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eSports And Gaming Industry Thriving As Video Games

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eSports and gaming industry thriving as video games provide escape from reality during coronavirus pandemic

While the sports world is at a standstill, pro athletes like Mavericks All-Star Luka Doncic and millions around the world have turned to video games.

DALLAS — WFAA’s Jonah Javad wrote this from his apartment balcony because he — like most of you — is staying home in an effort to limit the outbreak of coronavirus and to “flatten the curve.”

The COVID-19 pandemic flattened the sports world as we know it. The NBA is in timeout. The NHL put its season on ice. March Madness upset by “March Sadness.”

Almost every sport and league you can think of is on hiatus. “This is a great opportunity for more eyeballs to be attracted to eSports,” admitted Envy Gaming, Inc. CEO Mike Rufail.

The Texas native is in charge of Envy Gaming, which owns multiple eSports teams like the Dallas Fuel (Overwatch League) and Dallas Empire (Call of Duty League).

According to Forbes, Envy Gaming is the 8th most valuable eSports organization in the world.

For those unfamiliar to eSports: 

“It’s competitive video gaming,” Rufail explained. “It’s as simple as that.”

In traditional pro sports, there are different leagues for different sports. 

In eSports, there are different leagues for different video games.

“The gaming industry is certainly seeing a lot of growth and interest during this time,” said Rufail.

Verizon reported a 75% increase in video game activity during the first week of quarantine earlier this month.

Live streaming platforms like YouTube Gaming and Twitch saw a 10% increase in viewership.

Meanwhile, NASCAR found a way to draw eyeballs with iRacing.

Since last week’s Cup Series race was postponed, NASCAR replaced the television time slot with a virtual version as drivers competed from home.

The iRacing event drew more than 900,000 viewers on television — making it the most watched eSports TV program to date.

Keep in mind: Most views for eSports events come from the live streaming services like Twitch.

NASCAR returned to iRacing with a race from virtual Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday.

“The video game industry as a whole is probably in a very healthy state compared to other industries that had to shut down their business or other forms of sports entertainment because they cant hold live events,” said Rufail.

Live eSports events are on hold, too. 

However, Overwatch League resumed play on Saturday and the Dallas Fuel expects to follow suit next weekend with players competing from their homes instead.

“During this moment, we’re going to mint more families who become fans of eSports and can sit at home and watch it together and cheer for a team,” Rufail said.

Envy Gaming is a Dallas-based company located above our WFAA studios at Victory Park.

The American Airlines Center is next door, which is normally home to the Dallas Stars and the Dallas Mavericks.

Mavs All-Star Luka Doncic knows how to use a screen, literally and literally.

Turns out, #77 is a gamer on and off the court.

Since the NBA shutdown on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Luka has played a lot of video games.

“I’ll sign him to a contract right now, as long as Mr. Cuban lets me,” jokes Rufail. “Luka plays Overwatch so we’re trying to get him on to play some games.”

Now more than ever, pro athletes like Luka, along with millions of people around the world, have turned to video games to escape reality.

“Some of the most well known athletes in Dallas, right now, are definitely at home playing games and competing online,” said Rufail. “Honestly, there are benefits to them keeping their reflexes going when they can’y run around a field or a court right now.”

The eSports industry was already on the rise. The #StayHome orders will make it skyrocket.

What led to the surge in eSports interest and viewership?

“People are just attracted to human competition,” said Rufail. “That, combined with so many people who engage with video game content these days, has really fueled the growth our industry.”

The age gap between those who understand eSports (much less watch) and those who don’t is predictable.

“It’s kind of a shift in interest from generation to generation and eSports is one of those things the older generation didn’t have when they came through,” explained Rufail.

eSports brings in more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

By 2021, viewership is expected to top every major sports league in the world except the NFL.

“It’s only going to get bigger and better from here,” smiled Rufail.

The sports world is frozen.

The eyeballs are not.


Best Esports Documentaries

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Six must-see esports documentaries you can’t afford to miss

Games have been competitive for much longer than the term ‘esports’ has been kicking about. From the day Asteroids introduced the first high-score table in 1979, the idea of players outperforming one another was set.

But while esports didn’t found the idea of competitive gaming, they did trigger their own revolution. Today, games are a spectator sport. They are watched as well as played, and by huge numbers. Decades after Asteroids attracted small crowds to arcade cabinets, top players can draw thousands to arenas, and hundreds of thousands online. Simply put, watching esports is part of being into esports.

There’s more to take in than just the matches and tournaments, however. With the surge in interest around esports there have, of course, been a lot of documentaries made that look into the lives of the players, teams and communities that make competitive gaming what is today.

To save you separating the good from the bad yourself, here is a selection of some of the most interesting – or most important – out there.

1. Free to Play (2014)

When people think of esports, towering prize pools are probably some of the first things that spring to mind. That reputation for making winning players rich in no small part comes from the Dota 2 world championship event, The International. When it debuted with the game itself in 2011, a $1.6 million prize pool was striking to say the least. In 2019, The International had a prize pool of well over $34 million.

As such it is one of the most popular, competitive and well-known esports events there is. Free to Play surely is biased; after all, like Dota 2, it is made by Valve. And yet it does a sublime job of looking at the motivations that guide the players that take on The International, as well as the sacrifices they struggle with, and the devotion they commit to. It’s inspiring stuff.

2. FGC: Rise of the Fighting Game Community (2016)

Many in the fighting game community (FGC) and esports scenes continue to see their worlds as somewhat distinct. And yet devotees to Street Fighter, Marvel vs Capcom and Tekken arguably laid the groundwork for what modern esports is. Simply put, the story of the FGC is part of the story of esports. And FGC: Rise of the Fighting Game Community is the most heartfelt, engaging documentary about that part of the esports story yet made.

It might not be perfect, and if you have tallied hours in arcades honing your fighting game craft you likely know the story it tells well enough already. But if you care anything about esports, fighting games or arcades, this enthralling documentary is close to essential viewing.

3. Team Liquid – Breaking Point

Chances are that if you are a committed esports fan, then the Team Liquid – Breaking Point documentary’s reputation precedes it. If you haven’t seen it – even if your interest in esports is passing at best – you really should give this striking bit of storytelling some time.

While it both focuses on and is produced by Team Liquid, it offers a startlingly frank, raw and seemingly open tale of a group of players seeing their dreams unravel as egos, competitiveness, leadership weaknesses, performance missteps and more cause all kinds of tension and problems. It’s a reminder that making it as a professional gamer isn’t easy, and that the challenges in esports stray far from the screen.

4. MTV True Life – I’m a Gamer (2003)

This one isn’t a documentary, as much as a defining moment in esports history caught on camera. Some 17 years ago, MTV’s show ‘True Life’ turned its attention to Jonathan ‘Fatal1ty’ Wendel, the original esports celebrity, and a globally recognised name back when some current esports talent was yet to have mastered walking.

This legendary episode is something of a time capsule; a reminder of how the early 2000s looked and felt, and a flashback to a time when esports was a little more simple, polite, and down to earth, and the idea of a ‘professional gamer’ was so novel it bewildered mainstream culture.

5. Live/Play Miniseries (2016)

What makes the official League of Legends miniseries stand out is that it doesn’t only focus on the biggest money and most polished events. This is a series about the variety of players and fans that devote themselves to LoL.

It makes for a touching, even poignant look at why people play, the ways games act as a positive force in players’ lives, and what the esports community means to the human beings that form it. Live/Play is perhaps a little sentimental, and you won’t find a cold hard look at LoL as a game. But those might be the very reasons you should add this miniseries to your watch list.

6. The Smash Brothers (2013)

With 13 episodes spread over four-hours, The Smash Brothers documentary is absolutely an undertaking, but it’s well worth tackling. A true document of what makes up the Super Smash Bros. Melee game and community, it is meticulous in its depth and detail, while looking at the careers of seven devotees, or ‘smashers’.

The Smash Brothers is charming because it is relatable. You don’t have to be a series fan to understand what this gem of a documentary says because it so authentically speaks to why we love games generally, and what that affection can inspire. Indeed, The Smash Brothers was so adored on release by both Smash players and non-smashers, it has been credited with triggering a significant resurgence in interest in the game.

Ripple Partner Integrate Blockchain

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Ripple Partner Forte Teaming Up With Game Developers To Integrate Blockchain

Forte, a blockchain technology company with a strong focus on gaming, has recently partnered with a host of well-regarded game developers to try and implement blockchain and unlock new business models in the ever-evolving space. 

Forte has announced that Hi-Rez Studios, Netmarble, Magmic, nWay, and DECA Games are all part of its next induction of gaming partners. They join previously announced developer partners, Disruptor Beam, Other Ocean, and Kongregate. 

Part of the reason that Forte and its blockchain solution is becoming more and more popular and attractive to game developers is that the blockchain platform benefits both existing and future titles. It has the potential to unlock never-before-possible revenue streams in traditional game designs, while being versatile enough to serve as the economic and creative foundation for blockchain-native experiences. 

What makes Forte and its partnerships even more interesting is that the company is backed by a $100 million War Chest from Ripple; the company behind the XRP cryptocurrency and the company that is focused primarily on integrating blockchain and cryptocurrency into traditional banking. 

A growing relationship

The affinity for blockchain and the gaming space was identified early on as there are many different areas that blockchain technology, as well as the cryptocurrency side of things, can be applied in the industry. However, the partnership between these two different sides is still very much in development, with a lot of future potential. 


NASCAR Greats Compete On The Esports

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Denny Hamlin notches a win as NASCAR greats compete on the esports track

Denny Hamlin outlasted Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Dixie Vodka 150 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a door-to-door finish worthy of a place alongside the likes of David Pearson and Richard Petty in the 1976 Daytona 500 and Ricky Craven versus Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003.

It was all so real. But it was also never real. “It sure felt real to me,” Hamlin said, laughing.

Sunday’s race was the NASCAR equivalent to Tron, with an entire racetrack, garage area and grandstand digitized via iRacing, the hyper-accurate racing simulation software that has long served as an escape for gamers as well as a serious training tool for professional racers. The 2020 NASCAR season was put up on blocks by the coronavirus outbreak one week ago, and competitors were told to pack up and return home from Atlanta Motor Speedway, just as the garage was opening on March 13.

When a handful of racers ran a little online simulation of the Atlanta event, and it caught the attention of race fans, that sparked a much bigger idea. Through the cooperation of NASCAR teams, drivers, iRacing, broadcast partners and the sanctioning body, the fledgling eNASCAR world suddenly made a slingshot move into the spotlight.

“We are all just looking for a connection right now,” said Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 21st on Sunday. “Today we got one.”

The Dixie Vodka 150 awarded no trophy. It paid no points. There was no purse. There were no actual race cars.

Instead, there were 35 drivers from across NASCAR’s three national touring series, strapped into 35 simulator rigs in bonus rooms and man caves, cranking steering wheels and pushing clutch pedals. Hamlin won, despite his pit crew (his daughter) handing him an in-race Coca-Cola that she had accidentally shaken too much and sprayed all over his cockpit.

When Alex Bowman left his racing seat to use the bathroom, his dog, Finn, climbed in for a couple of laps under the caution flag. Dylan Scott performed the prerace national anthem while adhering to self-quarantining in his garage, and fellow country music star Tim Dugger staged a prerace concert from his office.

They all had smiles on their faces. Everyone did.

Jimmie Johnson was embarrassed for wrecking out early. NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte, who came out of retirement, couldn’t stop talking about how much fun it was, even though he was never a factor. TV analyst Larry McReynolds couldn’t get over the tire wear he saw during the 100-lap race on the 1.5-mile oval. NASCAR’s media service provided postrace box scores, photos and a winner’s teleconference with Hamlin.

The thousands of NASCAR fans watching via the race broadcast on FS1 and the dozens of streaming feeds provided by teams, drivers and sponsors were outraged after watching Earnhardt, the 15-time Most Popular Driver, come out of retirement only to end up wrecked. NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s at-track “city hall” race director, tweeted, “Security-please report to @dennyhamlin car.”

In seven-plus decades of NASCAR racing, it’s difficult to remember a stock car event that left so many people feeling so great for two hours — so much so that #ProInvitationalSeries was pushed to the top of Twitter’s trending topics list, passing all the pandemic- and politics-related headlines like Hamlin going around Earnhardt at the finish line. With more races planned to fill the pause in the sports world, the hope is to make this a weekly occurrence, converting even the biggest esports skeptics one pixel at a time.

“I have always watched these people who watch other people playing video games like they are watching real-life sports, and I’ve thought, ‘These people are goofy!'” said Clint Bowyer, who raced so hard that he had to use both of his allowed “reset” buttons to replace his wrecked Ford. “But this was damn fun, even when I was wrecking. Wrecking a real car isn’t fun. The only problem I had was that this s— is hard for someone with big-league ADD like me. I walk around with a bunch of voices in my head all day anyway. This deal, I had those voices in my head for real.”

Bowyer was one of the go-to in-race reporters for the Fox Sports telecast, so he was listening to the play-by-play from Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in one ear while keeping the driver-only chat channel turned up in the other. Other drivers also chose the spotter option, with their actual race-day spotters on the radio doing some version of their usual Sunday afternoon jobs.

From team PR reps to the auto manufacturers to the crew men and women who have no cars to build and no races to prepare in the foreseeable future, Hamlin was far from Sunday’s only winner. The same can be said for those who participated in a recent simulation of last weekend’s canceled 12 Hours of Sebring and will certainly apply to IndyCar when it rolls out its star-studded iRacing events on Saturday. As it is with NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA have suspended their seasons through at least early May. For a sport that is more reliant on sponsorship dollars than any other, it’s a terrifying time.

“I think that it definitely energizes the industry,” said Hamlin, who estimated that he has raced against fellow esports junkie Earnhardt for 20 years. “I follow [on social media] lots of people that are crew guys or crew chiefs or drivers in other series. They’re all talking about it right now. You know, this is a good time. It’s Sunday afternoon. You would normally be watching in and tuning in and watching us at Homestead anyway, and what are we doing — we’re talking about a race at Homestead. I think, for sure, it energizes our industry.”

As the race winner chatted with reporters on the phone, he was still barefoot, long after the race had ended. He has always gone barefoot in the wraparound-screen racing simulator that he estimates he spent $40,000 building because he says it helps him keep a better feel for his pedal footwork — even when the pedals are covered in Coca-Cola spray from an over-shaken pit stop beverage.

“If I’m being honest, I’m a little nervous about this,” Stenhouse said. “Not nervous like I don’t think I can race well. I get nervous because this e-racing might be a little too good. When we come back to do real racing, fans are going to expect every finish to be like the ones we have on iRacing!”

After pausing, Stenhouse added, “But man, what a great problem to have. Because that would mean we have turned the corner on this virus, and we’re back at the racetrack for real.”


Esports Online Play Challenges

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Online Matches Offer Esports a Lifeline, But Quality and Fairplay are a Challenge

Esports competitions have been postponed left and right due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), but unlike their traditional sports counterparts, several are already back to broadcasting. Leagues which spent years in-studio are switching to online remote play, a daunting prospect given that their players, broadcasting talent, and crew are all now self-isolating. 

In order to maintain production quality, as well as professional integrity, league operations and production officials required quick-fix measures, largely unseen in esports’ short history.

Going from Hiatus to Multi-Home Broadcasting

Last Friday, the League of Legends European Championship (LEC) suspended its season just twenty minutes before show time, after a staff member entered into quarantine. The following morning, LEC broadcast producer John Depa and his team were already weighing their options.

“How can we do a show that has competitive integrity and is entertaining to the end viewer, while reducing the amount of social contact that happens with a normal show?” Depa told The Esports Observer. Playing out of a studio in the outskirts of Berlin, a typical LEC game day requires 80-100 crew members on-site, on top of all players, press, and audience. 

Prior to its postponement, the LEC had already barred public attendees from the studio. As evidenced by the number of NBA players who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus, crowdless games are no longer an option for contact sports, but aside from the occasional fist bump or post-match huddle, video gaming doesn’t require much physical contact between teams. 

Depa and his team devised a number of scenarios for the coming weeks, such as operating a skeleton crew out of the studio, or accessing the broadcasting systems remotely; an option ruled out given the catastrophic possibility of hardware failure. 

“Instead, we decided to leverage systems and workflows based on the desktop computers that we have in everyone’s homes,” he said. The engineering and IT teams sent a fleet of desktop computers to every caster, observer, and member of the broadcast team. Everyone gets a backup computer, and all are sending each piece of the broadcast—game footage, graphics, and commentary—to a central PC.

“We still have the ability to chrono break if bugs occur,” said Depa. “We are still keeping, for the most part, the same rules and decision-making process. Theoretically, we can still pause the game and our referees can start speaking to the teams about what’s going on.”

Maintaining Integrity in Isolation

Internet connectivity in the 1990s turned competitive gaming from arcade amusement to a career option for gamers. Today, hundreds of online tournaments are held daily in the amateur ranks, and cheating is sadly not uncommon. The LEC may not have millions in prize money up for grabs, but that’s because its star players earn well upward of six figures, and victory in Europe means qualification to international events, and big business potential.

“There are a lot of things that you can’t control when you have competitions played online,” said Avi Bhuiyan, VP of product development for esports services company Popdog. Bhuiyan previously ran league operations for the LEC’s North American counterpart, the League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) until 2016. 

“At the LEC and LCS and other major leagues, typically there’s factory sealed peripherals, to try and avoid essentially people having tampered gear. There’s actually tons of things people can do with their peripherals to manipulate the outcome of a game, or there’s risk to the servers.”

Live esports events feature multiple methods of rule enforcement, from on-stage referees to multiple spectators backstage. Since league officials cannot safely travel to the bases and homes of players, for the time being, the LEC is introducing other measures, such as additional cameras in players homes, voice monitoring, screen recording, and the ability to take remote control. 

“I don’t think it’s controversial to say that if these were ideal measures, we’d already be playing tournaments online,” said Bhuiyan adding that everything depends on the audience’s appetite for quality. It’s likely we will see lag, someone might disconnect, or even get DDOS’d, but as long as everyone understands these are the risks of online play, it won’t be that shocking.

“I think given these unique circumstances, it’s worth taking the risk, but I would also hope that if there’s an abuse case that’s looked at incredibly seriously. Because what an incredible time to be messing with stuff like that.”

The Impact on Viewership and Sponsors

With so many moving parts, the other major consideration is how to produce an esports product close to the quality fans, and sponsors, would expect. Like sports, pro gaming broadcasts feature pre- and post-game analysis, plus interviews with the freshly victorious players. The LEC intends to keep these segments, but aside from the gameplay footage and onscreen graphics, everything will be audio only. 

“For other elements of our show it’s the same. We’re being very cautious with what we’re doing in this first setup, first run, and then iterating from there,” said Depa.

“We’re very flexible in a studio environment to change our graphics, update them, animate them, make adjustments on the fly,”he added. “The interesting exercise that we’ve been going through is to what extent can we still do that in our current setup.” 

The LEC and LCS only had a week to establish a system for online play, having both grown from studio setups since their launch in 2013. The Overwatch League, which expected its players to travel more than any other esports competitors this year, is also transitioning to an online-only schedule, but will have to build its own remote setup, due in part to California’s statewide “stay at home” order.

The largest league currently running remotely is the ESL Pro League (EPL), a professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive circuit that had already been playing everything but its finals online until 2019. The EPL is currently hosted out of ESL’s offices in Cologne, with players providing interviews via webcam. 

The EPL has signaled how much the sequestered gaming population will boost esports viewership in the coming months. While ESL declined to speak about its operations at this time, the company reported its Wednesday EPL broadcasts reached over 190K concurrent English broadcast viewers, and 366K overall concurrents (up 66%); making it the single most-watched broadcast day of an EPL season in its five-year history.

Complexity Gaming is one of thirteen teams partnered with the league. CEO Jason Lake explained that due to recent whirlwind travel, three of his players are now playing from a Copenhagen base, two others from their own homes. “It’s not the best case scenario for competition but the health, mental health, and wellbeing of our player is priority number one,” he said.

“As far as integrity measures, teams are expected to play under the same rules and regulations as normally used during online play.”

Complexity is partly owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and would have seen this year’s LCS Spring finals take place in its backyard, at The Star in Frisco, Texas. The roadshow was canceled like every other major esports event for the next three months, and in addition, Complexity had to close its GameStop Performance Center in The Star.

“It’s definitely a challenging time for millions (and many industries) right now, as everyone is aware,” said Lake. “One thing that’s fantastic about esports is the fact we can provide our partners value even if in-person touchpoints and activations are limited for the time being. Most traditional sports are on hiatus, but in esports its full steam ahead.”

Likewise, the LEC Spring finals would’ve taken the league to Budapest (and the growing Visegrád Four market) for the first time. While that event may have to wait till next year, it’s not 100% impossible that some aspects of LEC production may return to its Berlin studio, as was the case for the long-delayed Chinese league, which finally resumed broadcasts this week.

The German government is currently cautioning its citizens to undergo social distancing, and Riot Games is making every decision with the safety of its players, crew, and audience in mind. But nothing is off the table, said Depa.

“Whether that’s remote in the setup that we have now, or if this just a temporary solution and we do end up using aspects of our studio in the near future we’ll assess and determine how to use those as the days progress.”