Great indoors: eSports gains foothold in Australia

Sydney (AFP) –


Outdoor sport is almost like a religion in Australia, with kids packing into cars each weekend bound for organised chaos at parks and ovals, while millions diligently follow rugby, football and cricket on TV or at stadiums.

The rituals help explain why eSports has been slow to catch on Down Under.

But the Aussie passion for competition has gaming pioneers convinced that eSports has a future in the country -- even if the profile so far remains low.

"There is still a general unawareness with what actually eSports is, so there is an education process that a lot of tournament organisers, or teams and clubs, are working through," GFinity Australia chief executive Dominic Remond told AFP.

The firm ran their maiden eSports Elite Series in June and July, with teams from major cities in Australia playing Counter Strike Global Offensive, Street Fighter V and Rocket League.

The event was held at Sydney's first eSports stadium -- which doubles as a TV show set -- with teams stationed above giant gaming screens and commentators positioned in front of cameras below.

It drew large crowds of cheering supporters and more than 4.5 million viewers online over the seven weeks of competition, with a live broadcast on streaming platform Twitch.

"We're finding the more people understand it, the more they embrace it," Remond added.

- 'Selling access to millennials' -

ESports are not as big in Australia as in China or South Korea, where elite players share a similar fame to mainstream sports stars, earning millions of sponsorship dollars.

Competitive gaming made its debut as a demonstration sport at last month's Asian Games in Jakarta, a move which eSports organisers hope will help it gain Olympic acceptance.

But Australia's eSports fan base has more than doubled over the past two years, according to data from Nielsen Sports and Entertainment, with the majority aged 18-34 -- a key demographic for many businesses.

Sports market research company Gemba put Australia's number of eSports "fanatics", or highly engaged fans, at 1.8 million.

That is big business, with national sporting leagues and even governments scrambling to grasp the global multi-billion dollar implications.

"ESports is selling access and engagement to millennials," said Dave Harris, owner of one of Australia's few professional eSports teams, the LG Dire Wolves.

"So it is an exciting space but no one has their head around the exact model yet which is a challenge and an opportunity."

Two leading clubs from the country's most popular sport, Australian Rules football, have acquired eSports teams in the past few years, seeking access to a new market as their traditional fan base ages.

Sydney, meanwhile, has twice hosted a leg of the Intel Extreme Masters, one of the oldest Global eSports events with US$250,000 prize money up for grabs.

And the inaugural Melbourne Esports Open was held in September after the Victoria state government partnered with gaming giant ESL as it seeks to become Australia's home of eSports.

Thousands saw competitors swap tennis racquets for gaming controls on Rod Laver Arena, which is the showpiece court of the Australian Open tennis Grand Slam.

Brands such as McDonald's, local fast food chain Hungry Jacks and St. George Bank are some of the big Australian corporates to join a growing list of industry sponsors.

- eSafety warning -

The country's first eSports high performance centre opened at the Sydney Cricket Ground last year, attempting to leverage the science and analysis that has seen Australia punch above its weight in traditional sports.

"If you look at places like South Korea, they are not known in traditional sports for these types of systems," said Harris, whose LG Dire Wolves are based at the centre.

"So we believe that we can make a difference doing that in Australia."

Canberra's eSafety commissioner has warned of internet overuse and a rise in cyberbullying with the advent of online gaming, after research showed that 17 percent of kids aged eight-17 reported being abused during game play.

The watchdog encourages parents to monitor how long children spend online, but it also acknowledges that gaming can be positive, such as by developing problem-solving and social skills.

"I think it is all about balance," said Graham Logan, one of a handful of parents at the GFinity Elite Series tournament.

"We always want our kids to get out in the park and get some fresh air and sun.

"But at the same time, this sort of thing gives kids an opportunity, it gives kids a different skill base, and that can only be good."

The Melbourne Order club had a clean sweep of the Sydney tournament, with its teams taking honours in all three games, netting the club Aus$100,000 ($72,586) in winnings.

"It is a good stepping stone to bring us up to international standards," said Chris Rowlands, a member of the Order's winning five-man Counter Strike: Global Offensive team.

"In the last two years the level of play has got a lot higher," he added.