Games are the heartbeat of Helsinki’s annual Assembly event. Thousands of people are seated in the vast hall at the Helsinki Expo and Convention Centre, Messukeskus. They are engrossed in any number of games as are the people standing around watching them.
But the centrepiece of the gaming action is on the big stage, where hardcore gamers are taking the measure of each other in challenges like Counter Strike: Global Offensive or CS:GO and Overwatch, both multiplayer first-person shooter games...
“We are looking at the birth of a new football or a new soccer. Esports is here to stay”.
That's the view of Pekka Aakko, the main organiser of the bi-annual ‘Assembly’ event in Helsinki, where the Finnish game community gathers to showcase their game making skills -- and also to play and watch esports.
Esports refers to computer or console games played competitively, and over the past decade it has become a global phenomenon. In 2017, USA-based research group Newzoo estimated the global esports market to be worth nearly one billion euros, and professional esports teams now regularly compete for prizes valued at millions of euros.
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The global popularity of esports has been reflected in Finland too, and Aakko believes esports is an easy fit with Finnish culture.
“These young guys have grown their whole life with computers, and gaming and playing games is super natural for them. There are a lot of players - and there is a lot of playing-related culture - in Finland. I also think the computer culture in Finland and in the Nordic countries is very strong - and I think that’s one of the key reasons”.
Competitive gaming in the form of esports is probably a natural progression for Assembly and Finland as a whole. For decades Assembly has served as a nursery for the growth of the country's foremost game studios. Developers from game firms such as Rovio and Supercell cut their teeth at Assembly events before their titles catapulted them to global recognition.
On top of that, esports offers the prospect of taking home millions. Many of today’s young upstarts are hoping to duplicate the success of big Finnish earners such as top-ranked 22-year-old Lasse Urpalainen who is the world #2 player and has pulled down more than 2.5 million euros during his career, according to the Esports Earnings website.
Growing popularity puts esports under fire
As the popularity of esports has grown, so too have the criticisms - which are mostly related to the hours young people spend sitting in front of screens playing the games and the apparent lack of physicality involved in the sport.
Robin “Snappe” Uotila is a semi-professional player with the Finnish Overwatch team ENCE, and he is eager to defend his sport from such criticism.
“To the critics of esports, and to the argument that it is not even a sport, my counter argument has always been that esports has the viewership, the high-skill ceiling, the competitiveness, the audience, everything that these traditional sports have.”
Uotila also rejects the claim that esports players are “lazy”, and observes that in order to become a top esports player, being in peak physical condition is very important.
“If you look at the best of the best professionals, most of them nowadays focus on being healthy, because even if it’s not that physical of a sport, you still want to be healthy so that your mental state and your focus are on point.”
Esports school trains mental fitness and focus
At Ahlman College in the western Finnish town of Orivesi, mental fitness and focus are just some of the skills the students of a newly-developed ‘Esports Course’ are hoping to master. The programme, first offered by the college in 2016, currently has 20 students - all of whom wish to pursue a professional career in esports.
The students study a range of subjects - other than game-playing - as described by course instructor, Niklas Hirvelä.
“The main idea is that they can play, but we also have physical training, mental training, we have theory and analytics lessons, and we have health lessons - what they should eat, how they should sleep, what vitamins and caffeine and stuff like that does for your body. So what is good for them, and what is not.”
In addition to these classes, the college provides a module on media training.
“They also learn how to be with the media, and how to build their own social media profiles. Things that prepare them for a career in esports.”
Aiming for the next level
One of the students, Mikael Reenpää, took a quick break from playing CS:GO to explain how his family reacted to his choice of career.
“It’s a bit weird for them that I am trying to become an esports pro, and that I play 12 hours a day, but they really support me and they are happy for me, that I am doing what I really want to do, so they’re there for me.”
Reenpää has no illusions about what is required to become a professional esports player, but he believes he is now in the right place to achieve his ambitions.
“The path is long, hard and rough but it is a road I chose and I want to take. When you play video games at home you do it because you want to relax, and have fun, but here you play if you want to take it to the next level and actually be competitive, so this is the perfect place to be."