For a few years now, I’ve been looking to get into more competitive gaming. I have always been a humongous fan of esports, especially StarCraft and the fighting game community. When I was living in the UK, I had some minor success at a few Street Fighter IV tournaments, taking third twice at Play Expo after losing to a skilled sixteen year old girl who played Chun-Li, and managing to take second place in an admittedly very small Dead Or Alive 5 tournament. I enjoyed the games, but always felt like I merely dabbled in a wide variety, and I wanted to instead focus on one, and get really good at it, perhaps enough to enter some of the more serious tournaments.
I decided that I wanted this to be Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, as it has become one of my favourite fighters ever. The vibrancy, craziness, speed and variety all blend together into a whirlwind of a fighting game and, amazingly, it’s hosted at many major tournaments whereas Skullgirls for example (another of my options to focus on) isn’t, probably on account of the game being five years old now.
I practiced hard, although admittedly only against CPU as we had no internet. I spent hours in training mode honing combos, mixups, crossups, and blockstrings over and over again. I took on Rev 2’s awesome Mission Mode and began to S Rank my way through it all. Then we got our internet back and I headed online.
The first sinking feeling came when the online lobby areas where either “Asia”, “Europe/Australia”, “North America (East)”, and “North America (West)”. There was no “Africa”. This may sound par for the course to a westerner, but I’ll come back to why this is surprising later on.
Browsing through the lobbies, I found that the only ones that were active were Tokyo based. Of course, there’s a language barrier, but we’re here to talk with our fists. The barrier I would face was, instead, the frame lag. You see, my internet here in Victoria Falls is a little weird, our ISP server is in Maputo, Mozambique. From there, the signal travels up the east coast of Africa, across Asia to China, then through to Japan. And back again. 19 frames of input lag is a lot. Most people consider it too laborious at about 7-8 frames, so more than double that is completely unplayable.
I found that one of two things happened: I would either enter a match and be obliterated on account of being unable to react to mixups, or to reliably input my own commands; or my opponents would see my frame data, decide the fight wasn’t worth it and stand motionless or do nothing but walk towards me until I had finished the round, then refuse future matchups. As such, I was stuck in a lobby where half the players weren’t willing to fight me, and the other half were just destroying me. After 30 mins of this, I was done, and this is coming from a guy who can slammed his head against Lady Maria in Bloodborne for literally six hours straight for his first kill.
I tried Street Fighter and found the same, the server bases were obviously in Europe and I couldn’t find a single opponent with more than 1/5 connection. Tekken 7 was worst of all with the game running so frustratingly laggy that it was like watching a slideshow presentation. This, most of all, is worrying because I have been super hyped about Soul Calibur VI, but being made by Bandai Namco, I worry that it’s a pointless purchase since I won’t be able to play online. All of this because Africa isn’t supported or even considered a market.
So why is the lack of “African” lobbies/servers surprising? To the West, I suppose Africa is considered the “Dark Continent”, in the sense that people assume we’re all living in mud and thatch houses, with generators for electricity. We have cities and towns just like the rest of the world. We have decent internet (even though it’s admittedly ridiculously expensive) and good phone connectivity, and that’s here in Zimbabwe. South Africa has properly cosmopolitan and urban cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. Every year for the past eighteen years, Johannesburg has played host to “rAge Expo”, a gaming convention. I don’t even think that London has a show with such a pedigree.
Recently, South Africa sent its first eSports teams abroad for both CSGO and Hearthstone and there’s a solid community for World of Tanks and Call of Duty. As eSports are becoming a bigger and bigger industry, with gaming already being such a gigantic industry in itself, this is a humongous untapped market. The gamers are here, they’re playing the games, creating communities, getting good and then… there’s nothing we can do outside of our own little spheres. It’s all very good playing a group of mates at Street Fighter, but that only gets you so far. Gaming is moving online. No, scratch that. Gaming HAS moved online to the point that it’s genuinely a novelty to find split screen multiplayer in anything outside of fighting games.
If eSports are headed for the world stage, there’s a whole load of competitors here, an entire market almost completely untapped.
The only game I could get working reliably for multiplayer was Mortal Kombat X and it’s telling that a $10,000 prize pool tournament was held in Nairobi not that long ago and last weekend, a locally organised casual tournament for it was held in Harare. The game has built an African community by the simple act of including Africa. My main competitive game is now going to be Mortal Kombat X, and likely Mortal Kombat 11when it lands, purely because it’s actually supported here. Conversely, when Soul Calibur VI finally launches, I’ll think twice about buying it for fear that the online aspect, the main part of the game, is going to be missing for me, even though I’m paying full price for it. This is make or break stuff.
The thing is that there are plenty of games that run just fine. Monster Hunter World has gripped my attention and the online grouping is almost flawless (occasional disconnects). I play a lot of Vainglory, a mobile MOBA that runs steady for me with the occasional lag spike or rubber-banding (and I’m on EU servers). Friends of mine play Fortnite with no concern at all.
On the flip side, however, I really wanted to get into Overwatch, but I had a quick chat with friends in better connections in Cape Town and Johannesburg and they tried it, but it’s a constant 200-300ms ping which makes certain abilities useless because players just cannot react in time. My research took me deeper and Southern Africa has been experiencing this with Blizzard for a long time (think Burning Crusade, World of Warcraft) and it has never been addressed. Starcraft, Warcraft, Overwatch, none of these can be played competitively in southern Africa because we just cannot get good connections to their servers. The community is there wanting to play these games, but can’t. They’re skilled and willing to part with money, but feel let down by companies.
Now, I’m not talking about necessarily installing dedicated African servers, I know what that would do for matchmaking, but it’s clearly possible for companies to address this, and the few that are addressing it are finding the community is here and supportive, but we’ve just got to be careful as to how we spend our money for competitive gaming to ensure we don’t drop $60 on a product that is ultimately unusable.