Ready, Fight! The Battle for Grassroots esports

Credit: Florian Olvio UnSplash

This story was originally published on 20/12/2019

The New Zealand esports scene is divided. Some people will tell you its thriving. Some people will tell you it’s limping along. It all depends on who you talk to (and when).

Part of the reason it’s so fragmented is because everyone is playing at different levels — from community to pro — and none if them are really talking to each other.

Round One

New Zealand has pro-esports teams, pulled together by the Warriors and NZ Breakers (known as Black Sheep) and a league that holds oceania championships through Let’s Play Live and a a fighting game community with regular events through Standing Fierce. On the surface, the industry looks like it’s on the cusp of a boom.

But at the community level, where future pro-players are being nurtured and ameaturs are having their first taste of what it’s like to be in a team, the view is very different.

“You’ve got lots of barriers to entry.” Jackson Bradley, founder of Expansion NZ, says over the phone from Wellington. “I don’t feel there’s much point in scenes anymore or in Wellington [as a scene] or regions. It’s a bit tough to get people to go to events anymore anyway.”

Bradley and his team at Expansion focus on running and supporting local community events for esports in Wellington. If Lets Play Live’s leagues and the eBlacks are the top of the mountain of New Zealand esports, then Expansion is base camp — helping to find and foster talent and getting them climbing the mountain.

One of the biggest barriers to entry, Bradley says, is cost. Not only does he fund 50 per cent of Expansion out of his own pocket, the barrier exists for other people that are trying put on events.

“You’ve got accessibility and cost, right? So, when I run events, and we have to get a venue, venues cost a helluva lot more money than they should. In Wellington, we’re challenged to get venues for any sort of gaming because there really isn’t that focus in Wellington, or anywhere in New Zealand at the moment. If we apply for a funding scheme, like Wellington funding, it’s often unlikely we’ll get funding for anything because [esports] isn’t seen as advantageous by the people looking after that side of funding.”

Sponsorship is an option, however businesses are usually unwilling to put money up — instead offering products, services or games. While sponsorship is big at the higher levels, it’s challenging for businesses to see the financial benefit of supporting grassroots esports.

“sponsors, they’re very reluctant to give money but are very supportive with other things.” Jackson says. “Say Hell Pizza, you’re not going to get any money from Hell Pizza but they’ll give you vouchers. What’s another one? Say a distribution group for Capcom, they’re not going to give you money, they’re going to give you free copies of the game. So, you have to either balance it out all yourself and get your costs right or its a loss.”

Round Two

As the first steps on the ladder to esports fame and glory, Expansion spends a lot of time trying to bring players together, coaching them and driving the scene forward in a way that helps people get career pathways.

“I’ve always said to the players that we support them,” says Bradley. “Expansion NZ is a stepping stone for their career — we’re not going to hold them back from a good deal from another organisation or a team that is going to push them further. Our goal is to help get them exposure and get them out there. If esports grows then they will grow and hopefully they can make a proper career out of it, if they want to.”

Depending on the game, esports teams can be between three and six players. To build Expansion’s teams — which are then coached, entered into competitions and grown professionally — Bradley holds tournaments and picks the best of the best and pulls them together.

Other than groups of friends at the top of the table in their respective games, or through mentoring and training camps the likes of which Black Sheep and Warriors esports run, it’s one of the only ways to build a viable team. Unfortunately, it’s not without its challenges — when strangers are taken from their homes and put into teams and then put under pressure, almost anything can happen.

“It’s a casual player base,” Bradley says, “people play Legend of Legends or DOTA or CS:GO and it’s a team game. I relate it playing a game of soccer. You’ve got other people in your team and you’re ranked and want to progress but you have no clue what the other people’s attributes are or what their personality types are and when they mess up their [team mates] will instantly attack them for doing something wrong because they don’t have any interest in them.”

Bradley says that kind of negativity is hard to overcome for the community, the players, their teams and game developers.

It’s no secret that the toxicity outside of pro-esports and in casual online gaming, is massive. Dive into any Call of Duty team match up or CS:GO game that brings together and you’re bound to have someone screaming at you down your headphones.

“In shooting games,” Bradley says, “there’s a whole lot of negativity and its almost so forced onto the players that they become part of it and it’s really hard to break those traditions. For example, CS:GO teams never last more than three months, they always break up. So, if you’re investing time and you’re investing money into a CS:GO team, they need to know that they need to be committed. There are so many talented people, it’s just getting the right mix of people that you can help push to grow and if they have bad attributes, you can help sway them into a more positive direction.”

The negativity and toxicity among the elite gamers is so bad that Expansion has shifted its strategy from pulling together the best of the best to growing the talents of the up and coming.

The talent pool in New Zealand is tiny. If you look at League of Legends, Diamond ranking is the top 1% of players and it isn’t thought of as good in the pro-community. At the very top of the table is the Challenger ranking, which makes up closer to 0.1% of talent pool.

“We’re running Gold [in League of Legends], which is intermediate level and we have a huge sample size of people that we can put together. We’re not just focused on helping them rank up and get used to the team environment but also in helping them grow and improve and be [more positive].

“I’m focused on encouraging positive gaming,” he continues. “Instead of the younger generation being left to their own devices to play a game, where their parents don’t monitor them and they build into a toxic society, if we can get in earlier and support them as they grow, hopefully the country grows.

“I can probably talk about it for ages but it starts with parents and with school. If you’re playing and your parents don’t care and they tell you to get off and come to dinner and you don’t want to come to dinner then it’s a negative thing. Whereas, if you’re playing football or rugby, your parents would be there on the sidelines, they would be supporting you, after games they would be like, how did that go? How do you feel? They would give you some kind of positive reinforcement. Whereas gaming is left to its own devices and that’s where I feel we need to start pushing it.”

Round Three

Bradley and Expansion are working hard on what the future of community led esports is going to look like. Everything from pulling down the barriers he mentioned at the start of our conversation, to making sure that there are better, safer, places for players to help get involved and grow the scene.

“I’m more focused on not for profit events for people that aren’t necessarily looking at gaming for a career or are looking at gaming as an outlet and at the younger generations to help encourage positive gaming.

“I want to be able to offer the opportunity of gaming to people in lesser situations, who might be having a rough time at home or who feel like they’re not cared about in the world. We can offer them a safe place to come and enjoy something that’s not related to what they have to deal with at home, that’s where I’m looking.”

He wants to take the best parts of Expansion and roll them out across the gaming community.

“Most people have issues, their own personal issues, and they need to be able to talk through them. I’ve had my own issues throughout life and I always tell [the players] that I’m there for them. I think that’s possibly the number one thing you can do for people — to be there and support them through hard times.”

“esports is blowing up huge,” he says, “but in New Zealand we need to focus, as a group, on encouraging the community to grow first, before we can become a huge region that offers the best players in the world, like rugby.”

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