Richard Lewis is Editor In Chief of Cadred – the worlds leading competitive gaming news and coverage. Sean Daisy spoke to him in this in-depth interview, on how he got in to eSports, what it takes to be a professional gamer, how professional gamers make a living – as well as on how cheating is prevented in esports. Sean also asks Richard about the the issues currently facing the eSports community – issues of elitism, and the fact that you can pigeon hole players into about four categories that could be summed up as “too cool for e-sports, but do it anyway”, “keen, but a bit deluded”, “nice guys”, and “monstrously arrogant and socially awkward.
Finally – he tells us which are the key UK events in eSports, whilst looking at exactly what is needed for eSports to garner mainstream appeal.
In 1998 or so, I was into the competitive fighting game scene; titles such as Tekken and the Street Fighter series, and I’d attend small competitions where the prizes were as glamorous as “copies of the game you already had”, or “a branded bandana”. I’d seen a lot of talk about online competitive games taking off, in particular at the time Counter-Strike and StarCraft starting to take off, and thought it might be something new and interesting.
I was writing for an NUS magazine at the time, doing music and games reviews, and wanted to do a small column about the development of competitive gaming, but it was seen as too niche. I kept on competing at fighting games when I could, but with the magazine work and focusing on my sports, there simply wasn’t time to pay it much mind.
After I graduated I was freelancing and working as a call centre manager and saw that a new title was being released: Counter-Strike: Source. With the success of the original title, it seemed to me a safe bet the game would be big. I pitched an article to a few magazines; each month I’d infiltrate a gaming sub-culture or scene, then write about it, so those who wanted to get into it wouldn’t find it so difficult. It was to be called, “The Noob”. Some magazines were interested, so I got my copy of CS:S and started trying to find out as much as I could about the emerging competitive scene.
In the end, no-one wanted to use the article. I don’t really know why, but it was probably way too detailed. I’d made some good friends through my investigations and decided to stay in touch with them. I had to retire from most contact sports because of injury, so I started competing online instead, and kept my hand in writing articles for a small site. By 2006 I’d been nominated for an e-sports award. When CGS came rolling into the UK I found myself being overpaid for doing what I was once doing for free
How do you see new gamers getting into e-sports nowadays?
All online games now come with some form of competitive mode and have a client that allows you to quickly find games against similarly skilled opponents. Some even have built in leagues and ladders, overall rankings and so on. Ultimately, if you play online these days you are pushed towards competitive gaming. From there, it’s only a hop, skip and a moderate jump to e-sports.
General awareness is still a problem, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it used to be. E-sports didn’t even have a title back in the day, and trying to explain that you could earn money from playing computer games seemed so alien to older generations, who hadn’t even got their heads round the technology. It even baffled my generation, who were brought up with 8-bit home computers as the cutting edge of leisure. When people see the prize money they think “actually, I can beat all the guys I can play against, and I have 200 ranked wins… I wonder if I could earn some money?” so there’s that enticement.
Grass roots could be better, but I’ve seen a lot of people trying to get their hands on government money by trying to push e-sports as a pursuit that could keep young people away from crime, gang culture and other such social problems. If that ever gets sold to people, then obviously the influx will be even more. For now though, it’s simply a matter of progression… Play a game a lot? Play it online, play it against people, win games, maybe e-sports could be for you.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to pursue a potential career in e-sports – and is it a reasonable aspiration to have in the UK?
It’s always difficult for me to answer this question, and I’m asked it a lot. There’s a pressure on people within the e-sports industry to make it seem like it is a potentially fun and lucrative pursuit, because people have so much invested in it; they want to attract people towards it. Equally, as a journalist, I see both sides – the good and the bad.
A career in e-sports is something exceptionally hard to carve out. Even someone like myself, with a good history of work experience and qualifications, had to make sacrifices and sleep on the odd friend’s couch while waiting for money to materialise. It isn’t a bed of roses, and with no regulation as such in the industry, it’s easy for people’s good nature to be exploited.
The first thing I’d say to anyone looking to carve out a career in e-sports would be “enjoy it first” because for a lot of people those big opportunities never come around. There are few actual companies that are REAL businesses in e-sports, and I’m lucky enough to work for one of them. For everyone else, e-sports is effectively an extension of someone’s PR or marketing division and as such, when times are hard, the money dries up. Organisations run on sponsors’ hand outs. They don’t generate income themselves for the most part.
So yeah, you have to love it, you have to enjoy it. If you get good enough, then you will be noticed, but then you have to remain disciplined. You can’t get greedy, you can’t be disloyal and you can’t slack on effort thinking you’ve “arrived”. The people who do that quickly find themselves on a downward trajectory and are left talking about this time and that memory, having ultimately achieved nothing but earned a few free LANs and a bit of prize money.
The industry is changing, slower than I’d like, but there’s people out there trying to make it so gamers can earn a living through their passion. The best thing you can do is market yourself; provide a service that enthusiasts want to see, and make sure your personality shines through. These days that’s just as important, if not more so, than how fast you can move a crosshair or juggle an opponent
Is it possible to make a living from e-sports and how much, on average, are professional gamers paid?
I make a good living through e-sports but I know first-hand there’s a stigma out there that it can’t be done. The amount of abuse I get for supposedly living in my parents basement, or only earning a pittance, is laughable. I take a lot of pride in what I do, but the reality is that if it wasn’t financially rewarding I would not be doing it and I would go and write somewhere else. I mean, it’s no longer a “passion” – after all these years working in the industry it is now just “the job”.
The money you make depends on the game you play. StarCraft 2 players live like comparative kings and there’s a trend of everyone trying to pander to that because of the amount of attention, and therefore money, the game brings, so it’s self perpetuating. I don’t begrudge them that, far from it, but there’s a huge disparity. When you see some organisations paying SC2 money out at the expense of other communities it can be a bit disheartening. For many people, StarCraft 2 simply is “e-sports” and everything else isn’t.
So yeah, it’s impossible to answer. The biggest e-sports titles have huge tournaments and the players that win them earn big salaries, and even have their houses paid for by organisations. If you play a smaller, mid-tier e-sports title you pull in £350 a month and wait two years for your prize money. What people never talk about, is how this shapes the e-sports landscape; it prevents people committing to excellence in some titles, and drives more people to dedicate their lives to others.
Still, footballers earn more money than darts players so maybe that’s the way it has to be.
How are e-sports matches regulated and refereed – how is cheating prevented?
These days “admins” rarely get involved. In general, the players dictate the rules and the environment that games are played in. The rules are laid down in black and white at the start of a competition, but often it is the job of the players to call teams out on not adhering to them. This can lead to a practice called “default hunting” where you go all Perry Mason and look for loopholes to have a result overturned, or you can see great displays of sportsmanship such as we saw in IEM Sao Paolo in the SC2 tournament.
(During the Group B match between DeMuslim and Feast, an unscrupulous stream viewer messaged Feast and informed him of DeMusliM’s opening build order (Feast had relogged, and had forgotten to prevent public messages).
Feast immediately paused the game, informed match officials of the situation, and suggested the possibility of a re-game. As the players agreed that it would be okay to continue the game as normal, Feast messaged DeMuslim and gave him a full breakdown of his units.)
Ultimately every company puts faith in their anti-cheat software, which is a piece of software players run in the background that scans for any processes that alter the game’s files or behaviour. Like all software, these can be bypassed or altered. I think it’s really regressive compared to the days of watching a replay and making a decision based on common sense. People don’t like video reviews anymore because they like to believe that the skill ceiling is so high that any players, even unknown ones, can do anything and have that “lucky game”.
Back in the day we used to run on a simple rule – if it looks like bullshit and smells like bullshit, it is bullshit. These days, if the software doesn’t flag it up, no matter how obvious the infraction is to the naked eye, benefit of the doubt is given.
Where there’s money and competition, there will always be cheaters. Big money is made from private cheating software. Funnily enough, sometimes the people that make the anti-cheat software then go on to sell code or work with the people making cheats, playing both sides like double agents, to the detriment of the scene.
How are e-sports professional gamers chosen by teams – are scouts used, or is selection generally through word of mouth?
Some managers are really good and do their homework. Certainly in the premier e-sports titles everything is above board and the only thing you’re likely to see that is inappropriate is a player being “tapped up” while under contract with another organisation. Lower down the ranks, it’s a bit of a clusterfuck. I mean, the average organisation manager pretty much picks up what’s available at any given time based on word of mouth and past performances.
Before events, there’s a desperate clamour to have someone flying the flag for your organisation and sponsors. The team are just a walking billboard, so the standards are generally low: If you turn up, wear the t-shirts, and have some photos taken, the sponsors generally seem happy with that. Winning is a secondary concern, and picking up players and teams that are committed to a future with the organisation is low on that list. Everyone plays it by ear in the mid-tier; it’s another reason why these scenes never push forward.
In recent times, we’ve seen a similar patchwork approach from many of the top CounterStrike 1.6 teams, just limping on even though it’s clear that they’re never going to live up to past glory. It’s sad to see, but that’s what happens when money and presence at events takes precedence over results and professionalism.
Which UK events are there for those involved in, or interested in e-sports – and of those, which would you say are the best?
Multiplay’s i-series has a monopoly in the UK really. Everything else is incredibly small by comparison. It runs three times a year and is far and away the biggest gaming festival in the UK. It’s still “community” focused though so it’s not like you have to attend smaller events to build your way up.
I’d mention EPIC LAN too who have a great admin team and host well run, but modest sized events at Uttoxeter Racecourse.
I would like to see someone come along and challenge Multiplay’s dominance but running an event isn’t really a money spinner; whoever it was would need both know-how and capital in order to stand a chance. It’s not that I have anything against Multiplay – I’ve been attending their events for years and years. I just believe that competition is important and without it there’s no growth or impetus for anyone to raise their game.
How do people outside the enthusiast gaming community react when you tell them what you do?
I just tell them I’m a journalist, which is true. There are many people in e-sports that try and wear that title but have no qualifications, no understanding of the job, and no experience. The fact that I happen to work within the e-sports industry is simply about where the opportunities have been based on my expertise. I still write freelance about sports, so I never make the distinction of saying I’m an e-sports journalist because most people don’t really care. All my friends just know I work from home and get paid to write and travel a bit, which they all think is “cool” because a lot of them are humping office jobs.
Why do you think there is such enmity for e-sports amongst other elements of the gaming community?
It’s probably down to the elitism. I mean, I have to say I’ve not really noticed it and in my experience it may actually be the opposite. The most negative reaction I’ve seen from a casual gamer to an e-sports pro has generally been bewilderment or laughing at the clothes they have to wear at events. But I’ve also been to events like the Gadget Show Live where George “Monkey” Boothby, the UK’s best Guitar Hero player, brought the house down with his skills. I’ve seen players ask for tips from CounterStrike: Source players after watching them play an exhibition match. I’ve seen e-sports stars sign autographs and, as mad as it seems, I even signed a few myself during CGS.
However some of the e-sports fraternity carry themselves like what they’re doing makes them a celebrity. It’s a nice dream, and you can argue it’s all part of the show, but unless you’re a South Korean StarCraft 2 player then you’ve got a long way to go and the best way to carry yourself is by being down-to-earth and talking to the people that make it possible to do what you do.
Why do you think there is enmity amongst enthusiast gamers when new titles in an established e-sports series come out (CounterStrike: Global Offensive, for instance)?
Again, I didn’t know there was. If anything, the enmity comes from within the e-sports community. Each new “e-sports title” (and the quotation marks are there because not every title makes if as an e-sport, even if they want to) is generally trying to replace another, or take a much bigger portion of the money in e-sports from something else. As such, people don’t like it. CounterStrike 1.6 enthusiasts never embraced CounterStrike: Source because it wasn’t ready when it first came out. By the time it did get to a stage where it could be competitive, those players had been playing 1.6 for nigh-on eight years. They didn’t want to learn a new game, or replace their computer to play/watch a new game. In truth, a lot of 1.6 enthusiasts can’t play anything else.
It’s the one thing that’s never really talked about in e-sports; the economic factors behind the success of titles. StarCraft succeeded in South Korea due to an economic crash, coupled with an embargo on Japanese consoles that meant only the very wealthy could afford them. 1.6 can be run on a mobile phone these days, so of course people from developing countries are going to hate on a game that requires the latest top-of-the-range hardware to play. It’s not always about what is better, but what is best for e-sports. Most of these people don’t even care about e-sports as a whole, just the game they grew up with. If that ever stopped, they’d be out of “e-sports”. They only contribute to it by accident, not by choice. This is why so many people pander to that mentality… They’re worried the bite out of the overall numbers would be too big.
Do you think it is necessary to specialise in a genre to get onto an e-sports team?
It’s necessary to specialise at a game. The people who are successful in e-sports are generally the people who can dedicate six hours a day to playing one game. There’s no point in being a “genre whore” unless the game you originally mastered is as dead as the dodo. E-sports skill sets have to be small and specific.
Do you find certain e-sports teams have their own idiosyncrasies?
The only real differences you tend to notice are between UK e-sports players and the rest. I’ve been all around the world, talked to people from all games, and by and large it’s the UK people that want to act like rock stars. Obviously, the more successful the team the more likely you are to encounter arrogance. I remember once trying to conduct an interview with the Na’Vi 1.6 team and every time I asked them a question they just pretty much laughed in my face and were rude throughout. The manager told me I was lucky we were getting an interview, so I shouldn’t grumble about their behaviour. It was the last one we did together.
I don’t really see a lot of “idiosyncrasies” between teams or players. You can pretty much pigeonhole them into about four categories that could be summed up as “too cool for e-sports, but do it anyway”, “keen, but a bit deluded”, “nice guys”, and “monstrously arrogant and socially awkward”. Success can be applied to all groups – there’s no magic formula.
Are there any competitive video games that you would like to see get e-sports representation?
Not really. I don’t have any strong feelings about any of the games. I don’t play anymore, I don’t really have time. Given my job, interacting with people online is rarely a pleasant experience. For me whatever is popular, whatever keeps e-sports going, is what I’m going to be reporting on. There are some e-sports titles I don’t get, or don’t really get enthusiastic about, but I go out of my way to learn about them and understand them, because that’s what e-sports is. If I had an answer to this question and really felt strongly about it I’d probably be as bad as those people I talked about earlier. E-sports is what it is. It is decided by communities and company investment. My job’s to report on it. I’ll always be happy with whatever is put on the table.
Are there any competitive video games that you think can’t work in e-sports?
The only argument here has to be about spectators. If it’s not entertaining to watch it shouldn’t have a future. Then again, I’ve seen people staring at screens of games they don’t understand and “ooohing” and “ahhhing” like they were at a fireworks display, so maybe it really doesn’t matter. Obviously there are some games that shouldn’t be entertaining, but you never can tell.
The old arcade games I grew up with are still played and when you go to some retro gaming events the competition is a real big draw. Twin Galaxies are still going strong. So yeah, as long as people can watch it and find it entertaining there’s a hope for it as an e-sports title.
What do you think is needed in UK e-sports to get the scene moving?
Honesty, integrity, regulation… I mean, there have been so many people who have come along and killed the goose that laid the golden egg in UK e-sports, it’s like resetting an Etch-A-Sketch the way they handle it all. Everyone talks about having a regulatory body, but as UKeSA proved, until we get people that aren’t in e-sports to make a profit within a niche market, that don’t want to drive everyone else out of business, that don’t mind having all their laundry out in the open because there really is nothing to hide, then there isn’t anyone fit to make up a regulatory body.
The next step for me has to be the following – put the leagues and competitions in the hands of competent people with a track record of paying our prize money on time (like Heaven Media, who I work for) and get a free advisory and legal service for injured parties because of e-sports dishonesty. I always say the same thing: There’s a lot of good in E-sports. You have young people being able to make a living, or at least supplement their lifestyle, through something they enjoy. However, that dream can be exploited by people and I would like to see them taken to task over it, to show it doesn’t have to be that way.
The young people who play the games are so naive in a lot of cases that when they get an e-mail that says “oh, we can’t pay you what we promised until next year” followed by “we know we said next year but we meant next year in the summer” and so on and so on, they feel they just have to wait. I’d like to see people actually take action and there should be people who can provide them with the knowledge of what to do and the means to do it. That’s something I’m passionate about anyway.
The UK scene also needs more stable organisations. Beyond Team Dignitas there’s really not a lot going on besides bedroom organisations. We’re seeing some of our best talent represent foreign organisations thanks to the lack of an alternative.
Do you think that it is realistic that e-sports could find mainstream appeal in the conceivable future?
Of course. It seems to me that as technology is pushed forward, as more and more people move towards gaming, it seems to me inconceivable that e-sports can’t benefit from that. The biggest media events of all time have been based around gaming, not movies. During the recession, gaming has remained mostly untouched because of what it represents in terms of value for money. A one-off film experience, or years and years of enjoyment from a multi-player game – what would you choose?
The mainstream press is finding out about it now and while you have absolute botch jobs and disgraces to the journalistic profession, like BBC’s Panorama documentary, you also have people like Ian Burrell at The Independent, a respected journalist that understands the gaming sub-culture and competitive gaming.
I have been approached to help BBC Radio do a section about Multiplay’s i-series, so the mainstream press are discovering e-sports for themselves. As they do, more and more people will be intrigued, more and more gamers will come.
It might not be for the games we all know and enjoy now (although StarCraft 2 is arguably already there) and it might not be involving people like myself, but e-sports will one day be successful, lucrative and self sustainable. The people who laid the foundations will just have to be content with that fact.
How have organisations like Major League Gaming succeeded where other e-sports associations have failed?
People forget it wasn’t so long ago that MLG were taking a lot of flak for the way their events were televised. However, they stuck to their guns and built on something – console games – then only expanded when they were able to. The reality is, for all the talk about the master plan and this and that, it simply comes down to two things – having the capital and knowing what to do with it. If you have the capital but not the knowledge, you have to employ people that do. The Championship Gaming Series didn’t and blew $60 million in three years. MLG made sure they did and they are the success story.
Don’t get me wrong, that is probably a simplification, but to go into all the details would take longer than the whole interview. The facts are; they had cash, they had connections, they had good marketing strategists, they had a clear vision of the future, and they employed people that could make it happen and bring the community along for the ride too. Props to them.
Finally – what games are you playing right now?
As I said, I’m a busy man and leisure time is at a premium. When taking a break I’ll either run around on CounterStrike: Global Offensive or, more likely, play a game of League of Legends, which for me is the best action RTS title out there right now… We’ll end on that note so people can feel comfortable flaming me and saying I don’t know what I’m talking about.