Gamers prepare ?for another round in the lead up to the Telkom DGL Masters final, where a R1-million prize pool was up for grabs. The Rage expo in Johannesburg saw for the first time two sponsored eSport tournaments on simultaneously on the main floor.
JOHANNESBURG - South African eSports is a fast-growing industry – but is it a traditional sport or a different type of competition?
Some in the industry avoid the question altogether, while others believe it doesn't make a difference whether there is consensus on the issue. What matters is that it is here, and so is the money. And somehow it needs to be managed.
As Desmond Kurz, one of the early stalwarts of local eSports, said earlier this year while still head of digital and gaming at internet service provider MWEB: "It's not so much how big eSports is, but rather how quickly it is growing in South Africa that keeps my eyes on it."
That sentiment is echoed by Andreas Hadjipaschali, team manager of Bravado Gaming, winners of the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive tournament during the Telkom DGL Masters Final at the recent rAge expo last month in Johannesburg.
His team scooped R200,000 and narrowly missed taking the same title in the Dota 2 tournament at the same event.
"The one important thing to realise is not how big eSports is compared with other professional activities, but rather its rate of growth – which is tremendous," says Hadjipaschali.
It looks like a sport, it pays like a sport, the gamers train like athletes, and the fans flock to the tournaments, physically and online. So the question becomes less “Is it a sport?” and more “Can it – or should it – be governed like a traditional sport?”
In other words, should eSports have a national governing body such as the South African Football Association or the South African Rugby Union?
There has been some pushing and pulling between those with corporate interests in eSports, such as Telkom, and the more governance-minded approach to development shown by Mind Sports South Africa (MSSA).
MSSA is an affiliate of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee. It awards regional, provincial, national and Protea colours, with a focus on regulation and governance, but has cautiously distanced itself from corporate tournaments such as the Telkom DGL Masters.
Asked about corporate sponsors, MSSA general secretary Colin Webster says: “Not sure there is no synergy ... the synergy is there. We need to get on the same page.”
MSSA feels so strongly about the need for a governing body that it is in full support of attempts by the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) to narrow the gap between eSports and traditional sports. The federation wants the International Olympic Committee to include eSports in the 2020 Games. That in itself is a contentious issue not yet supported by the broader eSport community or tournament organisers.
Meanwhile, corporate sponsors are launching their own tournaments, like Telkom’s Masters series, which offered a R1-million prize pool – a first in South Africa.
Steve Whitford, formerly with Telkom, was pivotal in helping eSports develop into a national platform. He concedes that it is a sport in most aspects of the term but stops short of calling it a federated sport.
Among his reasons, he refers to game rules being determined by the publisher of the game.
Though it may be in the publisher's interest to regulate its game for eSports – or at least make consistent eSports versions of the game – the ultimate decision still rests with the publisher.
Players and the local multi-gaming organisations (MGOs), such as Bravado Gaming, are also trying to find some middle ground.
Bravado Gaming is one of South Africa’s oldest gaming organisations. It has been promoting itself as a gaming sports business since 2006.
Hadjipaschali sees Bravado Gaming as a brand – "The exact same way that Manchester United is a brand, an ambassador to many other brands, an endorser to players, a lifestyle people want to follow."
He believes, however, there should be a governing body of sorts.
"There needs to be a governing body involved, to a degree. You don’t want a third party to completely control everything and anything that you do. But at the same time you require some rules and regulations that may create a positive image of eSports – such as limiting foul language, preventing match fixing and so on."
"The most important part is, if the governing body is reputable, it may open many more opportunities for investors to enter the market, all the way from broadcasting to financial investment."
"We need a central area to say, 'This is competitive gaming and this is what you can become.'"
Hadjipaschali says such a force would help turn MGOs and brands into successful businesses, leading to player salaries, higher levels of commitment and seriousness, better skills and international competitiveness.
That sentiment is shared by Kurz, who says: "You need both."
"We need high-money, flashy events ... that attract media interest [and] get people involved. The big money is what drives awareness."
But he warns that when it comes to development, as with more traditional sports, a grassroots approach is what paves the way to international competition – for the most part sorely lacking in South Africa.
Paul Chaloner, one of the world's most prominent eSports tournament hosts, attended the launch of the Telkom DGL Masters at the start of 2016 and the rAge expo. He says, quite simply, "If some activity has this many people watching it, you can call it whatever you want."
In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter whether eSports is technically accepted as a sport or not. Most categorise it like a mind sport, such as chess. But what does matter is that its entertainment value is large enough that it draws a massive audience.
While the debate continues, spectator numbers of the 2016 Dota 2 final in Seattle, a single event that lasted about two hours – pushed 20-million with just over US$20-million prize pool, the winners taking half of that.
It seems eSports can be whatever you want it to be, but it cannot be ignored.