Let’s start by painting you a word picture. Imagine you’ve spent thousands of hours playing a game. Not a few hours a week, a few hours a day. Almost every day. When you’re too tired to play, you watch the best players in the world playing, hoping you can learn from them and become even better. You get good enough to make it into a competitive team, and you now have to dedicate even more time to playing the game and learning to play with your teammates.
You spend countless hours late into the night strategizing and running plays. You think, you practise, you rethink, you practise more. That’s the way it goes for weeks leading up to a big tournament. You pour everything you have into being the best that you can. You want to win, but more importantly you don’t want to let your team down.
Despite all your effort, the tournament doesn’t go well. The other teams had better strats, or played better on the day. Maybe you just got unlucky. Maybe they were just better. Whatever happened, the team isn’t happy. After much second guessing, some heated debate, and the team’s more emotional player carpet bombing everyone with f-bombs, you all agree to work harder and do better next time.
You head home to spend the night lying in your bed, running through every play trying to work out what you could have done better. You don’t sleep. A few days later, you get an email letting you know that some players are being released from the team. And you’re one of them.
Just like that the team is no more. And the path you had planned for the gaming hobby you desperately want to turn into a career is suddenly unclear. Unfortunately, while that story is made up, it’s going to sound all too familiar to many local gamers.
Every time this sort of thing happens we look for someone to blame for the injustice. It’s easy to point fingers and blame team managers and owners, but it’s not really their fault. They, like the players, are just trying to make their teams the best they can be. So whose fault is it? Who can we blame for this situation we find ourselves in? Anthony ‘scant’ Hodgson suggests that the fault isn’t with the people, but with the structures enforced on them.
“The DGL has been trying to enforce roster locks for years already, long before Valve did the same. In my opinion this is a huge error. The DGL’s approach to professionalising the local scene is to just impose what they see as professional standards top down. I think they need to be realistic and recognise that professional development comes from multiple factors and you can’t just throw some in when others aren’t ready.
The key factor missing here is money. If players could potentially get salaries, it’s reasonable to be very strict in roster locks and expect serious long term commitments. But they can’t, and everyone playing ‘pro’ Dota in South Africa is doing it only as a hobby, having to make ends meet at the same time. To then insist that they treat it like their job, when they don’t get paid like a job, is ridiculous. Some kinds of roster requirements are a good idea, even for us, but they should be shaped accordingly. We shouldn’t have stricter rules than Valve, that’s for sure. And we have had for a very long time.”
Internationally eSports is a very young industry. In South Africa it’s even younger still. We’re running around in diapers, but being told to behave like adults. Obviously we’re going to get things wrong.
Anyone who has ever worked as an unpaid intern will know what trying to be a pro-gamer in South Africa feels like. You’re working your ass off hoping someone will pay you to do what you want to do, and at the same time you’re also doing some other kind of work to pay the bills. Because unfortunately, a perfectly executed wombo combo won’t impress your landlord enough for him to let you not pay rent this month. If it would, do you need a housemate?
The reality is that if we want competitive gaming to be considered a professional sport, with or without the “e”, we’re going to have to put structures in place to ensure it’s run professionally. Scant believes that we need contractual guidance. Something that binds players to teams and teams to players and can prevent the drama we just saw in the international Dota scene with the spring shuffle, where players were dropped by their teams just before Valve’s roster lock deadline leaving them scrambling to find new teams.
He goes on to stress that rosters changes are not a bad thing. Quite the opposite in fact.
“I think regular roster changes are a sign of a healthy scene both locally and internationally. Fresh players are a vital part of any success. It’s difficult to think of any sports or eSports team that has kept the exact same team for years on end and continued to be successful.
There are numerous reasons for why new injections of talent are important – new ideas, new team dynamic, becoming less predictable to opponents and so on. Again, roster changes are good, and our country has a history of people in authority trying to impose values that say they are not good. It’s simply not true.
So a positive attitude towards changes, and one which looks at them as an opportunity for a team to grow, rather than for friends to play with friends, is the only really important thing for me.”
So where does that leave us?
As we said, the local gaming scene is still in its infancy. You’re probably sick of us telling you we have a lot to do to catch up to the international scene. We’re sick of saying it. But while we’ve always considered it a bad thing, maybe it’s also an opportunity. To do things right from the beginning. Put the right structures in place that help teams and MGOs grow, and hopefully get to a place where they can pay their players salaries. That’s what will change the game in South Africa. If we can get there, it’s on.
Maybe we should form a union?