Professional gaming isn’t exactly a spectator sport. People who don’t “get” gaming aren’t interested, and the seriousness of tournaments can turn off casual gamers. For those lucky enough to fight their way through the ranks, there’s not a lot of glamour. Even the champions face a career with no safety net or retirement fund. Most people – especially the parents of the competitors – considered professional gaming a joke, a fad destined to wear out in a few years.

For better or worse, the combination of the internet and our competitive spirit have led to the rise of professional gaming around the world, particularly in South Korea. Most readers will know Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel, with his superstar status and multiple media appearances including an interview on 60 Minutes. Occasionally the digital accomplishments get out of hand: The Chinese multi-gaming organization, Wisdom Nerve Victory, became so successful that their Counter-Strike team began appearing on boxes of ice cream cones in French supermarkets.

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While the rest of the world explores the competitive side of the internet, however, Australia lags behind, listening for results via dial-up. Forget professional gaming – people struggle to get quality broadband. If you are lucky enough to find a decent service, you’d better hope it holds up during peak hours for your online fragging fix. And don’t get me started on those who live in the bush.

If internet in the Lucky Country needed several crates of dynamite to get started, then it might take a disaster of epic proportions for professional gaming to gain a foothold. Aspiring competitors need several thousand dollars to attend a single overseas event if they want to make real money. Limiting oneself to Australian events won’t do – there are very few of them, and in most cases the prizes aren’t worth the registration fee. Last year, one national tournament was so dry on funds that the winning team walked away with mice and keyboards. They would have done better to bribe the administrators for the MVP prize, an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and some DDR2 RAM.

Representing Australia is even more expensive. Major international competitions like the World Cyber Games and the Electronic Sports World Cup require an enormous outlay before tournament organizers can run an event, with one internet cafe owner reporting that it cost AU $15,000 to purchase the ESWC license. That doesn’t include the costs of hiring of internet cafes to run the qualifiers in various states, providing flights and accommodations for the winners of the qualifiers or renting out the venue for the finals, which can total over AU $30,000 with little to no return on the investment.

The former head organizer for WCG Australia, Jacob Gardiner, agrees. “Venues need to be booked, PCs, servers, consoles and monitors need to be acquired and set up along with sufficient power. Then there’s the actual registration process along with organizing the teams and players into the specified format and schedule of the event. … The amount of money required to run an event on this scale, including flights of players (national and internationally), hire of venues and also to use all of the equipment at these events is enormous. Without the help from sponsors, there would be no WCG in Australia.”

So when sponsors fall through, it can have catastrophic results. While the World Cyber Games receives good media exposure in Australia, other major events are ignored. In 2005, the Electronic Sports World Cup was held in Brisbane. Due to a lack of media exposure and reluctant – ultimately nonexistent – sponsors, however, there was no money left over to send the winners overseas to Paris for the finals. In the end, the owner of an Australian computer peripherals distributor donated money from his business to send the winners overseas. It’s just one of many tales in an infant industry that is sorely lacking regulation, enforceable contracts or any sort of safeguards. The problem is no one thinks it’s worth it.

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David Kaye, the most successful Counter-Strike competitor in Australia, admits that sponsors get no value for their money. “The community is not evolved enough, and the players I don’t think have the commitment to fulfill what is necessary to be considered professional. … If you were a corporate sponsor directly related to e-sports, perhaps you could justify spending a little bit of money sponsoring events and whatnot, but teams, in general, I would avoid. That said, professional gaming in other parts of the world is growing rapidly, and hopefully someone in Australia will take the step forward and help push us into the scene.”

One of those organizations fighting for mainstream recognition is the Championship Gaming Series, who contract players to one of 18 franchises worldwide to compete for a prize pool of one million dollars. While members are paid to play, professional gaming comes with other benefits. “Its given me a lot more freedom and spare time to do things with my girlfriend and just pursue other areas of life without having to worry about a 9-to-5. It’s actually a really good talking point when meeting new people,” says Oliver Johnson-Barrett, one of the ten players of Sydney Underground. And who’d disagree when a CGS contract is worth around $30,000 US, not including tournament winnings?

That’s not to say high-level gaming doesn’t requires a significant time investment. Johnson-Barrett spends up to 16 hours a week improving his skills, and many gamers will double or even triple that amount leading up to major competitions. For all those competitors, David Kaye says that the main prize is enough of an incentive. “I’ve spent upwards of five hours a night from Sunday to Thursday practicing, not only individually, but with my teammates. In the build-up to national or international competitions, I play weekends also, because to me it’s worth sacrificing some things to gain the opportunity to travel again.” He should know – Kaye has earned 10 trips overseas through competitive gaming.

Most gamers have some idea about the lavish trips and the big cash prizes of televised competitions. Unfortunately, they don’t always make for captivating television. It’s still the individual communities for each game that keep the events afloat, because they’re the ones who want to watch it the most. Like any proper sport, for every person that makes it there are thousands more who come tantalizingly close. They receive no prizes, no all-expenses-paid trips, no free products and no grand trophy to triumphantly hold aloft.

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Matthew Burton is one of those players. After attending tournament after tournament in Brisbane and flying interstate several times for major competitions without a qualifying result, why does he keep playing?

“I’ve had six holidays in Melbourne in the last two and a half years,” Burton says. “I’ve seen Luna Park and Sydney, which I hadn’t seen since Grade 5 when I went on a trip with my parents on Australia Day. I was able to live in Melbourne for a couple of weeks courtesy of friends I’d met through gaming, which was refreshing and allowed me to live a different lifestyle. It also helped me to focus on what was waiting for me when I got home.”

I wasn’t satisfied with that. After all, if a person wants to travel, they can work, save the money and go on a normal holiday, right? Why put yourself through the stresses of tournament gaming when you can simply play for fun?

“If you want to play seriously, then you need to study yourself, your team and your opponents.” If it sounds a bit like Sun Tzu, that’s because it is: Burton read The Art of War with the intention of applying it to gaming. “Taking games seriously has improved my capacity for critical thinking. Analyzing teams, understanding strategies and their motivations, formulating positions and combining all that knowledge to make the correct decision in the heat of a tournament are all skills that are invaluable in the real world.” He’s not joking, either. One of the members of Sydney Underground, Scott Bednarski, leveraged his experience in professional gaming for a managerial position at Bunnings, one of the largest hardware chains in Australia.

Whether you win or lose, the real reward is learning from your experiences. When I first joined the competitive scene in Australia, I did so as a writer, thinking the recognition would help my prospects later down the road. Little did I know that it would send my life in a completely different direction.

I couldn’t be more grateful.

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