We talk to the AFL teams who are bringing sports knowledge to Esports.
“This should not be an Olympic sport because it is not a sport,” declared Shelly Horton on Channel 9’s Weekend Today earlier this week. In the news ticker the title of the discussion said “Revenge of the Nerds?” in all caps. Peter Stefanovic put up a robust defense of competitive gaming, but it was moot. Shelly had a catchy way to dismiss the concept of esports as a sport.
“You need a little bit of huffy puffy,” she said. “The only thing moving are thumbs, that is not a sport.”
Should video games be an Olympic sport? Professional video gaming or “E-Sports” is already a $1.5 billion industry but it’s predicted to grow by 50% in two years. What are your thoughts? #9Today pic.twitter.com/078r9I8DcM
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) March 3, 2018
They were talking about whether esports should enter the Olympics. It would sit alongside sports like sailing, curling and myriad shooting competitions. Nobody would dismiss these sports as unworthy.
“I think a lot of it’s around ignorance; a lot of people just don’t understand it,” explains Dominic Remond. He’s the CEO of Gfinity Australia, an esports competition poised to launch next month. Before he was getting the best Counter-Strike, Rocket League, and Street Fighter players in the country to compete, he was the General Manager of the Big Bash League’s Sydney Sixers. He knows the attitudes some in traditional sports have towards esports, because he’s seen it first-hand.
I think a lot of it’s around ignorance; a lot of people just don’t understand it.
“To be brutally honest, if you’d asked me eight months ago, my understanding of esports would have been very limited. I guess as an industry that’s what we should be [addressing] – and I know that there’s a number of industry bodies that are out there promoting the legitimacy of esports to the community. Knowledge of esports in the general community is relatively low. And when I was explaining to people where I was going [when leaving the Sixers] they had no idea what I was talking about.”
It’s even clear in the segment on Channel 9’s programme – Peter Stefanovic’s primary defense of esports hinges off his experiences at IEM Sydney last year, where he saw the competition up close. The report wasn’t received well by the community, because it was uncharitable in its portrayal, but it’s clear from this week’s Weekend Today clip that Stefanovic is a convert some nine months later. The only thing stopping people from understanding the appeal of esports is knowledge – they haven’t yet seen it in the same perspective as sports.
The crazy thing is that even as members of the general public struggle to grasp how similar both sports and esports are, AFL clubs are getting more and more involved.
The Adelaide Football Club, 2017 AFL Minor Premiers and AFLW Champions, bought into esports early in Australia. They acquired Legacy Esports, perennial League of Legends contenders and fierce competitors across an array of other games.
“They were extremely welcoming,” Tim Wendel says. He’s the Head of Esports at the club, formerly the Captain of Legacy’s League of Legends team. “Even the people who didn’t know about esports, who didn’t really know what was going on – they were great. People down at the Adelaide Football Club are very passionate about their Crows and they were excited about the idea of competing in something new.”
Adelaide were tenacious in their pursuit of Legacy, to hear Tim tell it, but they didn’t have to be. For competitive minded people there’s oodles of synergy between traditional sports and esports, which made the partnership extremely appealing.
“The opportunity to work with a sports club for me was huge, because they have all the things I am interested in, High performance [state of mind], nutrition, sports psychology and so on – they’ve got what you need to get a group of individuals to come together as a team, and that’s what really piqued my interest.”
They’re very good at what they do, and what they do is create world-class athletes.
“They have access to a lot of research, things like sleep and mental health [performance] and also that physical aspect. They’re very good at what they do, and what they do is create world-class athletes. And not everything aligns – none of my boys are bench pressing 150 kilograms or whatever – but a lot of those same processes can be adopted to esports around the way we train.”
With Tim Wendel working alongside the likes of former Crows star Brent Reilly to make sure the team’s esports vision aligns as closely as possible to their club’s grander plans, there’s little question that Adelaide FC sees little difference between sports and esports.
The Essendon Football Club is taking it one step further, even, drawing up plans to install a neurogym for their League of Legends team. The Bombers debuted in the OPL this season, and after a trial by fire early on, where they faced off against the best teams in the competition, they’ve started to find their feet. Essendon were slower than Adelaide to get into esports, but they’ve been no less enthusiastic.
“We explored and looked into a whole range of esports,” Justin Rodski tells me. He’s Essendon’s CMO and one of the driving forces behind the football club’s decision. “Through my dealings with Riot and through learning more about the LoL teams currently in the OPL we felt like League was the best entry point for us. Whether or not other games and other teams come in the future I don’t know yet, but don’t rule it out.”
Essendon is treating esports like it does its other sports ventures. They have an esports space at the club where the Bombers players train, an effort to separate their training and home environments. They’re creating a work/life balance, just as they do for their AFL players.
To sports clubs like Essendon and Adelaide FC, their esports teams are essentially just a different code.
“We’re not coming in pretending to know everything about esports, because we don’t,” Rodski says. “But we really quickly recognised that the way that Riot is structured and the way they oversee the competition is very similar to [other] sports. The way that teams are set up, the way they train, prepare and play is very similar [as well].”
To sports clubs like Essendon and Adelaide FC, their esports teams are essentially just a different code. It’s a matter of altering processes they’ve already perfected to work for the new sports teams they’ve recruited. It’s not hard to imagine that if they’ve worked out how similar sports and esports are, that others will inevitably reach the same conclusions as well.
As Dominic said, it’s about ignorance. And as is so often the case with ignorance, it’s very easy to lash out in anger at it. Anger is a form of passion, and nobody denies that esports fans are passionate. But it doesn’t solve ignorance – in fact, often it can exacerbate it. Education is more productive, and more efficient at curing knowledge gaps.
Maybe the Weekend Today ‘jury’ could watch Essendon’s Bombers and Adelaide’s Legacy face off in Round 9 of the OPL next week – the first time the two AFL club owned teams meet. Or they could head to Moore Park and visit Hoyts and Gfinity’s soon-to-launch esports arena. Maybe they will do as co-host Peter Stefanovic did, and head to IEM Sydney 2018 with open minds.
Or they can close their eyes, put their fingers in their ears, and ignore the fact that viewers are turning off their TVs at an alarming rate. I wonder what they’re watching instead.
Joab Gilroy is an Australian-based freelancer that specialises in competitive online games and chicken dinner acquisition. You can tweet at him here.