Stadium warriors: esports take centre stage

The Sydney crowd celebrates at Qudos Bank Arena. Copyright: ESL | Sarah Cooper
Esports have emerged as a serious spectator sport, attracting millions of followers world-wide. Luca Rudolph reports

What do the biggest sports in the world have in common? Stadiums filled with cheering fans, millions of viewers around the world, and billion-dollar industries.

While this might make you think of soccer, cricket or rugby, there is an emerging contender in the world of sports that might not be on everyone’s minds just yet, but it should be.

Esports as a competitive sport

In esports, professional gamers compete against each other in organised tournaments. Team size depends on the game being played. The most popular esports games include CS:GO, League of Legends and Dota 2, which all have teams of five players.

Like traditional sports, the teams have support staff – coaches, analysts, physiotherapists and sports psychologists.

Fans wear the jersey of the team they support and create a roaring live audience; players are traded between teams; and the teams practice tactics and strategies to prepare for their opponents.

Tournaments are broadcast online, mainly through the livestreaming platform Twitch, which is owned by Amazon.

By 2024, the global esports audience is expected to reach 577 million, outlined in a recent report by market research firm Newzoo. A comparison to the audience in 2016, which was 226 million, shows the incredible growth esports is experiencing.

Sports leagues like the NFL and NBA have started to broadcast games on Twitch, looking to tap into the massive esports and gaming audience on the platform.

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In July 2021, US esports organisation TSM signed a 10-year USD$210 million (AUD$288 million) deal with cryptocurrency platform FTX. This is said to be the biggest esports sponsorship deal to date.

While the rise of esports originated from the US and Europe, Australia has been building its own esports industry and growing audience over the years.

Multiple Australian players have made it into the top leagues around the world, with the most successful ones winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money to date. 

The growing industry has led global esports event organisers to choose Australia as a host country for live events. In 2019, over 7500 fans per day attended the Intel Extreme Masters in Sydney, a tournament that also had 20 million viewers tune in online.

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Later that year, 17,000 people visited the Melbourne Esports Open, an esports and gaming festival where fans were able to watch their favourite teams play on stage across Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena.

Esports has even been considered as a possible future addition to the Olympics.

In 2018, an esports tournament was hosted as part of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, with competitors from all over the world, including Australian player Sean “Probe” Kempen.

There are many indicators that show how the gap between esports and traditional sport is closing around the world.

How one sport pushed on during COVID-19, when others couldn’t

Esports thrives on having a live audience that creates a true fan experience, but with the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, live crowds weren’t an option.

Through the worst parts of the pandemic, most sports leagues, such as the AFL, shut down completely, with no matches being played at all. Esports did not. Players were able to play matches from their homes, which enabled esports competition to continue.

Stadium warriors: esports take centre stage
Legacy Esports Head of Esports Tim Wendel. Copyright Winston Tjahjadi 

Tim Wendel, the Head of Esports at one of Australia’s biggest esports organisations, Legacy Esports, found success with his squad while the country was going through lockdown.

“Esports is unique in that you can continue to compete digitally,” Wendel said.

At a consumer level, esports provided fans with entertainment during the pandemic, and especially during lockdown, he said.

“Teams and tournament organisers were able to deliver for partners and stakeholders despite the global challenges.”

He and his team pushed through the burden of the ongoing pandemic situation and found success when it mattered the most.

After winning the League of Legends Oceanic Championship, the team earned a spot at the World Championship.

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Tim Wendel (middle) celebrates winning the Oceanic Championship with two of his players, Leo “Babip” Romer (left) and James “Tally” Shute (right). Copyright Legacy Esports

In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, the team made their way to Shanghai.

Under strict COVID-19 rules, the 2020 World Championship was one of the few in-person esports events that took place last year.

With his family in lockdown in Melbourne at the time, Wendel said he felt “privileged to be able to travel to China”.

Despite all the challenges they faced, they managed to put on the best performance a team from Oceania has ever had in the history of the World Championship.

“It was exciting to be a part of a historic roster,” Wendel said.

It is truly impressive how esports avoided some of the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on traditional sports.

Developing local talent into global success

Esports facilitates the development of a new generation of talent, from players themselves to staff working for teams and tournament organisers.

For many of those involved in the esports industry in Australia, the goal is to one day make it to North America or Europe, where esports are much more established.

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Esports Videographer Winston Tjahjadi. Copyright Winston Tjahjadi

While a lot of people are still working towards that goal, some have already managed to take the step and be successful on the international stage, one of them being Winston Tjahjadi.

The 23-year-old combined his passion for esports with his studies in film to become a professional esports videographer.

After working with multiple local esports organisations in Australia and building his portfolio, Tjahjadi got the opportunity to work for the global esports organisation Gen.G in Los Angeles in 2020.

“I spent many years working towards this goal, and it felt amazing to accomplish it,” he said.

He was not the only Australian who moved to America for their esports skills last year.

Multiple Australian players were signed to starting rosters in the North American League of Legends Championship.

“In 2020, a lot of our local talent was being recognised globally,” Tjahjadi said.

Based on his passion for esports, Tjahjadi has founded his own media production company, Infinity Media, with the goal of telling the stories of esports players and teams across Oceania.

His team consists of highly skilled individuals that cover all areas of esports media production.

During COVID, they kept production going through engaging online content, produced, filmed, and edited remotely.

With the return of live esports events getting closer, Tjahjadi is excited to leave online videos in the past.

“I’m very much looking forward to getting back to work on set as a producer and videographer,” he said.

Having worked in Australia and North America, Europe is his next goal.

“I want to be one of the key figures that people reference when talking about esports documentaries and story-telling”, he said.

He also plans to keep growing Infinity Media into the leading esports production company in Oceania.

For people like Winston Tjahjadi to succeed, esports in Australia needs to continue to develop and build a framework that sets people up to achieve their goals.

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Mindfreak CEO Michael Carmody. Copyright Winston Tjahjadi

Michael Carmody is the CEO of Mindfreak, one of the most decorated esports organisations in Australia. 

His goal with Mindfreak is to build as many international esports pathways as possible, to show off the talent that the region has to offer. 

“Esports will experience slow and steady growth to become the new norm of entertainment.”

He describes this process as a “generational change”.

“The region needs greater commercial education and understanding, as well as professionalisation,” he says.