- Gfinity invested a seven-figure sum on the set and accompanying infrastructure for live television broadcast
- On-stage set was a "hydrid of a game show… and a general sports programme"
- It currently appears that TV broadcasting takes priority over spectators at regular season esports events
When was the last time you experienced a new sporting genre?
For all the furore over the Olympics letting in the likes of BMX or synchro, they are derivatives of cycling and swimming respectively. Likewise, Twenty20 cricket and MMA and traditional martial arts, while the cynic in me would suggest WWE is just wrestling with storylines and characters from Marvel comics.
Yes, you could argue that the world championship of Pong, one of the earliest video games, began in the 1970s. But, in reality, the possibility of attending a fully-fledged esports event in the UK has only existed for a decade or so.
And I made my debut a few weeks ago.
This was that rare blank canvas. Given my specialism is digital and social media, I like to think I have more of a handle on esports than most middle-aged men. But that is saying very, very little.
It was difficult to even predict the age-group in attendance. The stereotype is teenagers, but we know games are bought and played by people in their 30s and 40s. However, they would not come out to watch them, would they?
Then there were the other questions. What do people wear at these events: T-shirts with geeky jokes on them? Do they cheer or are they too-cool-and-only-just-out-of-school? Are you really going to analyse esports in a Gary Neville, ‘Monday Night Football’ kind of way?
Gfinity has emerged as a leader in the burgeoning esports space. The five-year-old company has sealed a deal with Microsoft to become the official tournament partner for the racing game Forza on Xbox. A few weeks ago, it was announced Gfinity would deliver Formula One’s esports venture.
I chose to attend its Elite Series, a competition that has provided tangible signs of mainstream cut-through, most notably via television deals with BBC Three, BT Sport and Eleven Sport.
The venue was screen six of the Vue Cinema at Fulham Broadway Retail Centre. It is billed as the UK’s only dedicated esports arena.
Gfinity has invested seven figures on the set and accompanying infrastructure for live television broadcast. The auditorium can hold around 200 spectators and, backstage, there was a warm-up room, make-up area and makeshift studio for filming extra content.
Fans young and old enjoyed themselves at Gfinity (Joe Brady)
Right now, it appears TV takes priority over spectators at regular season esports events. Those raucous nights in packed sports stadiums holding 50-60,000 screaming fans do exist but they are the tent-pole events you might get in European hotbeds such as Katowice or Cologne.
The bread-and-butter of league play has a cadence in a lower key.
The Gfinity Series has three stages – Challenger, Draft and Elite – across its three games: StreetFighter, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and Rocket League.
The first stage was an online tournament for the general public. Gfinity worked with the games developers to open up a specific portal in the back end so anyone could enter.
The best undiscovered players earnt top prizes of a few hundred pounds and ‘Gpoints’ for the in-house competition. After three months, the top 30 in each game were eligible for the draft.
This was organised in the traditional US manner but teams had to take a minimum of two players for each game.
The restriction was almost unnecessary in the end as the Challenger stage revealed a deep pool of talent.
Team Epsilon traded future options to ensure it kept together three friends who had emerged in the Rocket League section. It also signed Broski on Street Fighter before the Challenger stage was complete because it did not want to risk losing him in the draft.
Everyone is incentivised
The Elite Series was the culmination. Seven weeks of round-robin league play in each game, Street Fighter on Fridays, CS:GO on Saturdays and Rocket League on Sundays, before the top four teams in each entered the playoffs. I was there on the final Friday of Street Fighter’s regular season.
The prize money is £125,000 across the three titles, modest by modern eports standards. However, 50% of TV rights and sponsorship revenue, minus reasonable costs, is earmarked as prize money. Therefore, everyone is incentivised to promote the event.
On my night, BBC Three showed live coverage of the final bout. The event was recorded for BT Sport while Eleven Sports produced a digest show for 11 territories overseas.
In truth, the accommodation of the TV production hampered the spectator experience. There were peaks of intense action and deep troughs of not-a-lot. However, a sizable proportion of the venue appeared to be occupied by friends and family of the participants. Often teams left via the back of the stage and walked around to the seats to meet their loved ones.
While this may clash against the narrative of esports possessing a fanatical following, one needs to remember that this is an area that is just moving beyond infancy and towards tottering steps on its own two feet. Right now, the online audience is king.
As yet, there is no widespread agreement on the shape of the end result, let alone a roadmap to get there.
Those major events in jam-packed stadia have the opposite issue to Gfinity’s version, with its ground-breaking TV deals. They sometimes struggle to attract significant broadcast revenue, partly because there is little build-up.
Creating a buzz
Narrative coherence and context are everything in creating a buzz. For events like the Fifa World Cup and the Olympics, history has provided their exalted position. For individual matches like Manchester United v Liverpool, it’s about the teams, key players and rivalry built over time.
Elsewhere, it can be difficult. Even mega-mouth superstars like Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor only overcame the context conundrum behind their cross-combat contest with a whirlwind, worldwide press tour. Even then many die-hard fight fans remained unconvinced.
The casual esports viewer needs a series like Gfinity to build backstory and its consequent loyalty. One of the leading storylines on my night was that of Undercuva, or Steven Allen, who rose through the Challenger series before being selected by Team Reason. However, at 44, Allen was twice the age of his team-mates. He quit his job after being drafted to pursue his dream but this personal gamble was not rewarded with success.
However, Allen’s underdog story has resonated with the esports crowd and it was no surprise when his post-elimination interview was interrupted by an audience member blurting out “we love you, Undercuva”. It was the closest moment in which this esports crowd mirrored that of mainstream sport.
Of course, StreetFighter is almost as old as Undercuva; it was first released on August 30, 1987. Counter Strike is in middle age having emerged in 2000. But the third title, Rocket League, is just over two years old and so Sundays see a queue of early teens snaking out of the door.
The Gfinity Series will roll its Challenger-Draft-Elite Series to Australia later this year. The organisation intends to enter around 20 territories in the next three years.
That would allow it to develop a Champions League-style event involving the best teams in each location. This might have the esports weight and context to fill a mid-table Premier League stadium for its big finale.
But bold predictions are merely cheap copy. You cannot play esports with a crystal ball. Right now, the London event spearheads Gfinity’s regular offering.
The cinema environment means plush seats with drinks holders plus as many concessions as any teenager can possibly consume.
The other screens were showing regular movies but the presence of a major gaming event was obvious. Huge billboards were plastered all over the entrance and it was well signposted once you were inside.
The main partner activation was located at a bistro over the road. It was straightforward enough, a little game play for the punters ahead of the main event. As a nice touch, paying spectators were given a discount off stores in the shopping centre on the afternoon of the event.
The on-stage set was a hydrid of a game show, where participants competed in a studio, and a general sports programme, in which presenters and pundits would assess the action.
Giant monitors in the foreground showed the action to the spectators while the teams themselves were at the back beavering away.
In addition to the breaks for television there was also a technical reset between matches, something akin to sprinters setting their blocks for the 100m.
Given the desire to develop a backstory for the players, there was an opportunity missed to play this content in the down period, rather than allow a countdown clock to tick away before the next clash.
Atmosphere ramped up
However as we got down to key games, the atmosphere ramped up. With health bars showing remaining strength and overblown KOs, StreetFighter is relatively accessible and lends itself to on-screen action. This is in contrast to a strategic game like CS:GO in which games can last two hours.
There were whoops and wails as one comatose Street Fighter character crashed to the floor and the victor pirouetted their celebration. After all, playoffs spots were on the line.
As a novice, it was hard to get excited initially. But the presenters explained the significance and it became easier to be swept along.
But, more importantly, I bet it looked great on the telly.
EXTRA | Ratings
The pricing is £5-15 for a four-hour TV-based event. The discount in the shopping centre is a nice perk but you will be paying cinema prices for your food and beverages.
Given the general lack of organisation and structure in the esports space at present, it seemed eminently sensible for Gfinity to have a heavy concentration on developing their product via their USP – live TV exposure and its offshoots. Right now, the focus is not on the in-arena product.
It will be interesting to see if and how that changes in the near future.
The Gfinity Elite series is the UK’s first professional esports league concentrating on StreetFighter, CS:GO and Rocket League.
In January, an open event, the Challenger Series, allowed anyone to play for ranking points. The best 30 competitors qualified for a draft from which the eight competing teams had to select at least two players.
They would then battle for the blue-riband prize – the Gfinity Elite Series. This is comprised of seven weeks of regular season competition, culminating in a playoff and the final on the first weekend of September
Televised by BBC Three, BT Sport and Eleven Sport.
The exit of Fulham Broadway tube station is situated on the ground floor of a shopping centre. Gfinity’s arena is one floor up.