New Zealand Gaming Championship is eSports' watershed moment in NZ

The New Zealand Gaming Championship offers Kiwi League of Legends players an opportunity to compete.
David White

The New Zealand Gaming Championship offers Kiwi League of Legends players an opportunity to compete.

On October 12, two teams of five young men will fight to the death at Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology.

Hundreds of spectators will pack into tiered seating to watch the carnage as the teams face off in the "Hexa-Dome", a six-sided steel and perspex cage.

The teams have put in countless hours of practice, honing their reflexes, their strategies, their problem solving skills. The smallest mistake could result in disaster.

New Zealand eSports Federation member Daniel Wrightson, left and president Ben Lenihan.
David White

New Zealand eSports Federation member Daniel Wrightson, left and president Ben Lenihan.

But if you're thinking Hunger Games, think again. This is eSports, and the teams are made up of New Zealand's top competitive gamers.

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​October 12 is the final of the New Zealand Gaming Championship (NZGC), New Zealand's biggest League of Legends tournament.

League of Legends - just League or LoL to those familiar with it - is the world's biggest eSport, with around 70 million players world wide. By contrast, rugby has around seven million players.

Players choose from a range of fantasy heroes to control, battling in matches typically lasting between 20 and 60 minutes.

Thousands of spectators packed Sydney's Luna Park for the Oceanic Pro League Finals in 2015.

Thousands of spectators packed Sydney's Luna Park for the Oceanic Pro League Finals in 2015.

Overseas, competitive League is a big deal. 13,000 fans packed the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin, Germany, for the 2015 World Championship final. A further 36 million people watched online as the players competed for a share of an NZ$2.8 million prize pool.

The top players can earn millions, both through tournament prize money and lucrative sponsorship deals. They're idolised by passionate fanbases. They get profiles on ESPN.

Dan Wrightson thinks the eSport "tsunami" is breaking on New Zealand shores, and he wants to make sure we do it properly.

Wrightson is a founding member of the newly-formed New Zealand eSports Federation, a body that aims to regulate New Zealand's competitive eSports scene - and help it grow.

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"It's a large wave - a tsunami - that's going on in the States. We've decided that the community in New Zealand needs representation as much as anywhere in the world, and the reality is that the skill set of our players matches the best in the world."

Part of their strategy to do that is organising tournaments like the NZGC. This is the second year the tournament has run, and it's going to be bigger and better than ever. Last year's single televised final has been replaced with a round robin tournament that will begin on September 3.

Almost all of the matches will be broadcast live on Sky Sport 3, culminating in the final at MOTAT, which will have a live audience.

However, the NZGC is only the beginning. The Federation hopes to broaden its competitions out past League of Legends to other competitive games like DOTA 2 and Call of Duty. Wrightson likens it to starting with test cricket before introducing 20/20.

It's easy to compare eSports to traditional sports - it's right there in the name - but how appropriate is the comparison? After all, how many sports have the players sitting in front of a computer screen?

For Wrightson, the comparison's partly in how hard the players work. Most top players train for upwards of ten hours a day. eSports also make many of the same mental demands on players as high-level traditional sports.

"It might not involve biffing the bejeezus out of each other, but it does involve strategy and teamwork," Wrightson says.

Auckland 20-year-old MacKenzie Smith knows better than most what eSports demand of its top players. One of New Zealand's most successful players, Smith played eSports professionally for a year and a half overseas.

He played Starcraft II, a space-colonizing sci-fi real-time strategy game that has an intensely dedicated following in Korea, where it's been called a "national past time".

Smith moved to California at the end of 2013 to play for US team ROOT Gaming, but after a year he moved to Switzerland because his US visa ran out.

During his time overseas Smith lived in "gaming houses", shared living spaces with his team mates where they could live, train and play together.

Smith practised at least 10 hours each day. "I always liked the consistency, for me it was important to treat it as something you had a responsibility to keep up with. For at least the first year I was very religious about my hours, and there wasn't much going on," he says.

Although Starcraft doesn't have the lucrative prize pools of more popular games like League of Legends, Smith was able to earn enough to support himself overseas as well as pay his university fees when he came home to study in 2015.

However, he doesn't paint the experience as particularly glamourous. "It's actually, much like any competitive sport, very monotonous and very competitive. You're not a tourist."

"It's very much like a love-hate dynamic. The game has to drive you and it has to make you hate yourself and what you're doing, but at the same time it has to have you keep coming back and continuing with it. There's a lot of different reasons people have for competing, but it's a very competitive thing for me," Smith says.

Never much of a casual gamer, Smith is now off Starcraft altogether. Although he keeps up with what's happening on the competitive scene, he hasn't played in about six months.

Does he regret his years as a professional gamer, then? Not at all.

"There were so many really enjoyable moments along the way, especially competing. I'm glad that I'm doing something different now, but definitely in the way I was back then it was the perfect thing for me, to go and do something I felt passionate about, and obviously get a lot of travel in."

Wrightson and the Federation want more Kiwi players following a similar path to Smith, and hope the tournaments they organise will provide opportunities for talent scouts for international teams to notice Kiwi talent. They also want to put structures in place to prevent players from being exploited.

eSports players are typically young: 17 is the age most go professional, and a 22-year-old player is considered a veteran. Almost all players retire before they're 25.

Wrightson wants eSports in New Zealand to follow a similar trajectory to the UFC - starting as something only a small tribe of people are interested in and growing it. Central to that are the "circus" aspects of eSports events: the fun and colour that make them more than just watching people play video games.

If it's done right, attending an eSports event is an experience. Members of the crowd come dressed as characters from the game. They buy merchandise. The atmosphere's every bit as electrifying as a test match at Eden Park.

And speaking of Eden Park, it might not be long before New Zealanders have a national eSports team to cheer for. The Federation has trademarked the name "eBlacks".

The Hexa-Dome in Eden Park? It's coming.

 - Sunday Star Times


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