A small business run by two well known faces in the local gaming community, the tournament organiser has outlasted many similar companies and seems to have found the “somewhat secret” sauce to operating a successful business in the growing competitive gaming market.
The two well known faces, Clint (also known as Zombie Gamer) and Nick Holden started out playing games, then building various console communities before transitioning into an award winning business with an online gaming portal that caters to various titles and gamers around South Africa.
But what does it really take to run a successful tournament organiser business in an underdeveloped region of the esports world? Clint shared his experiences and insights to help showcase the work that goes on behind the flashing lights and fancy stages.
Where did ACGL begin and what was the inspiration to grow your love of video games into a form of income?
The story of ACGL begins well before ACGL began. Around ten years ago, Nick Holden and myself met online playing Gears of War and Modern Warfare. Both of us were passionate community members driven to offer local console players a place to compete. Nick was more focused on online tournaments, while I was more interested in events. For around six years we operated under our respective brands (Clan Connection and Zombiegamer), and through a series of other organisations, until MWEB’s gaming focused department required assistance. We were asked to be that assistance, with Nick focusing on online administration and broadcasting, while I focused on their physical events. At the time, there didn’t feel like a lot happening locally, while esports internationally was gaining momentum. We wanted to give South Africans (and Africa) a chance to have the same – albeit on a smaller scale admittedly - opportunities we were seeing overseas.
This mutual goal led to the start of the MWEB GameZone Masters Series (MGMS) for Call of Duty and CS:GO (along with a few other titles), which brought our two spaces into full collaboration. In 2015, we worked together fully outside of the MWEB tournaments on the inaugural Electronic Gaming Expo (EGE) in Cape Town. When rAge arrived in Cape Town in 2016, we had the opportunity (and honour) of hosting the ASTRO Gaming Invitational for Call of Duty. That was potentially the event that made us realise we should join forces officially. By the time rAge 2016 happened in Johannesburg, we had formalised and had the perfect platform to launch ourselves as ACGL: with the Call of Duty World League event - the MAG Cup. The MAG Cup was arguably almost everything we had been working towards at the time.
ACGL has been “official” for a relatively short period of time in business terms, but you’ve achieved some remarkable milestones. What are some of the highlights of your business journey so far?
We have been quite humbled to be part of a number of major events and tournaments over the years, giving us plenty of highlights. The early MGMS I mentioned would probably rank up there. Online qualifiers into a public LAN finals on both Call of Duty and CS:GO on one weekend was not something many had done before. The first EGE repeated the concept on a stage in the Cape Town International Convention Centre. At the time, not everyone involved probably realised how special that was.
More recently, the FIFA eNations Qualifier, Rush, Injustice 2 SA finals and so many other events have been part of our growth, and have left us proud. However, if pushed, the MAG Cup remains the one event we would be happy to pick. Packed stands, enthralled spectators, an international caster, great matches and viral clips. It is the one event that always helps remind us of why we got into doing what we do.
We’ve discussed a lot of the great bits about the job, but in a developing country where esports doesn’t receive the same audience numbers in comparison to Europe or Asia - there must be some challenges you face as a tournament organiser?
A few years ago, connectivity would have been the answer. In today’s South Africa, it’s electricity. Online tournaments can be heavily affected by loadshedding, and working around it is not easy. Unfortunately, players can sometimes forget we do not control these things, and that offers up the next challenge we face: Keeping everyone happy, which includes sponsors and partners, and a 100 or more competitors. Ensuring every event or tournament is a success is crucial to keeping everyone interested in future versions. Sadly, even achieving the goals is no guarantee, as sometimes, there are things outside of your control that can change sponsor’s spending habits. Funding can make or break a tournament organiser in a very short timeframe.
As is usually the case with most things, many “armchair critics” might not realise how much time actually goes into running a tournament. What sort of work goes into organising a 1 day live esports event or a hosted online league?
One day events start weeks - or even months - before the event itself. Equipment lists and gear requirements, licencing discussions, permit applications, broadcast planning, pre-event content, post-event content, graphics, sponsorship and partnership deliverables, and more need to be considered and attended to. Discussions and planning are probably one of the biggest things that consume our time. Infrastructure builds can sometimes begin up to a week before the event. If there is a broadcast, rehearsals are required. Crew needs to be briefed. Testing needs to be done. Everything is ultimately geared to ensuring that the live event appears to have happened with ease. Usually that is not the case…
An online league or tournament campaign is pretty much the same. The big difference is that you don’t need to dress up for the occasion. These things aren’t magically put together with a sprinkle of fairy dust. There is plenty of work (and people) involved.
As a tournament organiser you have a unique perspective on local esports. What do you think needs to change in the South African industry in order for the general public to pay more attention?
We need to make the parents and educational roleplayers feel involved. If they think that gaming (and therefore esports) is for the basement dweller, it will never fully move outside of its niche coverage.
On the other hand, we need to be careful not to offer lofty expectations to the next generation (and their respective guardians). An international prize pool is not a realistic one locally, and ‘making a living’ from esports in South Africa is limited. Unfortunately, it’s this content that speaks to the general public. Locally, we need to drive another narrative by ensuring local success stories are covered regularly (and more widely). The successes achieved locally become goals for others. Once that cycle gets fully underway, South Africa’s esports potential will be properly realised.
If someone is looking for an opportunity in local esports, as a player, broadcaster or to get tournament organising experience, how would you suggest they get involved or gain experience?
Both myself and Nick basically jumped into things years back. Nick started video content; I was part of the Zombiegamer site takeover. We developed from there. We were not trained or experienced, but we learnt a lot from just doing things (and making mistakes). Times are a little different now I think, but actively enquiring with existing operators and sites is a good start. We don’t always have openings for people but, over the years, have built a team we can call on (and will continue to expand). Most originally just asked to help and have continued to want to help and that included riding through the tough times. That tenacity and willingness to learn is what determines whether this is the industry for you, and is something I personally respect. But, it is also important to note that there are so many roles in esports, so ensuring you focus on your own personal passion first will help you find your role in the industry.
What did you do before you turned ACGL into a business?
Nick sniped people in Gears of War and trolled people in Call of Duty. I was a grumpy old guy. Joking. I still am. Nick was studying accounting and I worked in architecture. Both those skill sets have actually proved useful in our current roles. Someone has to look after company finances, and event layouts need to be drawn up (because the magic fairies can’t just guess where everything must go…).
And finally, if you could go back to the beginning and when ACGL started - is there anything you’d do differently?
Formalise ACGL a few years earlier.