Redeye: Rule, Britannia! — UK esports finally on the rise

The United Kingdom esports scene was a mess two years ago. In shambles. Mocked and ridiculed in all quarters. Rarely a player or team competing on the world stage, let alone winning anything. There were no professional leagues to speak on in the UK, no top-tier organizers bringing money to UK esports, no studios to broadcast from, no TV channels in the UK dedicated to esports and rarely anything on the mainstream channels. No stadiums being filled with esports fans and little interest from sponsors, government or local authorities.

It wouldn’t take a genius to work out esports in the UK was in a dark place.

Perhaps, though, look beyond some of this and the green shoots of recovery were already in place. Multiplay have, for many years, in their own way supported esports, at least with their Insomnia LAN parties, and this was only getting bigger. Likewise, ESL UK had dabbled with the ESL Pro Series from time to time in the UK. Epic Lan had also put up some solid tournaments for a variety of games and Gfinity was just starting to weigh in. We’d also seen a successfully hosted WCS UK finals at BAFTA and could at least show the world our players, event management teams and tournaments could be great if only we were given more chances.

We also had Dignitas and Fnatic, two top-tier world class organizations not only competing in the best and biggest tournaments in the world, but winning them. Admittedly, both were based in the UK — not necessarily winning with UK players — but it was something.

There had been several unsuccessful flirtations with esports from the government, mainly through third parties, in case (inevitably perhaps) they got caught in a shit storm over video gaming when it all went wrong. And as for replicating the success of other countries with the use of stadiums, it appeared we were a long way off.

But then something changed. Instead of being looked at like an island of high cost, low reward and no fans, the organizers, sponsors and government slowly started to embrace the fact that here sat a little diamond of the esports world. A rough diamond, admittedly, but a diamond nonetheless.

We had the infrastructure, talent and some of the hardest working people in esports. Combine that with a bit of sterling devaluation and we might be close to being affordable, too (which is one of the main complaints I used to hear about bringing anything esports related to the UK).

Gfinity took a brave risk in taking up residence for a few days in the Olympic Copper Box arena in late 2014, gambling that we had enough esports fans to fill an arena in the UK. DreamHack followed a year later in the same venue and in between we were graced with Riot Games putting on League of Legends at Wembley. Since then, ECS Season 1 also ran at Wembley Arena, Gfinity built its own esports arena in the middle of London, and FaceIt not only moved to London entirely but also setup dedicated studios.

In the last year we’ve also seen ESL UK grow spectacularly with their own studio and arena in Leicester alongside supporting many UK only pro leagues (it hosted the Season 3 LAN finals of ESL Pro League in London). Then there is Ginx.TV, starting up a full time esports TV channel working with ITV and Sky and their own dedicated central London studio. More recently, Multiplay have upped their game with their own superb studio and increased focus on esports tournaments and leagues, much of which cater to the UK scene.

With more recent announcements from all of these organizations, you’d have to say 2017 looks potentially very exciting for UK esports.

Even the government is finally getting serious about esports with the announcement of the British Esports Association. It might be in its first moments and will probably make some mistakes, but finally having the attention of the government about our industry is a good thing. We just need to keep them honest.

Then there are football clubs. Already we have Manchester City and West Ham United dipping their toe in the water with FIFA. It’s a good start and one that promises to only grow throughout 2017 with more clubs entering esports — and not just with FIFA17 either. Dignitas might have been sold to the 76ers but is still mainly run from the UK and has always supported UK players in a wide variety of games. And all the time Michael O’Dell is involved, that isn’t likely to change. Fnatic too is making big improvements with plans for permanent facilities in London and again is a team that has historically supported UK talent.

We’ve got champions in Heroes of the Storm, Halo and Call of Duty to celebrate with some exciting up-and-coming talent starting to shine in Overwatch, Counter Strike, League of Legends and Dota 2.

There is still plenty to do for UK esports, but two years later, we’ve come a long way. Imagine where we will be in two more years with the same kind of progress.

All in all, there might be a lot of work to do, but having spent time in other countries and listening to their issues, the UK actually has a lot to be happy and proud of as a scene, and with so many interested parties and hungry organizations pitted against other, I can only imagine they will all spur each other on to greater things.

We’ll make our share of mistakes going forward, it’s true. But never underestimate what a small but passionate set of talented people can achieve with hard work.

The United Kingdom is perfectly placed strategically, geographically and from a language standpoint in the world of esports. It’s about time we took advantage of it.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games