There has long been a debate about whether eSports, an organised form of multiplayer video game competitions, between professional players and teams, are a real sport. A sport such as football and a video game, such as Fortnite, both require a set of specialised skills. Like many other sports, eSports require great hand-eye coordination, strategising, teamwork and communication and countless hours of practice. In the past decade, eSports has become one of the fastest growing industries in the world and is an increasingly lucrative career. Much like athletic sports, eSports organisations have team owners, contracts and partnerships that fund multiple teams for a diverse selection of tournaments.
First person shooters (FPS) and real time strategy (RTS), as well as the latter’s sub-genre of multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games are some of the most popular genres at eSports tournaments. Titles such as Call of Duty, Street Fighter, League of Legends, Overwatch, PUBG and Fortnite are among the favourites of top competitors and casual players alike. Over the last ten years or so, eSports has become one of the fastest growing industries in the world; and just like athletic sports, eSports organisations have team owners, contracts and partnerships that fund multiple teams for a diverse selection of games.
I sat down with Cholwe Shabukali, to talk about her journey starting the first eSports organisation in Zambia, Team Gematrix. “I approached my business partner, Prince Musole, and suggested we start a business involving something that we love, and we both love gaming. At the time I didn’t have a clue of what the business would be exactly, but I had this idea of doing something that would be an annual event. So I came up with the Gamers Entertainment Meet [GEM],” she recounts.
Cholwe cites Lukonga Lindunda, co-founder and executive director of BongoHive, as one of the people that helped her and her business partner pursue their passion by entering them in the Launch Accelerator programme at BongoHive. The Launch Accelerator programme taught them about business models, marketing, problem solving and strategic management. “That led us to not only be motivated by our passion for gaming but to think with a business mindset. The business knowledge we acquired made us assess what would work and have more of a long-term impact. We realised a one off event every year wasn’t what we needed. We moved away from our initial plan and tried our hand at game development, which we failed at horribly,” she chuckles.
It’s at that point Cholwe and Prince went back to the drawing board and decided on starting up a team in competitive gaming. “Our next step at that point was to find talented gamers. Prince and I organised a tournament to find that talent. We had a bit of money saved up, which we used to rent TVs and gaming consoles. Some friends helped us out with a few other things, and we got sponsorship from Huawei, MTN and BongoHive. The aim of the tournament was to find the best of the best, so we came up with the slogan, DARE TO BE THE BEST.”
It’s from that tournament that the future members of Team Gematrix: Justin Banda (aka Mr 5000), Kevin ‘Messi’ Tembo, Mwelele Zaza, Chimba Mutale and John ‘Neymar,’ Mwape were selected. Cholwe reached out to the players in December of 2017, and by February of 2018 they were signing contracts, making the team official. Team Gematrix mainly competes in NetherRealm Studios games and FIFA.
In March of 2018 Team Gematrix was invited to Kenya to participate in a huge tournament, Pro Series Gaming (PSG). The team sought out sponsorship to help get them to Kenya, but to no avail. Fortunately, by dipping into their own savings they managed to fly two of their players, Justin Banda and Mwelele Zaza, accompanied by Cholwe, out to Kenya for the tournament. Justin won first place and the equivalent of K50,000 in prize money. Mwelele placed third and won the equivalent of K10,000. The victory did not go unnoticed and the team was interviewed by some of Kenya’s biggest TV networks.
Later in 2018, Team Gematrix received an invite to another big tournament, the Evolution Championship Series, commonly referred to as Evo, in Las Vegas. The team opted to send Justin to represent them at Evo, which is the world’s largest fighting game tournament. Justin placed 75th out of 300 players from around the world.
Team Gematrix was the first African team to participate at Evo. “We were the first African team. Not person, not spectator, but team. Our main reason for going to Evo was to make a foundation for ourselves as a team in the global fighting game scene. We wanted people to know that we are here, and at the end of the tournament they did. A lot of American players were curious about our jerseys, and took an interest in our backstory. It was a great way for us to integrate into the global gaming community. eSports are about going across borders, race, sexual orientation and culture. So we don’t just plan to be a team from Zambia. We have future plans of representing and signing players from everywhere,” Cholwe explained.
Team Gematrix’s hope for 2019 is to participate in The African Continental Championship and Combo Breaker in Chicago. They also hope to meet Ed Boon, the co-creator of Mortal Kombat, and creative director at NetherRealm Studios.