In a quiet, affluent neighborhood of mock-Tudor houses and flowering trees on the outskirts of Reading, England, a team of athletes is hard at work. In what used to be a suburban living room, desks bearing large monitors line the walls, their screens glowing brightly in the dimly lit space. The headphone-wearing young players barely register the entrance of an outsider. This is the OMEN House, home of the exceL esports “League of Legends” team.
If you haven’t heard of it, “League of Legends” is a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) that has soared in popularity in the world of competitive esports, with exceL esports being one of the leading U.K. teams to play it.
Gaming today is a social activity — from the “LAN parties” of the early 2000s to today’s spectatorship via massive live tournaments and streaming platforms like Twitch — pro gamers are attracting rabid fans who keep up with their exploits on social media. And just like pro athletes, gamers must hone every aspect of themselves to be top competitors. “We like to work holistically,” says exceL coach Josh Furneaux. “It’s not just about how you perform in the game. It’s about your mental capabilities, physical capabilities, attention span, discipline.”
A global meeting of minds
While gaming houses — communal living arrangements for pro gamers — are fairly common in Asia, North America and Europe, they are relatively new to the United Kingdom, where the esports scene is just taking off. In January 2018, to raise awareness of its OMEN by HP line of gaming products, HP teamed up with British esports organization exceL, to create a gaming house where exceL’s “League of Legends” team could train and live.
“Globally, we’re supporting esports athletes as a sports brand would,” says Yvonne Hobden, HP U.K.’s consumer marketing lead. “We’re thinking of these guys as the top athletes and we want to make sure they are using OMEN products to get better at their gameplay.”
Four of the team’s five players live at the OMEN House — Rosendo “Send0o” Fuentes, 22, from Germany; Brayan “Kruimel” van Oosten, 24, from the Netherlands; Alexander “Venzer” Kostadinov, 19, from Bulgaria; and Ángel “DuaLL” Fernández, 20, from Spain. Christian “Taxer” Jensen, 18, is still living in his native Denmark while he finishes his studies.
Manager Ryan Barnett, coach Josh Furneaux and assistant Jon Ellis live at the OMEN House as well. The residence has been fitted with the latest OMEN by HP technology, including OMEN X desktop PCs, OMEN by HP displays, gaming keyboards and headsets as well as OMEN gaming laptops.
And now the team will have even more gadgets to choose from. In Beijing this week, HP expanded the OMEN by HP ecosystem, announcing a sleeker and more powerful new OMEN 15 laptop and accessories including the OMEN by HP Mindframe Headset, with patented cooling technology designed to keep gamers cool and focused, and a new mouse and keyboard that slash response time.
Manager Barnett, who has a background in sports science, encourages the players to hit the gym three times a week. He also works with them to build a productive mental approach to high-pressure situations.
Five days a week, the players have breakfast and gym sessions from 11 a.m. Game practice is from 2 to 5 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m., with an hour to eat in between. While the players don’t have a strict curfew, they’re expected to be in bed by 2 a.m. so they can get at least eight hours of sleep.
Daily practice includes playing informally with other professional teams, streaming their gameplay on Twitch and working out home team issues and play strategies.
“Sometimes it’s more about how we work together — how we communicate inside the game,” says Furneaux. “Sometimes it’s more about a specific strategy. When we’re preparing to beat a particular team, we watch their game play to pinpoint their weaknesses.”
Some of the players had never lived away from their families or had a job before coming to the OMEN House, so it took a while to get used to the fact that what they’re doing is work.
“Because you’re working where you’re living, distinguishing between the two can be quite a challenge sometimes,” says Furneaux.
“I think getting everyone on the same schedule is the hardest part,” adds player Fuentes, who has lived in gaming houses before — he starred in the MTV Spain reality program “Gamers.”
One gamer’s path to going pro
At school, Fuentes, who was born in Spain but grew up in Germany, was more interested in soccer than video games. He only got into “League of Legends” after several months of persuasion by his friends. After a while, he noticed he was doing well, with various teams looking to get him on board. “I’m very competitive, so I just kept on improving,” he says.
He joined a team that got into the professional series in Spain on the first try. An offer to be in the “Gamers” house in Madrid soon followed. While his friends were headed for university, Fuentes decided to pursue the opportunity to be a professional gamer.
The global esports industry is growing rapidly: This year, it’s expected to hit $1.5 billion in revenue, with a $1.9 billion forecast by 2020. In November 2017, the International Olympic Committee recognized esports as a sport, and the International E-Sports Federation is in talks with the organizers of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris about making esports a demonstration sport.
These pro gamers take their training seriously, so having a space that meets their everyday needs to allow them to focus on their craft is critical.
“What we’re trying to do is help them grow,” says Hobden. “Because the esports scene in the U.K. is growing, it means the adoption of PC gaming will grow. The relationship that we’ve got with exceL is that they’re supporting us to pass our message on, to create content and stories for us to reach their audience.”
A grueling circuit
This May, the exceL team is taking a well-deserved break after a hectic several months of back-to-back competitions. From February to April, they played at least a game a week in the ESL U.K. Premiership, where they came in second. In March, they also achieved first place at the Insomnia Gaming Festival. The team’s latest stop was the quarterfinals of the European Masters, where they made it into the top eight teams in Europe.
Their training starts up again in June, and a new season of U.K. league tournaments runs throughout the summer. “The top two teams from the U.K. go to the European Masters in September,” says Furneaux. “There, we’re aiming to be in the top four.”