What’s the future for eSports in the UK? UKeSA: The rise and demise of ‘The Football Association of gaming’

Sean Daisy on how eSports need an official governing body in the UK - but the ideology and community must come before the economy

UK eSports

This summer London will host and bear witness to the world’s most spectacular organised international event in world sport, The Olympic Games. The modern Olympics are testament to the importance of a governing organisation; without the founding of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894 the Games would have been a logistical impossibility. The IOC was built from the ground up with the credo of encouraging and supporting the development of sport for all.

In February 2009 the UK saw the launch of an organisation that championed similar ideals within electronic sports (eSports) in the United Kingdom. That organisation was the United Kingdom eSports Association (UKeSA).

Following the announcement of the formation of the UKeSA on 31st October 2008, CVG ran the headline “Big things in store for UK eSports”.  The UKeSA’s acting chief executive, Ray Mia, gave the details: “In its capacity as the UK’s official eSports governing body, UKeSA will be working with government, industry and community to develop, support, encourage and promote the growth of a professional competitive eSports framework from an amateur grassroots level upwards.”

UK eSports

On 26th November, eSports news site cadred.org disclosed UKeSA’s press release, which included the announcement of the support of companies such as the BBC, ELSPA, Future Publishing, EA and Codemasters, the backing of a number of top influencers in eSports as well as less likely alliances such as the Metropolitan Police and Procter & Gamble.

Ray Mia illustrated his grand plan succinctly in his interview for CVG in November 2008: “[UKeSA is] a basic instrument setting forth fundamental principles and essential values of eSports in the UK.”

Even more aspirational, and pertinent, were his plans regarding endorsement by the International Olympic Committee: “We want to create a European Indoor Games, and have eSports on there recognised by the IOC. That’s an objective of ours and something I realistically think we can achieve.”

On 15th January 2009, Future PLC announced their partnership with the Open Division of the UKeSA. Enemy Down disclosed the press release, including the endorsement of Richard Keith, Publisher for Future’s games portfolio: “We are delighted to be working with and promoting the UKeSA, offering UK industry and gamers a responsible, media friendly framework for competitive gaming is the first step towards aligning the popularity of video games with the true recognition of this pastime. By catering for all gamers, professional and amateur alike, it’s a real home for eSports, and it’s an important step forwards that Future want to be a part of.”

PC Gamer Magazine

Future Plc publishes popular gaming magazine PC GAMER

20th January saw the announcement of the Premiership teams on cadred.org. The line-up revealed the inclusion of established and respected eSports teams such as Team Dignitas, CrackClan and Team CoolerMaster.

On 6th February, BE Broadband announced their affiliation with the UKeSA as the official UKeSA Broadband Provider for 2009. Felix Geyr, Managing Director of BE Broadband, said: “We are genuinely excited by the steps UKeSA are taking to develop competitive eSports in the UK and are delighted to be able to show our commitment to gamers and gaming through being involved in this process.”

On 17th February MCV reported that the UKeSA had struck a deal with PC manufacturer Dell as the named sponsor of Season One of the 2009 UKeSA Dell Premiership. Dell’s director of consumer marketing, David Clifton, stated: “Competitive gaming is gathering momentum, particularly in the UK. UKeSA have put in place the foundation and growth structure that will feed that momentum, reaching out to all British eSports hopefuls. Dell is delighted to support the UKeSA at such a significant milestone for UK gaming.”

Ray Mia gave BBC News his plans for eSport in the UK in the official launch on 19th February: “We’ve been planning this for several weeks and have put three levels in place: an open level where people play for fun, a semi-pro level that we hope will encourage people from all sectors, and then there is a pro-gaming part which launches today.”

UK eSports

The BBC also interviewed Tim Pointing, who helped set up one of the first British gaming leagues, The UK PC Games Championships, back in 1998. “They [UKeSA] are trying to pull together a diverse association to get e-sports off the ground and recognised. On the face of it, it all looks very good. However, history makes me very cautious. One of the problems is that people see e-sports as a money making opportunity and, ultimately, own the sponsorship gateway. I really want someone to pull together a federation that can act as a sporting body with the best interests of the sport in mind, rather than trying to milk it for cash. I wish UKeSA luck.”

It seemed that UKeSA didn’t need luck; it was gathering interest and endorsement from heavy hitters in the games industry, media and the world of eSports. Things got even better when MCV reported on 2nd April the announcement of a new London consumer event. Game On! Put together by the UKeSA in association with HMV. “From what we can see, there are no other events planned that will feature this mix and range of activity, so I feel we have an opportunity to create something special,” said HMV’s head of games Tim Ellis. “Working with UKeSA will add a different dimension to the event, particularly the eSports finals of the Premiership Season One that will be staged, while we are also offering publishers the chance to run their own events as part of the programme.”

Ray Mia added: “Industry players have been thinking about staging a London-based gaming event for quite a while now – something that combines a consumer-facing set up with a more inclusive and encompassing gaming agenda.”

Not content with UK eSports’ answer to the FA, it seemed that the UKeSA was all set to have the UK’s answer to E3. It all seemed too good to be true.

Unfortunately, it was.

On 23rd December, Team Dignitas announced that UKeSA issued final notification that they had filed for bankruptcy and had their assets taken.

Team Dignitas

Team Dignitas revealed to PostDesk last year that they consider 'mainstream sport' to be their prime competitor - 'fundamentally believe eSports is capable of achieving the same broad appeal'

What went wrong? Richard Lewis, freelance writer and elected member of the Community Council for the UKeSA, gave his frank and passionate account in cadred.org of the storm below the surface:

“TNWA, the masterminds behind UKeSA, came into the UK e-sports scene like a pack of drunken Vikings emerging from a longboat, and went to work. No subtlety in their approach, they simply started to pump money into the UK eSports scene, taking over things they wanted, even if they didn’t understand exactly why they wanted them.”

“So when UKeSA came along, the brainchild of the same people, there were only two perspectives you could really take. One being, “maybe they let all that other shit slide to concentrate on this, and that is what is really going to be important and actually have a positive impact on the scene” or the other “this is as doomed to failure as a blind, three legged dog trying to cross a motorway fifteen minutes after closing time.” And believe me when I say I was very much in the latter group, but what else did the UK have?”

“So yes, people who knew about their debts, their bankruptcies, their complete lack of knowledge about the competitive gaming scene ultimately made the fateful decision to not say anything about it. We slapped on shit eating grins and we hoped that they would not fuck it up this time.”

“The lower tier teams, the people that would be making up the bulk of the funds in their business model, were largely ignored, tournaments petering out unplayed, forfeits everywhere, confusion about just what they should be doing. And the premiership wasn’t doing much better either. While the online season had managed to get through without many serious hitches by the time the final came rolling around, it was clear that something was desperately wrong. Set up in a cramped and unused former “television studio” using PCs set-up in a manner that looked like Dr. Frankenstein had been at them (if you were unlucky enough to sit at the far end of one row you could expect your PC to crash approximately every half hour through the heat) the media table pretty much was one table. I’d been told when I got there that had it not been for the guys at [eSports broadcaster] QuadV, Tosspot in particular, there’d have been no event anyway. Admins were running around installing copies of games they’d bought from nearby shops on a company credit card.”

UK eSports

“UKeSA was in its death throes and the fact that one of their number had been scapegoated just before the event. Paul Sulyok had “left” but he was only part of the problem. His former colleagues were happy enough to let him take the blame, and even imply in private conversation that things would be better now he was gone. Ray Mia had said he was “disappointed” but vowed that it’d be back for a second season and promised to put it right. He even said he’d give us an interview inside of the week.”

“The teams and their managers were cagey about it all though, and rightly so. People had forked out a lot to be there and everyone had the sense that the prize money was never going to be seen. Which, as it happened, was quite astute. The money intended for prizes had apparently already been spent on other things, and the bulk of the prize money was going to come from payment received for the GameOn Festival in London. But it had been “postponed” to a later date, so if the prize money was indeed coming from there people were going to be in for a long wait. Especially if they decided to shut up shop, asset strip and pretend like UKeSA never happened before the new date. And wouldn’t you know it, it got cancelled again anyway…”

“I’ve seen the e-mails sent by managers since and the stalling tactics… Talk about paperwork, and disciplinary issues, possible deductions, these things take time. They would not be tied down on a payment date and in the end the replies stopped, the phones don’t get picked up, and everyone is just waiting for the last few remnants of the TNWA / UKeSA debacle to get turned out like a lightswitch. Even QuadV, without whom there would have been no event, haven’t been paid yet, proof – if any were needed – that everyone got burned.”

“They already have their new project on the horizon – Creative Games Media. Will people make the same mistakes and work with these guys again? You can only hope not… You can also only hope that the teams that got jipped on the whole UKeSA deal get together, pool resources, and try and take some action about what happened. Sure, filing for bankruptcy might get around having to pay the prize money, but if the prize money was never there in the first place, and former employees will attest to that – and why wouldn’t they? They stopped paying most of them even while they were still working – then isn’t it another matter entirely? I’m not saying I want to see gaming’s great court case, even if the idea of reporting live from a court room does appeal. But surely declaring that we will steer clear of “Creative Games Media” is not enough after what happened.”

UK eSports Multiplay

Multiplay UK's iSeries event forms the largest regular LAN party in the United Kingdom, and they generally host a number of competitive tournaments

To date there are no reports that UKeSA have made any attempt to pay back any individual or organisation it owed.

If Richard Lewis’ accounts are to be believed then UKeSA unflinchingly pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes and mercilessly dealt a blow to the legitimacy of UK eSports in the name of a cynical cash grab. It goes without saying that Richard’s assertion of doom from the outset was incredibly likely under these circumstances.

Pierre de Coubertin is considered the father of the modern Olympic Games. His pursuit of the international competition of amateur athletes in the name of understanding and peace between nations was the ethos behind his goal. Coubertin expressed his ideal as such. “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

If eSports are to have an official governing body in the UK, the ideology and community must come before the economy.

What do you think the future of eSports in the UK is? How can it become widely accepted, and receive mainstream media coverage? Do you think a governing body should exist – and in what form? What organisations do you think are at the core of eSports in the UK currently?

Sean Daisy started his writing career as a scriptwriter, before taking his hand to writing about video games; his true passion. He joined Destructoid.com’s community writing team in 2009 and quickly made a name for himself with his witty, incisive and innovative articles. He joined Destructoid.com‘s Features team 2011. He is based in Ashford, Kent. On Twitter he is known as @seandaisy.