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Brave New World

TNWA's Paul Sulyok offers his view on the competitive games arena

Continuing the mini-series of interviews on the subject of competitive gaming, as the Championship Gaming Series World Finals take place, next up we talk to TNWA boss Paul Sulyok.

Tell us about The New World Alliance.

Now overall, the group has about 180,000 members. We're the largest online gaming community in the UK, and the third largest in Europe. We have a significant number of events running — about 20 events running across about a dozen games.

We also partner with some fairly significant people, so for example recently we launched a GBP 50,000 online and offline tournament with Play.com, Midway and Epic Games. The online element will take place on EnemyDown with individual and team tournaments, and the offline element will be played out at Wembley Stadium during Play.com Live in March.

Do you think it's true that not everybody is going to want to try and win money from playing games? Doesn't it add an element of pressure that some people just don't want?

Yes, gaming is a fun pastime and I think the thing that anybody who's entering the market needs to be aware of is that the differential between individuals who are participating in competitive gaming, albeit if the skill levels are very close, the better player will always wallop the weaker player.

If you and I play tennis, I might take the odd game off you if you're really good, but in gaming if we're playing Counter Strike or Unreal Tournament 3 you'll hammer me every time because it's a twitch-based game.

For example, Tournament.com just shut down, and they put a significant amount of cash into trying to get a community of players competing for cash, but it's not just about the cash, it's about the competition — it's about the sport itself, and I think that's very important to bear in mind.

There is a place overall for that sort of games-for-cash plan, but it's part of the overall scene, as opposed to being a standalone business model. We've still got Prizefight, and we do have plans for it in the medium term, but as part of a larger offering.

It seems to be more event driven, but while CGS is offering big money, the World Series of Video Games closed down — so what's the real picture?

To be honest with you I think there are two elements at play. CGS have Fox Entertainment behind them, and they have very deep pockets, and the way they've come at it is from a commercial angle.

They've hired people who have experience from parallel industries, and approached it in a manner that's quite aggressive and territorial — they have the exclusive license on using Counter Strike Source and televising it, thereby preventing other notable tournaments out there who would like to use it, but can't.

But I think it comes down to the business management and the depths of the pockets of your backer.

And surely it's about the mainstream TV coverage they can leverage as well?

Yes, and being able to spend USD 2 million per show and having a director that's won 30 Emmy Awards does make a differenceâ¦

So what are they getting out of it then, because surely they can't make money out of it?

I think commercially, ultimately they may well do actually. It all depends on how well the television production is put together. We dabbled in gaming television with PrizeFight TV which was intentionally low budget, very much like Wayne's World, but it was fun and people liked watching it — yes it was on Sky but it was at funny times. But it was never designed to be a massive commercial hit.

CGS is a slick, well-funded, very professional product. But that said there are other extremely professional TV stations out there, one of which is Xleague TV, who not just cover one or two game but a whole range, have intelligent commentary and great production values in the TV that they produce.

Do you think that Xleague TV has a strong future then?

Very much so. I think that the way that Xleague TV is approaching it is very intelligent. They're covering games from all sorts of perspectives, so it's not just the traditional games such as driving or shooting, but they talk about games in general, so you've got a spectrum of ability there.

And they're not approaching the market in a controlling way that others are, in the respect that they don't try and lock down rights. They — and we to a certain extent — believe that if you lock down a game, you have a detrimental effect on that game, because you're undermining the actual community that you have to build up.

That's what we're about at TNWA — we're about building community around games.

But if CGS does this right, won't everybody benefit from a general increase in perception or awareness?

It does and it doesn't. If the FA told every Sunday league football club out there, "Yes you can play football, but you can't video it, because it's only our teams from the Premier League or the Championship that you can watch on TVâ¦"

I don't think that would be particularly good for football and that's the same sort of approach that CGS are taking with the games that they use. They're locking down those games, and by doing that one could argue that they're disenchanting the core following of the game in the first place.

Isn't that the fault of the game's license holders for letting them do that?

It's a developing part of the industry. I think five years ago people thought there might be something here, but weren't quite sure. Three years ago people also thought there was something there but they couldn't quite make the crossover between games as a form of participation entertainment, and as something you can watch somebody else doing.

The jury is still out as to whether the bigger budget type of television being produced by CGS for certain types of games actually works.

But it's still down to the license-holders though?

I'm going to flip it over and raise a point that was raised to me a couple of months ago.

That was that there's an awful lot of bad television made around some of the games - some of the IPTV stuff that was produced was shocking, really terrible - and it could be argued that CGS, by signing contracts with the publishers are guaranteeing a level of quality, and therefore the reputation of the game. That could be argued.

I don't necessarily agree with that perspective. I think the best thing for a game is everybody to be able to play it, for it to be grassroots all the way up, everyone to be able to view it. And I think the larger the community you can build up around the game, the better.

Are consoles a challenge to the PC platform?

Well, we're currently very focused on FPS games, but going forward we intend to embrace other types of games and other platforms as well. I think anybody that doesn't do that is being fairly short-sighted.

Consoles are huge, they're here to stay, a number of the games are very entertaining - they are increasingly becoming a feature of everybody's sitting-room.

Have you already spoken to the likes of Microsoft and Sony? How far would they be prepared to let you come in and work with them on events? Historically they've been pretty careful to control their own product

I think there are two stages, two ways of approaching this area. The first is that you need to have a very tight control of your product when you are at the seed launch stage, because it's very easy for it to go wrong.

If you throw something else into the marketplace that isn't sufficiently backed or funded or developed, there is a chance that somebody else will grab it, and they'll commercialise it in a way that adversely affects the overall product.

So you need to have that nurturing stage of a product like console online gaming. But now I think we're approaching a turning point with a number of the larger console providers whereby they've gone through the initial stage of nurturing their products, and now they're now looking at other ways in which third parties can come in and participate, and help support it.

So you think that the likes of Sony and Microsoft will be open to this sort of idea?

My sense is that going forward, yes they will be.

And have you spoken to them about your plans already?

They are people that we have talked to, and will continue to talk to about everything that we do.

Paul Sulyok is the CEO of the TNWA Group. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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