Exclusive: Nerd Street Gamers CEO on new esports subscription service
Business

Nerd Street Gamers CEO explains new service making esports accessible

Published: 18/Nov/2020 14:00 Updated: 18/Nov/2020 18:01

by Adam Fitch

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Nerd Street Gamers are on a mission to make esports accessible to all, and their newly-announced subscription service is the next step in making that dream a reality.

The Philadelphia-based company has been working towards serving amateur and semi-professional gamers for years, creating a network of esports facilities, events, and content. Now, with a subscription service officially launched, they’re making all of their core pillars available to everybody for a very fair fee.

Nerd Street+ is described as giving gamers, no matter their skill level, a “gateway to a curated library of competitive opportunities” through access to high-end equipment and the ability to compete with others on a consistent basis.

The service provides subscribers with unlimited access to live and digital competitions on a weekly basis, discounts on larger tournaments, and monthly training time at esports venues across the United States.

Nerd Street Gamers Five Below
Nerd Street Gamers
Nerd Street Gamers have partnered with discount store chain Five Below to open more esports venues.

The program initially provides nationwide access to Nerd Street Gamers’ Localhost facilities in Philadelphia, Denver, Austin, and St. Louis, as well as partner venues such as Esports Stadium Arlington, HyperX Esports Arena Las Vegas, Axis Replay in Atlanta, Balance Patch in Boston, Digital Battlegrounds in Orlando. More affiliate centers are set to be announced in the coming months.

Nerd Street+ will cost subscribers $20 per month and provides all of the aforementioned perks. A more basic package is available at $5 per month, which is a digital-only option that allows players to compete in the company’s online tournaments.

John Fazio, CEO of Nerd Street Gamers, spoke with Dexerto in an exclusive interview to explain how this new service is leveling the playing field in esports — making it more viable for budding professionals to get regular practice, no matter where they are in the country.

Open to all

With the global health situation resulting in most esports events either being canceled or moved online, now may not seem like the most opportune time to launch a service that is heavily reliant upon physical venues. However, Nerd Street Gamers think it’s more timely than ever.

“When we shut all our venues down, we saw a lot of our consumers didn’t have access to equipment at home as others do,” Fazio told Dexerto. “Some could stay at home and compete in our events, our digital platform saw exponential growth, but still a lot of our customer base didn’t have access.

“We saw school districts like Philadelphia and Detroit find out that a major percentage of their students didn’t have access to the internet at home for remote learning. As we eventually come back to normal, we wanted to launch this subscription service to answer ‘Where do I get access to technology to participate?’”

Nerd Street Games The Block
Nerd Street Gamers
Nerd Street Games announced plans to open the first esports campus in September 2020.

Creating a network of esports centers and gaming facilities means that, now more than ever, aspiring competitors across the country have access to high-end, up-to-date technology that puts them on the same level as their peers. It’s a play to create consistency across the board for amateur esports, where many of the future gaming stars are to be molded and discovered.

“Our subscription offering takes a curated library of events, that we’ve built a really good reputation for ourselves running, and allows you to connect to the equipment necessary to participate,” he said. “It’s not just our venues you have access to, it’s all of the renowned venues in the country. Taking these partners and putting them in the same offering means we get to reach many more consumers to give them access to the industry.

“If you don’t live near one of the venues or you have a good set-up at home, you can sign-up to the digital-only version and still compete in our events. However, there’s a lot of consumers who don’t have that equipment at home — especially now new consoles are launching and somebody playing on a PlayStation 5 is going to have a competitive advantage at double the frames per second as somebody on an older model — things like this have widened the gap so our service is meant to help address that.”

Physical venues in a digital industry

Esports has received more spotlight than ever in 2020 because of the industry’s collective resilience, swiftly moving to online play when LAN events were no longer viable. Despite the digital-first nature of video games, Nerd Street Gamers and partners such as Esports Arena believe that competing in person is necessary for the scene to continue growing.

“I watched where this industry went for two decades and the biggest issue on the venue-side is that we focused on internet cafes and LAN centers, it’s the wrong model,” said Fazio. “The right model is event-driven where it scales a lot better. We’ve started to shift what a venue could look like, and so have our partners that are part of this subscription.

“There’s this myth in the industry that because video games are software we can use software to scale them, but that’s not true. Video games require people to compete and when you compete, you need other people to manage it just like in traditional sports. You can’t run a basketball tournament with software; you need coaches, administrators, court facility managers, and so on.”

Hyperx Esports Arena Las Vegas
Esports Arena
Hyperx Esports Arena Las Vegas at the Luxor Casino is part of Nerd Street Gamers’ new offering.

The importance of physical venues doesn’t mean that the digital experience can be an afterthought or all-out neglected, however, and that’s why it’s a huge component of the company’s new service. Without being able to monitor players in-person during events comes a threat to integrity, and there are instances of cheating taking place at even the top level of competition.

“Right now there’s an amazingly-wide reach of competitive opportunities online — there are tournaments running by the thousands every day — but it’s very hard to find professional, quality events where there are no cheaters or people manipulating the game. With the way that we curate and spend a lot of time investing in the programming, you always know a Nerd Street event has that integrity and equal opportunity.”

Competitive platforms coming together

To complement their matrix of esports venues and facilities, Nerd Street Gamers utilizes many of the competitive tournament platforms in the market for their own events. This area of the industry is crowded but lucrative, with G-Loot and Challengermode securing $56m and $12m investments respectively in the past few months alone.

Battling it out to obtain a larger market share than their competition, it would be fair to think that these companies would not want to be listed among their rivals in a single place. That’s the opposite of the truth in the case of Nerd Street+, Fazio explained.

“As far as the competitive events that we offer, what we do that is unique is run them across a variety of platforms and make a decision based on what’s best for the consumer,” he said. “You get a truly professional experience as an amateur.

“We have really good partnerships with each of these platforms because we’re investing a lot of resources and capital to run and produce events that ultimately drive users to their platforms. While I understand there’s a competitive nature between the different platforms, we’re just going to choose what’s best for the consumer or what a publisher may mandate to us.”

Nerd Street Gamers have plenty more tricks up their sleeves to unveil in the coming months, but it’s already evident that their goals and ambitions are far-reaching and even selfless in nature. Making esports accessible to all won’t come easy, nor overnight, but they’re committed to the cause.

CS:GO

BLAST’s director of operations on maintaining integrity with online CSGO

Published: 24/Nov/2020 15:23 Updated: 24/Nov/2020 15:33

by Adam Fitch

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“This time last year our rulebook and our whole setup were based on LAN events,” BLAST’s director of operations and production Andrew Haworth told Dexerto. “We hadn’t really done a huge amount of work on how that would be replicated in an online world.”

Earlier this year, with the global health situation emerging, governments all around the world were forced to reduce the feasibility of hosting events, and thus, they were moved online — halfway through a tournament, in some cases.

Prior to the restrictions, tournament organizer BLAST managed to host their first big competition of the year in February, impressing many and unknowingly hosting what would be one of the only prominent offline events in the 2020 Counter-Strike calendar. They didn’t have the same privilege later in the year, however, as limitations had yet to be permanently relaxed in many locations. Nonetheless, they went on with their plans to host the BLAST Premier Fall Series, albeit online.

Another layer of absurdity was added as a factor of hosting an event, and that was the revelation of a spectating bug that spanned multiple years. With the Esports Integrity Commission — a body devised to maintain the integrity of competitive gaming — issuing bans to dozens of coaches, integrity questions were more prominent than ever during an online era, no less, where it’s harder to monitor the activity of teams and their coaches.

BLAST Premier Fall Series 1
BLAST
Commentators Scrawny and launders arrived at the production location early to accommodate local restrictions.

Haworth’s background working on major music festivals and the Olympics Games means he’s no stranger to crafting contingency plans to put in place in case of a problem arising. Prior to hosting the Fall Series, they went through sessions of scenario testing with key department leads to devise numerous methods of still getting the job done.

Considering BLAST have deployed everything at their disposal to maintain competitive integrity within their events, Dexerto spoke with Haworth to see how they adapted their processes to move to a remote production while monitoring the gameplay itself both in and out of the server.

Going back to esports’ roots

“We were fairly lucky in the timing of the outbreak, we just finished our Spring Series in February and didn’t have another live event till the end of May,” he said. “Other tournament organizers didn’t and were thrown into that halfway through a show. We had a bit of time, purely by luck, to have a look at what we need to do for our Spring Showdown and our Spring Final.”

While esports, like most other sports, is fundamentally an entertainment product, the need for competitive integrity is essential. Fans tune in to watch the best players in the world face off against each other, and that’s no different during an era of online competition.

“If the fans don’t have faith in what we’re putting on if our broadcasters and sponsors don’t have faith in what we’re putting on, and the teams ultimately lose faith in it, then none of us can stand behind it proudly,” Haworth said. “So competitive integrity is in integral to what we do, none of us are arrogant enough to think that we’re perfect in that.

“There may be things that we’re doing now that we’ll review and determine haven’t worked quite as well or are not effective. Some of the things that we have done we want to ensure, while maintaining competitive integrity at all times, doesn’t affect the performance of play. We don’t want to be taking up computer performance for the matches because that isn’t going to gain the right tone with anybody.”

BLAST Premier Fall Series 2
BLAST
The venue had no players in sight, with only production staff and broadcast talent being present.

With a change in circumstance comes a need to change the parameters in which events are run, and that filters all the way down to the gameplay itself. BLAST saw the need to adapt their guidelines early in the year, when LAN events no longer seemed possible, so all of the teams were on the same page.

“The rulebook gets issued at the start of every season, we generally review it and update it after every event,” Haworth said. “We did less of that last year — I think we only made one or two slight revisions from Spring Series into Spring Showdown because the former was very much for a LAN. We also have our competitive integrity policy, which is broadly drawn out of the rulebook and is a short, sharp summary to articulate to what we do. That’s on our website. We’ve worked with experienced tournament officials that have worked with other tournament organizers and in other settings, it’s important to us that they can see elsewhere what has worked, and equally what hasn’t worked, so we can pick up best practices.”

From bad to worse

All partners of ESIC — including the likes of ESL and DreamHack — vow to enforce rulings decided upon by the commission, and that was no different for BLAST. The spectating exploit utilized by at least 37 coaches rocked the CS:GO community and certainly begged the question as to what tournament organizers are doing to ensure fair play is had at all times.

Moving online adds another layer of difficulty to constantly and accurately monitoring the matches played, especially considering tournament officials can’t be present to see how teams are operating with their own two eyes. BLAST believes they’ve reached the pinnacle of monitoring at this precise moment.

“Some of the measures we put in place aren’t perfect but they’re the best available solution we’ve found so far,” Haworth told Dexerto. “There are methods that we’re developing and evolving. We are confident that the measures we have in place currently are giving the desired result in not allowing anybody to manipulate the system or take advantage of it.

“From a coaching bug point of view, the player cams that we’ve put in place have been a really useful feature. That’s something that we looked at, to start with, as a broadcast feature that had some great context and depth. It grew into something that we now utilize to ensure we can see what players are doing.

“We’ve worked with players on camera angles, we have down-the-line shots, coaches have cameras on them and we listen to TeamSpeak for both a broadcast feature and in terms of integrity,” he continued. “The MOss system is far from perfect but it allows us to know what’s open on someone’s computer, there’s a report sent to us post-match with that information.

Moving forward in the face of adversity

Despite having what they believe is a solid solution to both playing online and safeguarding the integrity of the tournament, it would be understandable if a tournament organizer decided to postpone an event due to the recent exploit revelation and subsequent disciplinary rulings. Haworth ensured Dexerto, however, that that wasn’t an eventuality BLAST considered.

BLAST Spike Nations
BLAST
BLAST have undergone plenty of growth in 2020 so far despite the difficulties, expanding into new titles like Valorant and Dota 2.

“We’ve never really moved our date around. We put our 21 days in the international calendar [that’s shared by all CS:GO tournament organizers] in April this year to try and provide full transparency,” he said. “We worked on this straight after the Spring Final, there were a couple of bits that we thought we could include like the coach cams but there were also a couple of things that weren’t ready for the Fall Series. We played around with them but wasn’t sure if it would cause performance issues on players’ PCs so we didn’t want to risk it.”

There’s not the only difficulty in providing a fair and stable environment for the players, BLAST have plenty of staff that are needed to execute a full production. Having staff at home using personal internet lines isn’t the most confidence-inducing prospect, but the company has managed to execute a means of working that allows for maximum efficiency given the circumstances.

While online play, and the copious amount of events that are taking place, may not be ideal, esports has proven to be resilient in the face of extreme and unpredictable challenge. The Fall Series was revered by industry professionals and Counter-Strike fans alike, but it’s clear that BLAST are not resting on their laurels leading up to the next phase of the competition.