The Breakers Academy has, for the past 10 years, been the home of New Zealand's only fully professional basketball franchise. It's a place where children gather after school to play on the same courts as their heroes, whose posters and legacies are plastered on the concrete walls.

But the gym, at the end of a nondescript North Shore cul-de-sac, isn't just for aspiring basketballers. Many of the kids running up and down the courts on this weekday afternoon aren't harbouring hoop dreams; most are counting the minutes until they get to venture into the 'Dojo'.

The Dojo is New Zealand's first esports training facility. Once a junk room, the Dojo houses the Breakers' ground-breaking gaming arm Breakaway Esports. The room features 10 state-of-the-art gaming PCs, 10 PlayStation 4 Pros and a coaching station all set up in a futuristic, blue-lit studio.

It looks like a venue for the ultimate kids' birthday party and the Dojo is frequently packed with children all keen to prove their skills on popular games such as Fortnite, Counter Strike: Global Offense, NBA 2K19, League of Legends, Tekken, Overwatch and Rocket League.

Advertisement

The studio isn't a place, however, where kids stare at screens for hours, fuelling gaming addictions seen by many as a scourge of the digital age. Instead, the Dojo markets itself as a competitive sports environment, where players are taught to communicate, work together and think strategically.

And just like the Breakers Academy, the Dojo is the training centre for some of New Zealand's best "athletes" in their field.

Daniel Saedian, better known by screen name 'DanBanter,' spends up to six of his 20 hours of weekly training time at the Dojo playing Tekken 7.

In the 1v1 anime-inspired fighting game, players select one of 48 characters, each with their own unique moves, and fight to become the first to knock out their opponent three times.

It takes more than mashing a bunch of buttons and hoping that does enough damage. Saedian has learned all the characters' attack styles, individual moves and combos. His focus is intense.

Saedian has already taken his skills overseas. The 18-year-old was New Zealand's sole eBlack representative at November's International eSports Federation world championships in Taiwan, where he was one of 32 Tekken competitors, each representing a different nation. He made the last 16 before being knocked out by the Japanese representative and is now trying to build a career in esports.

"At this stage, I can't have it as my main career, but later on, if I make a name for myself globally, then it could work," Saedian said. "I've definitely thought about the money."

A career in esports wasn't considered realistic less than five years ago, but today, professional gaming teams are making as much as some Premier League and NBA players. Top international gamers are earning more than $2 million a year from prize money, while some professional teams have shared winnings of up to $20 million a year.

New Zealand's gaming market is nowhere near that level but Kiwi gamers could be offered full-time esports contracts in the not-so-distant future.

The prospect of making a career of playing video games may seem ridiculous to some but Breakaway Esports general manager Freddie Tresidder said the sport and lifestyle of a pro gamer was misunderstood.

"There is a huge difference between gaming and esports," Tresidder said. "Gaming is what I do at the end of a work day when I sit down in front of my computer with a beer for half an hour before I go to bed, whereas these guys are training.

"I compare it to kicking a ball around in the park with your mates at the end of the day and training with a football team. It's a totally different dynamic. I wouldn't call Dan a gamer - his approach to how he trains is like an athlete."

DanBanter placed in the top 16 at the IeSF Esports World Championships. Photo / Steve Andreou
DanBanter placed in the top 16 at the IeSF Esports World Championships. Photo / Steve Andreou

Saedian did not have to think long before declaring himself an athlete. Although aware of the controversy around his chosen sport, he is confident enough to own the title.

"Everyone is going to have different views on this but I think I'm eligible to be called an athlete," he said. "The fact you have skills and you're using it to compete, I think that in itself qualifies you enough to become an athlete."

With a huge selection of games easily accessible from almost anywhere in the world, esports is uniquely inclusive.

Information technology student Daniel Banfield, one of Breakaway Esport's Australian-based gamers, believed that was one of the key aspects which made esports stand out among traditional disciplines.

"It's all digital and so easily accessible," Banfield said, "It's a very special thing. You wouldn't get that in any other sports, I don't think. You can play with people across the world at the exact same time."

Living in Melbourne, Banfield has taken a break from his studies to pursue an esports career. His specialty is the multiplayer shooter video game, Overwatch.

Much like Tekken 7, Overwatch players select from a range of characters, each with their own unique style of play and abilities. However, the first-person shooter game is team-based and players must work together to secure and defend their points in a limited amount of time.

Each character, known as a hero, belongs to one of three categories: Damage heroes, tank heroes and support heroes.

Banfield, who specialises in the damage role, joins five team-mates, including one from Singapore, online to train together daily.

The ability to train and compete as part of a team at home, however, is also the very aspect of esports parents and critics fear the most.

The sedentary nature of digital gaming makes it difficult for those raised on a diet of traditional lung-busting sports to accept esports as a genuine athletic pursuit.

Banfield admits his parents weren't overly fond of the amount of time he spent inside his bedroom growing up but is adamant esport skills are underestimated and critics are ignorant of the finer points.

"When I was younger, my parents weren't very supportive," Banfield said. "But as I grew up and they saw it was becoming serious and it could be a career, they started to support me and watch my games. Once they got to learn more about it, they appreciated it and understood it, and saw that it's not just for fun and it can be a more serious thing.

"It may not be physical and I guess that's the main issue because everyone thinks it shouldn't be considered a sport because it's not physical ... [but] there are a lot of hours put into training like a football team would, for example. There's a lot of stuff we're doing like they are doing. We're keeping healthy, staying fit, making sure we have a good mindset as well.

"We put aside time to go to the gym, go for a run, exercise, make sure we're eating well ... everyone thinks as a gamer, we just sit on our computers for 14 hours, not really doing anything, just playing the game, but there's a lot more to it."

Like most top athletes in the world, Saedian and Banfield have their sights set on representing their country at the Olympics. The debate about whether esports should be allowed into the pinnacle event of sports, however, is a messy one.

On one end of the spectrum, the argument lies that gaming is, although not physical, an activity involving skill in which an individual or team competes against another for entertainment - aligning with one definition of sport.

But the International Olympic Committee have slowed their initial support for recognising esports as an Olympic code, due to "commercially driven" gaming not aligning favourably with "values-based" sports.

Enthusiasm appeared to dim following the IOC's July conference with esports organisers.

IOC president Thomas Bach said in September that the Olympics would not consider "killer games".

"We cannot have in the Olympic programme a game which is promoting violence or discrimination," Bach said. "They, from our point of view, are contradictory to the Olympic values and cannot therefore be accepted."

A quick behind the scenes tour of LPL Studios construction. / LPL

Let's Play Live director and New Zealand Esports Federation board member Duane Mutu has played a part in discussions around esports being recognised as an Olympic discipline.

Behind the launch of New Zealand's first LPL Esports Studio, which organises esports leagues for Kiwi and international pros, Mutu has had a front-row seat to witness the rapid growth of esport.

Since the launch of the state-of-the-art studio in February, LPL has done 65 TV broadcasts, worked with three leading TV partners and broadcasted the top CS:GO stream on the world's largest streaming platform, Twitch.

Convinced esports will win Olympic inclusion in the near future, Mutu says many people misunderstand the relationship between the popular gaming discipline and the IOC.

"This isn't about esports wanting to become an Olympic sport, it's never been about that," said Mutu. "It's never been about esports participants wanting to go to the Olympics, this is about the Olympics needing esports."

The potential advertising and commercial dollars of console and gaming PC producers such as Sony and Microsoft would also be attractive to the IOC and Mutu said that was a huge driving force behind the debate people often forgot.

"Everyone has to be frank and honest about what the Olympics is," Mutu said. "The Olympics is a money-generating sporting venture as much as it is the pinnacle of certain sports. Fundamentally, what we're looking at is a movement of which they need the youth to buy into the Olympic Games and a lot of the sports aren't watched by the youth ... action sports have come in to try to drive that.

"We're like a bigger version of action sports. We've got huge participation, eyeballs are big, prize pools are big, it's all sitting there for the taking. It's what action sports are but on steroids - that's the only reason they [the IOC] are looking at esports."

Mutu believes esports' fortunes will continue to soar and the perception of it as a "niche discipline" frowned upon by older generations would eventually disappear.

"Do I see it slowing down? No. It mirrors something we've seen in action sports. In the early 2000s, it was very niche from a perception point of view.

"You'll start to see gaming leagues rival sports leagues. You'll start to see really big gaming leagues partnered and backed by your big broadcasters - like the NRL is.

"That boom will come and it will become an accepted norm. You'll start to see it as an everyday occurrence and it will just be accepted as part of the way in which we consume any content. It'll sit side-by-side."

Some people might still scoff at the idea of esports being regularly broadcasted alongside traditional sports such as rugby, football or basketball but it's already happening.

Sky TV have been broadcasting locally-produced esports content since 2015 and recently renewed their deal with LPL to continue televising their leagues.

The network also screened a 90-day esports pop-up channel, Ginx TV, which, among magazine-style shows, featured coverage of international esports tournaments.

Sky TV head of strategy George MacFarlane said esports had proven popular with New Zealand viewers.

"It's good content that's just going to become more and more relevant," MacFarlane said. "It's becoming more accepted that it's on our platform.

"Initially, people thought it was a bit naff that we were doing it. People understand it's a thing and might understand it's not a thing for them, but that's the same as a lot of sports.

"We see it as highly engaging content and it's got a lot of the same characteristics as traditional sports. It also speaks to the younger generation."

Top national sports organisations such as New Zealand Rugby are also dabbling in esports.

All Blacks TJ Perenara and Rieko Ioane and Black Fern Eloise Blackwell featured on LPL's weekly show The Night Squad last year when they were streamed live playing Fortnite on Twitch, the All Blacks' Facebook page and the New Zealand Herald website.

Following the success of the event, NZR expressed interest in continuing to collaborate with LPL, believing that esports' platform could help increase participation in grassroots rugby.

With the link between electronic gaming and traditional sports strengthening, it's become less of a surprise to see gaming consoles in a high-performance sports setting.

Breakaway Esports see that link as a prime opportunity to establish a skill-based, fun and moderated space for kids to play, even taking four of their PCs to Spark Arena each time the Breakers have a home game to promote the idea gaming and sport can operate hand-in-hand.

But some top sports athletes and administrators are less convinced of the benefits of esports.

Three-time BMX world champion Sarah Walker, a member of the IOC's Athletes' Commission, opposed esports as an Olympic discipline.

"If I want to practice any Olympic discipline, if I wanted to try one of them, I have to go out and do it - I have to be active," said Walker last year. "Where gaming is right now, if I was inspired to be a gamer, my first step is to go home and sit on the couch. The biggest difference I struggle with the most is that the people wanting to try it for the first time or do it as a hobby, there's no active part."

German Football president Reinhard Dieter Grindel is also not a fan.

"The biggest competition to kids coming to our sports clubs is not handball or basketball but the use of digital equipment," Grindel said.

"Sport plays a social function and this happens in the community. With sport, you have direct contact with those you play. Football belongs on the green pitch and has nothing to do with other things that are computer-related. For me, esports is not sports."

Views like these are misconceptions, according to Tressider, who said he hoped Breakaway's influence would continue to build a positive future for esports.

"We've got this wealth of kids who have been fed lies about what gaming is," Tressider said. "The more we can break down those barriers and teach kids about the right way to do it and say that these guys don't play for that long, they have a schedule and a system about it, the more we can bring that structure into it.

"We haven't had a single parent come in here and afterwards say 'we're not doing that again'. They say it's a really good idea and that it's the right way to do it.

"In the same way the Breakers have tried to create that pathway in basketball with the Junior Breakers and the development programme, the Academy and the squad, we want to do the same for Breakaway."

With more parents signing up their kids each week, Breakaway continues to knock down the walls between gaming and sport.

And maybe one day the likes of Saedian and Banfield will have their posters on the walls of the Academy alongside the basketball legends.