NEW ATHLETIC TRAINING FACILITY FOR EXCELLING IN ESPORTS
Catalyst Sports & Media has collaborated with Sports Academy to unveil the first training facility dedicated specifically to esports with the launch of Sandbox Esports Training Center. The facility features a 2,000 square foot space and can host up to forty gamers at at time. In addition to offering services to top professional gamers, it will host fantasy camps coached by the best League of Legends professionals in the world and amateur camps coached by top ranked players in each game. The initial offering at Sandbox Esports Training Center will focus on League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Overwatch and NBA 2K.
Is esports competition considered athletic competition? Many would argue that playing video games is not an athletic activity and some would claim to not care one way or the other. Happy Walters of Catalyst Sports & Media and Chad Faulkner of Sports Academy care much more about the question than most.
Each Walters and Faulkner would answer in the affirmative and tell you that not only are esports players athletes, but they deserve a training regimen crafted specifically for their needs — a strong core, perfect posture, hand-eye coordination, and strong forearms, hands, wrists and fingers. Additionally, professional gamers should be training with cardiovascular exercises, focusing on nutrition and partaking in cryotherapy, according to Walters.
“These guys aren’t going and doing a bench press. They’re doing things that are helping them in specific areas,” added Walters.
Walters, the sports and entertainment entrepreneur who represents future NBA lottery pick De’Aaron Fox, realizes that as the esports industry continues to grow, the key individuals — the gamers themselves — are not receiving the necessary training to compete at a maximum level. He reached out to his neighbor Faulkner and discussed the idea of creating a facility solely dedicated to training esports competitors.
Today, Walters and Faulkner officially announce the creation of Sandbox Esports Training Center, a 2,000 square foot space nestled within Sports Academy’s 96,000 square foot multi-sport training facility located in Thousand Oaks, California. Well over $100,000 has been invested in the Sandbox Training Center alone and there will be additional costs in adding a staff as well as maintaining the gear, according to Faulkner.
“The build out has really come from the perspective and guidance of professional gamers. We built the spec based on their requirements,” added Faulkner.
Price points for training at the Sandbox Esports Training Center vary from $500 per week for light training to much more depending on requested intensity. Popular esports team Counter Logic Gaming (CLG) has already tested out the facility and loved it so much that the team has decided to conduct its two week long training camp at Sandbox Esports Training Center, which started May 15.
“Sandbox Esports and Sports Academy understand the complete needs of esports athletes,” says Matt Nausha, Director of eSports at CLG. “Participating in this program was the first time that our athletes were able to combine physical training with cognitive esports training. Our athletes were able to receive instruction from the best trainers in the industry while using state-of-the-art technology to perfect their esports skills.”
But Sandbox Esports Training Center, which will seat up to forty players at one time, was not solely created for the professional esports player. It will additionally offer fantasy camps with coaching by the best League of Legends professionals in the world and amateur camps coached by top ranked players in each game. Confirmed pros for the fantasy camps include Darshan and Aphromoo of CLG and Adrian, formerly of Team Liquid.
Professional and amateur esports enthusiasts will also have the unique opportunity to converse with professional athletes in other sports, as Sports Academy serves as a training facility for professional athletes in the NFL, NBA, etc. All of Catalyst Sports & Media’s NBA prospects are training there, and Faulkner says there is a healthy respect between the gamers and the more traditional athletes.
“Some of the gamer guys seeing the basketball guys . . . it’s quite sensational for them. All these basketball guys game,” added Faulkner.
The initial offering at Sandbox Esports Training Center will focus on League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Overwatch and NBA 2K. Catalyst Sports & Media’s plan is to eventually expand Sandbox Esports Training Center beyond California to other locations across North America and offer online improvement programs that esports players can access when they’re not at the facility.
BLIZZARD ANNOUNCES DEVELOPMENT SYSTEM FOR OWL
On May 21st, Blizzard announced the creation of their Overwatch Contenders as the development system for their upcoming professional Overwatch League, slated to launch later in 2017. The competition will feature an open sign-up for players with the in-game rank of “Masters” and above leading into a qualification for Contenders Season One. Since no teams have yet been confirmed as franchises for the Overwatch League, Contenders will feature the current crop of endemic esports professional teams competing against amateur squads for the 8 available slots in both North America and Europe for Season One.
The first season of Overwatch Contenders is similar to other top-tier events currently taking place in North America and Europe, but the long term plans for the development league remain the central point of interest. No esport has yet provided a clear progression from amateur play on the competitive ladder to a professional team, and Blizzard’s announcement creates an avenue for players to improve their skills and teamplay through multiple levels of amateur competition. Though few details have been released on the shape of Contenders for 2018, Blizzard’s post also announces the existence of the “Open Division” to support the creation of grassroots teams that will have an as-yet undefined path to Contenders competitions in future seasons. This two level amateur system combined with the professional Overwatch League appears to be the most robust structure yet devised to incrementally advance top ladder players into professional teams, even with the limited details released by Blizzard.
While this year’s Contenders competition seem well mapped out to showcase talent for franchise owners to select from for the inaugural Overwatch League season, questions linger about the functioning of the amateur scene for 2018 and beyond. Blizzard’s announcement contains no details about Contenders team ownership in the future, and multiple possibilities exist for the functioning of this development league. Perhaps franchise owners might also own Contenders teams as farm squads in the model of traditional sports such as baseball. Contenders teams could also theoretically be owned by prospective Overwatch League teams hoping to snag a professional slot as the league expands over the coming years, incubating a roster that will be pro-ready at the time of expansion. A third option could be Blizzard itself owning all Contenders teams and hiring managers and coaches to groom talent that can then be contracted by the franchise owners in the Overwatch League on an as-needed basis. Finally, endemic esports teams lacking the necessary capital for a franchise fee might turn a profit using their industry expertise of identifying and developing talent to run Contenders teams and sell promising players’ contracts to the franchise owners.
Regardless of the specific functioning of Contenders and the Open Division in the future, no other developer-based, major esports league has begun with a focus on amateur development and open qualification for ladder players. Historically, a top-down approach of signing professional rosters has occurred with amateur competitions built at a later date and, often, haphazardly. By galvanizing a large pool of amateur Overwatch players and creating a clear path to the big paycheck, Blizzard creates a strong foundation of potential professional players as Overwatch League approaches.
Disclaimer: Montecristo is employed by the Overwatch League as a caster.
GAP IN INTERNATIONAL LoL TALENTS STILL SIZABLE
This past week marked the conclusion of one of the few marquee, international events on the League of Legends competitive calendar: the Mid-Season Invitational. Predictably, the Korean powerhouse SK Telecom T1 (SKT) took home the trophy. While the European qualifier managed to qualify for the finals, it was a fairly one-sided affair and the North American representative failed to make it out of groups. These results sparked a renewed dialogue on social media surrounding the competitiveness of Western League of Legends teams, the goals for regional leagues, and the merits of region-locking (e.g. rules that restrict the number of foreign players on a particular team in a particular league). For those so inclined, Thorin did an entire show addressing these topics, which is absolutely worth watching.
“The gap” is the phrase we use to discuss the skill-divide between Western teams and their Eastern (particularly Korean) counterparts. On occasion over the past five years, some have been fooled into thinking the gap is closing. But in reality, it’s likely gotten bigger. No Western team has made the finals of the League of Legends World Championships since Season 1 (which was in 2011). No North American team has even made the top four in that same span of time. All the while, North American teams continue to imports players in an attempt to bolster the level of play within the region. So what’s the deal? Are Americans inherently worse at League of Legends for some reason?
The short answer: it’s complicated. While esports have been around for 20+ years, they’ve only recently started to take hold in the west in a meaningful way. We’re still more than a decade behind when it comes to infrastructure, coaching options, and talent development. SKT’s legendary coach (kkOma) is a former Starcraft pro that translated his success as a player into three League of Legends World Championship titles in four years, with almost entirely new rosters each time (though the one hold-over, Faker, is widely considered the best player in the world). There simply is no analogue for this in the West. Moreover, the mentality surrounding Korean esports is much different. Korean teams are notorious for maintaining almost inhuman practice schedules, and benefit from honing their skills against the best of the best on a daily basis in both solo que and scrims. Western teams don’t have the same opportunities, which is why they take any chance they get to travel to Korean to bootcamp.
That being said, I don’t believe the gap will last forever. Esports are just starting to reach mainstream audiences in the US – from 2015 to 2016, the esports fan base in the US alone grew by 76%. That translates into more players with dreams of going pro, and more money for the ones that make it. While trying to go pro in gaming is much like trying to go pro in traditional sports – only the top .001% will even have a shot – the viability of the career path in 2017 will encourage talented players to chase their dream instead of just moving on. Eventually, we’ll unearth our own international superstars and build a pipeline of not only players, but pivotal support staff as well.