Nearly 40 years ago ago, Atari held The Space Invaders Championship in 1980. Upwards of 10,000 participants from across the United States competed in what many consider the first large-scale video game competition.
In the internet age, competitive gaming has come so far it’s almost unrecognisable. Hundreds of thousands of attendees join millions of viewers online in cheering on the world’s best competitive gamers.
One such champion is 17-year-old Liam ‘Thunderstruck’ McCarron from Largs, winning two major competitive titles in 2019 so far and currently battling in the Clash Royale League with his competitive squad, NRG esports, in Los Angeles.
Liam is arguably one of the hottest players in the Clash Royale, a real-time mobile strategy game from Finnish mobile games giant Supercell.
Players deploy troop cards - dragons, giants, goblins and more - that charge towards their opponent’s towers, hopefully toppling their defences and ending the match victorious.
Liam first picked up Clash Royale three years ago, on an extended absence from school. During an extended illness, he found solace in the strategy and competitiveness of the mobile game and was instantly hooked.
Today, he’s competing on a world stage and representing Scotland with a saltire on his NRG shirt.
Trying to pinpoint the moment that he began seeing a mobile game as a competitive opportunity, he admits he was “pretty casual with it at first.”
Sitting in his living room over the Easter weekend, he says: “I’ve always been into watching top-level players. I tried to get better and play with those top level players and that kept on going until eventually I became one of those top-level players.
“Originally I only played one deck, until I became really good at it” he says, but it wasn’t until some time in 2018 that Liam shifted gears and became truly competitive playing Clash Royale, joining a competitive team and entering his first live tournaments.
“When I got my first contract and signed for Cream Esports,” he recalls, “they talked me through all of the events.
“My first live event was CRL Combine where I competed against other players but I sucked to be honest.
“However, these past few months I’ve entered three events and I’ve won all of them.
“Two of them were quite important - EE Mobile Series and the Red Bull MEO (Mobile Esports Open). In the EE Mobile Series I won a contract worth roughly £5,000 and in the Red Bull MEO I won £16,000).”
If NRG Esports are successful in winning the CRL2 title, the team will walk away with the lion’s share of a £1million prize pool.
Speaking during a post-match interview after an emphatic win, Liam surprised a lot of people with his response to the question the presenter posed: ‘What would you do with your share of the prize money?”
“I think I’d buy a house,” he told her, “that’s my dream.”
With 2019 shaping up to be a great year financially for the 17-year-old, he cautions anyone who thinks it’s a walk in the park playing video games for a living.
“I do love it,” he says, “but I’d say on average I play for around six hours a day but it can vary a lot. If I’m preparing for a tournament - say the Red Bull MEO - I’d be practicing over eight hours a day with top-tier players.”
This isn’t the first time Scotland has produced esports stars, but in a nation so devoted to football and rugby, their success often never makes it out their competitive gaming echo chamber.
If Scotland is to nurture upcoming talent coming up through the esports ranks, Liam reckons changes need to be made to the options laid out before young people.
Asking him what was missing from his journey that he’d like to see made available to future talent, he says: “If Scotland wants to branch into esports, they should follow what these other countries in Europe have been doing.
“ Countries such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden - they have a similar population to Scotland and the reason they do so well in esports versus Scotland is because for these countries, they have a lot of accessibility to follow your passions and if it doesn’t work out there’s fallback.
“In Scotland, it’s a little bit harder than in these northern European countries.”
Liam’s signing to NRG esports at the 11th hour and 59th minute has flung him onto a world stage in front of an online audience of tens of thousands of players and living in a team house in the LA hills. Despite his monumental achievements on this global forum, some people just can’t compute that you can make a career playing a mobile game competitively.
“I think my relatives are still confused,” he admits, “my granny still thinks I play chess.”