Halifax gamers are becoming all-stars in the competitive world of eSports

Luke Laing looks out over a barren landscape, sniper rifle in hand. A group of low-slung buildings stand in the middle distance. A road cuts between two ridges. Far away, the ocean shimmers.

“We’ve got bikes,” Laing says into a headset. He and his three partners hop onto the motorcycles and drive to an abandoned-looking building, where they almost immediately come under fire. “I’m getting shot from the north side,” he says calmly, ditching his bike for a muscle car called a Mirado. He races to a garage, exits the vehicle, and someone immediately shoots him dead.

Laing leans back in his chair. He’s not really in the desert. He’s sitting in front of a computer on the ground floor of his parents’ home, overlooking the waters near the head of St. Margaret’s Bay.
Laing is one of the world’s elite eSports competitors. He plays a battle royale game called PUBG (it stands for Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds) and today he’s scrimmaging with his team, Tempo Storm, practicing against opponents they will be facing in an upcoming tournament in Sweden.

eSports have become big business over the last decade, with the combination of a generation of people raised on games, the spread of high-speed Internet, and the arrival of platforms dedicated to streaming gaming sessions. In a 2018 report, the World Economic Forum predicted revenue from eSports will reach $1 billion US globally by 2020. The International Olympic Committee has explored the idea of adding eSports to the Games, and they will be a medal event at the 2022 Asian Games, in China.

PUBG is not the most popular eSports game in the world, but it is usually ranked in the top 10. Laing, 24 first started playing in 2017, when the game was released. He had just wrapped up exams for the final year of his chemical engineering degree at Dalhousie, and he was taken with the game right away.

Teams, or squads, win games by eliminating all their opponents. Winning consistently requires strategy. “No two games are going to be the same in PUBG,” Laing says. “It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure… Every game you play, something that’s never happened before is going to happen.”

Laing and his teammates met playing in online tournaments, and they caught the eye of the Tempo Storm organization, which has teams competing in several eSports leagues. “We’d been playing together as an unsigned team, and we were winning a lot of those early online leagues,” he recalls. “We were probably the top team in North America at the time, and they just approached us. They were looking to sign a team and they thought we were the best option.”

They have gone on to win the National PUBG League, and have competed in the U.S., the U.K., Sweden and Korea. Last summer, Laing played for Team Canada in the inaugural PUBG Nations Cup tournament in Korea. The Canadians came third, taking home $50,000 US.

As for Tempo Storm, “I think as a team we’re at half a million [in prize money] this year,” Laing says. That’s on top of his base salary, which he won’t disclose, but says is enough to live on comfortably, especially since the team can live rent-free in a house leased for them in Redondo Beach, California.

Laing’s role is in-game leader. The strategy guy. He decides what part of the territory the team will start in for each game, and then decide on their approach. “I’ll essentially call the shots,” he explains. “Zanpah and Sharky [two teammates] are the main fragging power on the team. They’ll be the ones who are getting most of the kills, leading most of the fights and putting out a lot of the damage. From the experience of playing with each other for a while, we know how we’re going to be able to win fights and what we can do. It’s fluid. You see what’s happening in front of you and you react to it.”

The next game starts. Laing and his teammates drop out of a plane. He enters a building, searching for weapons and crates to loot, his fingers racing across the keyboard. A few minutes later, he stands on a terracotta roof and starts firing. “I hit him four times. No fun for him, baby!” Laing says to his teammates.

Watching him play, it becomes clear how much of the game involves anticipating opponents’ movements and then reacting quickly when faced with enemies. A couple of vehicles drive by and Laing takes pot shots at them. “See if you can get knocks on these guys pushing to the shack,” he says. After dropping some ammo for a teammate, he says, “They’re going to have to regroup. Let’s get these kills.” The Tempo Storm members fire, and just like that, three of their enemies are dead.

Laing is the product of a fast-growing eSports scene that welcomes people around the world. Like any team, eSports squads need coaches. During matches, the coach can have a bird’s-eye view of the action but can’t communicate with the team. But in addition to strategy, coaches play a psychological role too.

Ari Solomon, 22, works in customer service for Scotiabank, but has also coached League of Legends teams on three different continents. (Solomon’s father is a cousin of Phil Moscovitch, the reporter who wrote this story.)

He first became involved in eSports through Frag for Cancer, an annual fundraising tournament held at Dalhousie. “I really liked League of Legends, but I didn’t want to play in the tournament, because I’d get absolutely demolished, so I asked if they needed someone to cast it,” Solomon says. “Eventually, I got a chance to coach a local team. They basically said, ‘You cast the game, so you must know what you’re talking about. Can you help us?’”

He has gone on to coach in Mexico, where he spent six months in 2017, and in Vietnam, working with a League of Legends farm team for a local eSports company.

Solomon says a lot of coaching and player development involves preparing players to deal with the highs and lows of competition, something he learned to handle during his years of playing competitive hockey.

“Three or four years ago, people discredited eSports by saying, ‘you’re just playing a game.’ But a lot of it is the mental tax on players,” Solomon says. “League of Legends is very team-heavy. Even if you have five of the best players in the world, you’re not going to win if you’re not a team.”

Opportunities to play eSports locally are on the rise. Cole Ferguson, a master’s student in engineering at Dalhousie, organizes an annual Super Smash Bros tournament (the 2019 edition drew 200 players) as well as weekly Super Smash Bros Ultimate tournaments that he says draw 40–60 people. Most of the people who turn up are 18 to 30, and about 90% are men. The once dormant Dalhousie Gaming and eSports Society has been resurrected as well. Ferguson is a vice-president.

Ferguson says he sees eSports as “no different than real sports, in the sense that it’s an exciting competition, but instead of physically running or kicking a ball everything you do is through your controller or your keyboard or your mouse.” He has been talking to the university’s athletics and recreation department about adding eSports as intramurals and club teams, and says they are receptive.

Ferguson says, “It’s not something that is going to go away. I think in the next five years it’s going to be really, really, really big. And I think in the next decade kids will be going to school on full-ride scholarships to play eSports. Whoever gets involved earliest is going to have the best teams and is going to be the most successful.”

After he’s done scrimmaging, Laing heads down to the water, and sits overlooking the bay with his mother. Soon, he’ll be heading back to California to prep for another season of the National PUBG League.

“We have about a nine-hour practice day. we wake up at 10:00, warm up for two hours and then we have our scrim block, which is six games,” he says. “That’ll take about four hours, and then we have an hour break and then three more hours just training, practising, playing public games. We’re on a set schedule. I think we’re one of the teams who are more strict about that.”

Although he occasionally feels a bit burnt out, Laing says he has no plans to stop playing. “I think I could play as long as I wanted to. Obviously, you’re going to hit a point where you’re not good enough anymore, or your dedication or skill are waning, but I feel like I could play for years to come.”

SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE

BATTLE ROYALE: A style of game in which individuals or teams fight against each other with the goal of eliminating opponents and being the last to survive. The playing area usually shrinks as the game goes on, forcing confrontations among those who have not been killed. Fortnite, PUBG, and Apex Legends are among the world’s most popular Battle Royale games.

STREAMING: Broadcasting gaming sessions online. Audiences watch online as streamers play games and provide entertaining commentary. The most popular streamers play to audiences in the hundreds of thousands. Twitch (owned by Amazon) is a popular streaming platform.

CASTING: Offering play-by-play or analysis on an eSports match or tournament.

Editor’s Note: After Halifax Magazine published this story, the National PUBG League folded, with the company announcing a new set of tournaments called PUBG Global Series to take its place. As a  result, Tempo Storm cut ties with Luke Laing and the rest of their PUBG team: “We are sad to announce that we are parting ways with our PUBG team… [the team] established a legacy in 2019 that will carry on for the duration of North American PUBG esports.”

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