Ready Player Yksi: Finland’s esports athletes get brand new training centre

After a string of podium finishes in major international competitions, esports athletes in Finland are starting to be taken more seriously - as new training centre opens.

File picture of game play from CounterStrike: Global Offensive / Credit: CS:GO Steam

A new training centre for some of Finland’s most successful athletes has opened in downtown Helsinki.

It’s where the country’s elite players will hone their skills: but you won’t see a running track, astroturf or weights.

Instead, the training centre is outfitted with rows of brand new desks and computers, to train the esports athletes looking to conquer the world and earn some serious money in the process.

In terms of revenue won, esports is currently one of the top-ranked sports in Finland, but there are still major hurdles to being taken seriously as professional athletes, as well as bureaucratic struggles.

Esports athletes are funded like children, but taxed as adults.

File picture of Shelter Game Room CEO Tuomas Konttinen / Credit: News Now Finland

New training centre open for business

For anyone wanting to get their start in esports, the new Shelter Game Room in Helsinki could provide the perfect launch pad.

“At the moment I don’t think there’s enough gaming facilities in Finland” says Shelter CEO Tuomas Konttinen, sitting among the rows of computers and high-backed chairs.

Located in Kaisaniemi, the centre is partly funded by a private equity furm, and fully equipped with high-spec gaming computers and work stations. Open to anyone, it allows new players to train, and coaches to work with teams.

“There’s a lot of gaming computers! We like to think and feel that when customers arrive they see a really really cosy atmosphere, a lounge vibe when they arrive. The kind of thing you wouldn’t think that comes to mind when people talk about gaming halls” he explains.

Each station is equipped with a powerful computer to processes the games, fast graphics card and a 1GB internet connection, which allows esports athletes to train and compete with other players around the world.

Katowice stadium for esport final / Credit: Jussi Jääskeläinen, Twitter

Finns make competition breakthrough

Earlier this month Finnish esports made a major breakthrough when the ENCE team came second in a big European competition.

Their success wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Last November ENCE athlete Joona Sotala claimed a World Championship when he won €280,000 and became the first player from outside South Korea to win the StarCraft II title.

March’s European tournament took place at an arena in Poland with a 10,000 spectator capacity, and brought together the top 24 Counter-Strike: Global Offensive CS:GO players in the world, battling for a cash pot of one million US dollars.

A multi-player shooter game, CS:GO has some of the hottest action on the Finnish esports scene at the moment, with two opposing teams playing the roles of terrorists, and counter-terrorists, as the action unfolds.

At the Poland tournament, ENCE exceeded pre-competition expectations and bagged $150,000 for their second place finish – a dream result for the four-man team.

File picture of Nyyrikki Esport manager Joseph Blewitt / Credit: J. Blewitt

“The ENCE organisation has been a defining factor in how Finnish esports is viewed globally for their work in CS:GO primarily” says Joseph Blewitt, Chief Operating Officer at Nyyrikki Esports Oy.

“In recent years, there has always been one or two top tier teams per region and Finland didn’t have that for a period of time and it resulted in players not seeing a natural progression within the country to the top and instead lead to people competing with international lineups to fulfill their dreams” Blewitt tells News Now Finland.

The standard of CS:GO players in Finland has improved over the past few years: as has the standard of esports athletes playing games like NHL, FIFA, StarCraft II, League of Legends and DOTA 2.

The earnings figures speak for themselves. Last year the 305 professional Finnish esports athletes earned a total of $7.3 million – but more than €5 million of that total went to just three athletes.

So far this year, they’ve already made almost $694,000, and rank 6th on the international earnings charts – ahead of Sweden, which traditional was a more dominant esports nation.

“The main reason why ENCE’s achievements are so amazing for the Finnish scene is because the Finnish scene has never had such great heights. The Nordics have always been dominated by Sweden and Denmark and therefore Finland has always seen these other teams compete at the top and now finally Finland has a team to aspire to and support on the global stage” says Blewitt.

File picture of esport gamer playing / Credit: News Now Finland

Growing esports awareness in Finland

A former professional gamer-turned-manager, Joseph Blewitt came to Finland in 2016 in part at the urging of Finnish friends, but also with the aim of building up Finnish esports from the inside.

“When I joined the Finnish scene there was a real lack of professionalism and infrastructure that other neighbouring Nordic countries have benefited from for years previous. Finland needed an injection of support” Blewitt explains.

“There was maybe one coach in the Finnish scene in the largest esport in Finland, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. There was also hardly any salaried teams and there was only one true role model in the scene” he continues.

One of the biggest obstacles holding back the development of esports in the country, according to Blewitt, is that betting companies are not allowed to partner with esports teams, as they are in Sweden or Denmark. That cooperation has given a significant financial boost to Finland’s competitors.

However, conditions are slowly changing in Finland as other corporate sponsors see the potential of getting involved with esports teams, just as they might with more traditional sports teams.

Esports teams have started to introduce small monthly salaries for players, and the number of coaches has also increased. But still, hardly anyone is paid fully for their services, and esports organisations struggle to financially support them at a grassroots level.

Sport, or unhealthy obsession? 

Over the last year or so, industry insiders have seen a shift in attitudes towards esports, especially in the media as gamers fight against stereotypes that what they do isn’t really ‘sport’, but an ‘unhealthy obsession’.

The misconceptions about esports is also reflected in how the government views them.

Last year, Minister for Sport Sampo Terho (Blue) highlighted the question about whether esports should be considered as a type of youth work, or a sport.

According to the Ministry of Education and Culture, esports have so far been treated as a youth culture phenomenon, and is supported with financial help for youth culture programmes, rather than being treated and funded like a sport.

At the same time, the Finnish Tax Authority Vero considers the income earned from playing esports, and any small monthly stipend that team members receive, to be sports-related earnings. And they’re taxed as such.

The Ministry concedes that the structures of esports are similar to traditional sports, even though the sport in general is still growing and infrastructure is developing over time. Yet they’re not providing funding on the same level of more traditional sports, despite the minister saying he’s looking for ways to give esports a more prominent profile.

File picture of Tuomas Konttinen playing / Credit: News Now Finland

Getting started in esport 

So how do talented amateur gamers get their start on the track to being professional esports athletes?

Joseph Blewitt from Nyyrikki Esports says competition against other players is the way in.

“Individuals start their esports journey as regular players in the ranked side of games to see how they can compete against other people that have a competitive personality trait.” explains Joseph Blewitt from Nyyrikki Esports.

”This then naturally leads to those people finding like-minded others and competing in various leagues or tournaments online and at events to promote their talent.”

The role of formal esports organisations – and later teams – is to spot those players, pick them up and work with them to develop their future potential as professionals.

Having a dedicated training centre available for esports could be the first step on their journey to competing in stadiums for lucrative cash prizes.

“Finnish esports is growing like crazy” says Shelter Game Room CEO Tuomas Konttinen.

“What we need is a few more major scale success stories and then it’s going to be all over the place.”