The Road to the Gfinity Finals: Speaking with the Elite Series draftees
Australia's first city-based esports league came to a head this weekend with the Gfinity Elite Series Grand Final.
For the last five weeks, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter in Sydney has been home to a different kind of experience; the Gfinity Elite Series. Back in February of this year, UK esports organisation Gfinity partnered with Hoyts (and Alienware) to transform a cinema at its Entertainment Quarter location into a decked out esports arena in preparation for the Gfinity Elite Series, a seven-week competition that pitted six city-based teams against each other in weekly Rocket League, Street Fighter V and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS: GO) matches.
After five weeks (and two months of qualifying rounds before it), it all came down to this weekend, the first Gfinity Elite Series Grand Final in Australia.
This is far from the first esports tournament in Australia but it's the first of its kind; a city-based league that dubbed itself the "Big Bash" of esports when it first launched in Australia.
Over Saturday and Sunday, four teams went head-to-head in three final matches across three games in front of a live audience at Moore Park. Melbourne Order opposed Sydney Chiefs in Counter-Strike, Perth Ground Zero touched gloves with Melbourne Order in Street Fighter V and Melbourne Avant met Order on the Rocket League pitch (surely the biggest local derby Australian esports has seen).
It was a huge 48 hours for esports in Australia and even if you couldn't make it out to Moore Park, you were able to join the crowd on Twitch.
It's an exciting time for esports in Australia, one amplified by the roaring crowds that have been making their way out to Moore Park (a location in Sydney that's notoriously troublesome for public transport) but more importantly, the skilled players that manage to stand on stage and hold a game in front of a screaming audience.
Amongst the six regions represented, there were 56 draftees that made the cut from Gfinity's Challenger Series earlier this year. Some draftees already accustomed to the high-pressure stakes of performing in front of a live crowd; others only experiencing local LAN parties and online haunts before stepping onto the Gfinity Australia Elite Series stage.
In preparation for the weekend's Grand Final, we talked with some of the series' players to discuss the road to the Gfinity Elite Series and what's next for professional CS: GO players Dominic "Doom" Wilson and Connie "konii" Ko.
First contact with esports
At the advent of something, hopefully, transformative for esports in Australia, Dom and Connie are two old-school FPS veterans who both in one way or another have been waiting on something as big as Gfinity Australia to become a reality. Not for its monetary value or the spotlight but more simply for the chance to cut their teeth against Australia's best.
Connie has played FPS games casually for a long time but it was the first CS: GO major, DreamhHack Winter 2013, that turned her attention to esports.
Valve announced the first CS:GO major, DreamHack Winter 2013 Jönköping and that’s when I first started getting into esports - Connie
For Dom, it was The International DOTA 2 tournament in 2013. An interview with the players reminiscing about the old days of sleeping on LAN centre floors in faraway countries, on flights they paid out of their own pockets, for the chance to win a $500 prize. After The International in 2013, it all paid off. A US$2,874,380 prize.
Last year, the DOTA 2 International Championship prize was US$24,787,916
It was rough. But it was all worth it, in the end, to make their parents proud, make themselves proud and make some good money in the end. That really stuck out to me - Dom
Not everybody is so lucky to come up in the time (and proximity) of the DOTA 2 International. For those stranded in Australia, international competitions are usually an expensive flight away with accommodation and living expenses outlaid by the players themselves. So it's no wonder so many players bounce off the sport at such a young age.
Dom, in particular, has his own story about "sticking with it" – an anecdote for another time – but he's experienced people call it quits as early as 21 or 22 years when they're expected to "get a real job because this [esports) isn't going to keep [them] fed".
Dom, only 23 years old himself, has seen people who could have gone pro drop out because the "boom" came after their time.
People didn’t stick with it when they could have been amazing. The boom has been after their time. Which kind of sucks but that’s how life is - Dom
Both players have a long history with FPS games, CS: GO in particular (no surprises there), and train multiple times a week. By the time Gfinity rolled around, both players had developed a tight training schedule with their teams (with members scattered across Australia and New Zealand).
So when Gfinity first came to Australia after a successful run in the UK both players had honed their skills in various Counter-Strike Leagues.
Connie has competed on-stage in an overseas women's tournament and again in Perth under the same category. Despite some experience performing in an arena with a live audience and online to an even bigger audience of viewers, Connie tells us that performing on-stage at Gfinity was still a slightly nerve-racking experience.
I tell myself “I’m fine, I’m fine” but when I first jumped on stage at Gfinity I was a bit nervous if I’m honest - Connie
For Dom's team, the Challenger Series (the draft stage of the tournament) was not only an unrelenting test of skill but it also built the confidence needed to get up on stage and perform in front of an audience.
In the leadup to the Elite Series, Dom's team was playing one official [match] every night; two best-of-threes, two best-of-ones and then the Gfinity tournament every week. An official match every night of the week.
The more we play and the higher stakes there are, we get way more confident - Dom
The early days of Gfinity were shrouded in a bit of mystery, according to Dom. Gfinity's ambitious mission to become the Big Bash of Australian esports was a brilliant marketing slogan but this was uncharted territory for Australia and local players were understandably cautious about throwing their weight behind something that was still an idea; a cloud hanging overhead that could dissipate if handled poorly.
"We didn’t really realise what the draft was going to lead to because the details hadn’t been announced. [Early on] Gfinity were very lax on the details. Whether you think that’s a criticism or not is a matter of perspective. One, they don’t want to release all their details early and two, people can’t really get excited about it and get more information on the competition. No one in the community really understood what was going on," said Dom of Gifnity's first steps in Australia.
The draft series prize pool was a boon for Dom and his team, three tournaments a week with a $500 each, "We thought that was insane! That’s really high for Australian tournaments or weekly tournaments. That’s a decent amount of money for an Australian competition which is kind of sad but that’s how it is," Dom said.
That’s a decent amount of money for an Australian competition which is kind of sad but that’s how it is - Dom
The other hook for Dom was the calibre of skill in the league, he tells us "every Sunday we’d be coming up against teams with comparable skills to us or even more and it was great to be able to get that experience".
Whether or not Gfinity came through, Dom and his team were content with the weekly $500 prize and the opportunity to test their mettle against some of Australia's top talent.
The same goes for Connie. Someone who, as mentioned, is somewhat of a veteran in the competitive tournament scene, Connie says "Gfinity has been the most challenging league in terms of competition".
Of course, Gfinity has proven a hit locally. The debut weekend attracted over 500,000 views on Twitch, peaking at 5,000 simultaneous viewers for the first Counter-Strike broadcast.
With their work and performance with the Sydney Chiefs and Brisbane Deceptors, Dom and Connie have been thrown into the spotlight, becoming some of the first public personalities of their kind in Australia. That's an immense amount of pressure and exposure to take on in a matter of weeks. Both players have handled it with the kind of professionalism and grace you hope to see from role-models in any sporting field.
For Dom, the pressure is all part of the practice, he says "any experience you can get is good, especially the more pressure it is".
Similarly, Connie feeds off the crowd's energy and gets nothing but good vibes from a live audience.
"The live audience has been extremely supportive; they would approach me and compliment my performance even though I may feel that I underperformed. So it’s been a really supportive and encouraging environment. Whenever there’s a massive play, whether from myself or someone else, hearing the audience cheer is a really good feeling," Connie says.
Connie Ko (Left)
The Gfinity arena is buzzing with positive energy but as we all know the Internet can be a different story, the Upside Down of the video game community.
Connie remembers the first week of Gfinity when a Reddit thread in the CS: GO sub surfaced about her involvement in the competition, she remembers "most of the top comments were positive, however, if you scroll through the full thread, there were also numerous rude and nasty comments about my gender, personal appearance etc".
Even though these comments aren’t generally visible as they are down voted, they still exist - Connie
Sure, these types of commenters are a sad minority in the subreddit and it's easy to suggest ignoring the trolls with an outsider's perspective but most of us have never had the surely gut-twisting experience of seeing our name become the topic for discussion in a forum. Imagine trying to tear yourself away from staring into that toxic abyss when it's your own name and identity at the centre of the discussion.
While it was a small handful of commenters, in this case, these poisonous personalities who frequent the pits of comment sections mobilise in other forums and where they coagulate into something dangerous, organising hate-campaigns and coordinated abuse against public figures in the gaming industry and community. This kind of abuse is especially resonant in the wake of last week's unjustified ArenaNet firings, which deserves a much deeper discussion than a throwaway line in this article. Thankfully, The Verge's Megan Farokhmanesh has already done a stand-up job giving the issue its due.
The pressure of national exposure online and on-stage is one thing, the hours committed to training and competing is another and it begs the question, what kind of support is out there for professional esports players?
Both Connie and Dom have training and work schedules that would make most of us weep. Connie studies part/full-time during the day and practices with her regular team from 7:00 to 10:30 pm (sometimes 11:00 pm) every weeknight. She takes Friday and Saturday off (when not competing in Gfinity) and fits in time to train with the Brisbane Deceptors whenever everyone's schedules align.
At its peak, we were probably dedicating two nights a week to Gfinity - Connie
It's a similar story for Dom, who commits about 20 hours a week between Sunday and Thursday with his regular team in addition to what he considers individual practice, "PUGs (pick-up games) with friends to keep myself sharp" for about 2 to 3 hours a day.
Dom estimates he trains for 6 to 7 hours a day.
It's a hard graft profession and if you don't enjoy those hours, the games you're playing and the people you're playing with, you might not have what it takes.
As Connie says, "it’s not all roses playing competitively at a high level; there are many sacrifices and hours invested in being the best. For example, my team plays and trains together roughly 20 hours a week. If you don’t enjoy that then I don’t think competitive [gaming] is really for you".
When bartering with a healthy work/life balance, some of us trade an extra 30 minutes in bed to make it into work early, others sell an hour or two a night with friends and family to work back late.
Dom is a full-time carer for his Mum in Brisbane, a position that's allowed to him to commit a healthy amount of time to Counter-Strike in his downtime but a position that's long required his full and immediate presence. Thankfully, Dom tells us his Mum is on the mend, becoming more self-sufficient, which allows him to leave the house for the weekend for events like Gfinity's weekend tournaments.
With his full-time carer role, Gfinity and regular esports commitments, Dom's sacrifice is his social life, he tells us "I suppose the only tricky part to balance is my social life... I still see some friends but not as much as I did. They all work during the day and hang out on the weekend so I’m missing birthdays and that sort of thing".
In preparation for the epic seven-week stint, Dom organised himself a going away party of sorts, one last hoorah before knuckling down for Gfinity, "we all hung out beforehand and caught up together for a self-thrown congratulation party," Dominic laughs.
Dom's regular team is at the top of Division 2 in their league but "even at the bottom of Division 1 there aren’t enough funds to get a house," Dom says.
It’s a lot of money to invest and upkeep - Dom
That's just the housing situation. What about medical and psychological support? The kind that's offered in traditional sporting fields? Connie says "only the very top professional esport teams have access to support that traditional sports tend to offer".
Connie, whose investment in sports like AFL, rugby, cricket and the Olympics sparked an interest in esports, sees a future where esports players have access to a player manager that "manages player welfare and careers".
I think esports is getting there (though), that kind of support will be more widely available down the line - Connie
Hope for a future where esports players are supported in the same way as traditional athletes is an ideal we can get on board with but progress takes time and action, so what kind of support is offered here and now?
Well, there are a few Australian organisations working towards a brighter future for professionals in the game industry. Game Workers Unite's relatively new Australian chapter (GWU Australia) is working with the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) to unionise games workers. They're currently collecting data on games workers from every field; development, PR/marketing, journalism, streaming/creating and pro players; to clarify issues around working conditions and wages in Australia. Filling out the survey over on the GWU website is the first step to creating a support network for professionals in the game industry.
There's also the Australian non-profit organisation Checkpoint, which has stacks of resources on common mental health issues for gamers and game professionals.
Speaking of a bright future; this Gfinity Elite Series won't be the last we hear from Sydney Chief's Dom "Doom" Wilson and Connie "konii" Ko.
While Connie's Brisbane Deceptors didn't make it to the Grand Final weekend, Connie tells us it "appears likely (I) may return for Season 2 based on social media interactions with Gfinity". Since our chat with Connie, Gfinity has officially announced the second season, with the draft-stage Challenger Series kicking off in August and the Elite Series following in November.
Dom, maybe better known as Daddy Doom by the Gfinity crowd, joined the Sydney Chief on stage this weekend in one final match against Melbourne Order in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, fighting tooth and nail for a share in the $40,000 prize. In the end, Melbourne Order took the win, besting the Chiefs 16-10.
For now, both draftees are likely getting some well-earned rest but we look forward to following the careers of Doom and konii closely over the next season. Hopefully, the Gfinity Elite Series is just the beginning for large-scale esports events in Australia.