BIG READ: Competition rises among serious video gamers

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IMAGINE a stadium packed with thousands of people, cheering on their favourite teams playing at the top level of competition.

Your mind may have wandered to football or rugby, perhaps.

Alfie Scott playing at Epic Lan

Alfie Scott playing at Epic Lan

Now, imagine the same scenario – but instead of playing with a ball, people are playing video games.

To many, this may seem an alien concept.

But eSports – as it has become known – is growing at an almost exponential rate, and shows no sign of slowing down.

For example, the League of Legends World Championships in 2016 had an audience of 20,000 – just 1,000 shy of Fratton Park’s capacity.

Add to that the 43 million people who tuned in online, and you have an audience more than twice the size of the recent Game of Thrones season finale, and six times larger than the 2016 X-Factor final.

Competitive gaming is huge and it’s taking players all over the world.

Alfie Scott is a 17-year-old gamer from Buckland, Portsmouth.

When he’s not hanging out with friends or doing schoolwork, Alfie passes the time by playing Counter Strike: Global Offensive, a PC first-person-shooter (FPS) – where gamers play from the eyes of a soldier on the front line.

Alfie says that he has always been a competitive person, and that gaming has provided a positive outlet for that.

When he found a competitive gaming scene, he saw it as a natural progression of his skills.

He says: ‘It started out with me playing alongside my friends.

‘We all enjoyed the game and it was just something to do – we were all quite good, so to play competitively seemed natural for us. It is the social side of competitive gaming that interests me.

‘Even though it is competitive, everyone is friends with each other.’

Since he started competing, Alfie has been to events across the UK, playing for prize pools worth thousands of pounds.

He says: ‘I’ve been to Insomnia three times, Epic Lan twice and an EPS event.

‘To be able to travel around the country playing games is awesome – and it means that I get to see more of the UK than many people of my age.

‘When I play, I am the entry fragger for my team, which means I’m the first person into the fight.

‘I love that there is so much strategy to competitive gaming.

‘To me it makes it as engaging as sports like football.’

While Alfie enjoys playing games at a competitive level, he still focuses on schoolwork and making a career elsewhere.

‘It is a hobby that could become a profession’ he says, ‘but it is important to have a back-up plan.’

At the other end of the spectrum is Shane McKerral – one of the only professional gamers in the county.

Last month, Shane went to the Call of Duty World Championships, in Los Angeles, to compete for a share of a $1.5m prize pool, playing under the French organisation, Team Vitality.

He has made around £30,000 in tournament winnings and also earns money from sponsorship and salary from the team he plays for.

Shane, 24, explains: ‘I started by playing on a website called Gamebattles, where you can play against other people to climb an online ladder.

‘Anyone can play on there, regardless of skill level. I think it is quite clear that competitive gaming is only going to get bigger. You can see how massive it is already, and now that companies like the BBC are getting involved, I think it is about to explode in a really big way.

‘The road to the top is pretty tough, but you should never sacrifice things like school or family – those are the most important things in life, after all.’

Both Shane and Alfie agree the barriers to entry to competitive gaming are very low.

Alfie explains: ‘The way these games work is that they match you with people around the world that are the same skill level of you.

‘As you improve, you work your way up these online ladders. It is never too difficult or too easy.’

‘These games are easy to play but tough to master’ adds Shane.

‘You can buy a game and play it straight away, but it’ll take a fair bit of hard work to become truly skilled.’

Unlike physical sport, players don’t have to retire as they get older.

As a keen gamer myself, I went to the Insomnia gaming festival in Birmingham last weekend, alongside my dad, two brothers and a couple of family friends.

As a group of six, we played in the Overwatch tournament – an FPS where you can play as one of 25 different characters.

We were put into a group with two other teams – one was TPO.eSports, a professional Overwatch team.

The other was an unknown team around our skill level.

Playing against a professional team, you can see just how big the skill gap is between the average Joe (that’s us) and people who play together three or four times a week. It is staggering, but with the money is on the line, the time they put into the game is certainly worth it.

We were definitely struggling, until something remarkable happened – we won a game.

In that moment, I understood precisely why people get involved in competitive gaming – it isn’t just about the money, or somehow making a career out of it. It is about working hard with some of your closest friends to overcome tough competition, and the adrenaline rush you get when you succeed.

Competitive gaming doesn’t always revolve around the latest games.

In Old Portsmouth, Game Over is the city’s only video game cafe – with an added twist. The cafe focuses on retro video games such as Pacman and Mario Kart.

Manager Steve Lowe, pictured on the front page, said: ‘We have children’s clubs which run twice a month, and are massively popular. When children play these games at home, it is usually by themselves in their room – it is great to see them all together, socialising and competing with one another.

‘It is how gaming should be.’