COLOGNE — Back in 1999, when the final for Quake 3 took place in Duisburg, Germany, 1,290 people showed up in front of the big screen, even if there were only 10 to get seats: the players and officials. "That was the moment when I knew people liked watching this sport," says Alexander Müller, director the of the eSport organization SK Gaming.
Müller was one of the organizers of the 1999 tournament, which pitted Morgan Teamwork against Schröt Kommando, who is now with SK. One team was considered to have the best players of Quake, while the other the best of Quake 2. The squads had never gone head-to-head before. Schröt Kommando won.
Formed more than two decades ago, SK Gaming started in 1997 with a group of Quake-playing friends — a clan, to use the terminology of the time — in the northwestern German city of Oberhausen. Co-founder Ralf Reichert is now the boss of the world's largest eSports organizer, ESL. Müller, now 41, took over the team three years later, and is one of the pioneers in Germany of eSports, previously known as a "hardcore gamer." With his leadership, the clan became SK Gaming, one of the oldest and most important outfits in global eSports. In the process it diversified: besides Quake, teams members also play FIFA, the football simulation game, as well as the virtual card game Hearthstone.
But the game that really made SK Gaming famous — its "DNA," as Müller puts it — is the tactical shooter game Counter-Strike. With Counter-Strike 1.6, SK rose to the top of the eSports ranks in 2003, beating Swedish star player Emil HeatoN Christensen in almost every tournament in which they competed.
SK Gaming has five Brazilians players.
Just like in professional soccer, there are player transfers in eSports. Occasionally, a company will buy a whole team of players. SK Gaming currently has five Brazilians playing Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS: GO). With prize earnings of roughly 1.5 million euros last year, it is considered the best squad in the world.
Gabriel Toledo, 26, is a representative for SK Gaming. The Brazilian is captain, superstar and pillar of the current CS: GO team. "Fallen," as he calls himself, is considered one of the best players of all time. No one can handle his virtual weapon, the sniper rifle AWP, as well as he does. He too, is relentlessly active online in this dynamic industry. In 2003, he played Counter-Strike for the first time at an internet café in his hometown of Itararé. By 2009, playing had become his profession.
SK Gaming's headquarters are located in the historic city center of Cologne, in a modest office building. The stairwell, covered in glass bricks dating back to the 1970s, hardly suggests that some of the best computer gamers in the world train here.
For most of the year, the team around Captain Toledo lives and trains in a spacious, cream-colored house with a swimming pool in Newport Beach, California. The pros have moved to the United States because the main CS: GO league, called the ESL Pro League, is played in North America. Although everything happens online, every millisecond counts. The closer the players live to the server, the shorter the transmission time of the internet connection.
It wasn't always easy for Toledo to make a living off of Counter-Strike. Around 2011, Counter-Strike was almost dead in Brazil and around the world as an eSports discipline. The Classic 1.6 had served its time, and its direct successor, Counter-Strike: Source, wasn't as successful. The now popular CS: GO only reached the market about a year later.
That's why Toledo founded the Games Academy. He teaches lessons about Counter-Strike to interested people over the internet. "The company has helped the whole Counter Strike community in Brazil to get back on its feet. And it helped me become a better player," he says. The platform currently teaches 650,000 people, mostly Brazilians, how to improve their shooting skills.
Training at the SK gaming headquarters — Photo: SK Gaming/Facebook
At the same time in Cologne, Alex Müller was also trying something new. Earlier, SK Gaming had invested in a team for League of Legends – a game less about shooting, which included some fantasy elements, and one of the most popular eSports disciplines. For a number of years, SK Gaming was very successful in League of Legends, but Müller felt increasingly uncomfortable with certain rules set by the developer, Riot Games.
When SK fell out of the top league in 2015, Müller decided to close the League of Legends chapter. "We decided to take a hard road and turn the company over completely," he says. This path led back to their DNA, Counter-Strike. In the summer of 2016, the already successful Brazilians signed a contract in Cologne. SK Gaming was back to focusing on Counter-Strike, and back to winning.
Six hours a day, that's too much.
"When we started, our goal was to be the world's best," says Müller. But what makes the current CS: GO team of SK different from other teams? What makes them the best Counter-Strike professionals worldwide? Toledo explains: "We had to fight for everything we have now" — the gaming chair, the powerful computer, the invitations to big tournaments.
When Toledo started playing Counter-Strike, there was no eSports infrastructure in Brazil. Ambition plays a central role, says Müller. "We are hard workers. Those who do not want to be constantly improving, have no place in eSports."
Player can’t just spend their days looking out the window, in other words. They must learn to deal with extreme stress, to endure defeats, criticism and tensions within the team. They have to learn to control their phases of concentration. To perfect their training, SK Gaming works with sports psychologists. The players have a fixed daily routine, nutritional plans and are responsible for their physical fitness. Although eSport is not yet officially recognized as a sport in Germany in terms of professionalism, gaming certainly does resemble traditional sports.
Müller thinks it'll be another 5 to 10 years before eSports get their due recognition. But that could also raise certain questions about responsibility. "The debate about violence, as well as the debate about addiction, are coming," he says. "We are not turning a blind eye to this."
The SK Gaming head says that a teenager playing Counter-Strike six hours a day in his free time is too much. And he wants there to be an open dialogue between parents, teachers and children. Müller also thinks his company can be a positive influence, in this regard, especially on young people. "They listen to us," he says. "In terms of gaming, we have a fair share of credibility for young people."