At the Smite World Championship, gamers have rock star status (and paychecks to match)

The second-annual championship, held at Cobb Energy Centre in January, offered $1 million in prize money
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Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

The day after watching the Hawks beat the Bulls at Philips Arena in January, I drove north of the city to a much livelier sporting event: the second annual Smite World Championship, held at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Smite is a game played on a computer or video game console, with 13 million registered players worldwide. This was news to me, too; my last serious gaming phase, if you can call it that, coincided with the debut of the Nintendo Game Boy, circa 1989. Smite, I soon gathered, involves two teams of five taking on the characters of gods (Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Mayan, Chinese, Japanese, and Hindu) to kill opposing players, destroy the other team’s base, and eventually “raise Thor’s hammer,” as a game analyst, commentator, and coach named James Horgan put it to me.

“There are three lines on the game map like roads,” Horgan began. “Between them, there’s the jungle—basically a big forest. In that forest, there are camps of cyclopses, and each camp has its own little ‘buff,’ which you get when you kill them. Buffs [allow you to] attack harder or move faster.” He paused, correctly sensing that I was losing the thread. “It’s a mix of chess and basketball.”

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe
Smite World Championships
Peter Dimitrov from Germany

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

In the media room were writers, photographers, competitors, and surprisingly attractive groupies from nearly every continent. According to Todd Harris, cofounder of Alpharetta’s Hi-Rez Studios, which created the game, each month about 100 million people watch other people play video games, like Smite, over the Internet. Much of YouTube’s traffic is driven by this activity, but the gaming broadcast leader is Twitch, which Amazon acquired for a billion dollars in 2014.

“To folks wondering if this is a fad,” said Harris, “those viewership numbers and that acquisition show there’s something here.” As do the purses at major events. This year the Smite World Championship offered $1 million in prize money, funded by a few blue chip sponsors: Xbox One, Red Bull, Intel. There’s certainly more money here than on the professional Ultimate Frisbee circuit. John Salter, a 25-year-old Cartersville native with a degree in exercise and health science from Kennesaw State, led the 2015 winning team and pocketed $260,000. Many of the assembled, including 21-year-old Cody Oswald, spoke about him with reverence.

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe
Smite World Championships
One of the Smite competitors was Ben McKinzey, whose nom de guerre is Saltmachine.

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

“It takes a special sort of appeal to [make someone] want to watch people play video games,” admitted Oswald, who lives in Boise. He’d saved up $1,000 to travel to Atlanta. “It’s a love for, at first, the game, and then that grows into loving the community. And when you take the time to come here, you get to meet and talk to famous people. BaRRaCCuDDa [Salter’s nom de guerre] is someone you can connect with. You watch his streams, and he gets really personal; he talks to you. Yesterday I stayed three hours after the competition ended just to talk to him. It was so in-depth; it didn’t feel like he was a celebrity.” Salter’s team lost in the semifinals this year, but he stuck around to watch.

Walking into the theater for the best-of-five grand finals between Team Enemy and Team Epsilon, I felt I’d stumbled upon something like The Hunger Games: the palpable bloodlust of the crowd (3,000 mostly white males below the age of 35) beating noisemakers, the cheery British announcer, the underwriting of the powerful, and the practiced brutality of the players in their teens and 20s, sitting at computers onstage below a giant screen displaying the battle. Captured by monitor cams, their faces were projected on huge panels flanking the stage for scrutiny and adoration. With their headsets transmitting “team comms” while blocking out the noise of the crowd, they resembled a pubescent NASA mission control.

Smite World Championships
André Brännvall from Sweden

Photograph by Zach Wolfe

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

A collection of European all-stars, Team Epsilon consisted of iRaffer (decent beard), Yammyn (silver chain), emilitoo (backwards cap), Dimi (Russian), and the beanie-wearing, acne-scarred killer known as Adapting, thought by some to be the best Smite player in the world. Team Enemy was a geekier-looking group: Adjust (bushy eyebrows), Khaos (pencil neck), saltmachine (also pencil neck), Vetium (spectacles), and their 22-year-old captain, PainDeViande, known for his emotive leadership. He fired his original team members a few months prior to the competition, an usher told me, and assembled “a ragtag, Moneyball-type team.” All of them, like the members of Team Epsilon, are professional gamers.

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

They unpacked their keyboards and mice, put on their headsets, and flexed their fingers. Time to play. Throughout, commentators spoke over the loudspeakers, excitedly saying things like: “One small mistake will cost the team a fire giant!” and “He finishes off his breast plate of valor.” After Enemy made a remarkable (but inscrutable to me) play, the crowd began to chant: U-S-A! U-S-A! But to no avail. Epsilon won the first game handily and the second by coming from behind. The third was close but had the same result. I derived some pleasure from the whole thing, much as one would from watching a well-acted foreign film without subtitles.

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

In the lobby on my way out, I struck up a conversation with Jeff Kelly—a noticeably older audience member—who’d driven from Dixon, Kentucky, with his son, Jordan. “I thought it was a waste of time until I attended last year and saw the energy and the excitement. It’s addictive. I wanted Jordan to go to law school, but he said, ‘Dad, I can walk out of college with a computer science degree, no debt, and be making $90,000-plus a year.’ So this world is a good economic choice for him, I guess.”

Hi-Rez Studios was certainly pleased with the results. They won’t be leaving Atlanta anytime soon. “When we’re recruiting employees,” said Harris, “we often refer to Atlanta as the nerdiest, geekiest city in the nation.” Online surveys by Movoto and Bustle support this claim. “And it’s only getting better: Every time our players boot up Smite, they see the ‘Made in Georgia’ peach.”

Smite World Championships
Photograph by Zach Wolfe

This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.

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