In a swirling Sportpaleis, it was decided on Sunday who can call themselves world champion in Counter-Strike. Everyone involved in e-sports hopes that this mega-event will be a turning point for gaming in our country. ‘We still lack too many options.’
“Antwerp, are you still with us?” Although the Sportpaleis is only half full on Thursday afternoon, the public responds with a deafening scream. As a camera swept across the audience, supporters clenched their fists, waved scarves and kissed the logo across the chest of their jerseys.
For those who occasionally take part in a football match, these are familiar scenes. But the thousands of enthusiasts are here for a different kind of sport. Two rows of five computers are lined up on the stage, where two teams compete against each other in the computer game ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS: GO)’.
In it, a team plays the terrorists who try to lay a bomb, and a team plays the police who must prevent it. Over 30 rounds in various settings, it is decided who best masters the nerve-wracking game, while a roaring Sportpaleis follows on a giant screen and receives each spectacular kill with loud applause. It is an hour-long tactical contest that requires the greatest concentration of players. A game where a split second can make the difference between winning and losing. Top sport, but with mouse and keyboard.
Thursday afternoon’s match, between the American FaZe Clan and Swedish Ninjas In Pajamas, is the first quarter-final in the PGL Major. In the two-week tournament, it will be decided who can call themselves the world’s best after Sunday’s final and win the majority of the $ 1 million prize pool. Over the past two weeks, the top teams played the run-up to the fully-rented Radisson Blu hotel in Antwerp before moving to Antwerp’s largest event location, the Sportpaleis, before the climax. It was sold out for four days to a total of 50,000 people who flew in from all over the world. In total, the Sportpaleis will host 60 nationalities this weekend.
In the central square, Allan (26), Elania (31) and Gustavo (32) are bent over a pair of pancartes. They write slogans on it with a black ink to encourage their favorite team, the Brazilian FURIA. The trio flew in from Rio De Janeiro only for the major. “We’re flying back on Monday,” Allan said. ‘A solid journey, yes. But we have a good chance of winning the tournament†† We definitely want to be there. Compare that to the World Cup. Are you not traveling halfway around the world for it, if your country can play champion? ‘
The crazy gang in the Sportpaleis is just the tip of the iceberg. The tournament’s official broadcasts reach another million audiences, with a record-breaking 2.7 million viewers to the final in Stockholm last year. Via YouTube and Twitch, hordes of viewers are added via streamers and influencers channels. A Brazilian streamer, ex-pro player Gaules, reached more than 700,000 viewers on his own this week with his commentary on a match. During the two weeks of competition, 150 million viewers are expected to tune in to Antwerp’s titanic battle.
You notice that many people are waking up to e-sports and what they can mean.
These are numbers that compete with the biggest classic sporting events in the world. Reason enough for Stijn Jacobs to never let gaming and e-sports be dismissed as a niche. Jacobs is the founder of Insightful, a market research firm specializing in e-sports data. »The gaming industry is bigger than the music and film industry combined. In Belgium, 6.1 million people play games, from ‘Candy Crush’ to ‘FIFA’ or ‘Counter-Strike’. Of those, you can qualify more than 2 million people as an e-sports enthusiast, people who either play competitively themselves or like to watch it. It’s not a niche, is it? I think that word should be banned once and for all in this context. It’s as mainstream as it can get. It just does not get enough attention ‘.
This split between reality and perception means that brands and companies are underutilizing the huge e-sports market, says Jacobs. Because they do not understand that world enough, they use it too little, he says. ‘While reaching a diverse audience with it. These are young people who are still difficult to reach through other channels, but also highly educated in their twenties and thirties. The cliché that the gamer eats pizza on his own in a basement is no longer true. ‘
The PGL major in Antwerp could mean a turning point for Belgium, hopes and thinks Steven Leunens, co-CEO of META. This Turnhout company, which specializes in e-sports, lured the PGL Major to Antwerp and acts as a facilitator for the organizer PGL. A stadium with 20,000 cheering fans, it’s a little different from the first tournaments he hosted in musty cellars in Antwerp, he laughs.
‘You now notice that many outsiders are waking up to e-sports and what they can mean,’ says Leunens. ‘We are located in the Sportpaleis, which is a recognizable fact for many people. This means that one can suddenly tell a very tangible story about the business side and the opportunities. I can say ten times in a boardroom that e-sports really does matter, but it will never have the same effect as taking people to a full Sports Palace. ‘
Five to ten years ago, tournaments were played in small halls. Today, e-sports is a stadium sport. How incredible is that?
The most obvious option is advertising and sponsorship, in which multinational companies such as Coca-Cola, BMW, Red Bull, AB InBev and Intel are fully committed at the highest level. But as a brand, you do not have to immediately sponsor a world championship to be relevant, says Leunens. ‘In Belgium, the consultant EY is a sponsor of the Belgian Student League, a competition between universities. For EY, it’s the way to get on the radar of hard-to-access digital profiles in the talent war. ‘
The Dutch army also uses e-sports to make itself attractive to such profiles. Since 2020, Defense Netherlands has participated in e-sports tournaments with a team. “The drone pilot of the future is now working on e-sports,” Peter van den Berg of the Royal Netherlands Navy told Dutch media.
Businesses are also reaping the benefits of e-sports advancing in other ways. The rapid professionalization of live broadcasts of tournaments is of interest to companies that facilitate live television, such as the Leuven content management system for television producers Tinkerlist or the Liège provider of video servers for live reporting EVS. “E-sports is a growth area for us,” says Guillaume Neveux, Business Development Manager at EVS. “With professionalisation, there is also an increasing demand for high-quality production. As a TV company, you can not afford to miss things. You can not ask Ronaldo to recreate his goal, can you? ‘
In Sportpaleis, a shot in the head of a terrorist is greeted with loud cheers. ‘Oh God! Splat! ”Shouts a shoutcaster – e-sports slang for commentator – loudly through his microphone. Nicholas ‘Taffy’ Taifalos meets it all with a wide grin. Taifalos has traveled from Australia to report on the performance of the Renegades team’s Ozzies for his website Snowball Esports. “Unfortunately, they have already been eliminated. I’m still here as an enthusiast, ”he says, draped in an Australian flag.
‘Taffy’ enjoys it to the fullest. “I’ve been going for a while,” he says. ‘I can assure you: five or ten years ago this was unthinkable. Then tournaments were played in small halls. And now see where we are. E-sports is a stadium sport now. How incredible is that? ‘
* FURIA was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Russian Team Spirit on Thursday.
Walk along Antwerp MAS in ‘Counter-Strike’
The city of Antwerp welcomes the PGL Major circus with open arms this weekend. Logical for a young and wealthy audience from around the world. “Try booking a hotel room in Antwerp,” said Mayor Bart De Wever (N-VA). “The price you pay now is the best indicator of how busy it is.” But PGL Major is also a great opportunity to do city marketing, says De Wever. ‘Did you know that Counter-Strike has made a map that contains all kinds of Antwerp elements? It is not a copy of Antwerp, because we also did not want the image of terrorists with Kalashnikovs on the Meir. But Antwerp elements are incorporated, such as Rubens, MAS and Antwerp city bikes. Amazing, right? Several people have already come to tell me how big it is. ‘