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How Gfinity are trying to level-up UK eSports

A group of competitive gamers in a small, crowded, brightly lit room, with their backs to the camera.

The UK is not generally known as a major eSports hub, but the young Gfinity eSports company are hoping to change that with an ambitious set of eSports events in 2014 and regular broadcasting to go with it. While Gfinity have mostly worked with Call of Duty in the past, they’re now getting into the broader eSports market with Dota 2, Counter-Strike, FIFA, and StarCraft 2.

We talked with Gfinity’s COO Paul Kent about who Gfinity are, why they’re trying to make the UK an eSports hub, and how they’re going to succeed.

For Paul Kent, being a part of Gfinity and getting into eSports has been a bit like a homecoming to his youth. He was serious about competitive gaming even before the term really caught on, back when it was just a bunch of people who spent too much money in arcades. But his departure for university changed all of that, and he gave up competitive gaming by the time he was 21.

He spent his career as a chip designer with Creative Labs, working on graphics cards and media chips, and some of the equipment he designed has helped power NASA missions. But he never lost the competitive streak, even as his life changed around him.

“I gave up eSports myself ….but older in life, I began to miss it again. As I stopped playing real sports and football, my body gave up on me and I needed that competitive urge, so I got back drawn back in. I did it as a hobby while I was working in my career,” he said. “Purely coincidentally, the division that I was working with actually was bought out by Intel. We had a choice between moving to Shanghai with the division, or having a ‘golden good-bye,’ so to speak. Because I had a mortgage in London, going to Shanghai really wasn’t an option.”

With his career are a crossroads, Kent thought about what he wanted the second-act of his professional life to be. He realized he’d been flirting with eSports for over half his life, and it was what excited him the most. “

“So I thought it was now or never,” he said. “I was in a financial position that I could take the risk, and I believe the rest of the company was in the same boat. We decided that this was the moment and we could see what happens. A leap of faith.”

People like us

Kent’s winding road into eSports production also informs his approach and goals for Gfinity. Kent knows there are a lot of people like him out there, people who may not fit the “teenage male” image that sticks to eSports and its audience.

He explains, “We want to be as inclusive as possible. We want to cater to the 40 year old who has three kids, takes the kids to football, and has maybe two hours a week [where] he plays, one hour [where] he watches. We want to make sure that person feels that Gfinity is about them. On the other side of the coin, we want the 12 year old kid who is into Minecraft or into playing Quake 4 or Call of Duty or CS 24/7, we want to make sure that he feels that he is what Gfinity is all about.”

He knows Gfinity have an uphill battle in some ways, conceding that the UK has historically lagged behind the rest of Europe when it comes to eSports. He’s seen other companies come and go in this space.

“I think there’s many reasons for that. …I think one of the main reasons that’s held the UK scene back is the combination of British people are generally more cynical than their European counterparts. They are very skeptical of what’s going to happen,” he said. “Also, the other angle is that UK is generally a little bit further behind when it comes to technology, regardless to the fact that we get the first console launches and so on and so forth, I think we are only now ready to come to same level as our European and North American counterparts, so all three of us are probably far behind Asian markets.”

Kent wants to buck that trend. Having seen so many tournaments fail, leaving players twisting as they wait endlessly for prize payouts, he’s made sure that Gfinity is above reproach for taking care of the basics. Not only does he say they try to give players comfortable accommodations during tournaments, but every tournament’s prize pool is already funded and in a holding account before the first game is played.

Making the trains run

But what he thinks will really help Gfinity stand out is a commitment to regular broadcasts, which begin on 24 February and which will lead up to the offline playoffs at Gfinity 3 on 24 May.

“It’s about consistency,” he said. “It’s about having eSports fans know that every Monday night at 7PM or 9PM, this show is going to be on, or this game is going to be on. …Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, at 7PM, we will have a live show going out with live action.”

I pointed out that this is similar to what Major League Gaming, a Gfinity partner, have increasingly tried to do, and that they have at times struggled to fill air-time. Kent acknowledged this can be an issue, but he thinks Gfinity have a trump card: London, where Gfinity have built the city’s only eSports broadcast studio.

“In the UK, the farthest players away are only like 400 or 500 miles away, most of them are in a 150 mile radius, so we don’t actually have those problems [getting them to the studio],” he said.

In some ways Gfinity’s plans are very ambitious, but Kent also made clear that their goals are very reasonable. They are not setting out to give UK eSports a home and a platform, not take the world by storm. They are more focused on the grassroots-level, not the eSports’ stratosphere. For Kent, it comes down to percentages.

“We are not focused solely on the the top three percent. That’s what I view eSports professional players as. That’s 3% of the entire eSports market,” he said. “As much as we love and do a lot of things for that 3%, it’s the other 97% that are the ears and eyes of this world. They are more important to us. They are the people that we need to look after, because they are the people that are going to watch eSports until later in life and they are also going to produce the next big stars of tomorrow.”