Regional Esports Boundaries
Jason Imms explores the challenges faced by local teams looking to play internationally
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...