A couple of cinema goers are chatting to staff while their tickets are checked on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
“I didn’t know that this was a thing??”
“Neither did I until it opened!”
This is the tone of hushed curiosity which surrounds London’s Gfinity Arena, the UK’s first dedicated esports venue. Based inside a Vue cinema at Fulham Broadway, esports fans flock to see their favourite players compete on the big stage, while onlookers can only crane their necks to try to see what all the fuss is about.
Esports refers to professional competitive gaming. While there are a lot of computer games being played at the Gfinity Arena, not just any game can be an esport. The rule of thumb is that matches are played between people, not against the computer, and that they always require a definite winner and loser. Despite its popularity, the sandbox construction game Minecraft has yet to become a compelling esport for these reasons.
Fans come to watch matches for the same reasons they do in conventional sport: to see an underdog triumph against all odds, to see the best players in the world slug out, or simply to support their favourite players. With big names such as Amaz, MC and team “Ninjas in Pyjamas” already making appearances so far at the Gfinity Arena. Live esports event are nothing new to London though, with Wembley stadium filling out last summer, but this is the UK’s first attempt to have regular live events, all year round.
Esports in the UK largely revolves around the team games League of Legends, CS:GO, Dota 2 and Call of Duty, with the one-on-one games Hearthstone and Starcraft II making a splash as well. For many people this industry is seen as a new oddity, but esports has been around since the late ’90s, although it has seen much greater development in South Korea, the U.S., and Germany. Many of the best players therefore come from abroad, but British commentators do make up a large proportion of the on-screen talent.
The big question the Gfinity Arena is facing is whether esports is big enough in the UK for it to stay open. With an ambitious events schedule of one tournament every weekend, and some of the biggest names in esports flying into London, can Gfinity draw the crowds to stay open? I went down to London to find out.
The first event – the Hearthstone Masters
The event line-up looks impressive. The world champion Firebat will be competing alongside popular players like Amaz, Xixo and Forsen. On top of that they have popular commentators – or ‘casters’ – such as ThatsAdmirable, Gnimsh and Kaldi. Already seven nationalities are represented, but Gfinity has done their part to support the UK scene with two British players and two casters attending the event as well.
The venue is easy to find inside a shopping centre, with a Sainsbury’s and any number of restaurant chains nearby. Cinema Screens 1-3 have been walled off to form the Gfinity Arena, and I quickly settled down in one of those ‘VIP seats’ with the better leg room. It also has something no other esports venue has in the world – an unlimited supply of popcorn!
However, there were teething problems. Due to a collision with another event, the Hearthstone Masters had been pushed forward two days, leaving the Gfinity staff with less time to prepare, which included building the stage. While the players and casters where quite relaxed, there was an air of tension surrounding the staff.
There were a few camera and lighting slip-ups, the wrong names appearing on screen, stage lights occasionally shone in the audience’s eyes. At one point when the audio in the hall suddenly stopped, someone got out their phone and started to watch the live-stream instead. These were growing pains to be expected, but the big bug-bear were connection issues. The spectator for the live-stream was regularly disconnecting from the game, and a couple of matches were decided by these connection problems, which drew the ire from the players involved.
All of these were technical issues to be expected for any venue’s first event, so my only genuine criticism was the trophy presented to the winner and world champion, Firebat. Compared to the amazing one he received last year, this looked like one of those “Thank you for Participating” ones I got in Primary school.
The latest event – the Starcraft II Masters
Three weeks later, and I was down in London for another event. This time the game was Starcraft II, another one-on-one battle like Hearthstone. Dominated by South Korean players – the home of esports where Starcraft I had started it all – it was no surprise to see their pedigree littering the line-up of invited players: Jaedong, MC, and Parting to name a few.
Straight away I could see improvements. The whole event was running much more smoothly. If there was any cause for alarm, it was safely behind closed doors as it should be. The stage lights were even pointing at the ceiling rather than directly in my eyes this time. The presence of background music kept a buzz going through the crowd, and the audio in the hall was coming through much clearer.
I sat down and quickly made friends, as well as seeing some people I already knew. I even met an old friend I had last seen at the Starcraft II GSL Finals in Seoul last year. The world is big, but esports fans are always sure to find each other again.
And the final cherry on top? A considerably better looking trophy.
Can there be a future for live esports in the UK?
The Gfinity Arena has started to come into its own in the three weeks since it first opened its doors, and everything appears to be running smoothly. But is attendance high enough to afford rent in central London?
At £15-20 a ticket per day of the event, the price may put off many of the 18-25s who make the majority of the esports fan-base. But, the bigger issue for a Welshman like myself though is the £70 train fare to London. There’s nothing Gfinity can do that about that, and London is certainly the only place in the UK a dedicated esports venue could work, but it means that many fans across the UK will probably stick with watching the live-stream online. What I noticed at the Starcraft II Masters though was a sizeable number of South Koreans who had turned up to watch their favourite players. South Korea’s “national past-time” might be best supported in the UK by Koreans in London.
The question of esports in the UK has less to do with fans and more do to with stigma from possible business partners for Gfinity, as well as mainstream media. BBC Sport did a special program on esports last year. Sadly is lacked articulation, and with only a total of 6,000 views it clearly hasn’t had much of an impact. Compare this to YouTube’s TotalBiscuit, and his video “Why we watch, a response to BBC Newsnight’s – What is Twitch?” which has 600,000 views, and slates the condescending tone with which Newsnight spoke, and you can see who is capturing online audiences better.
The dis-trust esports fans have of mainstream media speaking on the subject shows that they’ve got a long way to go if they want anyone to listen when they speak on the subject. If the BBC isn’t selling esports to their normal audiences, or to existing fans, then who were they broadcasting for? To what degree these attitudes extend into potential partners, investors and promoters remains for Gfinity to find out.
There are rumours Gfinity is already looking to expand into a purpose built venue by the end of the year, but there are still some steps they can take to keep live esports in London sustainable. A quick look at Gfinity.net will tell you about their upcoming events, but it won’t press upon you the urgency that something is happening right now! This weekend! Something they want to consider changing before the Call of Duty Open this weekend.
I wish Gfinity the best of luck with their efforts to bring regular live-esports events to London, but only time can tell if the UK is truly ready to support it’s first dedicated esports venue.
If you want attend an event at the Gfinity Arena, you can find it at Fulham Broadway on the District Line. On leaving the tube station you will find yourself in a shopping mall, follow the signs for the Gfinity Arena on the second floor.
A full schedule of upcoming events can be found: here. If you can’t make an event in person, watch the stream and share it on Facebook and Twitter! Every little helps, and we all need to work together to support esports in the UK.