I've been involved with the South African esports community for a fair number of years now and have been an active gamer for as long as I can remember.
It wasn't until university though that I really started to engage with competitive gaming on any significant level. There's so much passion from fans and players.
I grew up in a family of Liverpool supporters and it came as a surprise to me that esports fans had similar levels of devotion watching their favourite esports teams or star players compete on the international stage.
Tournaments often take place over multiple days, with thousands of fans cheering on teams live in huge arenas.
These tournaments are spectacles with a global audience, where numbers range from a few hundred viewers to as many as hundreds of thousands concurrent viewers online.
It blows me away. Players in the top esports teams practice as much as conventional professional athletes do, since any advantage relates to victory in fierce tournaments.
To give you an idea of the scope of these massive tournaments, this past weekend The Intel Extreme Masters - World Championship took place.
At this tournament the top Counter-Strike:Global Offensive (CS:GO) teams competed for a share of the $500,000 (R5.98 million) prize pool. On Twitch.tv (where a majority of tournaments are streamed) the Eleague Boston CS:GO Major recently had 1 131 952 concurrent viewers on its English channel (and an overall peak across all streaming channels and languages of 1,847,643 viewers).
Viewership is constantly growing and huge numbers are fairly standard for many major international tournaments.
That's some serious engagement for a scene still in its infancy.
What's the scene like in SA?
South African tournament prize pools range from a few thousand rand for the less popular titles (like Rocket League) to prize pools as high as R1.5 million for the larger events.
- VS Gaming in 2017 hosted one of the biggest FIFA tournaments in the world, with R1.5 million up for grabs.
- Mettlestate hosted a R1 million CS:GO tournament in 2017, while ESL Africa hosted a few CS:GO tournaments as well which amounted to well over R1 million in prize money.
Online local audiences number in the hundreds to low thousands but foot traffic at live events is also considerable.
Top players here often practice the same long-hours while holding down a job or being students.
Some live in gaming houses and compete with their team every single day. Having attempted to play at these levels myself, it's a huge amount of work to try to be the best.
And if you compete overseas?
That's usually how we tend to measure how well we stack up against the rest of the world. Well, it doesn't happen often but it is happening this week.
The World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) prize pool is a whopping $5.5 million (R65.8 million) spread across four competitive games.
After months of regional qualifiers taking place around the world, the WESG 2017 Grand Finals take place between March 13th to 18th in Haikou, China. Over 46 different nations are represented at the tournament, including players and teams from South Africa.
The WESG main event is unique in that it has qualifiers specifically for female teams as well.
What's it like to face off as a woman?
I chatted to Jana "SaltyMonkey" du Toit who plays competitive Hearthstone and CS:GO.
By her own admission she's been a gamer her entire life but has only been playing competitively for the past four years. She's played games like Age of Empires, Final Fantasy and Call of Duty.
I interviewed Jana about her experiences trying to qualify for the WESG main event in the card game, Hearthstone. Jana won the African WESG qualifiers and then progressed to the APAC (Asia Pacific) regional qualifiers, where she came fourth.
Tell us about Hearthstone?
Jana du Toit (JT): I've only been playing for two years and only in the last year have I been playing competitively.
I didn't have much competitive experience prior to the Africa WESG qualifiers, which I won and earned a spot in the APAC regional qualifiers.
And the African WESG qualifiers?
JT: I wasn't expecting to win anything when I entered the Hearthstone qualifiers. I went in with the mindset of, "Let's see how well I can do."
I put in a lot of time and effort, and came into these matches really prepared. In my first series I was getting dominated by my opponent. I remember thinking, "Gosh, I'm entering this tournament and I'm probably just going to get eliminated on the first go."
I took some time to calm down between matches, had some tea and came back after this to win the series 3-2 and advance to the next round.
Later in the finals I faced a Tunisian player, who was very good.
I was very pleasantly surprised by how close the series was. I won the first two games in the series but she came back to level the series 2-2. This set up a nerve wracking final game in the series, which I managed to bring back to win.
That earned you the spot to the APAC qualifiers?
JT: Yes, then I was off to China over New Years, when everyone else was out partying. I was practicing for this next stage of qualifiers.
There were a lot of people from a lot of different places and the competition was fierce.
I even shared a room with another competitor, which made me apprehensive to practice or talk about Hearthstone around each other.
But eventually we had a conversation and agreed we were unlikely to face each other, so we shared strategies. I had a bye in my first round and proceeded to the quarterfinals. This was a really tight series, where I was one game away from winning.
I unfortunately made a huge misplay and she beat me in a deciding match. This knocked me down to the lower bracket of the tournament, where I faced my roommate for 3rd/4th position!
We had a great series which she won and meant I came fourth overall. Since placing first earned you a spot to the main event in China, I was unfortunately eliminated. I was really happy that my roommate came 3rd though, as it meant she won some prize money. She'd lost her job when work wouldn't allow her to attend.
Images: Jana du Toit
Why you think these WESG qualifiers are so important?
JT: When it comes to South African Hearthstone, the community is overlooked quite a bit.
Africa is a really big continent but somehow we always get grouped into the APAC region. Hence having a qualifier that is all female means you don't have to compete against the males, who we all know to be rather dominant in the Hearthstone scene.
To be fair though, I don't think any of the women have really ever gone for it and tried for it. Plus having such a big potential reward that is female only, draws a lot more interest from people thinking about getting into the esports space and it's less daunting.
I know of three more women who have taken up playing competitive Hearthstone this year since these WESG qualifiers.
I'm really happy about that. With that said, I'm not a fan of segregation. I like competing against guys as much as the next girl.
We're getting more general players in and it's no longer funny or weird to see another women in gaming. That's important.
Gaming fanatic? Send us pics or screenshots of the games you're currently playing. We'd love to check them out.
Follow Christopher on Twitter and check out zombiegamer.co.za
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