E-sports winning new audiences

WHILE the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated live sports across the globe, interest in the online world of e-sports has never been greater.

But this has had mixed blessings for one Tyneside-based professional gamer.

Tam Mageean is one of the UK’s top names in the fiercely competitive world of professional gaming, where he plays for British team Reason.

Known in the world of e-sports as WireMan, Tam, specializes in Street Fighter 5 and regularly takes part in professional  e-sports tournaments around the world.

At least he did before COVID-19 struck.

“The sponsors behind the big tournaments pulled their funding because of the pandemic, so the world of e-sports is in lockdown as far as the tournament calendar is concerned. However, because so many millions of people around the world have time on their hands and enjoy gaming – and the fact there is no live sport to watch – there has been a huge increase in those watching e-sports,” explained Tam.

Premier League footballers, Formula 1 drivers, tennis players and NSACAR racers taking part in their own online gaming tournaments have only added to the attention e-sports are currently getting, giving celebrity endorsement to the digital versions of their pursuits.

But while pleased more people are sharing his passion for gaming, there is a downside for Tam.

“Before the pandemic I and other pro-gamers were training for a huge pre-Olympic competition. The Intel World Open, a $500,000 tournament adjacent to the Tokyo Olympics, was due to take place in late July, as part of a drive for e-sports to become an officially sanctioned Olympic sport.

“The tournament was due to feature Street Fighter 5, my specialist game, and I was due to compete for a place on the GB team, but it has obviously been cancelled because of coronavirus,” he said.

Tam is concerned that should the tournament be rescheduled for next year, the game chosen could be Street Fighter 6: “We’re all waiting for the release of Street Fighter 6 and if it comes out before the tournament pro players won’t have time to get to know the game as well as we know Street Fighter 5,” he added.

In the meantime, Tam continues to hone his gaming skills while not at work – he’s a Senior Consultant at Opencast Software, a successful and well-respected, Newcastle-based software company.

“Because of the lack of live sports, I think people have transitioned into e-sports, and some sports such as football and motor racing have games that really do mirror the real-world games. There are far more people playing, and we have far more people watching live streams of pro gamers on Twitch TV, which is a live streaming platform for gamers and where I have my own channel,” said Tam.

Tam streams between two and three hours every night on Twitch TV, but full-time players are streaming there 7-12 hours a day. They get ad revenue shares and sponsorship through Amazon, who own Twitch, so it can be lucrative for the more popular and successful players. (Find it at www.twitch.tv).

“Having said that, there are also more people playing so there’s more competition for an audience and possible sponsorship,” Tam added.

Twitch is estimated to have grown its audience by a third in March alone, while American telecoms giant Verizon reported US domestic peak-hour usage was up 75% in the first week of the US quarantine, because of gamers.

However, many professional gamers aren’t interested in playing online, as Tam explained: “Playing online is not ideal for pro-players – you have to learn a new way of playing because of the lag caused by inconsistent internet connections.

“In a fighting game, for instance, if the connection drops even for a micro-second you can lose combos and you’ll be on the back foot instead of being in a winning position.

“However, some games that were specifically designed to be played online are seeing a real revival. Many gamers are turning to games they’ve not touched for several years because they play well online – games like Killer Instinct and Skullgirls are ideal because their netcode gives them a really robust design.

“Other games such as World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy 14 and games of that genre are proving more popular because of the social element involved – people still want to talk to each other!”

While the large global e-sports tournaments have been cancelled, local grass-root competitions are thriving, and Tam has long been an organiser.

“These local tournaments have switched online and they’re proving very popular. Obviously they’re nowhere near the scale of the big international tournaments, but more and more people are signing up,” he said.

“For examples of local successes, the Newcastle Fight Club (https://twitter.com/NewcastleFGC) has been running free-entry tournaments instead of paid tournaments, with viewers of the livestreams donating to the prize pots via a service called Matcherino (https://matcherino.com/). My team, Reason, also remotely hosted and streamed a charity tournament for COVID research that raised over $1000 using a charity crowdsource service called Tiltify.

“We manage the brackets online using services like Smash.gg (https://smash.gg/) and Challonge (https://challonge.com/). Again, this is all infrastructure that was in place before covid-19 and things that we already used, so it’s another area where gaming already had things in place that allowed us to continue, compared with other industries,” Tam added.

His consultancy role at Opencast lends itself to working from home and Tam is using the time saved from his daily commute to play his video games for longer.

Thankfully, his partner Laura Turner, is also a gamer, specializing in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game that was released the week the UK lockdown began.

“Animal Crossing is proving massively popular, partly because it’s a relaxing, creative and calm game – a refuge you could say,” said Tam, 31, who lives in Cullercoats.

“I think regular gamers like us were well prepared for lockdown. We were in a fortunate position when it came – we’re used to staying inside, and know all about the need for regular breaks, hydration and exercise. We also usually have a good network of online contacts so we also have range of friends to talk to.

“So lockdown is a world we’re used to and prepared for,” he added.

Not so some of the professional sportspeople who’ve been playing their chosen sport online very publicly.

“As pro players, we’re hyper aware of our presence online and what we can/can’t say or do. Broadcasters like Twitch have strict regulations, much like a TV network. A lot of us have also had professional training from publicists about our public image and personal branding when online too,” said Tam.

“However, sportspeople coming into the e-sports world have been caught out – a NASCAR racer was fired for a racist slur during a virtual race, an example of pro sportsmen not adapting to the e-sports environment where the online world can hear every word you say.”

For Tam’s top tips on how to play Street Fighter to a pro-level, go to his YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-kyMrfRKUu4&t=17s

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