Interview: Dominic Sacco talks about the State of British Esports

Esports is worldwide, but that doesn’t mean all of the regions are equal in their progress. South Korea and China are, without a doubt, at the head of the pack with parts of the EU and North America close behind.

One of NASEF’s partners is the British Esports Association (BEA) who focuses on British Esports. We reached out to their Head of Content, Dominic Sacco, to get a better idea of what British esports look like in 2020.

Dominic Sacco, British Esports Association Head of Content

Dominic Sacco, British Esports Association Head of Content

To begin with, can you give me a brief introduction of yourself and what you do for BEA?

I’m Dominic Saco and I’m the head of Content for BEA. I’m responsible for video content, articles, special media content, press releases, and things like that. Anything that goes out I’m responsible for that. I work closely with our marketing manager, Morgan, around all of that. 

In terms of BEA, we’re a Not for profit set up to promote/support grassroots esports. We talk to media, government, parents, and teachers trying to educate people around the benefits and positive aspects of esports: team building, social and leadership skills, communication, making friends.

The main product we have is the British Esports Championships, which is a series of tournaments for students age 12 and above in the UK.

Is that the main way schools are getting involved in esports in the UK?

Yeah, I’d say so. There are a few other initiatives—Digital Schoolhouse and Esports Scotland—there are a few organizations that have done things with schools, but to be honest, we’ve helped a lot of those guys facilitate those activities. 

For example, we have Michael O’Dell on our advisory board and he is the founder of Dignitas. He’s also the managing director of the London Royal Ravens. He’s given a few talks in schools that we helped arrange. Then Excoundrel is a top caster here in Britain, we’ve helped him give some talks at universities as well. I’d say we are one of the main bodies focusing on the education aspect in the UK.

So what does British Esports look like now; I look at South Korea and it’s been thriving there for more than a decade, I look at China and the growth there is immense. So what about Britain?

It’s definitely growing in Britain. I think if you go back five or ten years and looked at the state of esports here it would be behind other territories. We’ve always had an affinity for consoles. We’ve always been good at producing esports players around console games like the old Call of Duty titles and Halo, but we’ve never really sort of kicked on with the big games. There’s been a real absence of talent in games like DOTA 2.

Over the past five or six years, we’ve seen a lot of tournament operators doing a lot of activities in Britain. There are more events now, the Insomnia Gaming Festival got bigger, we’ve got epic.LAN. We’ve also seen a big rise at the university level.

We’ve got National Student Esports (NSE) hosting tournaments just at universities. Because of all these activities, and because we’ve had some big events here like ESL 1 Birmingham, esports has really risen in the UK and we’re seeing more talent emerge, and not just at the player level. I will say about Britain, we have some of the best hosts and casters in the world. We get picked to host a lot of the top tournaments in the world. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the British accent or our sense of humor, but top esports providers really like British casters and hosts.

We’ve really increased in prominence in the past five or six years and I hope to see that continue in the next five or six years and beyond.

One thing you touched on was major tournaments—in EU, we see a lot of the big tournaments like DreamHack are often hosted in places like Katowice, is that something you’d like to see come to the UK in order to help British esports grow?

It’s funny you should say that, when I started covering esports in late 2015, we had DreamHack London. But unfortunately, for whatever reason, it wasn’t a success. There weren’t loads of people there as far as I could tell.

Britain is a bit of a funny one, we tend to get these one-off big events, like the Face-it CS:GO event, Rocket League finals, Clash Royale finals, but as far as a big regular thing like LEC, or LCS as it in America, we don’t have something like that. Because of Covid-19, it’s halted even more.

We do have a lot of good talent in FIFA as well. I like that we’re doing the ePremier League. We have some good talent in Street Fighter as well. I would like to see something more regular like the LEC because at the moment we just have those once in a blue moon events and then we move on to the smaller, grassroots events.

I would like to see more, but with things like Brexit, that’s probably put tournament operators off, and it probably causes difficulties for people getting over here. Of course, I welcome more big events here in the future.

To go with that, big stars from countries will often be a big draw for new players from the same country, for Britain, I know there are a few pros in the Overwatch and Call of Duty scene, but how is the star power in Britain? Do students know about these players?

Those top pro players will always be seen as role models and students will look up to them. You’re right, we do have a lot of pros in Call of Duty, the London Royal Ravens, FIFA has a few big ones. We have historically been big in those console games. We have a big fighting game scene here in London. Benjamin “Problem X” Simon is one of the big Street Fighter pros and he won EVO in 2018.

Students do look up to them, and not just players, casting talent as well. We interviewed Medic the other day and we had a lot of students on that stream very inspired by him and asking him questions. It is important and we try to connect with those top orgs and pro players as often as possible. 

We’ve got a very good relationship with Excel Esports where we’ve had access to their team and their coaching team and they coach our winners of our British Esports Championship, which is great. Before Covid-19, our students were able to get a tour of their facility and it was a great experience for them. While we’re focused on the grassroots, it’s important to have links with the pro level because even if you’re in the grassroots scene, the pro level will probably be your target.

There’s one more question I wanted to ask you about the pro level: with the Overwatch League, you have the London Spitfire, owned by Cloud9, representing Britain, but it’s an all-Korean team. It struck a few people as odd to have an all-Korean team representing London, but did you have any thoughts on that?

That was a decision made by Cloud9 and their partners at the time. There are two things here: it’s kind of the nature of these franchise leagues. You have franchises pop up representing regions around the world, but those regions will ultimately want to do their best to win. If that means getting outside talent, so be it.

If you look at football (soccer), I’m an Arsenal fan, if you look at our glory years 15 or so years ago, Arséne Wenger came over from France and he was one of the first ones, from what I can remember, in the English system to go for outside talent. In England, you historically have a lot of English talent.

Wenger brought over French players like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry and players from the Netherlands like Dennis Bergkamp—he brought this multitude of different cultures and backgrounds and it worked.

Photo Credit: Susie Kim, Former Spitfire GM

Photo Credit: Susie Kim, Former Spitfire GM

For me, there’s no reason why we can’t do that in esports as well. I have no problems with it. But of course, I’m biased, it is nice to see British players representing like the London Royal Ravens, but if you try and do that you limit yourself. There isn’t a massive abundance of talent in Britain in the top tier esports.

There’s only a handful of pro players in the LoL and CS:GO scene, VALORANT we’re looking quite good, so that’s quite encouraging. I don’t mind too much, and I will say, Cloud9, for their Academy team, the British Hurricane, they do focus on British players there. They are trying to do more.

BEA has created a formidable Women in Esports Committee to further campaign and promote diversity and inclusivity within esports – Why and how?

It’s a great question. The why is a number of reasons. I’ve been following the Women in Esports and Gaming topic for several years now and done a few pieces on it. I went to IEM in 2015 when Intel had only recently launched their female CS:GO tournaments. I was able to interview a few of the female pro players and I asked them about the problems, and it was all very online. The harassment comes online.

I remember asking them if they get the same harassment offline and it was always no, not like they get online. So I knew it was an issue and I tried to use my platform at Esports News and also at British Esports to help educate around this.

What it came down to was, the CEO of British Esports, Chester King, met with an organization called Female Legends, a Swedish organization set up to promote female talent and make esports more diverse in Sweden and around Europe.

He had the call with them and emailed me afterward asking for more pictures of women on the website. Female Legends had said one of the problems with lack of diversity were the little things. If there are no pictures of women on the website and you’re a leading esports organization like we are, what message does that send out?

That was a great point. Some weeks we will have pictures of women and other weeks it’s not something I consciously thought of. I thought this was good because I learned something from this and let’s make it balanced. Then I thought, if this is an issue around diversity then we should be doing more than making sure the number of pictures on our website is equal. 

I had the idea to do a campaign, and my background is in journalism and I’ve done a few campaigns, one even got into Parliament and MPs were talking about it. Because of that, I brought it up in a team meeting and our chairman, Andy Payne, had the great idea of Women in Esports and let the women on our team spearhead it.

Morgan Ashurst and Alice Leaman were really excited to spearhead it and launch it. The team provided a bit of input, but it was mainly the two of them. That’s the why, and I guess that’s the how too. At the moment, we’ve done a lot of content around Women in Esports, interviewing them about their roles and what they do. Giving them some prominence.

We want to do more now. I know Morgan and Alice have been talking about doing a Women in Esports tournament and networking events, though everything is on hold due to Covid-19. We’re looking at doing virtual events and lots of different ideas beyond content.

I am very happy to see progress being made in this area in recent years. There is still a lack of pro women players, but we do have a lot of good female talent in esports and gaming: hosts, production staff, journalists, marketing executives, performance coaches. We’re seeing a lot more women in esports come through.

I hope that’s given you sort of a rounded answer and insight into our Women in Esports campaign.

Definitely. Last thing, any final thoughts about British Esports or the future of British Esports?

I’m just really excited to be part of this journey. To see esports grow in Britain and around the world. It’s great to have partners like NASEF on board because you do a lot of excellent work in America and we have a lot of synergies with you guys.

It’s great to be working on initiatives together, you did the Minecraft Masters recently and one of our teams made the finals.

At the end of the day, esports is all about having fun. It’s video games, we’ve got to have fun. It’s all about the community as well, so having those partnerships with associations like yourselves, I would like to see more from the industry in terms of collaboration and fewer organizations/people trying to own parts of esports. It’s owned by everyone. Let’s all get along and work for the benefit of esports.

All Photos, except where noted, courtesy of British Esports Association