Just how active is the pro-gaming scene in Australia? Are we a nation that can stand toe-to-toe against the best gamers in the world? And if we're not competitive, then who's to blame? Check out the answers to all these and more as we put Australia's pro-gaming culture under the spotlight in this in-depth GameSpot AU feature.
It's Saturday night at Daniel Chlebowczyk's house. The snacks are gone, the second round of drinks has been served, and the stereo's slow beat is going strong, broken only by the occasional heckling jeer or cry of victory.
It's a typical weekend night for 29-year-old Chlebowczyk, a competitive gamer from Victoria. Although he's not competing tonight, settling into a friendly gaming get-together with his mates has become part of a varied lifestyle. "Gaming has grown up," Chlebowczyk says. "I think it's become like this in a lot of homes, where friends of both sexes with varying interest get together and play. It's just a normal part of social gatherings now."
Chlebowczyk has been playing games competitively for as long as he can remember, although his admission into the gamer clan Sydney Underground was relatively recent. His statistics are impressive, especially when it comes to fighting games, but even with a number of titles under his belt, competitive gaming has had to remain just a hobby for Chlebowczyk. In other countries, competitive gamers are showered with fame, and have millions of dollars in their pocket and their own TV show. On the other hand, Australian players like Chlebowczyk can look forward only to the satisfaction of winning, and, if they're good enough, the experience of traveling. It's a dire situation that has left many competitive gamers in this country wondering when, and how, things are going to change.
"It would be wonderful for professional gaming to expand in Australia, which would mean I could move into doing this full-time. The current scene here is still in its infancy, but I mean to do all I can do to raise awareness and help it grow."
Competitive gaming is a hot topic. It's a serious sport played in an arena where serious fame and money are to be made; worldwide competitions are held, titles are won, ranks are surpassed, and players battle on skill, reflexes, precision and commitment. Becoming a competitive gamer has become a serious career move, and in some countries even the government is getting involved in the promotion and betterment of the sport. But where does Australia fit in all of this?
For Australia to be as good as other countries certainly won't come easy. For example, take South Korea, where the nationwide fascination with competitive and professional gaming has been steadily rising since the turn of the century due to the South Korean government's introduction of high-speed Internet and a countrywide love of the sci-fi epic Starcraft. When lazy television programmers scheduled a Starcraft broadcast in a late-night time slot in 1998, ratings climbed so high that the joke turned serious.
The craze took off, and young gamers across South Korea began to battle it out over the Web rather than spend money on game consoles, turning competitive gaming into a battleground for commercial sponsorship. Companies such as Samsung and Coca-Cola began sponsoring tournaments, adopting pro gaming teams, and giving rise to national bodies such as the Korean Pro-Gamers Association. Now, competitive gaming is a televised sport: Millions tune in to South Korea's two major game channels to watch the Starcraft tournaments (which are held in stadiums), while parents around the nation encourage their children to get involved. In 2005, Korean authorities reported to Reuters and BBC that a man actually died after spending more than 50 consecutive hours at an Internet cafe competing in a gamer tournament online.
The commercial and cultural support for professional gaming leagues in South Korea also means big money for the top players, who often earn up to six figures a year playing video games for a living, which makes them celebrities around town. It's not uncommon for a South Korean top player to be recognised and frequently chased by a legion of adoring fans.
Other countries have followed suit in nursing the competitive-gaming culture. China has recently finished the construction of a gaming arena and training facility; Japan has marketed the first "gamer vitamins," which purportedly boost your attention during long periods of gaming; and Russia has proclaimed computer gaming to be a national sport. Of course, one can't talk about competitive gaming without mentioning the USA, where the arcade games of the 1970s and 1980s gave birth to the competitive-gaming scene that is so popular today. The first publicised video games tournament, known as the Video Game Olympics, was held in Iowa with just 19 contestants during the "Golden Age" of arcade games in the early 1980s.
The State of Play
Supporting this growing demand for competitive gaming around the world are various tournaments and gaming leagues that offer players titles and millions of dollars' worth of prize money. The most popular international tournaments are those run by the Electronic Sports World Cup, the Championship Gaming Series (CGS), Major League Gaming, and the World Cyber Games (WCG). Held in different countries around the world every year, these tournaments attract thousands of gamers who come to compete for titles in first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and sports games.
The most popular games played at gaming tournaments include Counter-Strike, FIFA, Halo 2 and 3, Quake 4, Starcraft, Street Fighter, World of Warcraft, and Warcraft III. According to competitive-gaming site GotFrag, Australia is ranked as number 20 in the world when it comes to Counter-Strike, the game with the biggest competitive-player user base. The site combined results from 42 professional gaming leagues, tours, and tournaments to come up with a nation ranking, which totals 77 nations. It's an embarrassing ranking and something that Australian competitive-gaming teams are trying to improve.
The Australian branch of the Championship Gaming Series--a worldwide professional video game league that is made up of teams from countries in five continents competing for a total prize pool of US$1 million--is a 10-member team known as Sydney Underground. Formed in October last year, the team includes players from Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, and Melbourne, and has so far won the 2008 Pan-Asia Tournament and ranked fifth in the 2008 CGS World Final.
The general manager of Sydney Underground, Ben Thomas, believes that competitive gaming in Australia will get better only when more e-sports organisations begin to work together. "E-sports organisations in Australia operate independently, so we have a scene that is like a bunch of small islands. Skill-wise, our players are up there with the best in the world; however, some games suffer from having extremely small communities and low player numbers," Thomas says.
"Competitive gaming is something that we are beginning to see on the increase as technology pushes forward and improvements in Internet infrastructure and speeds allow more and more people to play from the comfort of their own homes. However, when compared to other countries, Australia has a long way to go."
Sydney Underground member James Davey, 22, has been playing competitively for one year. His game of choice is Forza Motorsport 2, and he was the number-one qualifier for Project Gotham Racing 3 at last year's CGS tournament in Australia. "The Australian competitive-gaming scene is very Counter-Strike orientated, which makes it hard to accept other platforms or titles. Until competitions start popping up for other games, the scene here is probably going to stay pretty boring," Davey says. "Maybe one day it could expand a little bit, but at this stage I don't see myself making a living from competitive gaming any time soon."
The World Cyber Games
The yearly World Cyber Games are also high up on the key tournaments in the competitive-gaming scene. Set up in the year 2000 by the Korean company International Cyber Marketing and now backed by Samsung and Microsoft, the WCG are the Olympics of competitive gaming. A different city plays host to the tournament each year, with more than a million visitors and a vibe that unites gamers from all over the world in a gaming-only environment. Each participating country conducts its own preliminary rounds before sending its top players to the finals. This year, Cologne will host the WCG final, in which 80 countries are expected to compete for 14 titles with an estimated 2 million participants worldwide.
The Australian finals of the World Cyber Games will take place from August 8 to 10 at Sydney's Luna Park, where, over the course of three days, Australia's best competitive gamers will battle it out for a spot at the world finals. In other countries, an event like the WCG can attract crowds, money, and media attention on its own merits, but not so here in Australia. Here, event organisers have had to step up the family-friendly and commercial angle to ensure that the event gets coverage and sponsorship, with a music stage, a fashion show, and a Guitar Hero competition run in conjunction with music station NOVA. Alex Walker, tournament director for the WCG in Australia, says that this is the only way the competitive scene in Australia can grow.
"At the moment most events in Australia are run at Internet cafes, including some national events," Walker says. "The only way the scene is going to grow is if we make it appealing to people who don't currently attend these hardcore competitions. In order to do that, larger venues are required with larger events. The WCG at Luna Park this year will be an example of what can be done with the right planning and execution."
Charles Brown, managing director of CBN Media and strategic partner of the WCG in Australia, says that the aim of the family-friendly initiatives is to increase interest in the WCG in the hope that Australia will play host nation to the grand finals of the tournament in the next few years. "We know most people are afraid to play competitively, but we're simply just trying to get them to turn up. If getting football players to verse each other in car-racing games is what it's going to take to raise interest and sponsors, then that's what we're going to do," Brown says.
Although Australia has been participating in the WCG since 2001, we haven't improved a whole lot on the world stage. Brown says the reason is that there is not enough competition happening down under. "To be the best, you have to compete against the best. Australian players can only compete against each other. To change this, we have to start hosting more local events that are going to draw interest from overseas. More events will mean more competition, and therefore more sponsorship."
Australia's geographic location is also at fault when it comes to the state of play. "Australia's record in competitive gaming so far is mostly in real-time strategy games. This stems from our greatest weakness," Walker adds.
"Strategy games are easier to practice competitively from Australia because the physical distance from other countries doesn't present such a major problem when it comes to tournament-level play. In games that rely heavily on reactions--like Counter-Strike--the latency from Australia to anywhere else that has strong opposition makes the game unplayable. Because of this, most of our good teams end up practicing against each other, and this doesn't foster improvement." There's also the aspect of rewards to consider. No Australian competitive gamer can expect to make a living from playing, much less expect to be hailed as a hero or brought to the attention of anyone other than the competitive-gaming community. One way to improve that is to bring more tournaments to our shores. Brown and CBN Media are currently working on bringing the WCG to Australia by organising various state-government organisations across the country and raising media interest to ensure that enough community interest is raised and enough sponsors put their hand up.
"Before you can pitch to get the world's biggest video game tournament in your backyard, you have to prove that you can run it properly. We have to get the powers that be to agree, get people to come, and convince the owners of the WCG that having it here will be a great thing for gaming and them. But I think it's definitely doable, and soon.
"Sure, players may never walk into a shopping centre and be chased by a sea of fans, but then again, who knows what the future holds?" Walker is also optimistic about Australia's future competitive-gaming scene. "Later down the track, the Internet and the infrastructure that we have in Australia may evolve to a point where financial issues and problems that pop up in tournament-level gaming are no longer an issue. When that happens, there won't be any troubles for gamers to make a living out of their skill. It doesn't matter where you live, if you're the best at something, someone will pay to see it."
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The gaming communities aren't the only ones discussing Australia's future in competitive gaming. Competitive gaming and its relationship to consumers of media has also become of interest in academic circles. Earlier this year, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne held Game On, an exhibition dedicated entirely to a celebration and history of games culture. Screen events programmer for games at the ACMI, Helen Stuckey, thinks Australia's problem in the competitive-gaming scene is not enthusiasm, but a lack of knowledge.
"I think at the moment we're at a time when the population doesn't really understand the skill and the expertise of the players," Stuckey says. "When you compare Australia to other countries where a culture of video gaming has already been established, then you can see we need a whole set of new terminology that appreciates this blend of popular media and video games."
Stuckey believes the solution is a slow integration of competitive gaming in the Australian community. "We need bridging games like Guitar Hero and car-racing games to be played at events and tournaments--games that people can appreciate and understand. The more people understand games, the more they'll accept them."
This fact that there are many video games out there that allow for competitive play is something that New York Post entertainment writer Michael Kane discovered during his yearlong documentation of competitive gamers across the USA and Europe for his book, Game Boys: Professional Videogaming's Rise From the Basement to the Big Time. Kane found that over the last decade, video games have become advanced and complex enough to allow for highly competitive and varied competitions.
"This means that, within each game, there are different skills possible, different specialties," Kane said via e-mail from New York. "It's not just about avoiding getting hit by a barrel, like in Donkey Kong. Elite gamers now have specialised skills, and even beyond that, specialised styles that set them apart from competitors. "I learned quickly that better-skilled and better-prepared competitors prevailed. Add to that the fact that now top gamers can make nearly US$100,000 a year, and that's lots of reasons to become avid."
When Kane began his research, he had no idea that video game sales had surpassed the US domestic-movie box office, or that PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that the video game market will continue to grow to US$49 billion. Two years on, Kane thinks it's still a matter of love of the game.
"Competitive gaming is very popular in countries like Sweden, where the relatively small area in which the population resides has, for some time, been wired with the highest-quality Internet. That, along with a lesser interest in other pastimes or sports, which is the case in Australia and certainly the US, translates into more kids competing in video games.
"At some point I think few people will watch TV and most will 'play TV' in the way they now 'play the Internet.' In years to come, even movies may become interactive. At that point, movies, TV, and video games will come even closer to becoming one entity."
Despite the factors working against Australia so far--our geographical location, the size of our population, our comparatively slow Internet speed, and a lack of organised competition--there is still good reason to believe that the future of competitive gaming in Australia is looking bright. The problems have been identified, and now the focus is slowly turning toward creating solutions.
Anything Interactive (AI) is a Melbourne-based e-sports company that is working out how to improve Australia's competitive-gaming scene, step by step. CEO Ryan Street and his team of five have so far achieved a significant feat: The organisation and running of Australian-based competitive-gaming events that have successfully attracted attention and high-profile sponsorship. Among the most publicised are Gamerthon and the Anything Interactive National Cup, which this year drew 1,500 participants across Australia and New Zealand, and thousands of spectators at the finals in Melbourne's Federation Square. AI events are made famous by their mix of games that facilitate competitive gamers as well as the not-so-serious players.
"We try and hold very public events, held in big locations, so we can draw big sponsors and big crowds. We want the gaming community to come together with the public and celebrate competitive gaming," Street says.
"Australia is struggling demographically, small as we are, and large competitions have lost momentum. We lack big events that facilitate big sponsors and team structure. In the past a lot of competitions have been put on just for gamers--we're trying to broaden the scope a little and get people excited about video games."
Gamerthon runs twice a year, and in the past has attracted players from New Zealand and Indonesia. Street hopes to expand Gamerthon to other South Pacific countries by 2010.
"Australia needs its own event. We need to draw people to our country and push it to the next level where we start hosting big competitions with prize money, sponsors, and lots and lots and lots of people.
“We have to be strategic and host an event that will last, that will be recognised and that will bring international teams here.”
It’s not just event hosts like AI that share an enthusiasm for more organised competition. Team Immunity, one of Australia’s only e-sports team that enjoys the benefit of sponsorship, is also rallying for more events. Based in Melbourne, the team formed in July 2003 under the leadership of owner and Managing Director, Tony Trubridge, and is currently sponsored by Intel and Geil USA. The team includes players skilled in a wide range of games, including Call of Duty 4, Counter-Strike 1.6, Counter-Strike Source, World of Warcraft, Warcraft 3, Starcraft and World in Conflict, and often competes in international tournaments.
“I would urge event organisers, teams and the community at large to begin looking at the bigger picture,” Trubridge says. Despite Australia not holding any official rankings besides the World Cyber Games and the Electronic Sports World Cup qualifiers, Trubridge thinks Australia rates highly when compared to other countries. “Considering per capita the talent pool we have to draw upon we compete exceedingly well on the world stage. The Europeans are certainly some of the strongest opposition you can encounter. Their blazingly fast Internet access, extensive LAN culture and overall population density consistently generates world-class players,” he says. “With Australia being one of the fastest growing technologically adaptive countries in the world, e-sport is certainly on the increase.”
Back at Chlebowczyk’s house, the competition is winding down. A member of Sydney Underground’s team, Chlebowczyk has been playing on the professional circuit for the last few years. Despite the grim outlook, he says the talent and enthusiasm of Australian gamers will push the scene to grow. “We're in both an exciting and difficult time, with the growing connectivity of gaming bringing competition to more players and across more gaming genres. I think the community for competitive gamers is relatively small, but people who discover it really enjoy it and are very supportive. Competitive events have a great atmosphere, which some people might be surprised by. So far, the best events have been those where players like me have pushed information by word of mouth and made a gathering out of it; getting more players in these small circles to take the lead is the next step," he said.
“If we don't see something like this happen with broader support for a wide range of game genres, without being slave to sponsorship dollars or publisher game selections, then we're never going to gain real momentum. I'm pretty confident that as all these factors grow we'll see a fantastic, cross-platform, cross-genre competitive scene of talented Australian gamers.”
What do you think of Australia's competitive gaming scene? What do we need to move up the world ranks? Will corporate sponsorship help the cause? Leave us your thoughts below!