Whether it’s with a knockout finish at an EVO fighting game championship, a crushing play in League of Legends, or a dorm-wide Super Smash Bros. tourney, eSports are taking the world by storm. Playboy’s eSports Highlights celebrate and chronicle their rise.
The After Hours Gaming League (AHGL) is the modern day version of softball for a growing number of tech giants and video game publishers. Just as esports has risen as a “real” sport over the past few years in the eyes of hundreds of millions of millennials, amateur gamers have gotten together after work to build corporate team spirit and have some fun.
Sean “Day9” Plott, the famous StarCraft II esports commentator (or “caster,” in esports terms), is the man behind the AHGL. When he launched the league back in 2011, it had just eight StarCraft II teams. The 2015 season had over 250 teams from 100 unique companies playing StarCraft II, Hearthstone, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS-GO), Dota 2, and League of Legends over a five-month span. The winning teams across these games raised $31,000 for charity, since the ultimate goal of these players is not just to win for their company, but also to win for a good cause.
Since the companies competing, which include Google, Microsoft, Riot Games, Blizzard Entertainment, Facebook, and Amazon, are spread throughout the country, livestreaming on the popular streaming site Twitch allows anyone to take in the competition. In addition, AHGL hosted viewing parties in Austin, Texas, Orange, Calif., San Jose, Calif., and Seattle, Wash.
“A lot of people at Microsoft are very involved with games: Starcraft II, CS:GO, Dota 2, League of Legends, and many others,” said Ali Husain, captain of the winning Microsoft League of Legends team. “We received a lot of support from fellow gamers who hosted viewing parties for the League of Legends AHGL finals.”
But there is one obvious challenge when it comes to esports: explaining what the heck is going on to noobs. Stephan Baulch, captain of the winning Amazon Hearthstone AHGL team, said that educating people about esports is part of the process.
“With a traditional spectator sport, someone who has no idea what the rules are can appreciate it at a basic level,” said Baulch. “With esports it’s difficult to explain what’s so impressive about the flashing lights on screen. The main thing people from the outside notice is that participation, viewer count, and the prize pools of esports events around the world are all skyrocketing. The AHGL is a great example of the rapid growth in esports participation.”
Travis Willard, who organized Sandvine’s League of Legends and StarCraft II teams for AHGL, didn’t have to explain esports to fellow employees. His company looks at analytical data regarding Internet traffic and they’ve published reports on how large Twitch is and how quickly it’s growing, and esports is Twitch’s bread and butter.
“Almost everybody that I talk to about AHGL ‘gets it’ to some degree; very rarely do I talk to somebody who reacts with confusion or surprise,” said Willard.
While Sandvine’s corporate culture doesn’t really get behind any type of extracurricular teams, there has been one positive to come from playing esports. Within the company, Willard watched as people came out of the woodwork as gamers as AHGL was promoted over the last two seasons.
“People I never knew, or would never have guessed were gamers, have joined the team, from basically every department (marketing, engineering, customer support, even a manager showed some interest),” said Willard. “The number of people on our Skype group grew from the first year to the second, without significant turnover in the company. That’s pretty cool.”
Like any real sport, there is a commitment for these gamers. All of the games featured in AHGL, except for StarCraft II, are team-based, which means players must practice together as a team to compete against other teams.
Husain said his team spent several hours each week practicing together and each player played solo queue (individual play) to practice new characters before playing with them in team games.
“I was very passionate about League of Legends since I was in college and there was a great community of gamers at Microsoft, so it was easy to build a team,” Husain said.
Plott believes esports will take off within corporate culture moving forward. He’s seen the most interested players in AHGL are often the newest to companies, so many have not yet built up connections and influence inside of their corporate environments. Some have a difficult time getting corporate approval to participate, and have trouble locating other gamers.
“As the crowd who grew up on Nintendo and pushed esports forward as young adults gets more work experience, they’ll move higher up in corporate ranks,” said Plott. “This will align the passion for gaming with the influence and connections required to start an AHGL team, leading to significant growth in the number of participating companies.”
Plott is already planning out the sixth season of AHGL, and the League is always looking for new companies and teams to compete.
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