Game on: Playing for money
Mack Smith is good at school. His reports this year, his father says, are excellent. He's good at classics, English, media studies. He's bright, thoughtful, presents well. And at 17, he plans to quit school, move to Sydney and become a professional video-game player. One local expert believes he could earn a $100,000 salary almost instantly.
Smith would become New Zealand's first pro - although his friend Cameron Jones, 16, a year below him at Auckland's Western Springs high school, shares similar aspirations - but this is no wild dream.
It's called e-sports, and it shares a lot of similarities with real sport: there are professional coaches, training sessions, full-time commentators calling games for the audience at home, packed stadia, players who peak in their late 20s and retire in their 30s. And like sport, there's money. Big money.
Prize pools of more than $US2m are not uncommon, winner's cheques of $1m are becoming widespread and professional players earn six-figure salaries and sponsorships. One company, Riot, is even planning a stadium in Los Angeles purely to host e-games tournaments.
In May, after furious lobbying by Riot, the US immigration service granted its first P-1 "professional athlete" visa to an e-gamer, Canadian Danny "Shipthur" Le. It allowed Lee to join the other members of his professional squad in Los Angeles, where they play the adventure game League of Legends. The eight-team league is filmed live, and streamed to 1.7 million viewers.
Dustin Beck, vice-president of Riot, told the LA Times: "We had to show this was a profession. We had to make a case that this is just like Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League."
Riot runs its own championship. Last year, at a sold-out University of Southern California basketball stadium, the Taipei Assassins won the world title, and $US1m; 8.2m viewers on Korean and Chinese TV and online watched it unfold.
The best-paid e-sport pro, Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel, is presumed to have made almost $500,000 in prize money alone, with sponsorship and online streaming income on top of that.
It's not quite the same in New Zealand. Byron McLean, perhaps New Zealand's best-ever gamer (he went to world championships for the game Counterstrike for eight years from 2003) contrasts here and there by saying: "It's the difference between New Zealand being a professional rugby playing nation and, say, the American rugby team." Kiwi prize money ranges from $300 to $2,500.
Theo Martin, who organises and "shoutcasts" (commentates) local League of Legends events, says: "There really isn't room for a person to create a future in e-sports in New Zealand. When they win a tournament, where can they go next?" The domestic scene, he says, isn't likely to start making money for anyone until organisers themselves make money: "It's from an organisational standpoint rather than anything else - when that happens it will happen very, very quickly. [But for now] everything I do doesn't make me a cent. I just really enjoy it... but I do need to get to a point to make money out of it if I want to continue."
But times are changing. McLean, 27, who "retired" in 2010 to focus on stimulating the tiny New Zealand e-sports scene, says it doesn't mean Smith - and then Jones - couldn't do it. "It's definitely possible," he says, "I think we're getting to that stage."
He believes Smith has the ability to break through: "If anyone can do it in New Zealand, you've got the right guy." McLean says Smith is unique in New Zealand and "easily capable" of earning between $60,000 and $100,000 almost immediately. "For most people, I wouldn't support them leaving school, but in Mack's case he is particularly smart and he's got a unique opportunity to pursue that most people never had. He'll be able to make a career of this."
There's a few reasons why the door is now opening for New Zealanders: modern games are usually free to play, making accessibility easy. The big games companies are bolstering their Oceania marketing budgets, and we can coat-tail off the Australians. Individual players can build profile quickly by live streaming. And we're not Koreans.
The Koreans and Swedes, reckons McLean, are the best because of their early-adoption of internet cafes, making game playing both socially acceptable and widely adopted. But they've also become ubiquitous. It's what Smith is hoping for: non-Koreans may be less talented, but earn more because of their appeal to foreign fans.
"Players who aren't as good who pay attention to their fans, have a lot of sponsors and are well marketed [can earn as much]," he says. "Streaming" is another way of making money. This involves playing a practice game while a webcam records your commentary over it. The hosting company cuts the player a percentage of every sale. Jones says he's made a "decent amount" from it and peaked at a few thousand viewers. There's other trappings of fame: playground approaches from people he doesn't know, Facebook friend requests from strangers, even people asking him to play the game under their handle to boost their rating.
Girls? Not so much.
But whatever happens, Smith and Jones must go offshore, living in "team houses" with their Australia-based pro squads. Both fly overseas on the sponsors' tab to play tournaments - their next is in Sydney next month. "We are," says Mack dismissively, "the New Zealand scene. There is no money in New Zealand. We have to fly overseas to get anywhere."
In Australia, the money is beginning to flow. Mirko Gozzo moved to Sydney this year to open Riot's Oceania office. Playing League of Legends off the company's North American server was becoming frustrating for Kiwi and Aussie players because it caused a 0.2s time lag - crucial during action sequences. "From a financial point of view, it didn't make much sense to come over here," he says. "But we had a very strong and vocal community who had always been neglected by every game company, so we're thought ‘we're going to do it' and it paid off. I think we will see similar growth here [to overseas]." Already, he's paid out a $20,000 cheque for this year's Australian champions.
Worldwide, the game is on season three, or its third year as a competitive sport, and by season six, he says, there could be a full-time league in Australia.
Riot, says Gozzo, is consistently "overwhelmed" by their game's growth. This year's world final will be at the LA Lakers basketball stadium, and was sold out inside an hour.
"When we created the game, we were not expecting such success; we knew a market was there for it but we didn't expect it to become the most-played PC game in the world," he explains. "But it did. And since then we just keep growing and growing." Jones began playing League of Legends seriously only when Riot opened up in Australia and he saw a career path ahead. Smith, similarly, had played his game, Starcraft 2, for 18 months before he even realised there was a competitive circuit.
Now they are, simply, obsessed. Jones says he cannot watch TV or movies - he finds himself thinking about the game instead. "You really want to be better. The game itself, playing the game, isn't that much fun. But being a better player, seeing yourself improve and dominating the scene is exciting."
"Some days," says Smith gently, "I hate the game. But the will to improve is so strong." He has no extra-curricular activities beyond gaming; Jones admits to the occasional game of tennis, but sighs: "The amount of time I've played League of Legends . . . I wouldn't even like to think about it." But he does, and reckons he plays up to seven hours a day. Smith settles for five. But if there is no school, then it becomes 10 to 12, some of it spent on what they call "theorycrafting": watching and analysing other teams' performances.
Starcraft (in which Smith plays under the handle Petraeus, after the US army general David Petraeus) is described as a "a military science-fiction, real-time strategy" game involving three alien races. Gozzo says League of Legends is "very appealing, very fast game, a lot of action" - to the uninitiated, it looks like a bright, animated but not particularly sophisticated virtual world. Jones' character, Captain Warbles (named for his cat) looks like a floppy blue dragon.
Most computer games have a shelflife. This new generation of games may have a longer lasting appeal because they are effectively frameworks where the players themselves create the real action. The similarity is often drawn with football: the rules stay roughly the same, the game is never the same and always draws a crowd.
Mack's father, Nick Smith, says his son has always breezed through school. His parents are concerned about him leaving school, but are cautiously supportive. "He's in the lucky position of being good at something, and passionate about it," Nick says. "He wants to give it a good lash."
Jones' father, Ernie, meanwhile seems genuinely stunned by the interest. "It's a strange one," he says, wonder in his voice. "We thought he would just go to varsity and do something normal... we've started to think now that this could be at least equal to the option of varsity, so we are kinda thinking about that. We're blown away by the attention."
He's most surprised that people would commentate on his son's games and pay to watch him play. He says he's expected to get good grades this year and wants his son to at least complete his schooling.
So come November, his son plans to use a four-day break in exams to fly off to a tournament, then return to finish his papers; one day, Smith has a morning exam and an afternoon flight to a Singapore event. After that, his time at Western Springs College will be over.
Until then, he's being diligent enough about his schoolwork. "We told him it would be really good if you could nail some great marks this year to keep some options open as a backstop," says Nick Smith. "He's mindful of that - but he doesn't think he needs the backstop."
Sunday Star Times