It wasn’t so long ago that the term “eSports” referred exclusively to a fad inspired by Starcraft-crazy Koreans. Recently, however, it seems that competitive gaming is being taken more and more seriously as an industry unto itself. The fighting game scene provides a quintessential illustration of this phenomenon. With the approach of EVO, players are acquiring sponsorships, and playing for high stakes that are indeed reminiscent of scenarios in the world of athletics. But will they ever be that lucrative? We sat down with Ryan “Gootecks” Gutierrez, and Mike “Mike Ross” Ross, two luminaries of the fighting game community, to find out what it’s like to play for money, and where the scene stands in relation to the world-at-large. The two are sponsored by the eSports organization, Complexity, and are the masterminds behind Cross Counter, a web-based show about the fighting game scene.
The Flashy Review: Why don’t we start with your origin story? How’d you guys get started in fighting games?
Gootecks: We’ve been playing in tournaments since the early 2000s. Mike was playing Marvel and I was playing Third Strike until about 2008…
Mike Ross: And that’s when two worlds collide: when a new game comes out everybody’s playing at the same spot, pretty much, and after hours most people go home, but the dedicated stick around. So that’s how we ended up hanging out, eating Yoshinoya, and got to bump heads with each other.
TFR: How old were you guys then?
TFR: How have you seen the scene evolve? Have there been any benchmark moments that have definitively shaped what’s going on in the fighting game community?
G: Definitely a benchmark moment was us getting our own show on Machinima – starting our own channel and then seeing that grow from zero subscribers to about 25,000 over the course of about five, six months. So that’s a pretty good benchmark. I guess one of the other benchmarks could be the amount of viewers on the stream at EVO last year – they did maybe forty, fifty-thousand, and two years prior they didn’t have a stream at all, I don’t think.
TFR: So what was the impetus to make you guys start doing Cross Counter? What drove the decision to make that your “9-to-5”?
G: It was kind of a series of decisions. It wasn’t really a decision as much as a culmination of other decisions. But I guess it was early 2009 when we saw how big Street Fighter 4 was going to be. That’s when we decided to keep doing what we were doing, and try to build it up and execute the vision that we had for it.
TFR: You guys have built up a pretty big following, you’re sponsored by Complexity; it’s pretty hard to argue that you’re not pro players now. But what’s the distinction between somebody who’s a pro and somebody who’s not?
MR: That’s a very good question. I mean, are we pros?
MR: I don’t know.
G: Mike is definitely a pro. You could make the case that I am no longer a pro, but the fact is when I was winning more, I was making less money. When I was winning tournaments, I wasn’t making nothin’.
TFR: Is that a result of your sponsorship? Based on some of your previous remarks on Cross Counter, it seemed like while ago you guys were on the fence about the whole sponsorship thing.
MR: Well, yeah, the simple answer to that is that every sponsor was pretty much promoting and offering the same deal. They’re used to dealing with fifteen-year-old kids who sit behind their computer all day, and are playing PC games or something. Or companies that you’ve never heard of just pop up out of nowhere, and think that they can just own a player. They may or may not fly you out to a tournament, and may or may not provide a hotel, and in exchange you have to wear this uniform. They’re not promising you anything. That’s the way most sponsorships work. It took a company like Complexity – a bunch of smart dudes who approached us with a real legit offer – and that’s something we can work with: “You guys are smart, you guys know what you want, and we know what we want out of it. Let’s work together and make everybody grow.”
TFR: Is there still an element of ownership with sponsorship? Is there more pressure to win? More pressure to pick up an S-tier character?
G: It’s not really like that, because that’s not the way our deal is structured with Complexity. Basically, there’s two halves of the deal, because the way they came to us the first time was with an ad buy – they wanted to run ads on our shows. So part of it is the ad deal, and the other part of it is building Complexity a fighting game community in conjunction with Cross Counter.
MR: Some of the other companies that have approached me wanted to make sure that I consistently placed. They would take a percentage of my winnings, and I had to do a bunch of other dancing around for them. Complexity did not want any of that. They don’t care if I get last place in every tournament for the rest of my life. I mean, of course they don’t want that, but as long as we fulfill our end of the bargain…
G: The bargain for us is mostly outside of the game.
MR: Ironically, ever since the offer was on the table, I’ve been playing better than I ever have. That just happened by chance.
G: I’ve been playing worse. (Laughs)
MR: Oh, Gootecks…
TFR: It seems a lot of strong players have been signed in the past month or so; is that a good sign for the community? Is it indicative of a larger trend in gaming and culture?
MR: Well, it depends. If you read on a headline that “Wolfkrone just got signed to Hood Street Gaming,” you’re going to be a little skeptical of that. Just getting signed doesn’t mean much. Fortunately, the players that have been getting picked up lately have been going to legit companies. fLoE, Momochi, ChocoBlanka – [Evil Geniuses] is really good. We found out that RF and Kindevu got picked up by eLive. You might say, “Well, what is eLive?” Heck, they’re sending them to EVO, so they’re doing a lot more than other companies do for their players.
TFR: So is it fair to say that, with those companies, these players are in arrangements that are going to pay their bills?
MR: We don’t know that, but what we can say is that they’re going to be in a situation where they can get more exposure, travel the world, and go to more tournaments.
G: The sponsorship thing is tricky because right now everybody is just trying to get travel paid for, but travel is only half the battle. You have [other] expenses when you’re traveling, and you have expenses when you’re not traveling. So the fact that everybody is getting sponsored is a good sign, but it’s not everything. What we need is not more players that are signed. We need more players having their bills paid by their talents, period, whether they’re signed or not signed. That’s why the signing thing is one of the indicators of growth, but it’s not the most important. A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on the sponsorship, like “Oh, this makes you legit,” or whatever. But I don’t really think it’s like that at all. Like Mike said, there’s plenty of players who can get sponsored, and then can’t find a way to get to different events. A lot of international players have that problem, where they’re sponsored, but there’s worry as to whether they’re going to get the events they need to go to.
MR: Yeah, if you want to know something that’s kind of interesting – I think you’re going to hear it here first – both Gootecks and myself actually have a pretty good music-business background. I think both of us are the only ones who have actually read contracts before.
G: It’s amazing to me. Between Mike and I, we’ve seen every contract there is to see in gaming. This [contract with Complexity] was the first one that felt right.
MR: They actually knew what they were doing.
TFR: When you talked about the need for more players to get paid for their talents, how do you think that can be implemented in terms of the scene?
G: That’s the Cross Counter formula, dude! We can’t divulge that information, but one could reconstruct it if they really follow everything we’re doing. To give you a hint: it’s got nothing to do with winning tournaments.
TFR: I think I follow…
G: We’re just f***ing with you. (Mike laughs loudly). There’s no exact rule. If you look at what we’ve been doing – with the exception of Mike getting Top 8 [at EVO last year] – very little of what we do is contingent on tournaments.
MR: Fortunately, Gootecks and myself have, at more than one point, placed well in a tournament throughout the few years we’ve been playing.
G: Oh yeah, we did all that. But finding new avenues for people to obtain their living: that’s where it gets interesting.
MR: There’s got to be more to it than just entering a tournament once a month or once a week now, and hoping you do well, and then you go on about your day. There’s gotta be more to it.
G: Because basically only the number-one guy in the area is going to be able to do that. For everybody else, it’s not sustainable.
MR: I think what’s more important than anything: If you’re doing all of this for the money, I think you’re just going to fail. I think what’s most important is actually getting the scene to become bigger than it is.
MR: Getting more people aware that we exist. That’s more important than anything.
G: Everything that we do is based on growing the scene larger, because we know that as the scene grows larger, the stakes are higher for everybody, and so are the rewards. So anybody who’s coming in just looking at it like a gold mine or a cash cow is going to be disappointed.
TFR: On the subject of building the community, what do you think of Bill S.978? Do you think it’s going to pass? Will it have any effect on the scene?
G: I think it’ll pass, but I don’t think it’ll have any effect on the scene. I think the people who wrote that bill are not trying to target us, because they don’t even know we exist yet. If they did know that we exist, they probably wouldn’t like it. It is a risk. We should definitely vote against it, but I don’t think it’s going to have an impact. I don’t think the game industry is as retarded as the movie and music industry in the sense that they’re not going to go around suing the people that are ultimately helping them sell more units. Because that’s what streams do. They help sell more units of the game, and they help sell more hardware, and everything related to the industry.
TFR: EVO is coming up. There are tons of really awesome players out there. There’s not a lot of time left. What are you guys doing in terms of training? Do you have any time for it?
MR: We don’t… train.
G: Don’t tell him that.
MR: I’m sorry. We train every day all day. (Laughs) Really though, it’s so hard to have time anymore. I don’t know how we became so busy and overwhelmed with so much stuff. I really don’t know where it all came from. But it only appeared in the past couple of months. Training: when it comes, I appreciate it very much. (Laughs)
G: You asked how old we were when we started, and it’s different now. We’re twenty-eight; pretty much everybody that we know has a different schedule than us. Right now, I’m more concerned with the EVO after-hours stuff than how I play in the actual tournament, because that has more impact than however I do in the tournament. If I trained for 10 hours a day between now and EVO, and I get out of my pool and then get aced out, is it going to have as big of an impact as if I focus all of my energy making sure that the stuff we’re involved in after-hours is going to go well? That’s the stuff that’s going to have an impact for us. For me personally, that’s the stuff I’m going to focus on.