Meet Chris Puckett — esport host

Chris Puckett interviews the crowd at the MLG Major in Columbus, Ohio

Chris Puckett interviews the crowd at the MLG Major in Columbus, Ohio

Chris Puckett, from Columbus, Ohio, has the all-American boyish looks of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The 30-year-old’s wholesome appearance is important. It underpins his employer’s attempts to sell a burgeoning industry, often dismissed as the preserve of bedroom-lurking nerds: electronic sports (esports) — or competitive computer gaming.

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Emma Jacobs

The former Halo gamer, who as a teen played the Microsoft game for prize money, is a presenter broadcasting to viewers following esport tournaments livestreamed on smartphones or computers — but also to the thousands of people who come to watch gaming events in stadiums all over the world.

The ultimate aim is for esports to be as big as basketball or football. In 2015, the global audience for esports was 188m viewers, according to Superdata, a market research company. It predicts that number will grow to 303m by 2019. Revenues are forecast to reach $ 893m this year through advertising, ticket sales, sponsorship and merchandising.

Mr Puckett is frequently stopped by gaming enthusiasts wanting him to sign their mousemats (esports being the last refuge of the mousemat, helping players’ comfort and precision).

He is employed by Activision Blizzard Media Networks, a dedicated esports division of game publisher Activision Blizzard, with the mission to broaden esports’ appeal. Mike Sepso, vice-president, sees potential for growth in western Europe and North America.

“They’re the markets that have lagged behind the Asian markets in terms of competitors and viewers,” says Mr Sepso.

Activision Blizzard joined forces with Facebook last month to deliver live coverage of the Major League Gaming Anaheim Open — a two-day tournament for players of Call of Duty. The event was streamed over the social media site and included additional content presented by Mr Puckett, such as highlights, statistics, interviews, and commentary.

James "Clayster" Eubanks of the Faze team, focused on the competition at the MLG Anaheim Open

James “Clayster” Eubanks of the Faze team, focused on the competition at the MLG Anaheim Open

Video-game companies, players, esports organisers and broadcasters want esports’ profile to grow into a widespread spectator sport. In August, for example, a two-day international event will be held in Rio de Janeiro alongside the Olympics and organised by the new International eGames Committee.

The sport has even had its own drug scandal — in this case it was not steroids but Adderall, a drug used by students to help them focus in exams.

In tournaments, players may game for up to 12 hours a day. Knock-out tournaments can be held over a weekend or over several weeks.

This year, ESPN and Yahoo launched dedicated esports channels on their websites. There is widespread online streaming of games on dedicated sites such as Twitch, which is owned by Amazon.

Mr Puckett is part of Activision Blizzard’s strategy to make esports appealing to a broad audience. His energy and enthusiasm is infectious — even to someone, like me, who feels 105 years old when talking to him — and he is bound to win over parents worried about their children spending too much time playing video games or watching esports.

He has also guest-hosted on TBS, the satellite and cable channel owned by the Turner Broadcasting System division of Time Warner, another sign that established media organisations are trying to capture gaming enthusiasts.

Not only is Mr Puckett a host but he also continues to “shoutcast” — analyse play by play, much like a football commentator. He is the “hype man”, hanging out with fans, getting the audience involved, interviewing the pro players. “I wear all the hats in production, behind the scenes and in front of the camera as well,” he says.

Mr Sepso says of his employee: “He can connect with the [core] audience [because] he’s of their demographic, and of their mindset and he’s been one of the few that has also been able to resonate with the broader audience.”

On Mr Puckett’s part, he not only analyses his presentation style but says it is essential to be well-versed in first-person “shooter” games, such as Call of Duty, Counterstrike and the new title, Overwatch.

As a child Mr Puckett was a fan of video games. “I wasn’t the best at sports but I was always better than my older brother at video games, so that’s really what got me into it.”

When Microsoft launched the Xbox in 2001, the 15-year-old Mr Puckett picked one up and held a big party at his family home. After that, his friends would come to his house every weekend and play.

“Eventually we figured out we were pretty good and people in the next town wanted to challenge us and we would drive around and play other people.” They would travel anywhere within an eight-hour drive, and play for a small wager. It was, he reflects, like being a “pool shark”.

Soon he was making more money from competing in video games competitions than working in his part-time pizza restaurant job. His father, a paper salesman, and mother, a receptionist at the local church, were baffled. In order to educate them, he invited his father to games who eventually acted as a referee, despite having to ask the players who had won.

While studying marketing at university, Mr Puckett began helping to run tournaments for Major League Gaming, the esports company, founded by Mr Sepso and his partner, Sundance DiGiovanni. (It was later acquired by Activision Blizzard).

They offered him a job as promotions manager in New York when he was 19. His parents were furious, but he was determined, so in 2004 his mother drove him from Ohio to New York and dropped him off. “I didn’t realise how painful that must have been for her. I was just, like, ‘I’m not going to live in your house. I’m going to go do this.’”

He ditched the degree, he says, because he was learning more from esports than at university and he wanted to win over a casual audience, rather than just the obsessives.

Times have changed considerably since he was hustling in amateur tournaments, he says. His parents have become his business managers, overseeing endorsements in an industry where players compete for millions of dollars. “They [have] become a little family industry.”

Players compete in the open bracket at the MLG Anaheim Open 2016

Players compete in the open bracket at the MLG Anaheim Open 2016

By contrast, $ 574 was the largest sum of prize money Mr Puckett ever won in a single event.

Today, teams of competitors even have physical training and a performance coach on leadership. “It’s pretty awesome to see the sports psychology coming into gaming,” he says.

The stereotype of esports players as bedroom-dwelling nerds is wrong, he insists.

“I spent most of my time with my friends probably on Xbox Live when I was in high school. I would see my friends at class but then after class, we’d be playing together and we continue those conversations.” It can be a social activity. “I have real-life friends all over the planet now that I get to see [who] I’ve met through gaming and it’s really cool to go meet them and see their face for the first time.”

Today, his parents are proud of his pioneering. “[My parents] are able to break it down to their church friends or golf buddies. A lot of times they’ll just say I’m the Al Michaels or the Chris Berman [US sports commentators] of video games.”

For most sports players turned presenters, the time to leave the pitch or court is obvious: they become less speedy, their muscle tone softens, reactions slow. To some extent this was the case for Mr Puckett too.

“There’s a time where you don’t have as much fun as you used to playing, and when you find yourself struggling to put in that time of practice and you don’t see improvements.”

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