Getting to know the people who make The International look sharp
We’ve all seen Nvidia logos in eSports, as the firm is often the supplier of choice for events looking to run PC titles competitively, but how deep into the eSports scene does the company really go? Enthusiast Gaming’s Menashe sat down with James Grunke, Nvidia’s global head of eSports, to talk graphics, gaming and getting old in the industry. With The International having just finished and NVidia being heavily involved there, it seemed like the ideal place to start.
MENASHE: The International is probably the ‘biggest’ eSports event you could have chosen to sponsor, with a $20 million prize pool? It wasn’t always this big. It grew over many years. What was the tipping point in the timeline where Nvidia realized, we need to jump into this in a really big way?
JAMES: So, I’ve been at Nvidia for six years and I’ve been running eSports there for five, and after my first year there, we closed out a program that I was working on and we were talking about what we should do next, and one of our execs said "Well let’s do a tournament", and this was around the launch of Starcraft II. So, we decided to do a GeForce eSports Starcraft II Pro/Am tournament. We brought on Husky and Day9 to do the casting and we worked with CEVO to do the backend server support for the tournament. The day we announced it our servers were absolutely swarmed. I came in the next day to work and said, “Guys, our servers went down in the middle of registration”, and the execs got a kick out of that.
M: That was when you knew this was going to be huge.
J: Yeah! It turned out we had over 9,300 players; which was the largest Am division in the history of Starcraft II at that point. And with 36 top pros, we did over 14 million views on the GameStation with Husky and Day9, and that was the eye-opener. It’s been five years since I’ve been running GeForce eSports, however Nvidia has been doing competitive gaming events long before I got here. They were doing LANs, and they’ve been supporting video-gaming for many, many years. So, it’s not like that was the first time we ever did it, but it was the first time we ever called it ‘eSports’. That response, with that many amateur players and that many views, really opened our eyes and I’ve been in it full-time ever since.
M: Amazing. What was the strategy of building up that program to the point of getting to be the major sponsor at The International?
J: Well, we’re not actually sponsoring. Valve doesn’t sell sponsorships. They asked us to provide the hardware, and we’re honored to be in that position. So for the past two TIs and the past three majors, we’ve been the official GPU graphics platform of choice. So, combined with GSync and GTX, it’s the most powerful gaming platform on the planet.
M: So that was a choice by Valve made purely out of recognition, right?
J: Yeah, it’s really an honorable position to be in and we value it greatly.
M: So, essentially what you guys are doing right now is arming the pro players with the best card available, right?
J: Yeah, they’re playing on [GTX] 1080s up there and they’re playing on the new Asus 180Hz GSync monitors, and it’s like a night-and-day difference. If I could use a CS:GO analogy: when you see an enemy run across a crack in the door on a 60Hz monitor, it’s a blur. On a 144Hz monitor it’s nice, but on a 180Hz monitor you can see their shoelaces.
"...when you see an enemy run across a crack in the door on a 60Hz monitor, it’s a blur. On a 144Hz monitor it’s nice, but on a 180Hz monitor you can see their shoelaces."
M: [Laughs] To the pro-players, that difference in lag makes a huge difference for them.
J: Absolutely. They live for less lag, it’s not acceptable; that’s why they turn VSync off. So with GSync running, you lose all that stuttering and tear without adding any lag to the system.
M: So let’s say you are playing a game like Assassin’s Creed and you just want the best graphics, for a single player game, versus something that’s specifically tailored for eSports, would you recommend the same card or would you offer something specific to the need?
J: MOBAs are typically less graphically demanding than an FPS, so someone who’s playing DOTA 2 or League of Legends may not feel the need to jump way up to the top of the line. But when you’re playing a AAA-game, having a 180Hz GSync monitor with a GTX 1080-- it’s an awesome experience; it’s the most elegant gaming experience you can have.
M: I think this is a realization the telecom companies are having as well; gamers demand such perfection that they want the top graphics card and the top Internet connection speed— there can’t be any kind of lag at all. You guys seem to be the pro's choice for graphics cards right now. Why would you say that is, what gives Nvidia an edge over the competition?
J: Performance is number one for players. For tournament operators, reliability is key; centuries of man-hours go into testing these drivers—I consider that the crown jewel of the reliability concept. The robust amount of testing that goes into that is critical.
In terms of company culture, we’re at all the major events. We partner with teams; you’ll notice that other than a couple of instances, we don’t sponsor teams, we partner with them. We don’t ask for logo on their jerseys or websites. What we want to do is work with them and have them come in and take advantage of our Bootcamp Program. We have a GeForce eSports studio in our headquarters. It’s a 5v5 tournament emulation system with full streaming capabilities, Shoutcaster desk, and a 65-inch 4K TV for replay analysis. We just had Team Secret in for 12 days.
We’ve also had three different teams from Cloud9 come in, and they’ll come in for 7 or 8 days, and maybe 14 hours a day there. And we give them complete run of the studio: they get three square meals a day, they have full security badge access to the buildings. That’s how we build our relationship with these teams, and they know they can count on us. When Cloud9 had a player from China that had trouble getting a Visa to go into Korea, we had our travel team on it to contact the consulate and help him get through. If there’s an American team in Asia or a European team in America and they need help, we do the best we can to help them and that’s the value of the partnership. Above and beyond, of course we want them to play on our best video cards and the best GSync monitors. We do that partnership and don’t ask a lot in return.
M: I think that’s fascinating, actually. A lot of readers will find that fascinating. Just the general testing you guys have to go through in order to make sure that this is really top-of-the line, tournament ready; do you guys have like an army of gamers testing it out?
J: The engineers at Nvidia are incredible. We are an engineering-driven company, and we have over 9,000 employees—it’s a big company. The GeForce GTX line is the bread-and-butter of the company. Even in a down PC market, where it’s facing competition from mobile and a lower demand from enterprise, gaming PCs are what we attribute to not only eSports, but the growing technical capability for VR and AAA games. It’s really gone beyond where a console could be.
M: Where do you see eSports in five years? Like, you personally? Of course it’s exploded, and it looks like it’s getting bigger, where do you think that upper ceiling is? Is this going to be as big as real sports one day?
J: [Laughs]. I love this question—how much time do you have?
M: [Laughs]. All the time you want!
J: I think in five years, we’re going to look back, and technology will have advanced so far, and the new eSports games coming out would have grown so far in technical capability that in 5-10 years we’ll probably look back with a smile at some of the titles that we’re running now. The guys that code these games are fantastic; they know what they’re doing, and as the technology increases they’re going to take advantage of it and drive it to be the highest spectator value as possible. And with the advent of Virtual Reality, that’s where you’re going to see the argument of ‘is this a sport or not?’, go away. The physical requirements to play these VR games are going to become substantial, and that’s going to change the whole nature of it, it’s just going to be really fun. It’s a fun time to be in this business.
M: Looking at even Pokemon GO!, it’s such a paradigm shift. So many people got what augmented reality is about, as technology grows we won’t even know where these paradigm shifts will happen. It’s just going to be exciting to see what people’s imaginations combined with technology come up with.
J: I visited Facebook recently, and it was just eye-opening for me. VR, it’s not really an eSports thing yet but everyone is talking about it. And what I saw on that day at Facebook and what I’ve seen since at Nvidia is just mind-blowing.
M: Do you think that’s the direction everything is moving towards? The combination of VR and eSports together?
J: I’m highly confident that within a year someone will have a VR title that will have people doing valid and seriously competitive gaming.
M: Alright. I want to know your own personal experience; have you dabbled with any games? Do you have any eSports background yourself at all, or as just an observer? Are you a player or just a spectator?
J: I’m a World of Tanks player, which is good because it’s a little bit slower for an old guy like me. [Laughs]
M: How old are you? [Laughs]
J: I got 26 years in digital entertainment from the music industry, movie industry and video games, so I’m old as dirt. But I’m fairly good at the business side of things. I manage all of our relationships with the tournament operators and team owners. And my eSports studio and event Manager, Clay Causin, handles our player relations and does all the bootcamps. He’s an expert gamer and he’s been testing for many years.
M: I know what you mean; I’m already considered old in the gaming world, unfortunately, even though I’m 31. My expertise these days is turned more towards the relationships and the business part of it, so I feel you. So, are you guys in all regions? Is Nvidia targeting events in all regions?
J: Yeah, we’re in more countries than NATO recognizes.
J: Our outlook on eSports is truly global. It’s the fastest growing digital media phenomenon on Earth, and it transcends all geo-political boundaries. When I go to eSports events, there are kids from all over the world, from 15 to 24 or 27 years old who are all pro gamers. Sure, there’s fierce competition and not everyone loves each other, but the friendships that are there are amazing. It’s really kind of a redeeming statement of mankind [laughs].
"...when you’re in an eSports tournament of that scope, with that many people from around the globe, religious and political boundaries no longer matter..."
M: Yeah, the live portion of gaming is really something that’s bringing people together. When you see them come together, there’s kind of an electricity and a bonding like, “Hey, we all get this!”—almost like a religion, but it’s gaming, and the eSports tournaments are like their church.
J: Yeah, I guess you can use that analogy. I think the philosophy behind it is that when you’re in an eSports tournament of that scope, with that many people from around the globe, religious and political boundaries no longer matter, and now it’s a matter between the three teams of 5. When you’re backstage, you can see that as young as they are, these guys are typically pretty professional. I’ve seen that grow in the five years it’s been in the business. The level of professionalism has grown, and I think that’s fortunate. When you bring in the non-endemic sponsors and when mainstream broadcast begins to happen and revenue share begins to happen, the teams will afford to grow. Right now it’s a little bit of a crunch for team owners.
M: They’re entrepreneurs.
J: Right. They don’t have the revenue share like the NFL or the NBA to keep the smaller markets afloat. So, that makes it for a challenging business environment.
M: I’d definitely love to fly in sometime and have a gander at your offices.
J: You gotta come see our studio.
M: I’d love to! It sounds kickass. [Laughs] It was nice meeting you, thanks for taking the time!
J: Yes, thank you! Game on!