Video game players competing at the highest levels of “Street Fighter V” and “Rocket League” battled for a share of a $500,000 prize pool at the all-virtual Intel World Open. In 2019, Intel presented its event to the media, teasing that at the Tokyo Olympics, esports would be positioned alongside traditional sports, and similarly feature competitors at the highest level.
The event was originally planned to be held in person at Zepp Divercity in Tokyo, adjacent to the Aomi Urban Sports Park Olympic venue, and feature top-tier professional and amateur gamers, a showcase for esports as the International Olympic Committee continues to mull adding competitive video gaming to future Games. The coronavirus pandemic upended those plans, delaying the Olympics and the World Open to 2021 and then forcing the esports event online.
Since at least 2017, there have been discussions about esports becoming part of the Olympics, even as sports aimed at younger audiences joined the Games, including skateboarding and surfing in Tokyo. This year, those conversations led to esports gaining a more significant presence in professional competition. In April, the IOC announced it would hold virtual auto racing, baseball, cycling, rowing and sailing competitions, ahead of the Summer Games. However, those competitions omitted the most popular game titles in esports, such as “League of Legends” and “Dota 2,” and focused instead on games that replicated traditional sports with limited player bases.
The IOC has balked at considering games it considers to center on violence, even as esports leagues built around shooting games such as “Valorant” and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” tend to attract young people, growing the audience the IOC seeks to attract to the Olympics. Intel’s exhibition revolved around the fighting game “Street Fighter V” and a car-soccer game, “Rocket League.” Though the competitions were never officially sanctioned Olympic events, Intel worked with the IOC to get the show official billing on the Olympics’ website.
While many esports tournaments focus attention on a single video game title, Intel chose to include two.
“Having multiple titles just increases the level of excitement and the level of community engagement we could get, because the community for ‘Street Fighter’ is just a very different community than the one for ‘Rocket League,’” said Marcus Kennedy, general manager of gaming and esports at Intel during an interview earlier this month. “Having a one [player] versus one [player] title, and having a team title gave us a good breadth that tied to the message of the overall Olympics. Anybody can participate.”
Kennedy said Intel plans on holding future World Opens alongside the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 and the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. Depending on the pandemic, those could be in-person or virtual.
Intel, no stranger to hosting esports competitions, partnered with esports organizer ESL for the tournament’s logistics. The Olympics’ site linked to ESL’s Twitch stream, which saw a peak of nearly 300,000 views on a “Rocket League” broadcast last week.
The Street Fighter V: Champion Edition Tournament held its finals between July 16 and 21, while Rocket League’s finals were held July 11 to 14.
Because of issues of Internet latency, which can have a massive impact on a gaming competition where timing is essential, it wasn’t possible to have one single world champion, as players operating on different servers would gain an advantage or be disadvantaged based on their variable Internet speed. The multiple regional champions also meant that the $500,000 prize pool, $250,000 per video game title, was divvied up even further. “Street Fighter” winners took home $7,500, while last-place players got $1,000. Winning teams of three in “Rocket League” won $22,000 total.
Adel Anouche, 23, playing from his home city of Abu Dhabi won $7,500 in “Street Fighter” at the United Arab Emirates regional competition finals on Wednesday. The Internet signal when he played hovered around one to two bars, he said. Ideally, it should’ve been five bars. As for how he won with the poor signal, Anouche said it might’ve been luck.
“The conditions weren’t the best, and I haven’t been doing well lately in the online environment, so it feels good to regain the confidence back by winning this event,” he said. “Plus, a lot of money was on the line.”
The Internet troubles that Anouche experienced while competing were shared by other players in the region, as those in West Africa competed against players in the United Arab Emirates.
“We’re trying to make a compromise of how big can we go before the player experience is going to suffer too much,” said Bastian Veiser, director of partner management at ESL. “This is definitely not the original plan, but I think the end result was really, really good, because we didn’t have to cancel; we were able to actually run the competition.”
For all the money that Intel has poured into the prize pool and making the competition happen, it’s unclear how much it will see in return.
Kennedy said it’s less about making the money and more about demonstrating to the gaming community that Intel is a leader in the space.
“Esports as a market is a very hard one to make money in,” Kennedy said. “Don’t do it because you want to make money directly from the esports, but you might want to engage with the community, and so showing up in an authentic way with this community really matters. Gamers sniff out if you’re lying to them, or they sniff out if you’re not coming true with who you are.”
Anouche, who described himself as a veteran esports competitor, said he has played all the Street Fighter titles since childhood. In 2013, he started playing amateur competitions; in 2017, he pivoted to professional play, signing with the esports organization NASR Esports. He hasn’t decided what to do with his winnings. For now, they’ll be going to his savings.
“Esports definitely has the potential to be in the Olympics, so many people are invested in esports now, compared to a few years ago,” Anouche said. “Plus, it requires a lot of mental strength, endurance and discipline to perform at such a high level consistently, no matter which game you play.”