“This is their Mecca. This is where they can go to meet like-minded people who understand.”
So says Ben Black, owner of Focus Fire, a company that puts on around ten video game tournaments every year, including the Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge in Des Moines, Iowa. 48 teams flocked in from 15 states by car and by plane to try their hand at cash prizes – for some, thousands of dollars.
Players showed up to get their game on at “Halo: Reach”, “Gears of War 3”, and the industry stalwart “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3”. Participants ranged from first-time tournament attendees to teams headed to Columbus, Ohio next weekend for the next big tournament to Major League Gaming (MLG) legends. Many of these teams expected great things – few succeeded.
Coco Bros. was one such new-comer. Their first tournament, members Nick, Shaun, Brandon and Frank sought to see how they rank and get a feel for the atmosphere, while at the same time, as they put it, not be “those guys” who show up and have no idea what they’re doing.
The four gentlemen went to high school together near Jackson Junction, Iowa. Call of Duty players since “World at War”, they also have to focus on bigger things. Shaun works part time at the KWAY radio station studios while attending Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa and Brandon attends the University of Northern Iowa.
Similar fates have befallen their teammates, leaving them time to practice only after nine o’clock by scrimmaging other teams from the Iowa League clan online – many of whom were at the tournament.
The team went on to win their first round before dropping two straight and heading home on Saturday.
GZ Relapse is a team from Mason City, Iowa with big hopes. They practice every other weekend at their sponsor Gamer Zone, a cyber café near their home. Individual members Luke Haujy, Alex Meyer, Dylan Ross and James Perez had all participated in smaller tournaments where they met each other and then formed the team that showed up for the Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge.
They are more experienced that Coco Bros., as Haujy has been playing Call of Duty since the second installment and other teammates expressed similar sentiments. The team would lose to State of Mind in the first round, but take four in the loser’s bracket before dropping yet another match to State of Mind.
Team Gaming Generations, Team GG, would play well into Sunday after predicting a top 10 or 5 finish. The team drove eight hours from Wisconsin to make the tournament. The team varied in age quite a bit – youngest member Jordan Holzem is 15 in comparison to oldest member Mitch Meyers, 20.
The team met through mutual friends having previously been on separate teams in smaller local tournaments. The team put lots of practice time in focusing on communication, developing strategies and learning maps.
While Meyers has made money playing in tournaments before, the team would go home empty-handed on Sunday.
Family Elite is more than a simple team – they’re a group with over 25 members across the country celebrating a year and a half of existence and preparing for a new chapter in the United Kingdom. The team shows up to many tournaments, sending the closest residing members to represent. Six members were in attendance for the Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge – two as coaches, including engaged couple Ashley Harris and John Kite and brothers Dorian and Damien Minter.
The Minters hail from Des Moines, while Ashley and her fiancée are from Luana, Iowa. Teammate Will Gray drove from Boscobel, Wisconsin. The team came together “hoping to win it all”, said Dorian Minter.
Two months of practice went into their preparation and a lot of time was spent at the tournament observing other teams playing to maximize on their mistakes in future rounds. After that bold prediction, the team dropped their first two matches.
Unlike most teams in attendance, FamElite’s members aren’t entirely “COD heads”. Kite enjoys playing “The Show” series, an annual baseball title from Sony, while the Minters are anticipating “Assassin’s Creed 3” later this year.
With such a wide range in caliber of players, it can be tough for amateurs to get a leg up. The winning teams were dominated by industry veterans like “Nadeshot” and “Big Tyme”. Nadeshot is a member of Team OpTic, a legend in the industry that won $400,000 in the Call of Duty XP Million Dollar tournament held in Los Angeles last year. Big Tyme is a former member of OpTic who signed up as a fourth to help them out in Iowa. The team would lose to Faze, another team that is no stranger to winning these sorts of tournaments, twice – once leading up to the finals and again in the finals themselves.
That final contest ended in an interesting series of events. A monitor on the main stage lacked a stand and had fallen three times over the course of the day. During the first match between OpTic and Faze, Capture the Flag, the monitor dropped once more – this time dragging others with it. An audience member quickly snagged the monitor, but not before Faze had dropped their controllers and held onto their own screens. They quickly got back in the game, shouting at the referee to just keep going.
The match ended with Faze on the losing side, but they argued fiercely for a rematch considering the circumstances. Nadeshot quickly jumped to his feet to argue both that the call to start over should have been made beforehand and that the rules explicitly state:
If a game/series is completed, it may be considered final. This rule includes if a setting for a game is incorrect and the losing team waits until after the game is complete to dispute the result. A team may bring the dispute to the Bracket Manager if they disagree with the original Staff Member’s Decision.
|Team OpTic members and MLG veterans
BigTyme (left) and Nadeshot (right)
weren’t convinced on the legitimacy of
the last-minute complaints.
At the same time, this was is in contradiction with rule 22, stating “In the event of equipment failure (TV/360 losing power, etc.), the game will be restarted unless a team has mathematically won the game based on time remaining,” with no mention of whether or not a team must express that sentiment before the match is over, as most cases of equipment failure prevent the match from being played to completion. Nadeshot also cited that in their previous match, a lag issue had afflicted Faze, but they played through that and went on to win that match with no contest to the discrepancy.
During all of this, the room eventually fell silent as it was revealed that a member of Team OpTic had received a phone call regarding the death of an acquaintance.
All told, play stopped for over 20 minutes.
In the end, the match was replayed. A disgruntled Team OpTic would drop that one and the succeeding three as Faze secured the Call of Duty Champion title at the Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge.
|Team illigan and Jet Set Studio President Ben McDougal
The other matches were comparatively low-intensity, but you wouldn’t know it from the pictures. The “Gears of War” final featured NSANEZ versus illigan. illigan would drop two straight, but come back to tie it in two astounding rounds of execution. They would tie it again at 3-3 before illigan wrapped it up in another execution match.
After each victory, illigan member Nick Kolcheff (nickmercs), Detroit, would leap to his feet and scream at the other team. At one point he raced down into the crowd and high-fived everyone within his reach, whether he knew them or not. He said that his intensity
, while natural, is in some ways a show.
|Kolcheff, gamertag “nickmercs”, gets
pumped up during the Gears of War
“My teammates feed off of that. When someone does amazing work, I’m pumped the f*** up, and I want them to be pumped the f*** up!”
On that note, despite in many ways stealing the show, he raved about his teammates. He began with Guy Spencer, saying “He will never give up” and moving onto Jakob Patterson, who he described as a lion.
“He doesn’t have his mane yet, but he’ll fight you!” Kolcheff said.
The team had never played together before this tournament. While Kolcheff and Patterson are both from Detroit, Spencer is from Gary, Indiana and fourth man Jesse Rodriguez is from Chicago. They are all members of their own teams and have met through various tournaments. Each individual has experienced success at the Major League level in both team-based tournaments and free-for-all with over 10 national championship victories between them. Regardless of never playing together, the members said they knew from the start they would win it all.
On the “Halo: Reach” side, team Repeat came in looking to do just that – repeat. The team won it all last year and came out on top once again this year. Another team that got tossed together, the team also expected to win coming into the tournament.
|Team Repeat took home the “Halo: Reach” championship
“They were already talking about second place. We were in their heads,” said Dickey MicWilliams of Omaha.
“Five months ago, I was already planning on a paycheck today,” added Kyle Lieving of Iowa City.
The team met through previous tournaments and after coaching each other, keeping in touch via Xbox Live. Like illigan, they had all experienced previous success, but expressed that playing the way they do does come with sacrifices.
“It’s hard to get in and out of the weight room sometimes,” said McWilliams, while Aaron Boczkiewicz from Mukwonago, Wisconsin, added that he has to make time for friends and family.
With the money they won at the Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge, the team is headed to Columbus, Ohio for the Pro Circuit Winter Championships through Major League Gaming where they expect tougher competition.
The Folks Who Make It Possible
Behind any good competition, there are a slew of people making it possible. The Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge starts with Ben McDougal, owner of Jet Set Studio, a company that does video game event management across the country. The company is based in Des Moines, but has affiliates all over the United States.
McDougal graduated from Loras College in Dubuque with a degree in Computer Science looking to get into video game development. After little luck in California, he came back to Iowa to get a hand in web development.
An entrepreneur at heart, McDougal began putting on a three-on-three soccer tournament every year, stemming from a long-nurtured love of the sport. In 2007, when he set up Jet Set Studio, he sold off the soccer deal.
“I’ve preferred this instead of working at a big company at the lowest position,” McDougal says of his drive to be his own boss.
Jet Set Studio established Gathering of Gamers at the same time, a social network for gamers making use of McDougal’s web development skills. The site is has over 7,000 users with a long-term goal of 10,000.
“Now those aren’t Facebook and Twitter numbers, but social media is important to competitive gaming,” he said, emphasizing on Twitter.
While this is the third annual Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge for the company, their Des Moines events started before that when they started putting on Guitar Hero competitions at the IMAX in the Science Center.
“From there we got more events and now I get contacted from all around the country,” McDougal said. “There’s a magnetism to video games. Corporate America liked Guitar Hero, too.”
McDougal does events large and small – from corporate events for people like Microsoft to county fairs. His next adventure is prepping for the Ultimate Gaming Challenge Niagara in Niagara, Canada, his first international event, where Halo will be replaced with EA’s NHL games. The winning team from the NHL tournament will take on real NHL players.
Of course, tournaments like these take equipment and networking as well, which is where Ben Black comes in. Focus Fire supplies events like the Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge across the country.
|Focus Fire owner Ben Black
Black is the owner of the Lacrosse, Wisconsin-based company and puts a lot of time into setting up profiles, sponsors and marketing for tournament organizers like McDougal. This means manipulating hex code and making sure every player is maxed out. This was their second year helping out at the Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge.
The outlook was not always that of a successful small-business owner for Black. All of the people involved with tournaments like these are gamers at heart, and Black is no exception. A PC gamer, Black has had to swear off Blizzard games after a battle with popular massively-multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft, more commonly known as WoW.
On parole several years ago, Black found himself with a lot of free time, and so he began the quest for the Grand Marshal achievement in the WoW universe – a quest that had him playing 16 hours a day, seven days a week for four months. Before that, he’d been averaging 12 hours a day, six days a week.
The end of his parole and his acquisition of Grand Marshall coincided, and he went out to the bars to celebrate. There he met Mari, his former girlfriend and now wife with little patience for video games.
“She thought I was absolutely f***ing bananas,” Black said.
|Retro games will be front-and-center
at the Mall of America’s 20th
With that, he dropped World of Warcraft and sold off his profile for over $2,000. Today, he’s planning for a massive event at the Mall of America in July to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The tournament will feature a two-story screen and a remembrance of the games of 20 years ago with plans to feature Sonic the Hedgehog and Namco, the creator of Pac-Man, already on board.
And finally, there’s the talent on screen. Twitch.tv featured a large portion of the event on their website, and to keep that interesting, they’ve got commentators like Nick Overton.
“I started commentating on YouTube videos of my own stuff for practice and for fun,” Overton said. “People started asking me to analyze their tape.”
Overton went on to work for Twitch.tv’s parent company JustinTV. That job landed him trips to E3 and PAX East where he interviewed representatives from Dell, Alienware and League of Legends among others. But it’s not all fun and games. Overton consistently works to make his broadcasts better.
“Last night I went and watched the broadcast from yesterday,” Overton said. “I noticed that we focused a lot on players we expected to do well and ended up missing a lot of other stuff.”
|Twitch.tv commentators Alex Mendez
(left) and Nick Overton (right)
Overton said that things like this are a common battle that commentators like him have to fight. At most MLG events, he has a view of all eight screens in front of him, while here, he and co-commentator Alex Mendez are only seeing one screen unless they look up to the main stage.
While that familiarity can be a struggle for the broadcasts, it also allows him to focus on things that someone without a stake in the matter might not pick up on – things like grudge-matches between big rivals.
To be where he is, Overton stresses you have to be good at the games. At one point, Overton was first in the world for Black Ops based on points and maintains a kill-death ratio of 3.2. He also spends time playing Halo, focusing on first-person shooters.
The Games and the Future
One might think “Why the narrow focus of games?” The Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge focuses on shooters, while many other tournaments feature racing and fighting games.
“The games depend on the market,” said Black. “Des Moines is an established shooter market, whereas in Minnesota we see many more fighting games.”
Black says it can be hard to gauge those sorts of things, prompting him to work closely with tournament organizers.
“We’d love to open this up,” McDougal said. “We could present a couple great divisions where people ask for more. We’re really open-minded, but we want to avoid dilution. We don’t want to have something here, but push it in a corner and not give it the respect it deserves.”
Overton talked about difficulties in introducing something like StarCraft, a title with a mostly professional competitive following.
“It would be hard to attract pro players to a tournament like this,” Overton said. “You would have to go online, which isn’t a bad thing, but people here aren’t familiar enough with how to make that work.”
The teams expressed mixed feelings about the one-sidedness. Team GG talked about the variety at other tournaments they go to, but said that it’s more interesting to watch when everyone is playing the same thing. Other teams expressed interest in racing games or variety in general, while Kite of FamElite suggested FIFA.
“That would bring bigger crowds,” he mused.
Could we see these in the future for the Des Moines tournament? McDougal doesn’t rule it out, but he has other plans first.
“It seems like we could do this twice a year,” he said. “But the amount of work that goes into it, and you also have to get financial support.”
What about the industry as a whole? Overton has made the rounds, and says he expects it only to get bigger.
“3 years ago, there were like 400 million players and fans of eSports in the world, which is more than many other sports combined,” Overton said. “It’s just hard to bring people into it.”
He sees streaming as a way to overcome this difficulty. Citing Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, he sees the internet opening the sport wide open.
Walking Away – Musings
I’ve always rolled my eyes at the Call of Duty crowd – the guys who dedicate their lives to the game without exploring the other games out there. I’ve struggled with the term gamer and what that means. This tournament has opened my eyes in some ways. While I still hold that there are better shooters out there, I’ve come to appreciate the dedication they have.
|Good sportsmanship prevailed all weekend.
For me, video games are a medium and an art. For these guys, they are a sport. For me, my console is a gateway to another world. Their Xbox is not a console – it’s a piece of equipment. It’s the ball or a set of pads they utilize to compete. They don’t care about the plot – they want to beat the other guy. Sporting my Mass Effect t-shirt on Sunday, I was hard-pressed to find someone with the same appreciation for the series I had.
It’s like comparing someone who reads books to someone who plays football. It’s not the same thing. “Gamer” is too broad a term – we’re different breeds within the community.
“These guys eat, sleep and breathe it,” said Black when asked if the ‘COD-heads’ were gamers. “It’s a testament to their dedication. They’re as hardcore as I ever was.”
And so while I’ll still argue Call of Duty is the inferior game, even shooter, of the day, I have grown a new love for live Gears of War, and will refrain from calling out competitive gamers. I have friends who are academics and enjoy citing sports as “distractions for the proletariat masses”, and I hate to be that guy, because I also love a good game of football. And so to quell the elitist gamer in me, I say congratulations to the winning teams at the Iowa Pro Gaming Challenge and wish them much success in the future.