Professional gaming is finally here.
Melbourne hosted its inaugural eSports tournament this weekend at the Rod Laver Arena – usually, the scene of gripping end-to-end entertainment played out by the world’s best tennis players.
On this occasion, it was all so different.
For the entire weekend, the venue was assimilated by eSports market leader ESL (formerly Electronic Sports League) and events organizer TEG in order to stage the Melbourne Esports Open – a professional gaming tournament that welcomed some of Australia’s leading gamers, competing in competitions based on the world’s most popular games.
Gaming has become a vastly popular pastime in Australia with over 40% of Australians now playing games on a regular basis. Gaming is on the march to the extent that increasingly more amateurs are considering “going pro” and becoming a full-time gamer.
Small Caps attended the show to see exactly what the fuss is about and to determine the chances of gaming entering the next generation and becoming a fully-fledged entertainment-industry niche.
Fanatical about gaming
Despite the tournament being dwarfed by its larger events in the US, this weekend’s event could potentially represent a seminal shift, and for some, a long-awaited emergence, of an entirely new phenomenon in entertainment.
eSports is predicted to grow into a mass-market industry worth as much as US$1.5 billion by 2020, with additional markets such as gaming hardware, peripherals and accessories also expected to grow in conjunction.
Gaming companies are only adding to the intense excitement by developing ever-more engaging multiplayer games and are on their way to recording compound annual growth rates as high as 35-55% in the next five years, according to video game market analysts.
According to the organisers, the attendance on both days was excellent with early estimates suggesting around 15,000-20,000 visitors attended this weekend’s gaming extravaganza in central Melbourne.
When combined with turnout numbers from Sydney’s eSports event last year (around 15,000), early indications are that ‘eSports’ is on its way to “forging an entirely new industry” in Australia.
On a global stage, Australia remains a strong early adopter of eSports although as this weekend’s event has shown, there were plenty of amateur gamers keen to take part.
Event host and logistics company TEG ensured the festivities had the glitz and glamour, while eSports company ESL ensured over 20 games were made on offer across all platforms including the PC and consoles.
Before the show, ESL managing director Nick Vanzetti told Small Caps that the community-style event was purposefully designed to be a “gaming carnival” with a distinct mini-expo feel that welcomes players of all ages.
According to ESL, the Melbourne Esports Open accommodated both pro-circuit gamers but also amateur gamers that wanted to participate in eSports. ESL laid out multiple games for attendants to try for themselves including titles such as Forza Motorsport, FIFA 19, Minecraft, Fortnite, Rainbow Six, Counter-Strike and NBA 2K.
However, it was tournament play which dominated attention.
The “Overwatch Contenders” season two playoff was a “path to pro” event that would effectively seal a chance for an Aussie team to compete on the global stage.
The event series comprises 7 events in different regions with 12 teams per region making a total of 84 teams, competing in three separate tournaments each year. After all the regional matchups are contested, winners move into a global playing field and a chance to scoop up more of the US$3.2 million guaranteed prize pool (A$4.4 million).
For the professional players actually taking part in the tournament – considered to be some of Australia’s best – the headline games titles selected by ESL were Overwatch and League of Legends. The two games featured as the battleground for the main events held at Rod Laver Arena, turning the venue into a gargantuan gaming den.
The Overwatch Contenders round attracted a large crowd of several thousand throughout the first day’s competition and ensured the first day’s play finished on a high.
Pro players also competed in other games including Counter-Strike Go and Fortnite as part of two days of competition that was all about “bringing the best games and the best gamers together under one roof”.
Saturday’s action included two Overwatch semi-finals including one of Australia’s most notorious gaming teams: ORDER. The 6-player team fields competitive teams in for several games including Overwatch, League of Legends and CS:GO.
The team was recently in the news for its mutual endorsement deal agreed with ASX-listed company Esports Mogul (ASX: ESH) , which could already be a sign that commercial entities are already sniffing around in the space with a view of associating themselves with the most gravitational gaming celebrities.
Despite its early stardom, Team ORDER was narrowly beaten by another Aussie team, ‘Dark Sided’ in the semi-final, who went on to play pre-tournament favourites and current Overwatch Contenders season one champions ‘Sydney Drop Bears’, in the showpiece final.
In the final, the Drop Bears lived up to the high expectations to beat Dark Sided, 4-1, in a thrilling affair that got people off their seats cheering with excitement amongst the thousands watching at the arena – and even more viewers tuning in on Twitch, an online gaming broadcaster that provides eSports coverage from various tournaments around the world.
Star players Kelsey “Colourhex” Birse and Samuel “Quatz” Dennis, were the standout performers and proved to be the key matchwinners that led their team to a back-to-back tournament victory – and a winner’s cheque of US$7,500 (A$).
— Melbourne Esports Open (@MelbEsportsOpen) September 2, 2018
On day two, the League of Legends Oceanic Pro League final was won by Aussie team Dire Wolves, thereby putting the team into the World Finals later this year.
As part of the pomp and glamour of the tournament and possibly in a bid to replicate the success of existing sports broadcasters, the show’s organisers provided running commentary of the day’s play through expert punditry and gaming analysis, bearing striking resemblance to traditional sports broadcasts that include a panel of match commentators.
This year’s panel concluded that the star player of the tournament was Kelsey “Colourhex” Birse, although the accolade was not exactly unexpected.
Described as “the region’s rising star” by Dot Esports magazine, Birse recently signed a professional contract with Canadian team Toronto Esports, meaning the young New Zealander will be competing on the US eSports circuit as a full-time professional gamer.
The future of eSports
High-performing Australian gamers are being scouted and offered full-time contract terms, in much the same vein as talented Australian footballers are lured abroad by the opportunity to play for top-tier teams in elite competitions, attracting the most viewers and the world’s best players.
Talented gamers being snatched overseas highlights that just as in traditional sports, the best teams tend to scout the world’s best players to stay competitive.
Also similar to some traditional sports, is the fact that Australia lags behind other countries in terms of numbers of gamers looking to become professional. For the time being, the hotspots for the world’s best gamers tend to be South Korea, China, USA, Japan, Europe; but Australia is catching up fast.
Already, almost half of Australians are regular gamers, largely due to mobile gaming reaching more adults than ever before. Further to this the nation is quickly adopting a taste not only for gaming but also for following the world’s best players as part of an eSports circuit that resembles traditional sports (and its hefty prize money totals).
Given the popularity of the Melbourne Esports Open and the anticipated growth of the industry, the likelihood is that eSports tournaments will become more prevalent with large showpiece gaming events gradually becoming part and parcel of modern entertainment.