Callum Swan plays Call of Duty a lot better than you, or me, or just about anyone else here in the UK.
That’s because he’s one of the best players in the world, and as part of Team Millenium (and before that Team Epsilon) has become a case study on how to turn a love of video games, into a financially viable career.
Call of Duty XP:
Despite being just 23, Callum “Swanny” Swan speaks with a slow measured wisdom that defies his years. Going from playing local area network (LAN) tournaments where players would compete against each other in the same room Swanny has taken his skills quite literally from a basement in HMV to the Call of Duty World League.
Following our conversation with US eSports legend Damon “Karma” Barlow, we got the chance to sit down with Swanny to discuss how he got into gaming for a living, why eSports is as much a sport as any other, and how the UK’s perception of professional video games is slowly, but surely, changing.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:
What’s the difference between a gamer like me who’s in their living room and the gamer that plays competitively?
Aside from the copious amounts of hours that we put into it I think the easiest analogy would be that it’s simply like anything else at a professional level, and in order to do this at a professional level there are certain characteristics you need to have. It’s like the equivalent of say someone who plays a bit of five-a-side and comparing them to a professional footballer.
I think one of the main things actually that differentiates the perspective of a casual player from an eSports athlete is that they perceive it from a strategic point of view, whereas from a casual perspective you’re still acknowledging the aesthetics of the game and the storyline and you’re really appreciating and soaking all that in.
Whereas, and at least speaking from a personal point of view, we approach it solely with the mentality of “How can we win?”.
So we break things down strategically, we’re not really concerned with how the map looks, as opposed to the layout of the map and how you can influence certain things on the map, so I think we pay more attention to the mechanical aspects of the game.
While obviously you need to be having fun to pursue anything at a professional level there comes a point when you need to sacrifice that in order to win.
What are the traits that are needed to be a professional eSports player?
You need that inherent competitive nature. I think I’d go as far as to say that if a lot of these guys weren’t competing professionally, myself especially, if we weren’t competing in Call of Duty or in eSports then we’d need another competitive outlet in life, whether it was joining a football team or playing a sport.
How did you get into playing Call of Duty competitively?
I think the catalyst for me was Call of Duty XP in 2011. It was the first of its kind, it was a million dollar tournament so there was a huge disparity between that tournament and anything that had come before it.
The first event I was playing for I won £50, I won that in the basement of a HMV store in Manchester. A year later we were flown out to LA competing for a million dollars against the best teams in the world.
It was literally a team full of mates, me and three other mates we met online. It started as more of a social thing, and then at XP we came fourth, which was $100,000 split between four of us. At the age of 18 that’s obviously an incredibly significant amount of money.
That was when I think the light bulb came on and I thought, well I could choose to pursue this or choose to pursue education. I could always return to education whereas this I don’t know where it’s going to go.
There’s also that initial excitement at being one of the original players and I still consider myself a bit of a pioneer in a way, especially in the UK. This is a rapidly emerging industry and it’s still very young. I’d rather take that chance and see if I can help make this competitive sport grow.
I mean can you describe Call of Duty XP the first time you went? What was it like?
It was surreal, especially the final reward. It didn’t really sink in until a few months later when I got the cheque through the door and that was when I could actually justify it to my parents.
I think that’s one of the key things because at the time there was something of a stigma behind gaming and behind spending prolonged hours in your bedroom playing video games. However, because of eSports and events such as this and the work that Activision are doing with the Call of Duty World League eSports, gaming in general has lost that stigma. I guess it’s no longer a scapegoat for the media or for parents.
I think we’ve transcended the definition of a niche...
I’ve been so immersed in this industry for so long now that I’ve seen the change in society as a whole and how it’s being perceived in society, I think culturally it’s a lot more accepted now than it used to be.
One of the easiest ways to compare is that when we travel over to the US. It has always been a lot more culturally acceptable to play video games both as a hobby and as a sport over there and in other parts of the world. However now the UK is actually reaching the level where it’s starting to receive positive mainstream media coverage, it’s not being scapegoated it’s actually now legitimised in a way.
I think we’ve transcended the definition of a niche definitely. People for the last few years didn’t actually acknowledge that eSports was an emerging industry, at the time they just regarded it as a niche fad, but now people are recognising that this is here to stay.
Statistically it’s justified too because of the viewership numbers of events such as this, the World Championship. Of course a real added benefit is that the rise of eSports is coinciding with the digital age and the fact that online broadcasting is starting to overtake traditional broadcasting.
This digital age has been integral to the growth of eSports, not particularly in terms of the game and how the game is played but just the supplementary content. All of that just contributes towards advertising and publicising it and putting it out there.
What’s the lifestyle of a professional eSports player like?
It’s by no means glamorous and rock starry although we are travelling a lot. I think the main thing people misconceive is that they only see us when we’re travelling. When we’re not travelling it’s actually incredibly rigorous and I would even go so far as to say that it is equally as mentally strenuous as many conventional sports or many physical sports although of course it inherently lacks the physicality.
I’m not just talking about the bigger tournaments but when you are spending prolonged hours leading up to a competition we could be playing for in excess of ten hours a day – even seven days a week. That’ll involve just constantly rehearsing strategy, discussing it together, implementing it in the game, watching the our own plays, watching the other teams play and watching their strategy.
We could be playing for in excess of ten hours a day – even seven days a week.
So it’s not simply just sitting down, holding a controller and playing, and this ties into your first question about casual and competitive: At this level it’s not just about sitting down and relaxing and taking the weight off your feet.
As an occupation at a professional level you need to be constantly engaged within the game, you can’t just afford to sit there and coast along and have a bit of fun.
It’s about practising the most relevant situations so that when it comes to events such as this we’re prepared and we have that subconscious knowledge of how to react to something if it happens in the game.
eSports players compete in small teams with hundreds of thousands of people watching, how do you deal with the pressure?
In regards to my team, well we have a lot of experience and we’re regarded somewhat as veterans within the community, because we’ve all competed in multiple international events. We’ve all competed in multiple Call of Duty championships so inevitably we’ve made deep runs into those tournaments.
In the fourth place match which we unfortunately lost at Call of Duty XP, you’ve got to think that you’re playing for – in one map, in one series of the best of 5, best of 3 maps – you’re playing for $50,000 each or $100,000 each so once you’re exposed to that environment more and more and once you’re exposed to how that affects you mentally, the more you get used to it I think.
Honestly at this point, as strange as it sounds, I somewhat disregard the financial implications of winning a match or indeed the repercussions of any result and I just think of the next map and how to approach the map.
I think it’s wrong for anyone to think about anything other than the game because all that’s going to do is essentially impede you when it comes to performing. If you’re in a situation and you approach it differently because of what’s on the line, that’s when you’re going to falter and you’re going to start to see adverse effects.
One of the things I always say is what’s most important for us as professionals is replicating - and again it’s interesting because you mentioned this – replicating the environment in your bedroom and just kind of pretending that you’re essentially in your bedroom in a tournament and disregard the fact that there’s thousands of people watching out there, thousands of people watching online and on stream, tens of cameras on you, whatever, just disregarding that because all you’re doing essentially is you’re playing a video game, the same thing as you’re doing in your bedroom.
Many eSports players are young and can, with little social media training, find themselves thrust into a vast social limelight, do you see yourself as something of a role model?
Yeah and I think that’s been proven recently, or indeed as you said, since Call of Duty reached this level. In the professional community that’s something that has proven to be a harder challenge than any dealing with pressure or anything else because you need to consider not just the demographic of the audience, but the average age of these pro players. It’s significantly younger than any other sport and any other competitive platform.
When you consider that a large portion of these guys competing professionally are 18,19 there are challenges when it comes to how they’re perceived and getting them to actually understand the importance of how they’re perceived. Professionalism, marketability and all those other factors are something that we’re just starting to tackle because it has reached this level where you need to pay attention to those things.
It’s not just about playing it’s also about, and this is something that I’ve tried to convey to the up and coming players who are just breaking into it at a professional level, the importance of everything outside of the game.
People need to acknowledge that there are tremendous repercussions from anything you say on social media.
When you reach this level it’s not only about how you play, there’s such an emphasis on how you’re perceived. Because Call of Duty as an eSport is so prevalent on social media professionalism is vital on any outlet, whether it’s even doing these post-game interviews..
People need to acknowledge that there are tremendous repercussions from anything you say on social media. It can get completely taken out of context so the guys need to understand that they are liable for what they say now. It has happened in the past – after a loss, someone’s suffered a tough loss – and they’ve instantly gone onto social media and completely publicised it. That’s the wrong way to approach it.
How do you strike a work/life balance?
This is only for me personally. I’m able to maintain a decent balance but I think that because I’m so inherently competitively driven that inevitably whenever I have the opportunity I’m going to prioritise practising for this – especially at this current point in time where it is financially justifiable and the fact that it’s sustainable for the foreseeable future for me as a competitor.
It makes sense that I put absolutely everything into it to ensure that I preserve that and to ensure that I can continue to pursue what was a hobby as an occupation. Ultimately it’s all about pursuing something I’m so passionate about so inevitably there are sacrifices and I have to make sacrifices.
I had to miss a family holiday recently to ensure that we qualified for the next stage of the Call of Duty World League, but it doesn’t really bother me because I can take a holiday after the season’s done.
My family completely understand, they know that I’m passionate about it and they know that I’m just so laser focussed on what is such a hectic period of competition coming up. We have this event this weekend, we’re flying out to LA next Sunday for the Call of Duty World League Stage 2 play offs which is a really significant event trying to defend our title. Then after that we have probably MLG which is over in the US and then we have the big one which is Call of Duty XP which is the world championship so this is the most engaged I think I’ve ever been in my profession thanks to the Call of Duty World League.