The rise of a nation: How can South Africa grow its eSports?

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Overwatch

The results that were posted for South Africa’s Overwatch team did not make for great reading. They didn’t register a single win in their three match run, despite taking a map off Germany. Whilst Germany was always going to be a difficult opponent, they were unable to make an impact against fairly inconspicuous opposition in the form of Ireland and Baltic & Caspian Sea.

The results were reminiscent of previous international encounters that South African teams have had in the past. Kyle wrote this earlier this year:

Over the past three years we’ve seen several teams go overseas for various tournaments. in 2013 Energy eSports went to ESWC for Dota 2, 2014 Bravado Gaming went to MSI Beat IT for Dota 2, Energy eSports went to ESWC in 2014 for CS:GO, Bravado Gaming went to Dreamhack in 2014 for CS:GO, in 2015 Bravado Gaming went to ESWC for CS:GO.

[…]

In almost every single tournament, Bravado’s performance at MSI Beat IT and The Southern Barbarians performances aside, South African teams have not made it through the group stages. Most could not even take a game.

Exposure just ain’t enough

After every international showing, the general response from the community and media alike is fairly positive in its narrative. It wasn’t a great run by the local team, but they had a ton of exposure to high calibre teams. That is often followed by a timid reminder that we’re a small country with a budding eSports scene and that we can only look upwards from here on out.

I don’t want to diminish how far our local competitive scene has come and I know that our teams do the best they can and make us proud. It’s obvious for anyone to see that our scene has improved and that’s largely due to the passion and pride our players put in to the games and the overall scene, along with the various organisations and event hosts.

Orena Lifechild

The question I’m putting forward however is, are we improving fast enough? This is about serious introspection into our local competitive scene. A large reason we’re often content with just being invited to global events is that we’re a small country, both population wise as well as in terms of eSports. But when you look at other small regions and the waves they’re making in various scenes, does that mindset hold up? Are we really as serious about competitive gaming as we think we are?

Small scenes, big dreams

Let’s turn our gaze over to South America. More specifically, Brazil. It’s only been in the last few years that Brazil has become a scene that people take fairly seriously in the eSports realm. Currently, they are home to the number one ranked CSGO team in the world, SK Gaming. (Formerly Luminosity) Their rise to fame was rapid and incredible, made more so by their sustainability and consistency at the highest level of CSGO. Immortals (formerly Tempo Storm), another up and coming team, adds to the narrative that Brazil is not just a one team wonder but a scene that can create star players.

SK Gaming

This narrative of surprising Brazilian success is not just endemic to CSGO. paiN Gaming put Brazil on the eSports map with their run to League of Legends’ World Championships through the Wildcard gauntlet back in 2015. They displayed a strength that few Wildcard teams had shown and whilst their Worlds run was not highly successful, they made a mark on a global stage amongst eSports giants.

Brazil is not the only ‘off the radar’ region to punch above its weight in eSports. Teams from South East Asia (SEA), constantly impress in Dota 2. Meanwhile Tawain, a nation with a population size that is half of ours, produces powerful teams that are highly praised at League of Legends’ global stages.

When you see small regions doing great things, it does make you wonder where we are falling short. What exactly are we doing wrong that we’re not making the kinds of waves that Brazil, SEA & Taiwan are doing in their respective games, on a global scale?

The obstacles

Is it a lack of money? I don’t think that’s the leading issue. Whilst we may not be hosting tournaments with prize pools that comes close to the $1m majors in CSGO, (don’t even bring up Dota 2’s TIs) the money available is fairly substantial when you put it in local context. Telkom upped DGL’s prize pool to R1m, which is no joke.

As it now stands DGL are posting a prize pool which rivals a majority of traditional sports in South Africa, from Netball all the way up to Rugby.

Is it a lack of individual skill? Once again, I don’t think that’s the case. We’re more than capable of producing elite players. You only needs to look at one of our most famous pro players, none other than PandaTank. More recently, you can look at the likes of BlackpoisoN, who went as far as to play for semi-pro CSGO teams overseas. Aside from those two, many local players rank highly in various eSports titles which shows that we are not lacking when it comes to individual firepower.

PandaTank

Is our national issue, a lack of dedication? In that regard, I think we may be on to something. Gaming houses are not a staple locally nor are full time pro players. This is not a knock to our current elite players that are doing their best to represent us globally, but it is a reality we need to face. We just aren’t dedicating ourselves enough to make a dent with the best of the best.

However, the reasons for this are completely understandable. No one is going to look over a job to compete in a tournament that “only” has a prize pool of R1m. That’s just not sustainable. Whilst sponsorship is growing in SA, it still isn’t enough to make it worthwhile to forgo a stable 9-5 to compete in our eSports scene full time. We have some incredible organisations that are doing their part to support local pro players, but not even they expect full-time playing members. It’s just not feasible right now. So what needs to happen to make the idea of a full-time pro player in SA not sound insane?

Taking large strides forward

We need to take our perpetual gaze off Europe and pull it closer to home. Europe has a multitude of countries competing in the same vicinity, in the same games, pushing one another further and further. Similarly Oceania, compromising of New Zealand, Australia and surrounding islands, has created a regional scene to help foster local competition and talent. Why are we so eager to rush across the sea when we we’ve yet to create a culture on our own continent where we can all compete on a Pan-African scale and grow together?

Africa is not this barren wasteland filled with civil war and poor kids waiting for Facebook likes on a useless post to change their lives. There is massive growth happening all over this continent. Why can’t eSports be a part of that growth, so that we can foster a Pan-African scene that everyone can benefit from? And I’m not just talking inland either. Little Mauritius blows us out of the water when it comes to internet speeds already.

steelseries

We need to create better business opportunities in our growing competitive scene. As someone that works extensively with brands, I can say that many, if not most are so eager to get involved in places where their consumers are at. But passion is not enough, businesses need to make money. Creating an environment that is business friendly is something even massive scenes have to work hard and deliberately at. Riot Games, the creator of arguably the largest eSports game in the world, still battles to efficiently monetize its massive asset. I think a lot more can be done in SA to really entice businesses to get more involved and bring more to the table than just sponsored gear and prizes.

We need to give more support to the scene we currently have. I’m absolutely a part of the problem in this regard, but it feels like people rarely show their support at local events. Everyone is always racing to watch eSports titans like Fnatic face off against other huge teams, but no one takes the time to watch local teams play against each other. The local community needs to show up at events, as this makes it easier to solve the previous issue of making it worthwhile for businesses to get involved.

Better marketing needs to be done when it comes to local events. A blog post and a few tweets or Facebook posts just doesn’t cut it in this day and age. If you want a standard for what we should be doing, I recommend you watch one of the best gaming documentaries I’ve ever watched called “The Smash Brothers”.

It covered the rise of Smash Bros, from what was meant to be Nintendo’s answer to casual party games, into a huge competitive scene that now blows other historic fighting games out the water with the passion and viewer count its following brings. You only need to look as far as Evo to see how huge the game has become.

But crucially we need to ask, how did the game get to that level? Aside from interesting gameplay and passionate people, it was good marketing. It had zealous filmmakers that created narratives that enthralled people. It was event savvy organisers that understood how to create hype. These are the elements I feel are still missing in our local scene.

Lastly, and I think this is one everyone can agree on, it’s better infrastructure. Whilst our internet spends have increased and the costs have decreased, it’s still just not good enough. However, this is something that is unfortunately out of our hands, for the most part. So whilst it’s not something that we can change, it still bears mentioning because it does hurt our growth a significant amount.

The future is bright

Know that this article is not written to bash the great strides that the local scene has made. The likes of Bravado, Orena, The AGCL, Zombiegamer, MWEB & countless others have made to the local scene have been tremendous and have really pushed us further.

Bravado Gaming

This is not to say that our players are not putting in enough effort. This is merely saying that we can do so much more and if we all work together in that regards, I genuinely believe that we can create the same waves that scenes in Brazil, SEA and Taiwan are currently doing.

And I’m absolutely game to be a part of it. Hit me up if you have ideas on what can be done to grow the scene. Chat to one another. There are so many talented people in the scene already and with the passion that we all have, I really do see us going far and being able to create an environment where talent can pursue eSports full time, in the near future.

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Last Updated: January 4, 2017

Glenn Kisela

I've always loved video games as well as writing, so mixing the two together was inevitable. When I'm not doing that, I do photography and design. May or may not report you to the relevant authorities. I'm also a big fan of English Cricket. Ask me about the ICC.

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