d like to give a special shoutout to all the men in our lives who have supported us, gave us a voice when we had none, fought for our cause and treated us the way we all ought to treat each other…like a fellow human being – no race, no gender.

March 8, 2018

But shortly after, the 29-year-old from Switzerland described the heaps of abuse prompted by her initial remark by way of responding to a user who wrote: “Lady you have some internal misogyny to deal with”.

“Ive gotten death threats and hundreds of hate messages the past 20 minutes because I thanked men for treating me as their equal, on a day which is all about womens struggle for equality,” Gschwind-Penski posted. “Hate, because I am grateful for the men in our lives who fight alongside us for our rights.”

She added: “[D]id I offend you by treating ALL genders equal and thank humans for treating each other the way they should? Believe it or not but women are not the only ones fighting for equality.”

Soe Gschwind-Penski

Ive gotten death threats and hundreds of hate messages the past 20 minutes because I thanked men for treating me as their equal, on a day which is all about womens struggle for equality. Hate, because I am grateful for the men in our lives who fight alongside us for our rights…

March 8, 2018

The professional scene around Overwatch, a team-based multiplayer first-person shooter from World of Warcraft developer Blizzard featuring a diverse cast of heroes spanning genders and ethnicities, has at times struggled to reflect the game’s inclusive values.

The two-year-old OWL did make headlines last month when South Korean teenager Kim Se-yeon signed with the Shanghai Dragons to become the league’s first female player.

But high-profile eSports competitions remain a male-dominated space: Gschwind-Penski is the only female member of OWL’s full-time commentary team.

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Fortnite: a parents’ guide to the most popular video game in school | Games

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You know a video game has made it when ITV daytime programme This Morning posts on its Facebook page asking parents if their kids are addicted. You can be doubly sure when that post attracts almost 60,000 comments. In this case the game is Fortnite: Battle Royale, a bright, brash multiplayer shooter. It was released last year, and is now one of the biggest online games out there.

With more than 40m players worldwide, the chances are either your children or their friends are already passionate fans. For some, that fandom may well be bordering on obsession. Should you be worried? Here’s what you need to know about the game.

What is Fortnite: Battle Royale?

In short, it’s a mass online brawl where 100 players leap out of a plane on to a small island and then fight each other until only one is left. Hidden around the island are weapons and items, including crossbows, rifles and grenade launchers, and players must arm themselves while exploring the landscape and buildings. It’s also possible to collect resources that allow you to build structures where you can hide or defend yourself. As the match progresses, the playable area of land is continually reduced, so participants are forced closer and closer together. The last survivor is the winner.

Watch a trailer for Fortnite: Battle Royale

Where did it come from?

Fortnite was originally released in July 2017, but it actually started out as a four-player cooperative survival game set on a postapocalyptic Earth. Players had to build shelters and defend themselves against marauding zombies. Later in the year, however, the game’s developer, Epic, noticed the huge success of PC title PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), which pits 100 players against each other in a last-man-standing battle. PUBG was highly influenced by the Hunger Games novels and by the Japanese movie Battle Royale, and it’s sold over 30m copies worldwide. Duly inspired, Epic decided to release a new version of Fortnite featuring very similar gameplay. Hence, Fortnite: Battle Royale.

The new game arrived last September, and the developer made three brilliant decisions. First it was launched as a standalone title separate from the original Fortnite (now known as Fortnite: Save the World), allowing it to gain a dedicated fanbase; secondly, it was released as a completely free digital download, which made it easily accessible; and thirdly it came out not just on PC, but on Xbox and PlayStation – which meant all the console owners who had heard about PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds but didn’t have a PC could now play something very similar, for free. (An Xbox One version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is now available, but Fornite beat it to the punch.)

Why is it so popular with kids?

Well, it’s free, it’s fun and it has a very silly, offbeat sense of humour. While PUGB has a serious, realistic visual style, Fortnite: Battle Royale has very bright, almost cartoon-like graphics as well as loads of ridiculous items and costumes, such as space suits and dinosaur outfits.

You can also pull a variety of dance moves during the game, and some of these have taken on a cult appeal in schoolyards around the globe. The Floss, inspired by the viral video of the boy dancing with Katy Perry during her Saturday Night Live appearance last spring, is basically this year’s dab. All of this means the game is really fun to watch as well as play, making it a huge hit with all the famous video game YouTubers and streamers your kids love, such as Ali-A and DanTDM. They’re broadcasting many hours of themselves playing the game to their millions of fans, making Fortnite the most watched game on major streaming service Twitch.

YouTube gamer Ali-A plays Fortnite: Battle Royale

It’s also possible to team up with a friend, or group of friends, and compete as a duo or a squad. This adds a social element, and participants are able to chat as they play using headsets and microphones. Many children are now forming Fortnite teams, and spending a lot of their free time playing and practising the game together.

Cleverly, the developer is adding new items, features and play modes on a weekly basis so there is always a new reason to come back and play, and fans like to show off that they have the latest gear. My sons were obsessed with unlocking the “Rust Lord” outfit, clearly inspired by Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy.

How much does it cost?

The game is free and players are able to unlock new items as they progress without paying anything. But if you purchase a Premium Battle Pass you gain access to exclusive clothing and items – tiered so that doing well in the game or carrying out weekly challenges to earn more pointsunlocks access to more items. A Battle Pass costs 950 V-Bucks, which is the game’s own currency – you need to pay £7.99 to download 1,000 V-Bucks, which lasts until the end of the season. Fortnite: Battle Royale is divided into seasons, with season three running until 22 April. After that a new pass will need to be purchased.

It’s also possible to buy new tiers individually so you can play them immediately. Each tier costs 150 V-Bucks to unlock in this way, and there are 100 tiers. (It’s highly unlikely anyone would buy them all, but that’s £120 worth.)

None of the items that are earned through the Battle Pass make the player more powerful or provide a gameplay advantage; they’re purely cosmetic. However, there is a lot of kudos attached to getting the latest, rarest clothing items and children will want to keep playing to unlock those items. You remember when you were at school and just had to have the latest cool Nikes? It’s like that, but virtual.

How do I limit how much they play?

If they’re playing on an Xbox or PlayStation you can use the parental controls to limit the length of gaming sessions (or ban them from the game entirely if you’re feeling despotic). It’s a good idea to set definite play sessions of, say, an hour or 90 minutes using some kind of timer (a stopwatch, an egg timer, or maybe ask Alexa for a countdown). You may need to have a Mastermind-style “I’ve started so I’ll finish” rule though: Fortnite matches can last up to 20 minutes and if you demand they finish playing in the middle of a game, they’ll leave team-mates in the lurch and lose any points they’ve earned during that bout. That’s going to cause a lot of resentment.

Should parents be worried about the violence?

Although Fortnite is a multiplayer shooter, it has a very bright, friendly visual style and it does not depict bloody violence. Like the Nintendo game Splatoon, it takes lots of the enjoyable gameplay concepts from more mature shooting games but places them in a non-threatening, non-realistic world. My sons call it “Call of Duty for kids”.

The good news is, as with any game, the obsession will eventually pass for all but the most committed players – and if your kids are really good? Well, there’s a growing professional eSports scene around the game, complete with cash prizes. You never know which childhood hobby might turn into a living.

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Sports Direct to launch in-store eSports concessions | Business

Sports Direct to launch in-store eSports concessions | Business

Sportswear retailer is joining up with Game Digital to create venues for hosting live matches

Gamers take part in an eSports tournament in Leipzig, Germany.
Photograph: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

Sports Direct shoppers will be invited to take a break from browsing for leisurewear to play video games, with the chain unveiling a partnership that will see Game Digital open pay-to-play concessions in its stores.

Under the terms of the agreement, Sports Direct, owned by Mike Ashley, hopes to cash in on the growing popularity of eSports by clearing space in stores to host live matches between players battling it out in a variety of competitive video games.

Sports Direct, which bought a 25.8% stake in Game Digital in 2017, will also pay £3.2m for 50% of the intellectual property of Belong, the computer game company’s eSports offshoot, and will be entitled to half its profits.

The retailer will also provide a £55m loan to Game’s Spanish division to help fund development of more eSports venues in the country.

Game Digital said it hoped to capitalise on the overlap between traditional sports and eSports, a fast-growing genre that has attracted sponsorship from major brands and captured the attention of celebrity backers such as the singer Jennifer Lopez and the Formula One driver Fernando Alonso.

Global revenues from eSports grew beyond expectations to reach $1.5bn (£1.1bn) last year, and are forecast to be $2.3bn by 2023, according to the gaming research company SuperData.

Belong has sought to harness the popularity of eSports by creating “tribes”, groups of gamers clustered around UK cities with team names such as London Lionhearts, Preston Invincibles and Plymouth Armada.

They are charged up to £7 an hour to play and can book other experiences such as 10 minutes of virtual reality for £5 or birthday parties.

Under its deal with Sports Direct, some of the 16 new Belong arenas planned for this year will be housed within the retail chain’s stores.

Game Digital said: “The arenas provide dedicated space for both PC and console gamers to play with friends, compete in tournaments, enjoy gaming nights, celebrate new games and technology launches, and share game themed events and experiences.”

Its chief executive, Martyn Gibbs, said the partnership and loan from Sports Direct would help the company “move from a seller of physical products to providing gaming experiences”.

Game Digital has struggled in recent years as supermarkets and online retailers such as Amazon have muscled into the video game specialist’s market.

It has opened 19 Belong venues as part of its plan to make money from an increasing trend among retailers and hospitality venues for offering experiences, alongside their traditional products.

The strategy, which has been dubbed “shoppertainment”, has been adopted by major retailers such as John Lewis, which staged an Alice in Wonderland-themed show in its store in Oxford’s Westgate centre.

Game Digital launched Belong in 2016 as part of a plan to move away from traditional retail sales and now hopes to accelerate investment, backed by Sports Direct’s money.

Revenues from the division doubled last year to £8.7m, according to the company’s annual report, with players typically spending more money than other customers.

The average Game Digital customer spent £165 in its shops last year, but the figure was £239 among Belong gamers.

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‘They see the potential’: why J-Lo and Gillette want a piece of the eSports action | Games

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If there are any doubts that computer games can become a mainstream spectator sport, then Jennifer Lopez and Stan Kroenke are not listening.

The superstar singer and Arsenal’s majority shareholder have both put money into eSports teams, as the gaming competitions with millions of followers worldwide aim for even greater public appeal. Lopez has bought into a team franchise for the new Overwatch League, in which teams from cities such as Seoul, San Francisco and London play Overwatch, a mass-participation shooting game. The global competition for the game, which launches in January, also includes the LA Gladiators, run by Kroenke, a serial sports entrepreneur.

Lopez and Kroenke are not alone. A host of top sport stars are investing in eSports franchises, including the Formula One driver Fernando Alonso and the former basketball player Magic Johnson. When the US-based SportsBusiness Journal released its annual list of the 50 most influential people, 10 were from eSports. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee has taken a big step towards recognising the pursuit as a sport, opening up the possibility that eSports could feature in the 2024 Paris Olympics two years after it makes its debut at the Asian Games.

Footage from the 2017 Overwatch World Cup.

The global eSports economy has grown by 34% year-on-year to $660m (£492m) and will reach $1.5bn by 2020, according to Newzoo, which provides market intelligence for eSports. It also estimates that eSports currently attracts an audience of 385 million people, the vast majority of whom follow the action online – via digital broadcast platforms like Twitch, which has more than 400m views a month. There are also sizeable audiences in the real world: the biggest eSports tournament, the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) in Katowice, Poland, attracts more than 100,000 fans over three days.

Sponsorship and advertising already account for the bulk of eSports revenue, at 38% and 22% of turnover respectively. Money flows into leagues, teams and players, but until this year interest has largely come from IT/computer-related brands like Intel and Logitech, or from fast-moving consumer goods – staple gamer fuel such as fizzy drinks and snacks.

However, the kinds of brands associated with more conventional sports also woke up to the market’s potential in 2017. There were high-profile bookings from prestige car manufacturers such as Audi and Mercedes-Benz, from fashion brands like Jack & Jones, and from Gillette. All were lured by a lucrative demographic: about eight in 10 eSports watchers are men in their mid-20s who have disposable income and generally shun traditional media.

“We’re now starting to see the mainstream brands,” says James Dean, the UK head of ESL, the biggest eSports league organiser. “They have looked at the demographic and seen the potential.”

ESL, which was bought by Sweden’s Modern Times Group for $87m in 2015, produces IEM, eSports’ longest running global event, which reached 46 million online viewers in March, up 35% on last year. Along with October’s ESL One Hamburg, a tournament for the Dota 2 fantasy war game with a prize pool worth €1m (£885,000), it attracted mainstream sponsorship for the first time this year from Gillette and Mercedes-Benz.

“We seem to be at a tipping point with [mainstream] brands coming in, but the good thing is that they didn’t just treat it as a badge slap. They attempted to integrate themselves in a deeper way,” says Mark Cox, UK head of Publishing at Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends, one of the games featured at IEM. “Gillette took the step into eSports and demonstrated a real desire to integrate. They seem prepared to go in deeply from top level to grassroots. At the lower level the game is on all the time, people are constantly playing it, so they have this mass access.”

A highlights reel from the 2017 IEM tournament.

Beyond splashing its logo everywhere, Gillette added one of League of Legends’ top players, Enrique “xPeke” Cedeño Martinez, to its roster of sports stars, a list that also includes the Brazilian footballer Neymar. It also set up a booth at the arena offering 3D-printed razor handles featuring gamers’ tags, or nicknames. Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, provided branded cars for all the teams. Gillette spent a long time doing due diligence before its entry into eSports and found it was looking at an arena with significant growth rates.

“If you look at the growth trajectory, the revenue, the viewing numbers, everything is going north,” says Adam Paris, a Gillette marketing executive. “eSports is growing at a very rapid rate. Yes, it’s finding its feet, but it feels to me that we as an industry have been talking about investing in it for two to three years at trade show panel events, but I feel it’s time to move on from talking about it and make the jump.”

While mainstream brands have been waiting to see enough value in eSports, they have also held back because of lingering concerns. There are thousands of competitions, no centralised organisation and a fanbase perceived as resistant to advertising. Research from the data firm Nielsen offers a more positive view on the third issue, as shown by an enthusiastic reception on social media for Mercedes-Benz’s presence at ESL One.

But advertising outsiders with money to spend still struggle to know where to begin. There are a lot of tournaments, so a cull is inevitable, while ending relegation from leagues will encourage sponsors to sign long-term deals with teams. It also helps if advertisers and sponsors have employees who can demonstrate a real appreciation of the games, the teams and the fans.

Nielsen data shows a decent return for commercial backers, too: Audi received a return of more than 10 times its investment during the Eleague finals and the DreamHack Las Vegas tournament at the beginning of 2017.

Advertisers won’t get carried away: eSports is no NFL or Premier League. But the more popular it becomes, the more credibility it amasses among potential backers.

A good eSports game needs a specific appeal in order to attract mass audiences, says Michele Attisani, co-founder of gaming platform Faceit. “A top eSports game needs to have a fast-moving mix of strategy and gameplay to capture a large competitive community and create enough tension and drama to get a crowd roaring.” Popular games include Dota 2, played with two teams of five, and the multiplayer battle game League of Legends, which is eSports’ biggest game and has 100 million monthly players.

The most successful eSports player of all time is the German-Iranian Kuro Salehi Takhasomi (KuroKy), aged 25, a Dota 2 pro who has earned $3.3m so far in his career. Another Dota 2 player, the Canadian Sasha Hostyn (Scarlett), 24, is recognised as the highest earning female player in eSports ever, with career winnings of $150,000. She is the first woman to compete in Korea’s top league GSL.

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