The sound of gunfire echoes across the room, followed by an approving roar from the crowd. A five-man team called "Ninjas in Pyjamas" has taken the lead and fans can hardly contain their excitement. Another counter-terrorist suddenly drops to the floor and the noise from the crowd rises again, as two suit-clad presenters babble feverishly into headsets about the tactics at play. There's no time for celebration though. The players remain fixated on their PC monitors, fingers dancing across keyboards and mice as they guide their virtual characters around an abandoned warehouse complex.
Welcome to "eSports," the highest level of competition for video games. Players around the world practise tirelessly in the hope of making the upper echelons of their favourite title, where professional teams, lucrative sponsorships and huge cash prizes await. Inside the new "Gfinity Arena," on an overcast Friday afternoon, four teams face off in a new tournament for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a tactical shooter developed by Valve. On a normal day, these teams would be competing online, from the comfort of their bedrooms or dedicated squad houses. But the popularity of eSports has given birth to physical tournaments where players compete side-by-side, with adoring fans celebrating every kill.
Gfinity is an eSports organiser based in the UK, catering for some of the biggest games including League of Legends and StarCraft II, as well as British favourites such as Call of Duty, FIFA and Halo. It's only been operating for a couple of years, but already management has decided to take the plunge with the UK's first dedicated eSports venue. A permanent fixture is incredibly rare for eSports; the biggest and most reputable competitions, such as Evo and The International, are annual affairs that represent the pinnacle of their respective games. An "arena" that stays open all year round is a far riskier proposition. The number of people watching eSports online continues to grow, but no-one knows if that huge volume will translate to consistent audiences in the real world.
"The demand is there," Neville Upton, CEO of Gfinity says. "If we want to raise our game and get a higher level of quality and production, having a fixed site makes a big difference. If you're always moving around and setting up kit, it's hard work and it's more difficult to focus on quality. Now we can just focus on the players, the spectators and the experience because everything is rigged up and ready to go. So every time we do an event, it's going to get better and better, because we'll be focusing on the quality of the output."
The "Gfinity Arena" isn't a stadium like Wembley or the Bernabeu. The company partnered with Vue, one of the biggest cinema chains in the UK, to convert part of its theatre inside the Fulham Broadway shopping centre. It's still a cinema, first and foremost, but Gfinity has turned three of the screens and some of the adjoining rooms into a professional gamer's paradise. Two of the screens have been set aside for the competitions themselves; each one is fitted with two glass booths, where up to five players can sit inside with monstrous desktop PCs. A huge screen overhead gives an overview of the action, while smaller monitors underneath track the individual players. Bright spotlights sweep across the crowd and commentators chatter in front of a small backdrop at the side of the room.
It's like a boxing match, music concert and film premiere all rolled into one. Presenters in a separate studio preview each game and offer their best post-match analysis, culminating in a show not too dissimilar to Match of the Day. Gfinity doesn't have the history of a legacy broadcaster, so the production is a little rough around the edges, but none of the fans in the theatre seem to mind. They're here to watch their favourite players duke it out and the action alone is enough to sustain their enthusiasm. As the players begin a new round, the crowd hushes while each team disperses from their respective corner of the map.
"At this point, everyone on our team isn't really in it for the money," Sean Gares, a member of the Cloud9 Counter-Strike team says. "We've all played this game for so long, and had dry spells where there was no money, so we understand what it's like to not have Counter-Strike be the source of income that it is right now. It's about winning, and about making sure we're on top of our game and doing the most we can to succeed."
Cloud9 is sponsored by a host of companies including Logitech, Alienware and HTC. All of their Counter-Strike players are professionals, which means they're earning a respectable living from video games alone. Counter-Strike is one of the oldest franchises in the eSports scene, and doesn't attract the same level of funding as League of Legends, Dota 2 or StarCraft II. While the latest instalment, Global Offensive, has given the game a new lease of life, players know their time in the spotlight will eventually come to an end.
"If I really wanted to go get a job in the eSports industry now, I could probably work in product development for one of my sponsors or something. But that's not how I view it," Jordan Gilbert, another member of the Cloud9 team says. "I just know that I could make a living if I needed to support myself. But the whole point of doing this is that we're at the forefront of eSports, something that's developing right now. It's an honour to be a part of that and obviously I did it for a while without being able to make a living. But now it's not crazy for me to say I can make six figures in a year if I work hard and do a good job."
Gilbert and Gares are keen to support the new Gfinity Arena in London, and with good reason; any Counter-Strike tournament, no matter how big or small, could raise the profile and develop the community around their favourite game. If there's prize money involved, it'll obviously benefit the professionals in particular, but any organised competition could attract new viewers and players at the grassroots level. And all of that ties into Gfinity's vision. The company has a six-month season planned with regular competitions for all of the top games. An organised tournament is set to take place every weekend, but the company wants to go further with corporate and community-centric events.
"We're going to do charity events and 'Play like a Pro' style events so people can come down and see what it's like," Upton says. "We're going to do corporate events too. Companies have five-a-side football teams, so there's no reason why they shouldn't have FIFA teams, Call of Duty teams, Counter-Strike teams and Hearthstone teams."
The new Gfinity Arena isn't without its problems. Outside of the screens themselves, the decor isn't particularly impressive. The walls and doors are plastered with Gfinity posters and branding, but it still feels like a temporary venue. The press room is effectively an empty cinema screen and beyond the two main stages, there's little for spectators to see and do. The tournament on Friday night was also overshadowed by technical difficulties during the first match. It's a rocky start, but a start nonetheless. Gfinity has plenty of time to build on this foundation and make its eSports venue a best-in-class experience.
But that's no easy feat. Just like real sports, each eSports game is drastically different. The players' equipment, the competition formats and the rules vary dramatically from one title to another. Gfinity has to be experts in all of them, and attract the relevant commentators and players that will make each tournament a success. Without this level of expertise, the company risks the trust of the community and, as a result, future ticket sales.
Serving the audience is one thing, but Gfinity knows they need to make their arena accommodating to players, too, if they want to be considered a leader in eSports. "The top players are professional sports people," Upton says. "They train incredibly hard and they put a lot of commitment into coming over here, training and playing, so you need to look after them. Both in terms of giving them the right platform to play on, and a competitive environment, but also just the basics. So we made a few mistakes to begin with, like you always do. For instance, giving players the wrong food -- you suddenly realise that what they really want is pizza, as well as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
The UK is a small figure on the global eSports stage. But a venue like the Gfinity Arena, if successful, could help the region to raise its profile. Attracting the best players from around the world will give British teams better access to top-level competition, so they might improve their positions in the world rankings. Each tournament will also raise public awareness of eSports, and hopefully encourage new players to join competitive teams.
But for now, it's early days; an ambitious idea with enormous potential. There's plenty of ways that Gfinity could improve its first eSports arena, but already the company seems to be nailing most of the fundamentals. I've never played Counter-Strike: Global Offensive before, but within minutes of taking my seat I was captivated by the firefight between "Ninjas in Pyjamas" and "Gamers2." That has to count for something, right?