Re­gional Es­ports Bound­aries

Ja­son Imms ex­plores the chal­lenges faced by lo­cal teams look­ing to play in­ter­na­tion­ally

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2016 was the first year an Aus­tralian team qual­i­fied for the SMITE World Cham­pi­onships. It was the first year that an Oceanic re­gional cham­pi­onship was in­cluded in the road to Worlds, pro­vid­ing a path­way for a sin­gle Aus­tralian team to com­pete on the world stage. It was the first year that an Aus­tralian team was soundly knocked-out of the cham­pi­onship in the place­ment stage, and un­less things change sig­nif­i­cantly in com­ing years, it won’t be the last. Team Avant Garde wrecked house ev­ery time they par­tic­i­pated in an Aus­tralian SMITE cham­pi­onship in 2016. They didn’t lose a match in the Ocea­nia Pro League (OPL) split that led them to Worlds, and they won six of their seven on­line matches in the OPL in­vi­ta­tional. They were an ex­cep­tion­ally strong team, and none of the other teams com­pet­ing at their level of com­pe­ti­tion could even come close to their pre­ci­sion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or co­he­sion.

De­spite the high of vic­tory, this put Avant Garde in an awk­ward po­si­tion in the weeks lead­ing up to their trip to Atlanta for Worlds: No other team in Aus­tralia could chal­lenge them. They were the dom­i­nant force in the coun­try, which meant that ev­ery friendly scrim (prac­tice match) they or­gan­ised with fel­low Aus­tralian teams al­ways and eas­ily fell their way. They were al­ready at the top, with no fur­ther chal­lengers to play against in or­der to im­prove them­selves, to test their met­tle in the fire of com­pe­ti­tion. Well, why not prac­tice against in­ter­na­tional teams?

THE PRI­MARY IS­SUE IS SCIENCE

Pack­ets of in­for­ma­tion can only be

sent across the planet so fast, which means the more ge­o­graph­i­cally dis­parate two teams are, the higher the la­tency they have to deal with dur­ing a scrim. In re­flex-re­liant games like SMITE la­tency is a ma­jor prob­lem, which is why most ma­jor com­pe­ti­tions hap­pen on a lo­cal area net­work (LAN), rather than over the in­ter­net. If two teams on dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents chose to play a match, they need to de­cide on which side of the planet the match is go­ing to be hosted, and gen­er­ally speak­ing which­ever team is phys­i­cally clos­est to the host will win.

There’s only so much you can learn from play­ing matches un­der these con­di­tions or by watch­ing re­plays, and most of what you do learn about your op­pos­ing team will be use­less when fac­ing them over a LAN. There’s just not enough ben­e­fit in in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal prac­tice to war­rant the time.

This presents a chal­lenge: How can newer re­gions to an es­port like SMITE hope to com­pete against es­tab­lished re­gions that have had ac­cess to the game for a much longer pe­riod of time? North Amer­ica (NA) and Europe (EU) were the first re­gions to have pro-league com­pe­ti­tions fi­nan­cially sup­ported and man­aged by SMITE de­vel­oper Hi-Rez. Those re­gions have had years of ex­tra prac­tice and com­mu­nity-build­ing that newer re­gions such as Ocea­nia and Brazil sim­ply haven’t. This means that the com­pe­ti­tion in those re­gions is more ma­ture, with es­tab­lished ri­val­ries, player ex­pe­ri­ence, and com­mu­ni­ties.

WE’RE NOT YOUR EN­EMY

Af­ter a win that guar­an­teed them a place in the fi­nals at the 2016 SMITE World Cham­pi­onship, North Amer­cian team En­emy sat down in the me­dia room for a press scrum. These com­mu­nal in­ter­views are messy, but im­por­tant for those be­ing in­ter­viewed. They’re a great chance to es­tab­lish or shore-up your pub­lic per­sona, and to man­age the mes­sage you’re send­ing to mul­ti­ple pub­li­ca­tions and their au­di­ences. The mes­sage En­emy clearly wanted to send was that they were the best, that they would win, and there was no chang­ing those facts. On stage, En­emy’s cap­tain Louis-Philippe “PainDeViande” Ge­of­frion threw a lot of shade at com­pet­ing teams, in a man­ner not dis­sim­i­lar to pre-match wrestling in­ter­views. Dur­ing the press scrum, he didn’t pull any punches, even when he knew he was on the record.

When Ge­of­frion was asked about the in­her­ent dis­ad­van­tages that teams from newer re­gions face when com­pet­ing at Worlds, he didn’t have much sym­pa­thy. “How are you go­ing to fix that, you know? It's not re­ally a prob­lem that any­body can re­ally fix,” he said. “I guess the spon­sors could boot­camp them in non-NA or EU, but like, that's a big in­vest­ment.” What about friendly in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal scrims? “I don't think any NA or EU team were will­ing to scrim the for­eign­ers be­cause they have their rep­u­ta­tion of not be­ing the bet­ter teams, right? So we'd rather keep it be­tween us so we can get the bet­ter prac­tice and show-off at Worlds.”

It seems that the idea of ‘a ris­ing tide raises all ships’ doesn't carry much weight at such high-level com­pe­ti­tion. Do com­pet­ing teams have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to help grow the global SMITE com­mu­nity, though? Or should they only be fo­cused on the com­pe­ti­tion, on get­ting their prize money while they can? We reache­d­out to En­emy man­ager Dan “Clerkie” Clerke to ask these ques­tions and to of­fer a chance to ex­pand on his team’s com­ments, but he was un­re­spon­sive at the time of writ­ing.

We did how­ever have a chance to sit down with Hi-Rez se­nior es­ports man­ager Dan McHugh, to ask what the com­pany is do­ing to sup­port newer re­gions to be­come more com­pet­i­tive glob­ally. “The thing we’re re­ally tak­ing a look at for next year is the path from ama­teur to pro, we want it to be re­ally di­gestible, and in the play­ers’ eyes, some­thing that’s re­ally achiev­able,” he said. “We’re go­ing to be re­vamp­ing how we han­dle our ama­teur scenes to cre­ate a healthy player base that will feed into the pro leagues in each re­gion.” Hi-Rez han­dles this by pro­vid­ing guid­ance and fi­nan­cial sup­port to lo­cal third-party or­gan­is­ers, to en­sure that how they han­dle re­gional SMITE com­pe­ti­tions fits with Hi-Rez's vi­sion for the road to Worlds. When asked about En­emy’s com­ments, McHugh dis­agreed. “I think there’s some level of re­spon­si­bil­ity for ev­ery team to en­sure the over­all game’s suc­cess, so I’d have to dis­agree with the play­ers there. If the game’s suc­ceed­ing around the world, that’s good for every­body. It’s im­por­tant for all re­gions to come to­gether, be­cause at the end of the day we might be from sep­a­rate re­gions, but we’re all re­ally on the same team.”

THROUGH THE FIRE AND THE FLAME

Af­ter their de­feat in the early stages of Worlds in Jan­uary, Avant Garde coach Job “Cap­tCoach” Hil­bers, and jun­gler Daniel “Rowe” Rowe, were dis­heart­ened, to say the least. Their pos­tures were closed-off, and turned slightly away from one an­other. Nei­ther wanted to vol­un­teer an­swers to ques­tions, de­fer­ring to the other rather than talk­ing about what just hap­pened. “There will def­i­nitely be changes,” said Rowe when asked whether the same team com­po­si­tion would be play­ing for a spot at Worlds in 2017. “I’m keep­ing my op­tions open,” said Hil­bers when asked if he wanted to con­tinue work­ing with Avant Garde. As the con­ver­sa­tion wore on, Rowe’s eyes hard­ened and he al­lowed him­self to be­come an­gry,

and speak more freely.

“By far the big­gest thing is there needs to be at least two teams from each re­gion go­ing to Worlds,” Rowe said. “As it is now, one team wins their shot at Worlds, and none of the other teams have any rea­son to keep com­pet­ing. We had an­other team back home that wanted to help us prac­tice in the lead-up to Worlds, but in re­al­ity they’re not giv­ing their all in scrims be­cause they don’t have to. We have pres­sure to keep our prac­tice up, and I think they re­ally wanted to help, but they’d al­ready given up on 2016.

“Chang­ing that is up to Hi-Rez,” he fin­ished.

Fast for­ward to Novem­ber 2016, and Team Pan­da­mo­nium – made up of three fifths of the Avant Garde squad that com­peted at Worlds 2016 – just won a guar­an­teed seat at the SMITE World Cham­pi­onship in early 2017. Vet­er­ans of 2016 Rowe, Biggy, and Ochita will be head­ing back to Atlanta to com­pete against the in­tim­i­dat­ing teams from Europe and North Amer­ica. Will they make it past the place­ment stage this time? Only time will tell. But once again they’re go­ing over alone, as the only rep­re­sen­ta­tive team from Ocea­nia.

“I think there has been a ma­jor im­prove­ment in the [Oceanic] com­pe­ti­tion this year, and the gap has def­i­nitely closed,” said coach Kur­tis “Biggy” Davidson via email. “How­ever in com­par­i­son to teams from the top re­gions, I still see a ma­jor gap be­tween us and them.”

Com­pared to other games with pro es­ports leagues, such as DOTA 2 and League of Leg­ends, SMITE is rel­a­tively small. The fact that it has grown to a point where it can field a world cham­pi­onship com­pe­ti­tion with a prize pool of $1 mil­lion is tes­ta­ment to the pas­sion and ded­i­ca­tion of Hi-Rez and play­ers around the world. It takes time to make changes to such largescale com­pe­ti­tions, and it sounds as though

Hi-Rez is at least think­ing about what more it can do. Through con­sul­ta­tion with play­ers and the view­ing au­di­ence, the sit­u­a­tion for the smaller re­gions may change, but for the Aus­tralian team at­tend­ing the 2017 SMITE World Cham­pi­onships, the die may al­ready be cast.

A lack of lo­cal com­pe­ti­tion means Aussie SMITE teams are typ­i­cally de­stroyed at the in­ter­na­tional level TRUFAX: Like vam­pires, dragons are vul­ner­a­ble to sun­light and will burst into flame upon pro­longed ex­po­sure SMITE's highly re­flex-driven game­play...

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