When a 10-year-old Dimitri Hadjipaschali started playing computer games his parents scoffed at the idea. Hadjipaschali was housebound, after breaking his ankle skateboarding, when he discovered his brother playing a game called Counter-Strike. This proved to be an existential moment on crutches; gaming became Hadjipaschali’s life.
“I just needed a crosshair and Counter-Strike was the game I kind of stuck with. I decided I was going to be a full-time gamer when I joined [eSports team] Bravado in 2008… I was doing it full time, trying to win competitions. Every time it came to a tournament I was trying to win. Every time I would come in second or third it was the worst day of my life for me. That’s when I knew,” he says.
Eight years later, Hadjipaschali is one of the rising stars in the next online craze in Africa. In bedrooms across the continent a generation of professionals is playing electronic sports, or eSports, for a living.
Competitive online gaming draws millions via streaming websites and where as much as $20 million can be at stake. It’s a bit like the Olympics for geeks and eSports has its own disciplines. Hadjipaschali is the captain for Bravado’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, or CS GO, team.
This is a first-person shooter game where a team of five tries to thwart bombers. In tournaments, teams play off in a best-of-three taking turns to attack and defend. The more games you win, the stronger your team becomes.
CS GO is one of the most popular games in South Africa. Globally it is the fourth highest-earning eSports game, with 5,396 professional players competing for $19.16 million in prizemoney at 1,710 tournaments, according to esportsearnings.com.
In Africa, this multi-million-dollar eStory is just beginning. The competition in South Africa is fierce. For years, gamers have battled for a few spots in international competition. That’s where the money is.
This is why Hadjipaschali is at a team boot camp in the cold hills of Meyersdal, south of Johannesburg. The team is here to train for the Electronics & Gaming Expo (EGE) in Cape Town. On the line is a shot at the international arena – an all-expenses-paid spot at the Electronic Sports World Cup and a chance to win $75,000, in Paris at the end of October.
“If we don’t take first place [in Cape Town] we don’t know when this opportunity will come again,” he says.
It’s going to be a long night for the team. On any given day, Hadjipaschali practices nine hours a day, often finishing at dawn. This weekend, with the promise of Paris looming, they will push even harder.
“A boot camp is for us to be more focused, to get more work done. It forces us to work when we are next to each other.”
It has been an historic and lucrative year for eSports in South Africa.
From Johannesburg is Barry ‘Anthrax’ Louzada, one of the old hands – which doesn’t take too long in this business. Involved in the industry since 1999, Louzada is called the South African godfather of eGaming. He slogged it out for 10 years as a competitive gamer around the world.
“Two years ago, you were at maybe a R100,000 ($7,000) total cash prize money for an event, because there was only one event a year. Now you are looking at over R2 million ($142,000) in just one year,” says Louzada.
These days Louzada is a shoutcaster, in English that means he gives live commentary on the sport.
“When I started out, it was a case of people driving around going to each other’s houses [barbequing] and LANing (network gaming). The internet wasn’t workable in this country for us to actually do any sort of online competing or playing. Now you have got hundreds and thousands of people coming to conventions,” he says.
As Louzada’s days as a competitive gamer are ending, Hadjipaschali’s are just beginning. If you saw Hadjipaschali walking down the street you wouldn’t think he was one of the top online gamers in the country. But those in the know ask for his autograph. For Hadjipaschali it’s more about the rush than the cash.
“In the beginning you can feel that pressure, that big match temperament, where you are not at the comfort of your own home behind your computer at your desk. When you are at home your hands aren’t shaking and it’s easier to play.”
Hadjipaschali’s next step on the road to fame and dollars was at a tournament in the cavernous Cape Town International Convention Centre on July 29. The team strolls in with the ease born of years perfecting their craft. They set up their computers, log in, huddle, and put on their headphones. Once the headphones are on, says Hadjipaschali, they won’t see anything but the screen.
With a crowd of almost a hundred cheering them on, it takes two hours to win their quarterfinal against a team called Energy. The players get up, shake hands and then make their way back to their hotel for some rest.
Hadjipaschali isn’t the only professional gamer in his family. His older brother Andreas, who founded Bravado, also had his shot. Now the team’s manager and coach, Andreas is even more determined to see South African gamers on the international scene.
“You only have one or two options, to make do with what qualifiers we have got [in South Africa] or we go overseas and we try qualify over there, but it gets really expensive. To go overseas, for five days with five players with accommodation, food, drinks we spent easily over R150-R170,000 (around $12,000). It’s different if you are living in Europe and there are qualifiers there all the time.”
Although the industry is booming, it’s not easy for the players of Bravado to play professionally. The team practises online every night. This is to accommodate players like 17-year-old Aran Groesbeek, who is still in school. His parents will allow him to play only once he has finished his homework. Ashton Muller, 24 years old, works part time as a manager at his father’s construction company. He dropped out of university to focus on gaming.
Robby da Loca spent a year in Sweden, the mecca of CS GO, trying to make it. But, with the high cost of living in Europe and having to work part time, he fell short and returned to South Africa. Da Loca is so captivated that when he first started playing, he would sneak onto his brother’s computer to play with his earphones off, so he could hear if his brother came home.
The final member is Ruan van Wyk, a qualified industrial engineer living in Port Elizabeth.
In Cape Town, the competition moves on to its final day. The atmosphere is intense as Bravado huddle before their semifinal. The auditorium is packed with fans. Shoutcasters blast their commentary. Behind the players is a giant screen, where the action is shown. Thousands more watch online. Bravado scores a crushing victory to get to the final.
South Africa has drawn the attention from teams around the world. One of those is Anthony Nell, manager of the South African branch of international brand Flipsid3 Tactics.
“What [Flipsid3 Tactics] are interested in is the player development in South Africa. They are looking for good players that are from parts of the world untapped by the rest of the world,” says Nell.
If you thought that gamers couldn’t earn a salary you would be wrong. Nell says even basic salaries for a player in a reserve league and lower would be around $5,000 a month, excluding prize money and endorsements.
The most lucrative eSports game is Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA 2). It attracts total prize pools of $86.7 million. At The International 4 in August, the crowdfunded prizes locked at $20.7 million and the winners, Wings Gaming, from China, walked away with $9.1 million for a week’s work.
Africa might not have as much cash to spare, but the pressure in Cape Town’s final is intense. Hadjipaschali and his team win a contested first set against their rivals, Carbon eSports, from Cape Town, who are playing at home.
Bravado suffers from nerves in the second set, throwing away an eight-point lead as Carbon force a decider. Ten minutes before the crucial final round that will make or break this team, Hadjipaschali gathers outside for a pep talk.
“Play calm and play smart,” he says.
The talk pays off and Bravado wins the final round clinically. The team leaps from their chairs shouting. The elation on their faces is priceless. It’s not the Olympics, nor the World Cup; but for these players it’s just as important. Hadjipaschali is so overwhelmed he cries.
“This is unreal. It may not seem like a lot to people, but this is what most of us do full time,” he says.
Ahead of Hadjipaschali and his team lies Paris and a possible $75,000, and that’s just the start.
How many more young men and women from Africa are going to go out on the international stages in search of millions, earning a living in a way their parents would surely fail to understand. Check your kids in the bedroom.