SAN FRANCISCO — Colwn was losing momentum. The European team tied round after round with Curse Gaming, the last surviving Americans in the tournament. But now its loss seemed imminent as Curse’s Casey “Buds” McIlwaine began to eliminate them with surgical precision. First, he took out one Colwn member from an impressive 32.5 meters away, then another at 11.7. The last fell in a tense 1-on-1 battle when Buds shot him from above.
The defending world champions of the first-person shooter ShootMania Storm had fallen. Curse would go on to lose to Fnatic’s dominant performance in the finals, but it didn’t matter. This was by far the most exciting match of the weekend.
“There’s so much pressure,” said Colwn member Alessandro “Stermy” Avallone 24 hours before his defeat. “You have many eyes on you. You have the lights. You’re playing on a big stage. You’re not playing from your room.”
Avallone, only 25 years old, is a veteran of the e-sports (and media) circuit. You could tell: He was very well-spoken and composed and knew exactly what to say. He ditched what may have been a promising career in professional soccer — “I did tryouts for quite famous teams when I was younger,” he told me — when he began entering video game competitions in the early 2000s in his home country of Italy. His list of achievements since playing full-time is nothing short of impressive.
Colwn had recently added a new person to its roster, the 17-year-old Dylan “Akm” Bignet, the younger brother to the third Colwn teammate, Michael “Winz” Bignet. While the team doesn’t have a clear leadership structure, Avallone stressed the importance of showing Akm how to compose himself while up on stage.
“For a young player like him, we try to teach him not only the way to act when you have to play, but we try to make sure that he knows how to have the right mindset when going to live tournaments because there’s [a big] difference than playing online,” said Avallone.
The trio was just one of 16 teams competing in last weekend’s ShootMania launch tournament held in conjunction with the now disbanded IGN Pro League (IPL). On the line was $100,000, but no matter where teams ended up on the ladder, each one walked away with at least some kind of monetary prize.
Here comes a new challenger
With so much money and sponsorships involved, it’s easy to forget that some of the pro players, known more by their online IDs than their real names, are still kids — they can’t even drink yet. Many walked around the comedy club-turned-e-sports-arena clutching pillows, backpacks, and duffel bags either waiting for their next match or — for those already eliminated — hanging out to watch the rest of the bracket unfold. At least one of them had his entire family (mom, sister, and sister’s boyfriend) cheering him on from the dimly lit sidelines.
Fans, journalists, IPL staff members, and other onlookers crowded toward the back, where a well-stocked open bar was serving drinks. The main stage, lit up like a Christmas tree with bright monitors and light fixtures, overlooked rows of PCs where anyone could sit down and play ShootMania for fun. They were almost always full.
Placed right near the foot of the stage, where the pros competed, were the commentators (also known as “shoutcasters”). For someone like me who was unfamiliar with the game, they did a good job of setting up the scene and describing the players’ various stratagems and motivations. And a giant projector screen displayed all the professional matches, which was clearly viewable from almost all angles in the venue.
This was the kind of experience that Danny “TestyRabbit” Gillies was looking for. Unlike Avallone, this was the first time Gillies — and his underdog team, Ride the Lightning — competed at a professional level. Ride the Lightning qualified as the sixteenth team because of its victory during a special competition held at last month’s Penny Arcade Expo in Boston. Though excited about coming to San Francisco, it ended up woefully unprepared: Ride the Lightning lost both of its matches on the first day.
“A week before PAX, we played about six to eight hours a day,” said Gillies. “But toward the end of the week, our performance kind of like went down a lot because we were just kind of tired of playing. I had a lot of work to do for these last two weeks for school, so I wasn’t able to play that much. So we didn’t play as much as we would’ve liked to.”
No one in Ride the Lightning competes full-time: Gillies is in college, and his two teammates, Jacob “Vee” Calderon and Ryan “Odin” Therrien, both have other jobs. Without sponsorships to help pay their way to tournaments across the country, Gillies seemed unsure of Ride the Lightning’s future as a professional team.
“We got lucky — if Ubisoft wasn’t paying for our trip here, we wouldn’t have come,” he said. “But lucky enough, they did. … I guess [we’ll keep competing] until we run out of money. [Laughs]”
Top image credit: Ubisoft
Building for success
ShootMania Storm seems tailor-made for e-sports. When compared to other big multiplayer shooters, it can look a little bare: It doesn’t have a leveling or progression system, and players can only use a few weapons (everyone starts with a rocket-launcher-like gun strapped to their arms but can change loudouts via special pads found on the map). Even the look of the characters depicts a far different premise than the usual FPS — combatants look less like warriors or soldiers and more like cybernetic athletes from the future.
Just like developer Nadeo’s previous effort, the racing game TrackMania, it’s banking on the community to help keep its players engaged: Anyone can build maps using the in-game map editor. As of this writing, publisher Ubisoft claims it already has over 35,000 user-created levels.
“Certainly over the last couple of years, e-sports has had its real second coming — its renaissance — and really exploded with League of Legends and StarCraft II,” said Joshua Milligan, Ubisoft’s senior director of online strategy. “But I also think a couple other things really put ShootMania in a good spot. … FPSes in general have gotten very complicated. Lots of controls, lots of maneuvers — it’s a lot of keyboard management. And the thing with a game like this — WASD [letters on the keyboard] and a mouse — you jump in, [and] anyone can sit down and start playing.”
Wearing a customized ShootMania jersey bearing his online name (Guthwulf) and a number (666), Milligan sounded hopeful about the game’s prospects with other e-sports competitions. But whether ShootMania takes off with mainstream gamers is another question entirely.
Ubisoft has never really had an FPS strong enough to compete with Electronic Arts’s Battlefield series or Activision’s Call of Duty. And I’m not sure if ShootMania is the answer: After playing a few rounds online (once I finally found an open PC), I couldn’t help but think that maybe Nadeo focused more on delivering an exciting e-sport over an exciting game.
Watching high-level play is entertaining. The pros make near-impossible shots, react with amazingly fast reflexes, and their rivalries create the kind of tension and drama that’s usually lost in online play against strangers. But the rest of us don’t train like they do. Without the context of prize money, flashy lights, and the pageantry, ShootMania felt like a solid but forgettable shooter. I couldn’t see myself playing it for more than a few days.
Perhaps I’m wrong. The crowd at Cobb’s Comedy Club seemed genuinely excited — even if it wasn’t that packed for the finals later that Sunday — as they yelled out team names, smacked thundersticks, and chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” whenever American teams played against their European counterparts. And for the pro players who’ve already poured hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into training, they obviously want to see ShootMania spread to other e-sporting events as well.
Basking in the blue, white, and purple hues of the main stage, Fnatic graciously accepted their comically large $30,000 check. But once the camera flashes subsided and the applause died down, a sort of listlessness filled the venue. The players were no doubt exhausted after two full days of competition; the audience began to thin out as the stakes vanished; and other patrons, at the behest of Ubisoft representatives on the microphone, stuck around to play a little more ShootMania for fun.
“We want to be a good part of the community,” said Milligan. “Because at the end of the day, e-sports is a culture. And you don’t want to buy your way in. You don’t want to put in something that’s disingenuous. So you have to always try and find something that’s being respectful of the culture and working with it.”
With the IPL gone, Ubisoft is looking for a new partner. E-sports doesn’t have a single, unified league. Many competitive events around the world — like Major League Gaming, the World Cyber Games, and the Electronic Sports World Cup, to name a few — could serve as potential new homes for Nadeo’s shooter. And wherever the game goes, it appears that the pros, both new and old, are eager to follow.
“I know that ShootMania is gonna grow,” said Gillies. “That’s for sure. I like that we’re kind of in it early. … I just like the community as a whole, so I just want to stick with the game.”
“I hope I can keep playing this game in the future and see many more tournaments,” said Avallone. “It’s good for the game. It’s good for the community. It’s good for e-sports.”