Gears of War’s esports scene has evolved quite a bit over the franchise’s history. It started as a mainly community-led endeavor with occasional tournaments by companies like Major League Gaming. Since then, Gears developer The Coalition has made strides to give the scene a professional edge beginning with more in-game competitive features in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and The Coalition’s development of the Gears Pro Circuit. However, with the scene’s grown, the team behind Gears esports has been careful to make sure there’s still respect and a celebration of the scene’s grassroots origins.
IGN sat down with Rose Gunson, the executive producer for the Gears Eleague series and Gears Esports creative manager at The Coalition, and Rod Fergusson, The Coalition’s studio head, to talk about the history of Gears esports, its future, and what makes it special.
How has Gears of War’s esports scene evolved over the years?
Gunson: When Gears was under Epic, the Esports was really being run by the community itself. So our players and our fans that we have today are the ones who were driving the esport forward. They were running community programs, they were running events in hotels, they were really pushing everything forward because they cared a lot about making sure that we had Gears esports. So with the launch of Gears 4, we announced a million dollar Pro Circuit through Major League Gaming, so for the first time ever we were giving that community the chance to have a huge high-level esport. It was really exciting for our community.
…we’ve kept the energy, the passion and just the enthusiasm that our fans had when they were running their own tournaments today…
Throughout Gears 4, we’ve run two seasons of the Gears Pro Circuit. We ran our first season starting with the launch of Gears 4 for about a year and then we ran season two of the Gears Pro Circuit which just wrapped up in April. So we’ve run events all around the world, primarily in Mexico and in the U.S., and we’ve had a lot of huge upsets in tournaments and we have a lot of team drama and rivalries. So where we are today with Gears Esports I would say we’ve come a long way from those grassroots community days, but at the same time we’ve kept the energy, the passion and just the enthusiasm that our fans had when they were running their own tournaments today in what we’re doing now with our Pro Circuit.
Fergusson: As we go through this process we’re going to try to crawl, walk, run through esports and get to a place that we’re happy with. And so we did. With Ultimate Edition we started our esports program. And then come along Gears 5, now we get into, “Okay, I think we’re walking now and we have big teams and we’re having amazing content and we’re having fantastic events. And our viewership is going up with every event we’re doing.”
The drop off is way slower [in Gears 4 against the original trilogy]. And I think part of that is the eSports. The fact that there are people who are invested in it and the content. And the fact that [about] two and a half years later, we just did our Season 2 finale and it had the highest viewership we’ve had since the beginning. I think that’s important to us. And so now as we look at Gears 5. I’m not expecting to fill a hockey arena and take over a city. But at the same time, we’re on Eleague and we’re going to be on national television. We’re going to have these great events and it’s continuing to grow. I’m really excited about what the future is. And our eSports team here is amazing. Rose is amazing with what she’s able to do with content because she reaches beyond just what is the game.
Aside from how Gears of Wars’ mechanics differ from other shooters, how is Gears’ esports scene unique?
Gunson: In terms of the way that the game runs itself, obviously we have a unique game and we have a really fun game to watch in terms of the storytelling and as you watch matches play themselves out like that in itself is very exciting, but also just the Gears Esports scene. So our players are some of the most passionate, excited, loud players out there. They do not hold back. If you come to a Gears Esports event, they are going to be out there screaming in your face, trash talking, getting up, pounding their chest. They love to be there and you can feel that energy at every single moment.
So an example of just what makes Gears Esports different, I would say if you [should] look at our open bracket. The way that our Pro Circuits work is we have three-day major tournaments where we start with an open bracket on Fridays and then we move forward to pool play on Saturdays and Sundays. Friday is the day where if you want to come see something completely different from any other esport, you come out and you’re going to see these teams sometimes coming out of nowhere. They’ve never played with each other, they just showed up, their name might be something completely crazy and they’re making it through the open bracket and a lot of times you’ll hear absolutely insane trash talk from these guys.
You’ll hear them get up and yell like, ‘I’m going to take money out of your bank account,’ or just scream something random that makes no sense and get up off of their chair. They’ll push everything out of the way and just stare down the guy on the other side and that is Gears Esports. You can feel like the sweat coming off of their face, you can feel like the energy just pounding out of them, and I say I’ve seen that a million times and I still can’t get over how much fun it is to just stand and watch one of those matches.
How do you help establish the difference between that fun, playful trash talk and toxicity?
Gunson: It is a fine line. We do spend a lot of time managing what can and cannot be said. Typically the direction that we take with it is we want people to have fun, and it is a mature rated game, so if they’re going to say something that’s already in our game, go for it. If they’re going to say something that’s just fun and it’s not going to necessarily offend somebody at their core, then we want that. We want that to be a part of our game. [Gears is] a mature game, we’re not going to pretend that we’re Minecraft, but at the end of the day the guidance that we’ve given them is we do not stand for, and we just as a community, are not a community that allows people to say anything that’s going to offend somebody at their core.
So they cannot say anything racist, they cannot say anything sexist, they cannot say anything that somebody watching at home is going to be offended by and our players know that. And they support that because there’s a diverse community. We have female players standing right next to them. We have people of every race coming and playing, so that’s our guidance. Have fun with it but the minute you make somebody feel horrible for existing, go home. And we’ve done a good job running that.
How is The Coalition working toward fostering new and diverse talent in your competitive community? And how do you see your role in that as the team that’s developing the Gears games?
Fergusson: Well our role is just to make sure we’re paying attention to it. Diversity doesn’t just happen, right? Diversity has to be a focus, it’s got to be something you think about. And so that’s something that I know Rose and her team is very focused on in terms of who you’re putting on as casters and who you’re putting on as anchors and who you have as players and who do you showcase is making sure that you’re providing a broad spectrum of experiences and stories to tell. Because you don’t just want the one perspective.
Part of the Gears esports program is just letting people come and have fun and play it.
Gunson: We have a lot of different grassroots and regional activations that we do for Gears esports. One of the things that we’ve done just in Season 2 of the Gears Pro Circuit that has been really successful, is we introduced a 2v2 tournament that we run just as a casual, come out and play, sign up the morning of, elements of our Gears Pro Circuit events. We believe that it is just as important for somebody who just loves Gears [to participate.] They might not have that 5-person professional team, they might not be able to commit to playing for a living, but they love our game and they want to play it and see if they are the best at it. And so we see people coming out from every age, every gender. We’ve got people that are showing up either they came out to the event as a spectator and then they decided, ‘you know what? I might be good enough,’ or they showed up specifically [for it] and they went and dragged their best friend or they pulled somebody that they played with online.
And I’ve seen 50-year-old dads come in and play with their sons. I’ve seen two young women from a sorority in college that pulled their sorority sister and decided to come play Gears on a Saturday. We do a lot of activations like that because it is core and important to us that as much as we want to see that pro level play, we also want to make sure that our game is really fun [and] people love to play it. Part of the Gears esports program is just letting people come and have fun and play it. We do showcase that diversity and I will say that we are one of the most diverse esports out there because of that.
Do you think the Eleague partnership will help tell that story too?
Gunson: Absolutely. The Eleague partnership is definitely going to show off that diversity, it’s going to show off our whole scene. As much as the focus is on these six players and between [them there are] very diverse backgrounds. So we have players from New York, we have a player that lives in Dallas in the Optic house, we have a player from the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, we have a player from small-town Mexico, so just across the board from that standpoint, each of these players has a completely different background and can speak to how they got into Gears from that background.
You can see the fact that not everybody comes in from the same way but they all maybe ended up in the same place. And then beyond that, we’re also going to tell the stories of who supports them in the community. Early on we have a player that played with his girlfriend who was a professional player, we have players that maybe came out of playing with players that they met at the Microsoft store in New York and now they’ve raised up and they’ve gotten to this top level. but those guys still supported them at some point. So it’s not just about the very top tier players that live in a team house, it’s also just about our scene and the diversity that exists within that.
What are The Coalition’s goals for esports? The entire esports scene as a whole varies so much, and Gears as a franchise is pretty unique in that each Gears game has at least three core modes with fans who appreciate different parts of it.
Fergusson: Well, success for me, I wouldn’t be allergic to having an arena filled with people banging air tubes together to make noise. I’d be okay with that. I just want it to continue to grow and evolve. And I want to continue to be proud. When we wrapped up Season 2, I sent a mail to Rose and her team to say, ‘Look I just want you to know that I’m really proud about what the program does.’ It’s not just about hey, how do you cater to an elite player? But it’s about how we represent the brand. And how we represent the game, too. And how we represent the players of our game. Like I said, her stories talk about who Gears of War players are, and what the game means to them. And to me, showing that out, projecting that out about who these people are is really important to me. And so I think success is about finding a way to highlight the fans, highlight the game, highlight the stories, but not to the detriment of people who are competitive but not eSports players.
Gunson: The goal for Gears esports I would say is not only to grow it and to have it be seen as what would be considered a top tier, top of the line esport, but also to do that in a way where we are still maintaining the roots and the passion and the energy of the early stages of Gears esports. So as much as we want to get to that level, we want to get to that Dota 2 International stage, we want to get to the point where we are filling out stadiums and we get to see the fact that we have people turning out at huge levels, sporting event levels to see our game, but we want to do that in a way that’s authentic to Gears esports.
We’re never going to do that and change who we are as a game, who we are as a community because that’s what makes Gears esports so interesting and exciting. We’re going to keep that diversity, we want to make sure that when we get there people are coming in and seeing a completely different esport, they’re seeing the trash talk, they’re seeing our players get out there and feel authentic and show themselves off and I think we are going to do that and we’re going to do it in our own way and we’re going to do it through storytelling and we’re going to do it through building our program up. As we see it, we’ve gone from our crawl, walk, run stage for esports and we’re really starting to hit that run phase.
The Coalition is revealing Gears 5’s multiplayer in an Eleague tournament on July 13 – 14. The Eleague Gears Summer Series: The Bonds of Betrayal is currently airing on TBS and Twitch on Fridays. For even more on Gears 5, be sure to read and watch all of the coverage from the Gears 5 IGN First including hands-on impressions with Gears 5 Escape, details on Gears 5’s cosmetics systems, and hear Rod Fergusson on the latest episode of Unlocked.
Miranda Sanchez is an executive editor at IGN. You can chat with her about video games and anime on Twitter.