WORCESTER – Not all that long ago, the idea of making money playing video games seemed absurd.
Comedian Tim McIntire used to joke about his day job as a game tester: “All these years later, I finally win that argument with my mom.”
But as gaming has become more sophisticated, so too has the gaming industry.
Tournaments that once took place in small arcades now fill arenas. Fortnight has a player population larger than many countries, and the first ever Fortnight World Cup recently took place at Arthur Ashe Stadium (home of tennis’ U.S. Open), where 100 players battled for their share of $30 Million in prize money.
This level of high-stakes gaming even has its own name: Esports.
And in Worcester, the only weekly esports tournament to be found is at the back of the Domino’s Pizza on Grafton St., known as The Proving Groundz.
Joe Moody, co-founder of The Proving Groundz, and his partner Dave McGillivray are looking to train the next generation of esports pros now.
Their company launched in July with a nine-week tournament in at Domino’s Pizza on Grafton Street, featuring the popular Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, in which players can choose from any number of licensed Nintendo characters [a Pokemon Trainer can square up against Donkey Kong, for example] and go head to head on one of a number of arena settings. The top three players each week get a cash prize.
“I want the kids to have that dream where anyone can make it in the industry if they know how, and that’s what we’re going to teach them,” said Moody, who originally envisioned opening a game store. But with more and more of the gaming industry online, he shifted his focus to esports. “People are just doing everything online now…I think I got the final push when (New England Patriots owner Robert) Kraft picked up the Boston Uprising [a professional esports team in the Atlantic Division of the Overwatch League].
McGillivray, a tech business veteran, is responsible for the vision of the company.
“We have three different focuses for the company,” McGillivray said. “One of them being the tournament play, coaching, and training. What you see here is the early stages of that. We have a data analytics and artificial intelligence group that are working on using analytics to measure the performance of players for training and coaching, as well as to help increase the fan experience and draw advertisers.”
The training aspect is particularly important to Moody.
“When a player practices these days, they only know how to get better, without proper coaching, is just practice practice practice, sometimes 12 hours a day,” Moody said.
That kind of regimen takes its toll.
“Carpal Tunnel, neck problems, back problems…and stress problems. Lack of sleep, bad dieting,” he added.
To try to avoid these things, Proving Groundz wants to train like the pros, so to speak. They want to use the analytics they collect from the weekly tournaments “to pinpoint a person’s weakness at a level, and then say ‘instead of practicing for eight hours a day and trying to get better, why not practice for three hours a day but focus on’” specific areas of improvement.
“Minute changes can change a players performance exponentially, but we have to figure out where those changes have to be,” Moody said. “We’re making competitors out of each and every one of them who want to do it.”
The training is not limited to playing video games.
“We’re also going to be teaching people broadcasting,” Moody said. “We can teach etiquette online, marketing, sportscasting. Esports commentators are big.”
To this end, the company has established a relationship with Job Corps, the career-training program for teens and young adults run by the U.S. Department of Labor. Several of the competitors each week come over from the Grafton campus). Moody, himself a Job Corps graduate — “They essentially saved my life” — said getting them involved was huge.
Moody said, “I wanted these games to bring these kids out and show them that people still think about them.”
In addition to the Job Corps students, the company has hired McGillivray’s son, Matt, as a recruiter and talent developer.
“My job is to scout for players that we can coach and make better…we want to make sure that people’s talents are put to good use, because it’s not always recognized by their parents. That’s one of big missions here,” Matt McGillivray said. “We just don’t want to leave talent on the table. There are a lot of kids that are great at video games, and there’s a lot of ways that can be translated into a career. We want to put something on someone’s resume. You can’t just go in and say you played Super Smash Bros. all the way through college. You want to say you played it professionally.”
The fourth member of the team is Cassius Shearer, who’s in charge of designing their merchandising. He has his own brand of clothing called Fresh Cash Studios, which he was sporting at the event on Tuesday.
“What we’ve experienced in the last two months has been unbelievable,” Dave McGillivray said.
The success of the Fortnight World Cup has made the business even more attractive.
Dave McGillivray said, “I’m finding it’s very easy to get resources and stakeholders to engage. People are coming from Fortune 50 companies and looking at all this and saying ‘Yeah, I’ll help.’”
Lead photo: Domino’s Pizza on Grafton St. in Worcester/Patrick Sargent for ThisWeekinWorcester.com
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