Irish gamers go pro

22 May 2008

Professional computer gaming is a serious business and an Irish team hopes to break into the top ranks.

For many people, shooting aliens, playing virtual golf or driving cars on their PC is strictly recreation, but for a select few, computer gaming offers rewards of a more tangible kind.

The games business is booming. Worldwide, millions play on their PCs or consoles and PricewaterhouseCoopers has forecast the computer games market will be a US$50bn industry by 2011.

As the sector has grown, professional gamers have emerged and now an Irish team wants a piece of the action.

Dublin-based Richard Smith formed Team Reverence with two gaming colleagues last November, aiming to compete at a professional or semi-pro level in international tournaments.

Smith had been involved in computer gaming in Ireland for many years, playing and organising competitions. In 2006 and 2007, he ran the Irish heats of the World Cyber Games with the Digital Hub Development Agency.

“From going to the world finals, I was able to see the opportunities available to teams that compete at the highest level – anything from product endorsement deals to financial backing, to travel and PR opportunities. It struck me that nobody in Ireland has yet managed to take a slice of this pie.

“We are always told that Ireland has a young, technologically minded population, yet I haven’t seen anyone capitalising on that from the gaming perspective.”

New competitions are appearing all the time and gameplay is even a spectator sport: the Championship Gaming Series begun last year is backed by TV money from Rupert Murdoch.

Team Reverence is based in Ireland but is a mix of nationalities, including Croatian, Dutch and Swedish, as well as Irish. The gamers play on their PCs over the internet but there are plans to add PlayStation or Xbox console gamers in the future.

The team is divided into two five-man groups, one playing Call Of Duty 4 and one for Counterstrike, along with three substitutes and a backroom staff of four people.

“We will be actively recruiting for other games, so I would expect our player count to increase by about another three or four before the end of the year,” says Smith.

Team Reverence is currently seeking sponsorship to fund ongoing costs, which include running a website and online game servers. “When our players compete, they have to have somewhere to play, so we have game servers in Ireland, the UK and in Holland,” Smith explains.

As the number of games the team plays increases, the server cost rises but the team hopes to minimise this through partnership deals with server firms.

Travel is the single biggest expense. The team hopes to compete at i34, a gaming event in Coventry this August, along with other tournaments in
Sweden, Holland and Ireland.

“If we were to attend every event that we wanted to, we would probably be looking at an annual travel cost of approximately €28,000,” says Smith.

Players get to keep any prize fund, so if they win they get free accommodation, travel and whatever prize money is up for grabs. “While this may sound very attractive, for anyone to win at these major events, they have to put in a huge amount of preparation and training,” Smith cautions.

Game players train for four hours a night on average, six nights a week and this workload increases in the build-up to major competitions.

“There is a huge time commitment required to be a player. And this is while they all hold down jobs or college courses,” says Smith, who estimates that going fully professional would entail six to eight hours a day training, in addition to PR work required by sponsors.

There is money to be made by successful gamers. The world’s leading professional gamer is estimated to have won over US$500,000, although the income for middle-ranking gamers is a more accurate reflection of the earnings on offer.

Some players on the Danish team MYM are paid annual salaries of €62,000, plus prizes and endorsements. Irishman Mark Kenny, who won a professional contract last year in the Championship Gaming Series, was paid US$30,000.

Most of the money on offer is in specific tournaments rather than online play. I34 in the UK has prize funds of £12,000 sterling each for COD4 and Counterstrike.

The pot on offer depends on the scale of the event and can range from between €1,000 and €5,000, up to €30,000.

Having seen the standard of gamers elsewhere, Smith is optimistic that Team Reverence can compete at a high level. “I would certainly expect that within six months we would be inside the top 20 in Europe, if not higher.”

By Gordon Smith