Photo by Jamie McInall
E-sports in the public eye
Imagine a stadium packed to the rafters – no empty seats, tens of thousands of people, all eyes fixed on the huge onstage screens. This is going to be a historic moment. The ecstatic commentators are discussing the action as if their national team is about to win an Olympic gold. Then it hits the whole stadium like a tsunami: GG.
The crowd goes wild and the air is filled with confetti, lights, and deafening yet intoxicating cheering. Joona Sotala, better known by his nickname, Serral, is the first non-Korean player in the 20-year history of the legendary computer game StarCraft II to lift the World Championship Series Global Finals trophy and take home the grand prize of $280,000.
More viewers than Wimbledon
Meet e-sports – the modern word for professional, competitive video gaming. According to the latest report by market intelligence company Newzoo, the global pro gaming industry will generate revenues of more than $1 billion this year and attract more than half a billion viewers in 2021, with most of them being young Asians. These numbers make pro gaming attractive to investors, sponsors, and advertisers.
To put things into perspective, in 2018 The International, one of the biggest video game tournaments in the world, offered a prize pool of $25.5 million, more than twice the prize money in the US Open golf tournament. The International dwarfs other major global sports events, such as the Tour de France, which offered only $2.7 million for its competitors last year. Moreover, The International 2018 attracted 15 million viewers, which beat the peak audiences of the abovementioned sports events and even of Wimbledon, with fewer than 10 million.
Resurgence of “nonsense”
In comparison, the $60,000 awarded to the Czech national team for winning the 2017 Global Games for Hearthstone, the most popular online card game, might not seem like much, but shows that pro gaming has already established a strong base here as well.
The Czech Computer Games Championship attracted 51,000 visitors at the BVV Trade Fairs Brno and 50,000 more watched the final battles online last year. No wonder this amount of attention has attracted some big names, such as the biggest Czech e-shop, Alza.cz, the top sports-news website, iSport.cz, or the popular TV channel Prima COOL as official event partners.
Prima COOL has been involved in gaming and promoting the local scene for quite some time. It has been broadcasting the gaming programme Re-play for eight years and even started its own professional league for the PC game Counter-Strike and held tournaments in 2017. After its online success, the station decided to bring its Cool Esport series to TV last April.
It is, thus, carrying the torch after Czech Television decided to cancel its show Game Page, explaining that “a specialized computer game show is nonsense from a public service point of view anywhere in Europe,” which left thousands of its fans dissatisfied, some of whom even signed a petition against the decision.
Through sports to e-sports
Even a few years ago, becoming a full-time pro gamer in the Czech Republic wasn’t an easy feat. Only a handful of teams were able to provide their players with both financial and personal support. Even eSuba, one of the oldest and most successful e-sports teams in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, started a full-time professional team less than a year ago. But a few Czechs and Slovaks have still managed to break the mould.
Slovakian star Erik “hakkiJunior” Leštach, for example, became the world champion in the racing game TrackMania in 2011 and later the first fully supported Red Bull e-athlete. The leader of the Czech national Hearthstone team, Stanislav “StanCifka” Cifka, became the world number one in 2018.
With internationally successful video game players and global e-sports on the rise, it was only a matter of time before the industry started deepening its roots here. And how better to kick it off than in cooperation with the most prominent local sport? Following in the footsteps of international football giants such as Manchester City and Ajax Amsterdam, AC Sparta Praha established an e-sports team in partnership with eSuba last September.
Football all the way
Alongside other professional footballers from FC Viktoria Plzen and the Czech national team, Sparta players joined the video game tournament iSport Cup for the football simulation game FIFA 19 a few months ago to show off their gaming skills and promote the event. The host of the tournament, iSport.cz, awarded the winner 25,000 CZK and a professional gaming contract.
And it’s not just football clubs that are launching e-sports teams. Czech national football player Jakub Jankto decided to start his own last year as well. His e-sports team Sampi, named after the Italian club UC Sampdoria, for which he is currently playing, has already collected several titles, including two national championships and one world championship. The 22-year-old midfielder played FIFA professionally in his teenage years and once even skipped a football match to compete in a German e-sports tournament.
Last year brought a breakthrough for Czech gaming in terms of international attention. The world’s largest e-sports company, ESL, organized the V4 Future Sports Festival for gamers from the Visegrád Four countries and brought its national championship series to the Czech Republic and Slovakia for the first time.
The rising popularity of the gaming industry has also led to money being raised for NGOs, foundations, or seriously ill people through charity tournaments, such as GG Prague and live streams. Famous Czech YouTubers such as Jirka Král or Pedro take part. The majority of today’s most famous YouTubers started their careers with videos where they play computer games.
Tougher than it seems
To address the elephant in the room, yes, many still see computer games as a means of slacking, wasting time, and harming one’s eyesight. Pro gaming, on the other hand, is considered a teenage dream come true – getting up late, playing games all day, and no one forcing you to wear pants. But making it from your parents’ basement to the big leagues takes thick skin, a cool head, and dedication. The best e-sports players practise for 10-16 hours at least six days a week, and take very little time off.
Pro gamers will still have to wait some time before the public starts seeing them in a better light. What they can indisputably enjoy more is the institutional support. In particular, last November, the Technical University of Ostrava announced tuition for e-sportsmen and the country’s first classroom dedicated to e-sports. Lecturer Jakub Čubik also established the E-sports Student Association and launched the first Czech university e-sports league, 3E Liga. Additionally, Charles University announced plans for game studies and development in the coming semester,
A friendly match
Czech government representatives are slowly realizing the potential of the gaming industry as well. A good example of governmental support is neighbouring country Poland, whose government started investing in the country’s game developers after the global success of The Witcher computer game series,
With internationally acclaimed titles such as Mafia, Chuchel, Beat Saber, and Kingdom Come: Deliverance, video games are the biggest Czech cultural export, with an annual turnover of 2.5 billion CZK. Moreover, the immersive medieval game Kingdom Come: Deliverance alone had, according to the latest study by Deloitte, a 2.6 billion CZK turnover last year.
The Czech developer scene has definitely achieved more recognition than the pro gaming scene, but the latter is slowly catching up, and winning the world championship in the most popular online card game is just the beginning. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting Gamescom, the biggest gaming convention in the world, and two of Finland’s most prominent pro gamers being invited to the presidential castle for the celebration of the Finnish Independence Day, it’s only a matter of time before Czech politicians step up. And with the rising popularity of the Pirate Party, the Czech Republic might become the first country where pro gamers and politicians gather for a friendly match.
GG – Good Game. The loser usually types these two letters before conceding the match, to acknowledge that his opponent has bested him.
World Championship Series Global Finals – could be described as the world championship for the computer game StarCraft II. The same applies to the Hearthstone Global Games.
Gamescom – the world’s largest gaming event, with 370,000 visitors and 1,037 exhibitors from 56 countries attending the show in 2018.