Playing video games used to be something kids would do at the arcade after school. Those kids have grown-up now - and so has gaming.
Over three years, Ajith Siva spent $9000 playing arcade games at Timezone. “That’s enough for a nice car or even just two average cars,” he laughs.
The 25-year-old competitive gamer goes by the name “Blackout”. He plays a genre of video games called FGs (or fighting games) where players control characters that battle opponents in one-on-one combat.
Ajith has always been a serious gamer and during high school, his parents confiscated his computer because they thought he was spending too much time playing.
“They said I could keep it as long as my grades stayed up. They dropped from excellences to achieveds in sixth form”.
Ajith says his love of fighting games started when a friend introduced him to Tekken Tag Tournament at the arcade seven years ago.
“You used to get a card that you topped up and once you reached $2,000, you got a Platinum card,” he says.
“I had four Platinum cards”.
Right now, Ajith holds the title for Injustice and hopes to the New Zealand champ in Tekken and Marvel vs. Capcom too. His favourite game is Street Fighter.
WATCH Ajith Siva take on some novices, including our reporter, in Street Fighter 4. He starts with just 50% health to give the others a chance:
If you’ve ever played the game, you’ll be familiar with the mash-all-the-buttons-at-the-same-time technique but Ajith says it takes a bit more than that to win tournaments.
“It’s less about speed and more about muscle memory. There are a lot of different inputs you have to do in a succession.”
Ajith puts in about 20 hours of play time each week – basically a part-time job. It’s a commitment he loves but his RSI doesn’t.
“Playing on an arcade stick is taxing on my hands. After playing, I go to work the next day and temporally can’t type. It’s not excruciating pain, just a minor annoyance.”
Despite the pain, Ajith says if he could play full-time he would, but the chances of going professional in New Zealand are basically zero. Instead, he works as a web developer at Neos Systems in Lower Hutt.
“Being a competitive gamer you want to fly out to tournaments and you need money. That’s why I have a job instead of playing games all the time.”
Ajith started playing Street Fighter after watching a 57 second YouTube video of world champion Daigo Umehara (also known as “The Beast’) beating another champ with some pretty sweet moves.
It’s considered the best moment in pro-gaming history and from all the videos combined, it’s had over 20 million views. You might not know what’s going on but the crowd's wild cheering tells you it’s something awesome.
Ajith says Daigo’s showing fee at events is US$25,000 (NZ$33,500) - that’s more than a New Zealander on minimum wage makes in a year.
Apart from just showing up, there is big money to be made in overseas tournaments, like last year’s DOTA 2 championship that broke e-sports records with a $10 million prize pool.
One of the winners, Jiao “Banana” Wang, has banked about $1.2 million in tournament prize money, making him the highest earning player in the world.
“The team who won last year had a grand parade held for them when they got back to China,” says Ajith. “There is definitely celebrity culture in gaming that we don’t see in New Zealand.”
ESPN even broadcast the DOTA 2 finals, making it the first time an e-sports event had been shown on a mainstream channel. It also signalled the growing popularity of competitive gaming worldwide.
In the year 2000, there were only 10 tournaments compared to 696 in 2012.
In order to go pro, gamers need sponsors but the industry in New Zealand is too small to attract big backers. On top of that, our internet speed is ranked 45th in the world (behind Romania and Estonia) and we’re so far away from everyone that playing on international servers is almost impossible.
Auckland StarCraft II player, Mack Smith, dropped out of high school and moved to the United States to take a crack at professional gaming because Aotearoa just wasn’t cutting it.
“The gaming industry in New Zealand is pretty much dead, especially StarCraft, and I would like that to change but I think it never will just because we’re so small, so far away, and the internet is so terrible.”
StarCraft II, known as a real-time Strategy game (RTS), was the fastest selling game in the genre with 3 million copies sold in a month. Mack says the game is sometimes compared to chess where a player needs to react and adapt to an opponent’s gaming style.
The 18-year-old has spent 12 months honing his StarCraft II skills in the US but after failing to qualify for the World Championship Series last month, he toyed with the idea of trying something else.
“I feel like I’ve been kind of isolated from the real world just playing games for so long so it’s hard to have an idea of what else would potentially interest me.”
“My parents have always been happy with me gaming so I think I could randomly want to be a pro kickboxer and they’d be fine with that as well.”
Despite the setback Mack admits he still loves the game too much to quit, so he left the states and moved to Switzerland where he joined pro gaming team mYinsanity.
Just like other professional sports, top gamers join teams and dedicate hours to perfecting their craft. They’re usually sponsored so they don’t have to worry about paying rent or buying food.
“The thing with gaming is that it’s a really easy lifestyle. There are pretty much no commitments, you can set your sleep schedule however you want,” he says.
Mack says his day usually starts at about 10am when he wakes up. He tries to put in at least eight hours of training a day.
“I practice for three or four hours after waking up and then take a pretty lengthy break for dinner and relaxing. I probably play another four hours before going to sleep."
TIME FOR COWS TO MOOOVE OVER
Ben Kenobi* is the chairperson of the New Zealand Game Developers Association and says the potential for growth in the industry is huge.
“When we go to the Government for money for games they basically laugh at us,” he says. “There is money there, but it’s just not going to game development.”
It’s hard to understand why considering revenue from New Zealand-made games more than doubled to $80.2 million last year. In Finland – a country that’s similar to us in population - the game development industry is worth over US$3 billion.
“We’ve got a country that’s quite obsessed with cows, so we need to get the shakers and the movers to understand that there’s an opportunity here for New Zealand to add billions to the economy with minimal impact to our local environment,” says Kenobi.
LISTEN: Ben Kenobi interviewed on Radio New Zealand last year
So far, our success has been predominately in the mobile game space although there was a standout achievement from Grinding Gear Games in Titirangi, Auckland. Their game, Path of Exile has over 7 million players worldwide and was named GameSpot’s PC Game of the Year in 2013.
Part of the problem has been the idea that games are just for entertainment - or for teenage boys in their parents’ basements - but Kenobi says that’s finally beginning to shift.
“There are games for social change, for health and for education but they can also be art too.”
“Games can be a cultural artefact that remain part of our cultural fabric. It’s a way to understand who we are, express ideas, tell stories and poke fun at governing forces,” he says.
WHEN GAMING GETS NASTY
Amber has been gaming since she was five.
“My dad brought home this gigantic personal computer and I remember it had an orangey-amber screen and just one colour tone,” she says. “We had two computers in the house and we used to LAN until 2am in the morning and get in trouble with my mum.”
“I used to spend a lot of time in arcades playing Tekken Tag Tournament. I dread to think how much money I spent because I could probably fund a house deposit now.”
Despite her bubbly confidence, the 30-year-old says she used to be a “quiet loner” at school.
“I guess part of it was the community within the games - I found friends through there rather than actual high school,” she says.
There is a serious downside to online networks, too and Amber doesn’t reveal she’s a woman in games to avoid abuse from other players.
“I encountered a lot on the Xbox. There are people that are quite clearly 15 telling you that you suck and swearing down the headsets because their mum’s just stepped out and they have full range of the swear vocabulary.”
“It got to the point where I would wear the headset but never speak,” she says.
A 2014 survey by the Entertainment Software Association showed that 48 per cent of people playing video games are female, but despite the number of women involved gaming has a long history of sexism.
The worst of it was revealed in Gamergate. Supporters argue the movement is about the ethics of gaming journalism but generally it’s considered a reflection of the misogyny that exists in the industry.
The controversy started in 2013 when a female game developer was accused of sleeping with a journalist who reviewed her game. The allegations were false – the journalist had not written anything about the developer after the relationship started and had never reviewed her games - but the reactions turned nasty anyway and targeted women speaking out on the issue.
American game developer Brianna Wu received a torrent of rape and death threats and fled her home after she mocked Gamergate. In an article for Bustle last week, she wrote “I’m doing everything I can to save my life except be silent”.
“I have a folder on my hard drive with letters from dozens and dozens of women who’ve abandoned their dream of becoming game developers due to Gamergate, some as young as 12.”
Despite the backlash, Amber believes more women in the industry is a step towards ending the hate. “I feel that there needs to be more female developers but I guess that’s also a problem across IT as a whole. We’re not getting enough women into tech.”
Obviously, they’re not all bad eggs. Amber even met her partner, Ben Fox, through a New Zealand gaming clan. They sparked up a relationship when he travelled to Wellington for a LAN tournament and they’ve been together for 10 years.
MORE COMMUNITY SUPPORT, AYE
The gaming industry in New Zealand is undeniably small and if we want to keep our talent, both players and developers, there is a lot work to be done. A LAN tournament in Auckland this weekend was cancelled and a Facebook user aptly commented “Gaming in NZ needs more community support aye.”
But it’s not all bad news. Interest in the industry is growing as people catch onto the economic and social possibilities. Last year the Green Party proposed the establishment of a $5 million Game Development Fund to support the creation and marketing of products.
If nothing else, we can at least take pleasure in knowing that our neighbour across the ditch were called the worst country in the world to be a gamer. Sorry, guys.
*Just in case you’re wondering, Ben Kenobi is a Star Wars fan and changed his surname just before getting married. Now his wife is Mrs Kenobi and together they have a baby Kenobi. “Every time I see the Name Change Declaration Form on my fridge I laugh. I’m really happy I did it,” he says.