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E-Sports

‘Killer Instinct’ from The Herald Magazine. As a keen gamer, I’d heard a good deal about the nascent movement known as e-sports. I presumed, however, that it was a phenomenon isolated to the US and Asia. When I researched the growing British teams, and uncovered a few Scots who play for a living, this magazine piece all but wrote itself.

HE IS part of an elite European team of mercenaries, sponsored by a multinational corporation to travel the world in pursuit of his next bounty. He is proficient in hand-tohand combat, counter-terrorism measures and stealth manoeuvres. His friends and family know little of his work. For weeks at a time he leads a second life, isolated in foreign countries. Training in solitude from dawn till dusk, he fires round after round from an arsenal of weaponry – pistols, submachine-guns, assault rifles, pump-action shotguns. He is equally accomplished with them all. Hours spill into days as he studies maps and architectural blueprints. Flights are arranged, hotels are booked. The corporation wishes him well. Then it is time for the kill.

Paul McGarrity is an unassuming assassin. A slightly built Scottish teenager with an unruly tussle of shoulder-length hair and a multicoloured scarf draped around his shoulders, he doesn’t look much like one of a growing breed of killers feared and revered the world over. But although McGarrity and his cohorts are renowned for spilling blood, they actually harm no-one. They are cyber-athletes: computer gamers employed and rewarded for their clinical style in simulated games of death.

Since he left school three years ago, McGarrity has been the envy of his friends. While his peers grapple with mounting student debts or poorly paid positions at the bottom of the career ladder, he has turned his passion for gaming into a profession, thanks to a growing movement known as “e-sports”. His is a world of free flights, limousines and fivestar hotels. In the past 12 months, the 19-year-old has taken in the sights of San Francisco, Oslo, Hanover and Paris, winning lucrative prizes by excelling at his chosen video game, Unreal Tournament.

“Before I started playing games competitively, I’d never been outside Britain, or even on a plane, ” he reveals over lunch in an Edinburgh cafe. “It’s changed my life, and sometimes it still seems like a fantasy. One of my best friends works as a roofer and can hardly get time off, while I’m being flown with British Airways and staying in top-class hotels with free bars.” He pauses, tugging at his scarf. “It’s all a bit weird.”

“Weird” is a pretty good description of the whole e-sports phenomenon. With hundreds of competitors, the larger tournaments are often held in conference centres or hotels. Rows and rows of computer terminals fill the floorspace, with players sitting side by side and using headsets to communicate. Large plasma screens fixed to the walls give spectators a close-up view of the action, while commentators provide rapid-fire analysis over a huge PA system. It is a jumble of wires and hormones – and, increasingly, money.

To begin with, says McGarrity, his friends and family didn’t take his e-sporting ambitions seriously. “My mum and dad thought I was wasting my time, ” he explains in his softly spoken voice. “They thought it was just a fad.” But as competing – and succeeding – became a regular occurrence, his parents accepted it, even if they couldn’t quite comprehend it.

“They’re really supportive now, ” he says. “I suppose they still don’t know much about what I do, but neither do a lot of friends. I have separate lives. I still have my family and friends in Scotland, but I’m meeting up with people all around the world. I’ve made friends in places I’d never have dreamt of visiting, like Serbia and Montenegro and Kazakhstan.

McGarrity is keen to point out that it isn’t round-the-clock glamour. Long weeks are spent with friends in Norway at gaming “boot camps”, where from first thing in the morning until late at night the only light he sees is the flicker of a monitor. But it is all in the name of practice. “You have to go and play with the best if you want to win, ” he reasons.

“When you take into account the free hardware he receives from sponsors – MP3 players, top-of-the-range PCs, games and clothes – along with the travelling, it is a privileged lifestyle for someone free from the responsibilities of a mortgage or children”

McGarrity lives at home with his parents and two brothers in Ratho, near Edinburgh, and stresses gaming has not made him rich. Nevertheless, his abilities in front of a screen have afforded him a “comfortable standard of living” over the past three years. When you take into account the free hardware he receives from sponsors – MP3 players, top-of-the-range PCs, games and clothes – along with the travelling, it is a privileged lifestyle for someone free from the responsibilities of a mortgage or children. “I keep saying to myself that I ought to be going to college or university – but, you know, you ask yourself why. If I can, I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life.”

It is a far cry from the formative days of gaming in the late seventies and early eighties, when Pong and Pac-Man left young audiences agape with wonder. As technology has progressed, the notion of games as a spectacle, akin to cinema or television, has followed suit. The games popular among today’s e-sports community are fully realised, boasting formidable graphics and sound effects; often too formidable for those with a weak constitution.

Watching these titles in action brings home just how impressive the whole affair has become. In the game Unreal Tournament, for instance, the programmers have rendered an overbearing, atmospheric landscape where the hunted stalk the hunter. Gamers’ characters troop purposefully through strange, foreboding worlds, before confronting one another in a brutal showdown. It is often a gratuitously violent affair, but one replete with all the tension and excitement familiar to a well-crafted thriller.

Throughout the 1990s, the profile of gaming was raised by Sony with its best-selling PlayStation 2 console, with games specifically tailored to older audiences, predominantly twenty-something bachelors with money to spare. Now, with high-end technology costing less than ever and, more importantly, broadband internet access offering affordable superfast connection speeds, the scene seems set for the full-time gamer. A select few, if they are good (and fortunate) enough, are even being courted by corporations pushing the medium as a cultural phenomenon.

As one of the UK’s foremost cyber-athletes, McGarrity travelled to Hanover in Germany last month to compete in the European Cyber Games (ECG). It is one of the most prestigious events in e-sports, with gamers from 30 nations competing for a prize pot of £150,000. Indeed, such is the stature of the tournament that it is now sponsored by Samsung, the electronics manufacturer, which paid for the travel expenses of more than 300 of the competitors – including McGarrity, who finished a respectable fourth in his event.

McGarrity is just one member of Team Dignitas, an up-and-coming gaming fraternity – or ‘clan’, as they style themselves. A registered company, Dignitas employs around 30 gamers across Europe, some as young as 17, to participate in lucrative tournaments. The players are under legally binding contracts with the clan, and, in addition to prize money, regularly receive a bounty of equipment from its sponsor and main financier, the hardware firm ABIT.

Michael O’Dell, the managing director of Dignitas, seems an unlikely e-sports boss. A 33-year-old father of two from Surrey, for the past 16 years he has worked for a company that produces postage stamps. But his passion for gaming saw him register the clan at Companies House in 2003, in the belief that e-sports would explode in popularity. “It’s just incredibly exciting to be at the beginning of something, ” says O’Dell. “There are players who get paid salaries and have product endorsement deals, and that’s before you take into account their winnings and free trips and the like. In all, there’s about $3.5m up for grabs to gamers in 2005. The prize money will keep rising as the publicity increases.”

This year the e-sports community is buzzing with talk of the Cyber-athlete Professional League (CPL) World Tour, an event that is set to be covered by the most influential youth brand of them all: MTV. The tour is the brainchild of Angel Munoz, a former stockbroker who founded the US-based organisation in 1997. Since its inception it has hosted dozens of events across the globe, attracting around 40,000 gamers who have scooped millions of dollars in prizes.

It will be this year, Munoz believes, that the mainstream media will latch on. With sponsors such as Hitachi putting in hundreds of thousands of dollars just to be affiliated with the CPL, the logistics for the tour – which will visit countries as far afield as Sweden, China and Brazil – match the ambitions of Munoz, who unashamedly boasts of having “launched the entire concept” of competitive gaming.

“I want the CPL to be worth $1bn and I don’t think that day’s far off, ” the 45-year-old confidently announces over the phone. “I started this as a hobby but it didn’t take long before I realised it’s a real strong business plan. We’re getting in touch with an audience that no-one else knows about, and it’s a technologically savvy audience with a disposable income. It’s what I call the ‘tech gen’. The big companies, the big brands, they’ve started to catch on that this is a major untapped market.”

Are the constant references to gaming as a sport and to gamers as athletes merely a marketing ploy, or does Munoz believe in it as a form of competition? “Of course it’s a sport, ” he rasps. “The athletes train for hours a day, constantly, just like any other sport. And where there’s sport, there’s money.”

Munoz is certainly doing more than most to breathe the oxygen of publicity into e-sports, but his brashness and ego have not endeared the CPL to many players. There is a widespread belief that the organisation is threatening to turn competitive gaming into just another commodity.

“While the e-sports community is appreciative of increasing prize funds, it will not stand for homogenisation”

Kiyash Monsef, a Californian documentary maker who has explored the e-sports scene over the past three years, warns that the gaming community is a close-knit one. While it is appreciative of increasing prize funds, it will not stand for homogenisation. “Those clans who have the financial weight of sponsorship will have an unfair advantage over groups of friends playing for the fun of it, ” he explains. “There’s been a sense of community surrounding competitive games in the past, and if e-sports organisers are not careful, they may damage that community in the process of building their industry.”

Munoz, however, sees corporate interest as a good thing for everyone. While the number of professional gamers is small in comparison to casual players, he says they are the group whose specific needs drive the industry: they constantly demand faster processors, more powerful graphic cards and improved sound effects, which then become standard on the computers other gamers buy.

Perhaps inevitably, Asia provides a glimpse of the future for e-sports. One of the CPL’s major rivals is the World E-sports Games (WEG), which held its main annual tournament last month in South Korea, a country recognised as the worldwide focal point of gaming. In Seoul, gamers are treated with superstar status, and tournaments are even screened on state television. Events resemble red-carpet premieres: a flurry of flashbulbs, screaming teenagers and, above all, an earnest belief that this is not just bubblegum but a historical event.

This microcosm of celebrity has encouraged sponsors such Coca-Cola, Nike and Subway to affiliate themselves with the WEG. Indeed, the WEG’s mission statement is akin to a United Colours of Benetton advert – or at least a poor imitation of one – with its aims of “surpassing ethnic national differences, social strata and borders . . . the world’s best players will use keyboard and mouse to showcase their talents, and the WEG will offer a lifebuilding playing field.” It is a bold, if slightly humourless, ambition. Nevertheless, the pomposity of the WEG brings with it big prize money, and gamers are inevitably drawn to its bright lights.

One such player is Keir McCann, a 22-year-old who is originally from Glasgow. As a member of the Four Kings clan, the most established and successful gaming outfit in Britain, McCann attended the recent WEG tournament. He reached the final round of the Counter-Strike event, a first-person hunt-andkill game created by hackers from an existing commercial game, Half-Life.

McCann, fresh-faced for his years, with a tuft of blond highlights in his hair, seems to share McGarrity’s incredulity as to how his career fell into place. “It’s difficult to explain to people that I’m a professional game player. I tend not to bother, ” he says, speaking between practice sessions in Asia. “A lot of my friends don’t understand, and I’m not entirely sure how it came about myself. I finished university earlier than a lot of my friends, so I found myself with a lot of free time. I’d been casually playing Counter-Strike for a few years but I found myself becoming increasingly addicted to it, and becoming better too.”

McCann, whose parents left the Gorbals when he was a toddler, now lives in Bolton, Lancashire. He began competing at local events, where gamers congregate in the same room to play on linked-up machines, then began to travel further afield to play at other conventions too. As he gained experience, the notion of turning passion into profession became a tangible one. “I realised I might actually be able to make money from it, ” he says.

Tales of McCann’s gaming prowess brought him to the attention of the Four Kings clan, who approached him and asked him to join. Since then he has travelled to high-profile competitions in Las Vegas and Texas. The £9,000 debt accumulated from his short stint in further education has been cleared – but breaking even is only the beginning. The WEG event has captured his imagination. “It’s the most innovative of all the events so far, ” he says enthusiastically. “The games are broadcast on television in most of Asia, and that community is the most advanced when it comes to accepting computer games as a competitive event.”

McCann’s team, which includes two Englishmen and two Swedes, ended as the eventual runner-up at the WEG, pocketing $20,000 (almost £10,500). “We did far better that we could ever have expected, ” he says. “It was good to get recognised in such a highprofile arena. We’re officially the UK’s numberone team now.”

The money involved in clans such as Team Dignitas and Four Kings, if not astronomical, would certainly confound many people’s expectations. The latter, also a registered company, was started in 1997 by Toby Aldridge, then a poorly teenager in Swansea. Cooped up in his bedroom for long spells with a liver problem, he immersed himself in gaming, and ended up setting in motion a remarkable cash-generating operation he could never have foreseen.

Aldridge, now 22, says that over the past three years Four Kings Ltd has collectively reaped around £210,000 in prize money. The company now retains the services of a dozen full-time gamers and eight administrative staff. “The scene has been doubling in size every year, ” he says. “Who knows what will happen by 2006?”

Such is the success and status of Four Kings that Intel, one of the world’s foremost computer-chip manufacturers, now sponsors the clan, providing players with high-end Pentium processors and motherboards. Like ABIT with Dignitas, it also subsidises their travel and accommodation when they take part in international events.

Intel has even appointed its first UK games strategist, Nick Knupffer, to channel the rising marketing potential of e-sports and promote its hardware. He believes it is a matter of when, not if, the investment is recouped, and the firm is pressing for gaming to be recognised as an official sport in Britain. “Gaming is a far bigger industry than Hollywood in terms of revenue, ” he points out. “Since we got involved with Four Kings, professional gaming has gone from strength to strength. It’s a registered sport in Russia and China, and we hope the UK will be next to follow. We sponsor the foremost team in the UK and are making major inroads all the time in the international scene. The next step is to get e-sports on television, and it could take a while, but we’re confident that’ll happen. This is just the beginning.”

“It is exciting talk, but such vaulting ambition again conjures up that warning of mistaking a community for an industry. For the vast majority of players, gaming remains a pastime, a means of letting off steam”

It is exciting talk, but such vaulting ambition again conjures up that warning of mistaking a community for an industry. For the vast majority of players, gaming remains a pastime, a means of letting off steam. It is questionable whether every youth to pick up a joypad has the conviction – or the arrogance – to believe they can forge a career from it.

At the Pallas Athene internet cafe in Edinburgh, for instance, the emphasis is firmly on having fun. The cafe, which opened its doors in February 2003, offers terminals for city-dwellers to pop in and check their e-mail, but it is geared towards gamers. A side room offers around a dozen computer terminals all hooked up for network play, each installed with familiar titles such as CounterStrike and Unreal Tournament.

Dave Williams, the amiable manager of the cafe, says the move has gone down well. “The original idea was to open a gaming centre and an internet cafe in one place, but the gaming side of things has really taken over, ” he explains. “People and clans from all over Scotland come here.”

On the Saturday afternoon I visit, a group of Edinburgh gamers are immersed in CounterStrike. Baseball caps are pulled down low over pallid complexions. Not an eye flinches from a monitor, nor does a hand stray from a keyboard. The room is almost noiseless, with only the communal whirring of hard drives and the clicking of mice punctuating the silence. It all seems terribly earnest – until you look beyond the screens. The room is hazy with cigarette smoke. Ashtrays boasting crowns of butts are scattered around the tables, next to half-eaten bags of tortilla chips.

By one terminal sits a bottle of absinthe. They may love playing, but it would appear that not all gamers are the dedicated athletes Angel Munoz would have everyone believe. “It’s all just a laugh, you know?” says one gamer. “You get to meet up and have a few games, then maybe a beer. I mean, people are out watching football games every Saturday. This is no different. It’s an interest, a hobby.”

He nods at the mention of the CPL, the WEG, the Korean celebrity gaming culture, the sponsors, the whole dazzling fantasy world of e-sports. “Yeah, I know all about it, but I’m not interested. To me this is just a bit of fun. It’s not called a game for nothing.”

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