To those that know me, I might be starting to sound a little like a 12” vinyl record (ask your parents) stuck in a groove, but it really is an exciting time in South African gaming.  In saying so, I’m also a firm believer that the core reason we have reached this exciting time is due to the unwavering belief that some community members themselves have in making gaming a serious activity rather than the maligned pastime the mainstream media thinks it is.  However, it will still take the greater community themselves to ensure that this is not just a short lived golden age, but a long and prosperous part of our lives.

I was recently fortunate enough to sit and chat with two of the current trailblazers in the attempt to get our beloved e-Sports recognised as a serious contender in SA culture.  Marlon Sasman and Gareth De Bruyn are the two public faces of GecoSports – a concept for almost three years until the recent positivity and activity in the gaming community provided the impetus that eventually saw their dream become a reality.  In amongst jovial laughter and discussions about where we would like to see SA gaming head, it’s pretty clear that they are both extremely passionate about gaming.  Both have a long and active history in the SA gaming scene, with Marlon being a Guitar Hero Champ back in the day and Gareth being the founder of Call of Duty clan eVo.  On top of that, both have also been behind successful Cape Town LANs in the past.  Clearly, they thought it was the right time to take things up a notch.

So let’s start with the obvious question – what is GecoSports?  In short it’s a “permanent gaming venue” with a “focus on South African e-Sports”.  However – while completely nail on the head – it’s also a little unfair on the overriding concept and future plans of the GecoSports brand.  GecoSports is best described as a sports club – much like you can join a rugby club to play and practice, you can do the same with your virtual weapon of choice.  On top of that, it is the first Cape Town e-Sports Club to be associated with MSSA which will crucially allow you to potentially earn National Colours in gaming.   And if that wasn’t enough in the (current) 105m² retail area in Stadium on Main in Claremont, the chaps will hold true to the space’s original intention and offer… retail.  You will be able to pwn your friends in National Colours and pick up your branded gaming hardware and peripherals along with gaming related merchandise as you leave while signing autographs for your adoring fan(s).

And none of that is actually a stretch at all.

Of course, one can’t help but wonder why a venture like this would consider a retail space – surely it’s an expensive option?  Not really says Marlon to who it was important that the venue was in a “secure, central area with a high foot-traffic zone”.  Or more simply: “Location.  Location.  Location.”  While the two public faces are likely to greet you at the venue as you enter with a fantastic cup of coffee, there are also two “silent partners” who have clearly left the business in the hands of gamers rather than suits – not a bad thing in this industry.  As Gareth adds jokingly: “What they know about games is scary.”  Of course, one has to wonder how a business like this could prove viable in the long run.  Obviously, there is a heavy reliance on the community itself to support the venture, but neither of the two is blind to the fact that “as leaders in an industry not fully tested yet” they are the ones to “take the risk”.

Sponsor support could prove to be key to the future of the venue, which was started without approaching any of the established industry for hand outs.  Marlon believed that to get things right from the start, the best approach was the option that kept them free of the “tether of another company dictating terms.”  Now with the proof on hand, the support of the sponsors can be sort.

So what about the gaming I hear asking.  This is potentially – no, it is – their trump card.  To help you further understand their plans, maybe it’s time to introduce you to the membership structures.  Geco is quite keen to avoid being labelled a “glorified arcade” while still offering casual players a place to break away from the day to day stresses, and have set up a varied number of membership options.  The Visitors Pass is charged per day at R30 per entry and allows access for one day during operating hours.  Casual Membership kicks it up to a monthly payment of R180 and allows access during operating hours and is valid from the first to last day of every month.  It also includes 50% discount on all GECOSPORTS-hosted events.  The Hardcore option gives all the benefits of the Casual Membership, but adds free entry into one Pro-Tournament in the month and costs you R240 per month.  A tier is being planned called Semi Pro but will only be detailed at a later date.

However, the gamers with stars in their eyes and hopes to achieve true professionalism while just playing games will target the “Elite” option called GecoPro.  Now while we’d all like to believe we have the L337 skillz necessary for such an option, it is not a choice you have, but an opportunity offered.  This is where GecoSports shifts from what some would casually call a “permanent LAN” to a real professional sport styled venture.  Players who compete and win the regular Pro Tournaments hosted at the venue will be invited to join this exclusive group which will also open the door to a wealth of fame and glory.  The games being focused on are the ubiquitous Modern Warfare 3, FIFA 12, Street Fighter, Forza 4, Gran Turismo 5 and Gears of War 3.  Obviously, as seasons and fashions change, so will the games.

The tournaments will be streamed (both locally to the centre’s public area and via the internet) live in the future, with commentary from some well known and some lesser well known voices from the industry and community.  In fact, they have plans to interview for potential new commentators which should maybe be turned into SA’s first gaming reality show – SA Gaming Idol anyone?  They will also be offering training programs which will most likely not involve laps around the beanbags but will most likely involve some of the country’s top players.  Essentially, the plan is to give gamers who “excel at what they do” the opportunity to be “recognised” with an “extended future in gaming” well beyond the time their fingers start cramping up.  There is also a belief that there is a potential to see an entire new industry spring up from this with ex-pro’s becoming referees, trainers, commentators and the old guy sitting complaining about the youth of today…

Both Marlon and Gareth hope that the ideas will “stimulate e-Sports in Cape Town and on to South Africa” by featuring “regular matches and a structure” not unlike rugby or soccer.  Gareth also feels that “Big match temperament is lacking in SA and that the pro players need to prepare for this.”  Regular matches featuring your opposition leering over the screen at you is certainly the best way to get that practice and getting all of this right will be the way to convince local distributors and publishers internationally to “recognise gaming in SA much like they do internationally” where most are first tier partners to organisations like the MLG.  Currently, there is still a feeling that some distributors in SA don’t see the competitive e-Sports scene (on console at least) as a “viable marketing option.”

Competitive gaming is not exactly new though, so why does it feel like the right time for a venture like this?  Marlon feels that the rise of 2upGamers in Cape Town kick started the console community which then spread the community vibe on to the rest of South Africa.  This appeared to prompt some companies to jump on board the rollercoaster meaning there is more interest in gaming than ever before.  Gareth feels that from a competitive viewpoint, there are more clans than the seemingly small number that existed around two years ago.  All this, along with a new interest in gaming from most of the ISPs and what appears to be a small change in the mindset of non-gamers makes this as good a time as any to start a venture like this.  On top of this – and something I was not even aware of until our meeting at Geco – is that playing games may really not be something mom and dad will be entitled to look down on anymore… you could actually get yourself a study bursary via the MSSA.

Personally, I’ve been a little concerned that there may very well be too many people running around with similar ideas – surely we should all just work together?  Yes and no is Marlon’s response essentially.  “Competition is good for any business and industry” he says and he believes that clubs similar to theirs are needed as they “won’t grow without competition.”  Obviously they are keen to work together for the “good of e-Sports in SA” but it just “would not make sense to not have another club team to play against.”

No good sirs, it certainly wouldn’t.  Credit to you both and good luck with your endeavours.  I look forward to seeing you grow from strength to strength.

Now, have I mentioned before that these are exciting times in South African gaming?

By the numbers:

  • 105m²
  • 16 game stations
  • 16 26inch HDTV’s
  • 8 Consoles (4x PS3 and 4x 360 each platform connected to its own network).
  • 4mb Uncapped MWEB Business ADSL with 3G Failover
  • Open seven days a week, 10am until 10pm
  • Shop G08, Stadium on Main, Claremont

Upcoming Pro Tournaments:

This coming weekend (17 to 19 August) sees both Modern Warfare 3 and FIFA 12 happening.  Registration for each event is R80 unless you’re entitled to the 50% discount.  Check the game’s links for more details.

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Head here for more pictures from our chat and here for pictures from this past weekend’s events.