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Money for Nothing?

Philip Wride tells us why it's important to get more people into competitive gaming.

Competitive online gaming is nothing new, but the past few months has seen the launch of a more mainstream-friendly CGS, coupled with the demise of the World Series of Video Games and Tournament.com.

To get a health check for the state of online play just as the CGS kicks-off in LA - and start a series of features on the topic over the next few days - GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Philip Wride, director of Elysium Gaming Ltd, a consultancy company specialising in the competitive online games sector.

We saw the collapse of the WSVG not too long ago - is the industry in crisis?

It depends which way you look at it really. One less tournament for the players is a bit demoralising, because they've got less to work for in terms of competitions, there's less potential prize money that they can go and win.

With the things that they were doing in terms of coverage, with CBS and things like that, it means less visibility for competitive gaming in the mainstream media.

On the upside it shows that gaming tournaments do have their ups and downs, and there are a lot of things to consider in terms of setting them up, getting the funding and crucially the community support.

That was one of the problems with the WSVG - it was perceived in the community that although the games they chose were mass-market titles, the likes of World of Warcraft and Fight Night, they didn't necessarily cater to what the competitive community actually wanted.

Therefore the communities were looking at it, seeing that 2006 was quite good, but they weren't sure about 2007, about the games, and therefore they struggled to get the participation.

So the fact that it folded was down to bad game selection?

It could be put that way. You'd have to talk to the WSVG about whether that actually is the case, but from the community perspective that was one of the responses that came through when they announced the tour this year - they weren't very good picks.

Ok, Quake 4 was one of the mainstream competitive titles, but the rest weren't really, and that's one reason why they struggled to get the numbers that they had at other events last year.

In the same way CPL has struggled with its tour this year because it's picked F.E.A.R. and World in Conflict.

What is the money situation like then, has it increased at all in the past couple of years?

It is on the increase, but it's not a dramatic increase. The World Cyber Games has increased its prize fund again this year, the eSports World Cup is still a pretty good tournament to go to in terms of prize money.

The new kid on the block though for offering players salaries and large amounts of prize money is CGS from the States, which is the competition backed by DirecTV and BSkyB.

What sort of money are they offering?

Well the players that get drafted into their teams are looking at salaries of about USD 30,000 and prize money and bonuses on top of that. So it offers players a direct opportunity to play the games that the CGS is operating, and getting paid a reasonable sum of money for it.

That's an exclusive deal, isn't it? So the CGS players aren't able to enter other tournaments?

It's initially exclusive, but if players want to compete in other tournaments they have to seek permission from CGS, they can't just go ahead and do it. You may look at it as an exclusive deal in that a lot of the players may not even bother trying to ask, because they don't want to be turned down.

Because they're playing for CGS teams, and the teams are owned by CGS, it's a bit like the players are also CGS property in a way - therefore they'll want to keep hold of them and utilise them in CGS competitions.

It's like players in a football team, essentially?

To an extent, yes, and certainly if you look at the franchise model of popular sports in the US.

The US has been a pretty good location for competitive gaming over time - how does Europe and UK fare in that respect?

In terms of tournaments, the US has certainly been better. CPL has been based there for many years, you've had WSVG which was predominantly US-focused, the World Cyber Games is in Seattle this yearâ¦so yes, the US has certainly been a lot better in that respect.

In terms of the gamers themselves, Europe still tends to dominate on the international competitive scene. Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, a couple of other countries here and there, but compared to the US gamers in Europe are generally at a higher level.

That's a slightly strange situation, isn't it?

Yes. I think the US has more of a console focus, with the likes of MLG, which is the main console tournament organiser. I think they signed deals with Boost Mobile to get footage out to a wider mainstream audience - and that is something that differs to Europe where PC is still the main source of competitive gaming.

How important to CGS is having Sky on board, is that a big step forward?

I think it is. If you look at the past couple of years, the shows that have been on Sky have been on channels that you'll very rarely flick through, and therefore you may catch five minutes, or whatever.

But if Sky and DirecTV are looking to do this properly, and are putting on prime time slots, it increases the chances that the general public will watch it, or at least see part of it, and hopefully begin to understand what it's all about.

From there, competitive gaming can see that it's becoming more mainstream, that people are understanding and appreciating it more, and then hopefully we can make some more money.

With other sports you've got two options - you can either play football, or watch professionals play it. At the moment a lot of people are playing videogames, but not many people are seeking them out to watch others. What do you think the main barriers are to changing that?

One of the biggest things is education. A lot of gamers, if you talk to them, don't actually realise that you can make money from gaming, and therefore they're not really in with the whole theme.

So an education process to show that it is possible, and that there are tournaments that go on, you can travel the world, you can make money from it - and try and show them what this side of gaming is all about.

And then again, working with the media to try and essentially create a product or a tournament structure like CGS that lends itself to mainstream media coverage. Competitive gaming in the past has been one of those things that, yes, people have covered it, put together documentaries on it or whatever else, but it's not been that appealing.

So if you pick the games that have the community following, potentially edit the rule sets like CGS have done to allow it to work better for TV, that will be one of the things that will help - keep the main fun or competitive aspect for that particular game to keep the people involved, and then take the footage that will allow you to put it onto the mainstream channels.

Show that it's fun, fast, intense, that it's here to stay and it's something that everybody loves to get involved in.

Do we need heroes, do you think?

The UK definitely needs heroes. We've struggled in the past couple of years to produce top gamers. And again, if you look at the likes of Fatality and the way that he's portrayed himself, and some of the top gamers in Korea - they are the pin-ups of gaming.

And this is of course something that the CGS is looking to produce. If you've got people in the teams endorsing general products, the likes of Coca-Cola or Nike, or whatever else, throwing them into the mainstream and putting them on a pedestal - then people will see that gamers are taken seriously and that gaming has money attached to it.

You change the perception of people. These aren't just people locked away in their bedrooms, you can make a living from it, and there are lots of opportunities like there are in other sports.

But are there lots of opportunities? Surely you have to among the best in any one territory to actually get anywhere?

Well, I'd say it's proportional. There are opportunities to be a professional footballer if you're good enough, but that doesn't mean you can't play in competitions and leagues if you're not.

But in terms of numbers, isn't it more comparable to Formula One? There are lots more football teams that you could potentially earn a wage from, but only a small number of F1 teams.

But football's also been around for over a hundred years. I'd say that's true, and to an extent it is a gamble, but those opportunities are there - it's just a case of people having to have the drive and enthusiasm to try and get there.

Because if more people try to do it then you end up getting the investment from outside companies, because there are more people in the market as a whole, and that in itself creates more money to create those positions.

There isn't going to be more money until more people try to do it, but the people won't try to do it until there's more money there - but if you can start to educate people as to what the possibilities are, and try and start them down the path of getting into competitive gaming, then it's easier for those of us that are already involved to try and get the money to give them.

Philip Wride is the director of Elysium Gaming Ltd. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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