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Sports-mad nation embraces E Blacks as ‘historic moment’ looms in Birmingham

The New Zealand Esports Federation has battled hard to gain recognition, challenge perceptions, and ensure their finest will be at the Commonwealth Esports Championships next month

Jonathan Jansen is well aware that adopting the term E Blacks for New Zealand’s esports national squad might be the most important move the New Zealand Esports Federation (NZESF) ever makes.

“It stirs excitement, it’s familiar to people who haven’t been part of our world. We love it,” said Jansen, the NZESF’s first CEO. “Kids can point to the E Blacks and say to their parents: ‘look this is something that looks and feels familiar to you and you can understand, and it shows you why this (esports) is so important to me’.

“It has really helped break down barriers and make esports more inclusive.”

In fact, it effectively defines NZESF’s mission statement.

“We had skeptics, people who were saying that we don’t need sports, why are you trying to be a sports body?” said Jansen. “But from our perspective, we see it much more as an opportunity to help parents or other stakeholders understand the space.

“The sporting system is a way we can do what we do, but make it recognizable for people, so they see it as familiar and less threatening.”

It is a persuasive argument and one that is clearly working. Last month the E Blacks took on their Australian rivals in the first ever esports trans-Tasman test match. With the huge prize of an offer of Oceania regional qualification spots for the Commonwealth Esports Championships, the New Zealand public tuned in en masse. Broadcast on linear channel Sky Sports 2, viewing numbers peaked at 50,000 – far more than the average figures for daily sports broadcasts. Add on the 20,000 watching on Twitch and you can see why Jansen is so excited.

“In traditional esports you may have teams like Renegades or 100 Thieves compete, but to a general viewer that doesn’t mean anything. Those teams come and go and they split up, and it’s hard to follow a brand like that, but when they see New Zealand v Australia you immediately know who you are backing, what the story is, and what it means to you,” Jansen explained.

“So, we got incredible buy-in. For the first time, we had sponsors coming to us. We had player interviews in our studio. You could barely move in the studio with all the media trying to catch this magical moment.”

Jansen, a lifelong gamer, became the NZESF’s first CEO in November last year when the organization finally secured esports as an officially recognized sport in New Zealand. This momentous step not only ensured financial independence for the NZESF itself but also opened up a vast range of opportunities for esports athletes.

“Last month we were in a room with 15 of the top sports scientists in the country: the No.1 sleep scientist, the No.1 nutritionist, biomechanics, sports physios, you name it,” Jansen said.

“These are the same people who train our top athletes, our Olympians, and we were asking how we determine what makes a high-performance esports athlete?

“We were planning out how we do nerve response testing, audio and visual benchmarks, focus tests; defining how much general fitness you need to be in the best cognitive position for stamina or focus.”

It all paints an inspiring picture, even in spite of the financial struggle to get the E Blacks to the UK for the CEC.

“It’s very expensive for us to get over there, but I have appreciated the experience. In the esports world, (it) having spawned through entertainment, a lot of people see the glam aspect of it - the players with massive salaries and the US$10m tournament pools - and they expect that is what it’s like,” Jansen said.

“But this is an opportunity, through a sports lens, for us to reset those expectations and say it’s not all money and glitz until you’ve made it.

For them (E Blacks) to see other top New Zealand athletes fundraising to get to the (Commonwealth) Games, and having to go through a similar experience themselves and work for it, they have felt this means a lot more to them.”

In short, the DOTA 2 Open team and one eFootball athlete, who will represent the E Blacks at the CEC, will be “playing for national pride”. And, by the looks of it, New Zealand will be right behind them.

Get your tickets to the first ever Commonwealth Esports Championships today.


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