Ireland boasts an extremely proud sporting heritage and has always punched well above its weight on the global stage. Superstars like Brian O’Driscoll, Conor McGregor, Roy Keane, Padraig Harrington, Aidan O’Brien and Katie Taylor have flown the flag in style over the years and turned Ireland into a sporting anomaly given its size and population.
Yet there is one burgeoning field in which it is somewhat behind the curve: the wonderful world of esports. Competitive gaming is a phenomenon and it has turned its leading lights into multimillionaires, but the scene remains small in Ireland and there is much work to be done.
A Blossoming Scene
Esports began all the way back in 1972, when students at Stanford University competed in the inaugural Spacewar Olympics for the chance to win a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone magazine. The ensuing decades saw plenty of organised tournaments, but the competitive gaming scene did not really take off until the rollout of high-speed broadband across the globe.
That coincided with the launch of viewing platform Twitch and the release of the three key esports titles: League of Legends, Dota 2 and CS:GO, released between 2009 and 2013. Seven years ago, competitive gaming remained a niche, underground pursuit, but this year the industry will hit the €1 billion mark. That is largely a result of sponsorship, as blue chip companies like Intel, Coca-Cola, MasterCard and Audi are have all signed major commercial deals in this space.
Yet it is also down to ticket sales and merchandise, as fans pack out stadiums to watch their heroes perform and they support their favourite teams by purchasing branded goods. Meanwhile, a multibillion-euro betting industry has sprung up, allowing enthusiasts to wager on matches, tournaments and special events at dedicated sites like Unikrn. The industry is an economic juggernaut and it continues to gather steam.
The nascent scene is dominated by South Korea, China and Scandinavia, while the U.S. is also growing in importance. The most popular event is the League of Legends World Championship, which drew an astonishing 205 million viewers in 2018, vastly exceeded the Super Bowl. Chinese team Invictus beat Fnatic 2-0 in the Grand Final, ending a five-year winning streak for South Korean teams. The world’s most lucrative tournament is The International, the annual Dota 2 showpiece. It has been dominated by European and Asian teams and it has ensured that the five highest-earning esports stars are from continental Europe.
The other big title is first person shooter CS:GO, which has seen Danish team Astralis embark on a prolonged reign of total dominance over the past couple of years. They are now friends with the Prime Minister and they are fast turning into national heroes and global superstars with sponsorship deals and massive social media followings.
Games like Fortnite, StarCraft II, FIFA, Rocket League and Overwatch are also important, providing more opportunities for people to make millions by playing video games. The richest teams are based in the U.S. and, while it is yet to convert its economic might into esporting success, its potential in this sphere is vast.
How Are Ireland Doing?
Ireland is down in 60th place in the list of countries with the highest earnings from prize money at esportstournaments. It has pulled in €314,000 so far, and that is largely down to the success of Call of Duty pro Jordan “Jurd” Crowley, who has earned €204,000 throughout his career. The Cork native has divided his time between Ireland and North America in a bid to become one of the world’s best Call of Duty players, and it has paid off. He has built up a reputation for his exciting, aggressive style and he has enjoyed plenty of success at Epsilon Esports, TCM-Gaming and Splyce.
However, Call of Duty has not quite managed to establish itself as one of the world’s leading esports, despite the game’s commercial success. The biggest tournament thus far has been the $2 million Call of Duty XP Championship 2016, followed by the $1.5 million CWL Championship 2017, which saw Jurd’sSplyce team finish 7-8th. While prize purses for esportslike LoL, Fortnite, CS:GO and Dota 2 are increasing, Call of Duty prize pools are going down, suggesting there might not be a long-term future for Jurd and his cohorts. In 2017, he made €92,000 from playing Call of Duty, and in 2018 that dropped to €26,000.
A total of 122 Irish players have made money by competing in professional esports tournaments, but none of the others have made enough to dedicate themselves full-time to a gaming career. Their successes have also come in games like PUBG, FIFA and Halo, and no Irish players are thriving at key, growing, lucrative esports like Fortnite, Dota, CS:GO and LoL.
Yet the tide could be turning. There are some grassroots organisations springing up and the European Games Week takes place in Dublin next month. This will bring 80 speakers from across the industry, including Blizzard, Atari, CD Projekt Red, Digit, Vela, and it will feature esports. Kilkenny-based entrepreneur Trevor Keane has unveiled plans for a new esportsleague called the Celtic eSports League, which could make the scene more profession on the Emerald Isle.
Ireland is a technologically advanced nation, with plenty of sporting success, so there is no reason why it could not go on to compete with the likes of South Korea and Denmark on the global stage in the years ahead.
Jurd offers some advice to any Irish players that want to make a living from playing video games. He advocates hard work, patience and dedication, while encouraging hopefuls to invest in the very best technology. “Train anywhere between six to eight hours a day,” he says. “That’s what it takes if you even want a prayer of being a pro. As top players, we have a regimented practice schedule against competitors at or above our own level, as it’s the only way to truly advance in skill. Make sure you’re constantly playing with people who are better than you as it’s the only way you’ll grow as a player.”