Interview: We talk to Jay Smith about GAME’s grass roots tournaments

At Insomnia last week, we sent Mike Stubbs to chat to GAME’s Belong and esports platform manager Jay Smith about the company’s efforts to get new players engaged with esports using grassroots tournaments and the retailer’s chain of venues. How did GAME get involved with esports, and what’s next?

Mike Stubbs: GAME and Multiplay are doing this thing with core gamers, getting grassroots teams to go to Belong stores. How did that first come about?

Jay Smith: So we planned to introduce a new tournament series underneath the UK Masters, which is a multi-tournament that’s not online. We’ve been planning this for quite a long time, and obviously, with the arenas being released we also wanted to try and get them engaged and ready to utilise them, and give them good content for the arenas.

At the same time, we’ve always had publishers coming to us with problems struggling to get people to really engage at grassroots level, and asking how they can reach that grassroots audience. Since there are lots of people who go to Game, who buy these games, but do not enter tournaments. We did a survey, and customers said that they wanted to enter stuff but didn’t know how, so we kind of added everything together.

Stubbs: How popular was it in its early stages? How many people did you get playing?

Smith: So in total we have 11 teams enter this season. But it was a delayed launch, so we were expecting 10-20. We got slightly on the lower end of that, but I think we could have done a better job of running together stuff. It was a test season. This was never designed to be a hard launch.

We didn’t really publicise it too much. We wanted to see who would find it on Twitter. We were kind of happy to go with those teams. Next year, we’re looking to roll out multiple titles and more arenas as well.

Stubbs: What’s the makeup of players entering the tournaments? Is it people that wouldn’t normally go to the big events or is it pros looking to pick up an extra win?

Smith: It’s quite a big mixture. In some of the bigger cities such as Manchester we saw, in fact the Manchester teams, some of the players already had tickets to CWR, for example. Whereas down in Portsmouth, for example, and up in Hull, Gateshead – some of the players didn’t even own the game. Some of the players owned the game and just played at home. Some players have played online, but for the most part I would say that they haven’t even entered a tournament before. Probably ten percent I would say have been to events, twenty percent have played online in tournaments, and the rest are total amateurs basically.

Stubbs: So is the aim for you guys to get those types of amateurs in and get them playing?

Smith: Basically (we aim) to give them tournament experience that’s fun, give them a core reward at the end. The Bristol guys that came down here, they’ve thoroughly enjoyed the event. It’s the first event like this they’ve ever been to at this kind of scale. I fully expect that they’d be entering in more stuff in the future. They’ve all partially thanked me and stuff for running it. Feedback’s been amazing from them, amazing for Activision. Generally, it’s gone down very well everywhere.

Stubbs: Grassroots play, especially in the UK, is not something that there’s a lot of support for, there aren’t that many smaller tournaments that you can earn. Do you think with you guys doing this there’s going to be something more companies go: “We could do this!” and do you think you’re going to lead the way?

Smith: Possibly. I think we have an advantage that we have these arenas that we can run them at. We are opening them up at quite a big rate as well. We’re expecting to open at least another 20 or so by the end of the summer this year. When we get to the point where we have 30 arenas and we’re running multiple titles and stuff, hopefully we’ll kind of get a reputation for it and just bring those new players in. Get them on board, get them entering tournaments, bring them to events like Insomnia, and possibly even to European events with other bigger prizes, and 3 UK Masters as well.

Stubbs: Is focusing on this grassroots stuff profitable? Is it something you’re looking to make money from or is it more of a loss leader?

Smith: It is profitable. I think long-term it could make us good money. We want to not charge players too much. We’re always, always looking to make sure that we give players a fair deal. We’re always looking at what value do they get out of it. How much would it cost for them to go to a normal LAN party, for example? Comparing that with the number of hours they get in the arena, and the merchandise or the free stuff they get. We’re working on stuff I can’t really talk about. But, effectively to make sure people get good value out of really just entering. Even if they don’t win, it qualifies for the different regions.

Stubbs: How do you see the grassroots scene in five years?

Smith: Personally, I really like the idea of starting to localise eSports. For a long time, it’s been like big hub events. If you live out in Wales, you’ve got to travel a very long way just to compete. I think getting these small grassroots tournaments, and building these communities. They already exist in the games that aren’t really viable online, such as the Fighting Game community. Building that for all the different genres of games, from PC games and console games, throughout everything. Even games that you wouldn’t typically consider eSports, like Mario Kart.
At the end of the day, anything can be a competitive eSport, just at different levels. It’s about catering to all those audiences, and really pushing it into the different regions of the country. Making sure it’s accessible for everyone.

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