Athletes and Fans Brace for Big Esports Competition in Australia

by Jason Johnson
Freelance writer and editor

Intel Extreme Masters Sydney gaming competition intensifies Australia’s role in the rising esports economy.

For a year, Chris Orfanellis lived with his Australian teammates in the Downtown Grand, a low-key hotel and hotspot for esports competitions in the heart of Las Vegas. They played Counter-Strike almost daily, removing the furniture from their suite to make room for big gaming computers.

“I don’t think Las Vegas hotels are meant for staying in longer than two or three days,” said Orfanellis, who manages Renegades, a Counter-Strike team composed of Australian expatriates. “It’s hard to grasp how bad it can get.”

The fledgling Aussie esports scene drives many Australian players abroad to find success as professional gamers. That could change after the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) competition comes to Sydney on May 6-7.

IEM is the longest running global pro gaming tour in the world. Started in 2006 by ESL, the competition features Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), StarCraft II and League of Legends tournaments across multiple continents.

This is the first time IEM will be hosted in Sydney. Some 12,000 fans are expected to attend, which would make it the single largest electronic sporting event ever held in Australia. Aussie players on teams like Orfanellis’ Renegades will compete at home for $200,000 USD in cash prizes.

Fans greeted players from SK Gaming and Faze Clan as they entered the stage to play in the finals. Photo credit: Helena Kristiansson.

The event could be a catalyst for esports in Australia much in the same way professional hockey took off in the U.S. after the “miracle on ice” U.S. win over Russia at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The big win boosted the number of U.S. players in the National Hockey League by 50 percent. A strong showing by the home teams at IEM Sydney could have a similar infectious effect, inspiring young Aussie players to follow their dreams.

Similar booms have happened around past esports events. For example, before IEM held its first tournament in Poland in 2013, many fans couldn’t even pronounce Katowice.

Today, more people attend the World Championships in Spodek arena than anywhere in the world, and the Polish scene has produced a number of top earning CS:GO players, including Jaroslaw “pashaBiceps” Jarzabkowski and Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas.

“We want to grow IEM Sydney organically, like Katowice, into one of the biggest esports event in the world,” said George Woo, esports manager at Intel.

According to Newzoo’s 2017 Global Esports Market Report, the esports economy is poised to reach $696 million this year and will grow to $1.5 billion by 2020. Feeding that economy is a rising wave of brand sponsorship, advertisement and media rights deals. Spending on event tickets and merchandise is expected to reach $64 million. By hosting IEM Sydney, Australia is taking a big step into the growing esports economy.

Going Pro

For local players who dream of making it to the top, the arrival of IEM is a golden opportunity, giving them the chance to square off against the world’s top talent on their home turf in front of hometown fans.

“This event will give us a lot of exposure, and help us to make this a career,” said Liam Schembri of Chiefs Esports Club, a local Australian team who qualified for the tournament.

“For everyone on the team, it’s our dream to make this a job and play overseas around the globe.”

Chiefs Esports Club won an important round during the group stage of IEM Sydney. Photo credit: Helena Kristiansson.

Renegades know firsthand the challenges ahead for amateur Australian gamers who want to go pro. Unlike top teams from other regions, good teams in Australia rarely get paid to play. The ones that do make money often don’t earn a living wage.

Before signing the contract that sent them to the U.S., members of Renegades juggled full-time jobs with school work while trying to keep pace with foreign teams who practiced for eight to nine hours a day.

“Everyone agreed that if we had time to practice like the European and North American pros, we could compete,” Orfanellis said.

“There’s just not enough opportunities in Australia for people to really go after it hard.”

Part of the problem is that Australian teams are out there on an island, literally. Australia is located far away from premier Counter-Strike destinations like Poland and Cologne, and without sponsorship, the teams have to pay around $900 USD per person out of pocket for round trip airfare. That’s simply not a viable proposition when they are likely to be matched against the top seed in the first round and sent packing home early.

Aussie Guerrilla Warfare

Analysts aren’t predicting the Australian teams to win big at IEM Sydney, but that’s not dissuading local amateurs and fans from fully embracing the event because upsets can never be ruled out. Teams like Chiefs Esports Club, who will play against Astralis, think they have a shot at winning against the reigning world champs from Denmark.

“We’re going to shake them,” said Alistair Johnston, who plays the position of rifler on Chiefs Esports Club. “I think we can do a lot of damage against them.”

Since playing their way into the tournament by winning the qualifier, Johnston’s team has dialed in completely, holding daylong bootcamps. They study film of their opponents during the day and play nightly scrimmages, just like pro teams.

Johnston will face off against Nicolai “dev1ce” Reedtz, one of the best Counter-Strike players in the world. During practice, Johnston has been studying the play style of his rival. In this case, the team sees anonymity as a virtue, as with guerrilla warfare.

“We know how they play, but they don’t know how we play,” said Johnston.

Unlike before, the team feels like they have an advantage going into a match. The rest of the world may not know who they are, but the cheers of 12,000 Aussies will give them an edge.

The crowd celebrated SK Gaming’s victory at IEM Sydney. Photo credit: Sarah Cooper.

Editor’s note: Brazilian team SK Gaming won the inaugural IEM Sydney champion title, edging out seven teams from around the world. More than 7,000 fans attended the live event each day and 8 million unique viewers tuned in to the online broadcast, which was delivered in 22 different languages.

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