eSports challenging the definition of sport
On a cool night in the Marie Reay Centre at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Srikar Jha and Pierce Purcell sit down in front of a small TV monitor with their personal controllers in hand. It doesn’t take them long to sweep past the in-game menus – setting up a match is second nature to them.
With the stage set, the duo pauses only to bump fists like boxers touching gloves before they’re locked in battle, with sounds of in-game combat and button presses filling the air. Before a ten-minute match is over, they’ll have made hundreds, if not thousands, of button inputs.
For many Australians, going one-on-one in the virtual world is a recreational activity, but for Pierce, Srikar and many at the ANU Fighting Game Club, it’s a sport, one that could be a part of a future career in gaming.
Gaming has become a bigger part of Australian life than ever, with an estimated two-thirds of the population playing video games according to Bond University’s 2020 Digital Australia Report.
The success of video streaming services has brought with it the growth of eSports – competitive tournaments and events hosted using video games.
According to Bond University, approximately one-third of Australia’s gaming population have watched eSports, with that interest steadily rising by the year.
It is a multi-million dollar industry with the top events drawing significant prizes for players and teams. Melbourne teenager, Anathan Pham, left high school in 2015 to pursue his dream of playing eSports professionally.
For many, dropping out of school to become a pro player might be far-fetched, but earlier this year Pham won a $4.62 million prize after winning a tournament for the strategy game, DOTA 2.
While eSports for many people is characterised by arenas, fireworks and bright lights just like other sports like cricket, soccer and Australian Rules, eSports has a strong community-led, grassroots level. And nowhere in Canberra embodies this community spirit quite like the ANU Fighting Game Club.
The ANUFGC is one of Canberra’s largest eSports communities. On a weekly basis, the club hosts eSports tournaments which are often attended by more than one hundred people.
Their game of choice is Super Smash Bros, a popular fighting game where famous video game icons like Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong and even Pac-Man duke it out.
Like any good grassroots sport, it mostly relies on community support to stay alive. The classroom they book is regularly transformed from teaching space to virtual battleground as players bring their own consoles, controllers and even TV monitors.
The tournaments are nonetheless considered a serious sport. Competitors are given ranks, seeds and an official win-loss record. Like the truly global eSports competitions, these weekly tournaments are live-streamed online with commentary. The gamers take their competition seriously.
Among the young adults and uni students that make up these tournaments, there is also a small group of younger kids. But in eSports, age is no barrier and it’s not uncommon to see a pre-teen scoring an upset victory against an older rival.
Therese Huang, mother of three of these young competitors, says her family is willing to support her boys’ interest in eSports, as long as they stay on track.
“It’s good that they can actually see, I guess it’s a career in gaming,” she said. “My only fear is that my boys have said that they’ll drop out of school at 16 and do the same thing as Anathan.”
As a community veteran and tournament organiser, Pierce Purcell has seen the level of commitment that the club’s star players have.
“Training for a real sport might be a bit more physical than training for an eSport, but the amount of work that some of our top players are putting into this game matches the top athletes around the world.”
“They’re at the top because they’re practicing and they’re studying the game. They take it seriously.”
The ANUFGC’s top players aren’t just winning bragging rights with strong performances, sponsors are also taking note.
“We’ve got a few people who are sponsored and have been picked up by eSports teams. They’re lucky enough to get flown out to events all across Australia and the world.”
For many of the top players of the ANUFGC, the dream is to find their way to the United States, where more competition and a bigger prize pool await.
Srikar has already had a taste of this dream, having earned more than a thousand dollars from his eSports exploits. He believes that opportunity awaits those who can combine eSports with creating a popular online presence through a streaming service like YouTube.
It’s just one of many roads towards a career in gaming – a goal that a growing number of Canberrans are starting to explore.