Gaming is ‘massive and diverse’ Julia Robson. Picture: JULIA ROBSON
Gaming is ‘massive and diverse’ Julia Robson. Picture: JULIA ROBSON

It’s time to abandon your last vestige of gamer prejudice.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk credited video games for pointing him in the direction of software engineering.

LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman says role-playing board games helped him develop a sense for strategy.

Twenty-three-year-old Julia Robson is an SA professional gamer. She’s extroverted, thoughtful and eloquent, and tells the FM that going to gym and a sleep routine are as much a part of her weekly training regime as gaming is.

Robson is keen to shrug off the stereotypes too. "I’m not a girl gamer, I am a gamer," she says. "Your skill is not determined by your gender, but by talent and how much time you put in."

Robson, who was previously a competitive dressage rider, is making a kind of portfolio career from gaming. She plays for prizes, she consults for companies, and she monetises an audience on live gaming platform Twitch.tv.

She is also sponsored by Acer and its gaming brand, Predator, and she is an Africa correspondent for GINX Esports TV (DStv channel 240).

Thulani Sishi, a professional gamer, team manager and coach, says gaming is "massive and diverse".

He is co-owner of Big 5 Esports, an electronic sports (e-sports) and gaming entertainment organisation with several teams on the books.

"You can compare it to having a rugby and soccer team under one brand name, like the Sharks," says Sishi, as players and teams tend to specialise in a specific type of game, like Dota, Call of Duty, League of Legends and Counter-strike.

Big 5 has about 10 full-time players on its payroll, as well as about 10 who are semi-professional, holding down day jobs in addition to their team membership. But that is becoming harder to balance, Sishi says, due to the increasing number of tournaments and opportunities locally and abroad. He hopes that growth will result in more people tipping into the fully professional category.

"Fifa is one of the most promising e-sports in SA; Goliath Gaming just had a player qualify to play at one of the biggest tournaments in the world," Sishi says.

Goliath Gaming, another player-owned gaming organisation, was launched two years ago and already has around 20 professional and semi-professional players, with about 15 on its payroll.

"We try to be slow and specific about our growth, taking on the right players and teams," says Gabriella Rego, who does public relations for Goliath.

Julia Robson: Your skill is not determined by your gender, but by talent. Picture: HENNY MARSH
Julia Robson: Your skill is not determined by your gender, but by talent. Picture: HENNY MARSH

Show me the money

Top e-sports teams are hardly different from traditional sports teams. They compete to buy and develop the best players, who draw the biggest audiences at events and online.

Brands such as Acer and HP sponsor equipment and apparel. Non-tech brands including McDonald’s and Burger King are also coming on board. Top players become brand ambassadors.

The money is rolling in. In October 2018, Cloud9 became the world’s most valuable e-sports company, having raised $50m in a second round of funding, bringing its worth — according to Forbes — to about $310m.

And a whole tertiary industry is cropping up around gamers: Newzoo, for example, is a research and analytics firm that focuses only on gaming and e-sports. It has offices in San Francisco, Amsterdam and Shanghai.

There are e-sports journalists, commentators, analysts, lawyers, agents and accountants. Some doctors and psychologists specialise in the industry, and teams keep them on the payroll — just like the Springboks or Bafana Bafana would.

Local landscape

Anecdotally, everyone agrees the local gaming scene is growing fast, but it’s difficult to quantify. Sishi identifies three barriers that need to be overcome for the SA scene to bloom.

"There is a skill barrier, a latency barrier and a footfall barrier. We aren’t able to host events that get the kind of viewership we want [to grow SA e-sports more quickly]. When we get enough footfall, we’ll be able to host an international event in SA," he says.

Rego also wants to see more local companies involved — not just the traditional tech names. "More international competition opportunities, and more investment and buy-in from companies would be a big help," she says.

Names of the games

• Gaming is a broad term for the playing of video games — single player, multiplayer, console or whatever format it comes in. E-sports refers to competitive, online, multiplayer (in teams), tournament-based gaming.

• There are about 2.3-billion gamers globally, with around 165-million e-sports players, and Newzoo predicts the global e-sports market will be worth more than $1.6bn by 2021.

Fortnite, from Epic Games, is one of the world’s biggest games, with more than 250-million registered accounts. That’s bigger than the populations of Brazil or Nigeria.