Esports in SA – is it a bubble?

Local esports, or competitive video gaming, is at a tipping point – which way it tips appears to depend on whether tournament organisers can play nicely.

26 October 2017 - 12:14 By Scott Peter Smith
The full teams of both Bravado Gaming and Energy Esports line up for the final of the ESL African CS:GO Championships on Saturday at Rage earlier in October.
The full teams of both Bravado Gaming and Energy Esports line up for the final of the ESL African CS:GO Championships on Saturday at Rage earlier in October.
Image: Scott Peter Smith

Local esports, or competitive video gaming, is at a tipping point – which way it tips appears to depend, from one perspective, on whether tournament organisers can play nicely. From another perspective, on whether sufficient audience can be attracted to watch the sport on a regular basis.

Local esports has grown almost vertically in the last couple years.  While tournaments have been around in one form or another for some time, it was only early 2016 when we saw the emergence of impressive prize pools and media savvy events.

These tournaments have since offered millions of rands in prize money which comes only second to the further millions that are spent on the world class productions.

These tournaments are great for a gamer looking to go pro. It looks increasingly likely that salaried gamers will be more commonplace and gaming houses, where a team lives, trains and plays together are already popping up in South Africa.

However, the audience, while passionate, is small - some would say too small to sustainably support the millions being spent.

Leading to the question – is local esport spending a bubble?

It depends on who you ask.

Steve Whitford, an esports specialist who was integral to the launching of the Telkom Masters series in January 2016 under the Telkom Digital Gaming League (DGL) before it was rebranded into VS Gaming, wrote a piece last month which seems to capture much of the brewing conversation around growing esports in South Africa.

The sentiment of his piece, The elephant in the esports room, is that the growth in esports is great but considering that we have very different and limited access to the global stage we need a more organic approach to create a South African audience beyond bright lights and big stages.

In other words, more tournament organisers are taking the longer view and accepting that more needs to be done to build esports locally before those stream viewer numbers start ticking up.

The piece garnered a number of agreeable views, not least of which from the new kid on the esport block, Vincent Maher from Mega8 Esports, who insists on taking a more sustainable and long-tail view of esport development.

Nick Holden, co-founder of African Cyber Gaming Leaugue (ACGL) and long-time shoutcaster has a decidedly grassroots approach to developing esports, taking full cognisance of disproportionate access to technology and broadband in SA.

Holden says he doesn’t think esports here is a bubble but, “If dev is only at the top then it does create a bubble.”

Whitford’s former colleague and a veteran of the esports industry here, Johann Von Backstrom, COO of VS Gaming says their directive from Telkom is clear – grow esports. 

“We are too small to be concerned about competition…we are focusing on the brand,” von Backstrom says. 

It was Telkom's support to develop gaming and the launch of the Masters tournaments that arguably springboarded esports into the active ecosystem it has since become.  

“We are putting down the lawn for the rugby field that everyone plays on,” says Von Backstrom when talking about how far they have come over the last 12 years. 

The VS Gaming CS:GO Masters Finals were held at Rage earlier this month with eight teams competing for a R550,000 prize pool.

So what is the better way to move forward so everyone benefits? No one interviewed has been involved in the birth of a sport before, but considering the lingering but not quite outspoken (at least to the public) glaring occurrence of two high profile CS:GO tournaments on the same weekend – an outsider can be forgiven to think there is a race to the top.

Or you can see it as a necessary growing pain with surprisingly conciliatory attitudes between prominent esport hosts and tournament organisers.

Barry 'Anthrax' Louzada, who has worked with most tournament organisers and launched his own esport company, Mettlestate, earlier this year in partnership with Twitch and Samsung, says he is doing what he feels is the right stand and touch point for growing esports.

When introducing the first African Championship tournament in CS:GO featuring north and South African teams, Brad Kirby, head of esports for Kwese said, “Welcome to my dream”.

Kirby says he wants to build the scene - bringing money to enable aspiration and enable players to go full time across the continent.

Kirby uses rugby as an analogy, "Twenty or thirty years ago you didn't have full time Springbok players, you had lawyers and doctors who played part time."

This has of course changed and it is an important point to make.

The industry wants to create this space for gamers as quickly as possible but there are still developmental phases to deal with to do that sustainably.

The ESL African CS:GO Championships were also held at Rage this month with two South African teams, one from Algeria and another from Morocco competing for the title and their share of R2-million. The title was won by South African team, Energy Esports.

More than twice on the weekend, from two different organisers, the phrase, “A rising tide raises all ships” was uttered. One of those eternal truths it seems, it is generally associated with the idea that improvements in the general economy will benefit all  participants in that economy.

What esports in South Africa looks like in a year's time is anybody's guess, but watching a sport being formed is fascinating.