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There are many things that I have learned since I started working at Battle n Brew in the summer of 2010. I now know how to switch to ‘All Instruments Mode’ in Rockband. I can pour a proper Guiness. I know the basics of League of Legends, how to make a few dozen different sandwiches, the ABV of at least 50 beers, and why Assassin’s Creed 3 is an over-hyped dumpster-fire of a video game. All of this knowledge has proven helpful at some point in my career as a bartender at a video game bar, but none of it will ever impress me more than one single bit of knowledge I picked up my first day working here: some people have ridiculously awesome jobs.
Like, seriously, it’s fucking ridiculous what some people get paid for. Enter Bart Koenigsberg.
Like the vast majority of kids who grew up in the 90′s, Bart obsessed over video games like it was some form of religion. At the age of 6, Bart and his older brother got a Super Nintendo, along with such classics as Super Mario World, Madden 96, and the early Final Fantasy installments. He vividly remembers asking his parents first-thing every weekend morning if he could play his SNES (a ritual I exercised myself for years). This would eventually evolve into a love for MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) style games, including a relatively unknown game called ‘Tribes’.
While working on his Marketing Degree at the University of Georgia, Bart was actively pursuing some kind of career that would involve video games. Finding a successful and rewarding job with video games was not easy: for a short period he worked for a consulting firm that had the Gameworks side of Sega as a client. Though it would give Bart some hard-sought experience, he knew it would not provide him the personal, hands-on video-game career he was looking for. One day, noticing that the brand-new Hi-Rez Studios had just opened up in nearby Alpharetta, he would send Hi-Rez a direct email asking them for a job. Though his experience marketing was still relatively young, the passion for video games and entertainment that would later become his signature personality was enough to convince Hi-Rez that Bart was just the kind of person they were looking for to promote their games. Though originally hired on a provisional basis, within days he had secured his position as Hi-Rez’s newest member.
Originally, Bart would handle many of the consulting and marketing aspects for Global Agenda, but it was when Tribes: Ascend was released that Bart’s ingenuity would be put to the test. Between sips of beer, Bart tells me, “Tribes really started cooking, and the forums were getting fairly toxic, they were getting overrun by all these Tribes salts that had been playing since ’98, and had 12 years of experience playing the game. Kids would come in and say ‘Hey, I downloaded this Tribes game the other day, it’s a lot of fun, I skied and I shot a guy,’ and they’re like ‘Fuck you, you don’t know what it’s like to play Tribes, you know nothing,’ and just harass these kids out of the forums.”
Bart suggested opening a discussion on the forum titled “Competition and eSports”. The forum would become a successful venue for die-hard fans of Tribes to offer and recieve information concerning high-level Tribes strategy, while also seperating heavily-experienced players from newer members. He would also be proposing a goal for the entire Tribes community. In Bart’s words, “That basically begat a system in which we could tap player accounts and have them access servers that other players could join, so that they could play tournament games.” This new feature for Tribes would prove to be very popular for high-level players, adding a level of credibility to the Tribes title and strengthening the studios’ relationship with its fanbase.
While scrolling through the popular imageboard 4chan, Bart began to notice that the games he was spectating and streaming were beginning to grow in popularity. Discussions, threads, and memes centered on Tribes were starting to freckle the messageboards of the popular site, a sure sign that Bart’s promotion was working. Reddit, a similar internet forum (yea, I know I’m gonna get shit for that one), would also start developing an affection for Tribes, giving Bart another idea.
“So we do a 4Chan versus Reddit game. And it ends up being this monumentally epic game, with this massive comeback from 4Chan carried by a Brazilian sniper, it’s the whole thing, it’s perfect. We have 4,000 viewers. And my company is sitting there thinking, ‘We can get this much exposure? 35,000 unique (views) in an hour…’ so that was kind of the first little raise of an eyebrow from our executives.”
The studio would begin to rush Tribes into the eSports arena, promoting Tribes to be included in major eSport tournaments, usually with Bart at its helm. In 2011, the deity-based battle arena Smite would enter open beta. Bart’s passion for the new MOBA, and his ability to convey that passion convincingly and enthusiastically, did not escape the eye of Erez Goren, Hi-Rez’s CEO. “I was doing a preview of Thor when he came out, and our CEO was like ‘You do that now. You just do that.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, well… I do that!’” Hi-Rez would secure a channel for Bart’s streaming, where it would quickly expand into a 24-hour streaming network for Smite. Originally streaming a whopping 7 hours a day (this was on top of all of his regular eSports duties), the stream would prove popular enough to necessitate a community manager, another sign of Smite’s growing success. Though Bart has cut his streaming back to four hours a day, others have begun to dedicate their energy and resources to the popular stream, creating a vibrant and varied community that has brought in 4.8 million unique viewers to date.
Bart’s stream, characterized by an overly-enthusiastic, antic-based caricature of himself, continues to showcase new playable characters for Smite, overviews of patches and updates, discussions on build orders, and recently discovered strategies. Perhaps most importantly, the Smite stream, particularly Bart’s segment, emphasizes the inherent fun that brings players to games like Smite in the first place. Bart does not always win games; sometimes he fails miserably, but the flambouyant, over-the-top personality of Bart keeps everything in perspective, reminding us that first and foremost, Smite is just a hell of a lot of fun.
“I’ll just make it a cut-up comedy hour, right? Just casual and whatever, it’s a variety show, we have guests, we have a good time, we make silly voices and we sing, and I’ll just do that,” he says, laughing congenially.
But that does not mean there isn’t substance to Bart’s style. “Every day that I can, 3 days a week, maybe 4 on average, I’m debuting content that’s literally a day old, and our [viewership] numbers are higher than they’ve ever been.”
So where does this leave the future of Tribes and Smite? Bart seems characteristically optimistic about it, and he has every right to be. Whereas the Tribes brand has been around for many years and reached a certain level of maturity, Smite is relatively new, and this is where Bart’s genuine excitement really begins to shine. Hi-Rez is looking towards hosting more of its own tournaments, with larger cash prizes and bigger sponsorships, as well as promoting itself to bigger tournaments, like another North American Starleague appearance. Noting the successes and failures of its predecessors, Smite is favoring slow, reliable word-of-mouth and heavy testing to help develop its titles, instead of using a garish, flashy campaign to sell an unfinished product. The fact that Smite has been in beta since May 2012 is not a symptom of laziness, but a testament to Hi- Rez’s dedication of making sure a product is damn-near perfect before it’s ready to be sold. The level of popularity the game has developed while still in beta is absolutely remarkable.
[Writer's Note: At this point the beers we'd been slamming really started to kick in. We had started the interview merely sipping at our beers, but as the minutes ticked past and we grew more comfortable around each other, the frequency and quantity of our sips started increasing, until eventually we looked like a Sam Adams commercial, or maybe a Dropkick Murphy's music video. Bart was faring better than I, though to be fair I had been at the bar for almost ten hours and he had been there for maybe thirty minutes. So it was at this point that the interview started to turn into hilarious, alcohol-soaked garbage. He couldn't give me a straight answer, mostly because I couldn't give him a straight question. I regret nothing, and I'm still pretty sure I could drink him under the table, if I ever had to.]
After another ten minutes discussing the state of eSports in America and the emerging gaming community in the Southeast compared to the rest of the nation, which consisted of a bunch of profound ideas that quickly degenerated into a broken, rambling mess and ended with a very disturbingly graphic description of a baby echidna, I decided it was time to close out the interview with my signature questions.
“What is your favorite beer?” I slurred.
“Lonerider Shotgun Betty,” he said, referring to the Raleigh, N.C. brewed Hefeweizen. “It’s just wonderful.”
“What is your favorite Jim Carrey movie?”
Laughing, he answers, “Me Myself and Irene,” inspiring a jovial trip down memory lane for the both of us (we both saw that movie against our parent’s wishes when we were kids).
And so officially ended the interview, and my encounter with one of the many intense personalities that are beginning to thrive in the new video game culture. Looking back on the experience, one can’t help but realize the growing phenomena of the 21st century, this generation that has begun capturing opportunities in life we only used to dream of when we were kids, bugging our parents to play Super Nintendo every weekend morning. A man who makes his living playing video games being interviewed by a man who makes his living by doing things like interviewing men who make their livings playing video games is more than just a confusing run-on sentence; it is the product of cultural evolution. We are slowly fighting to create careers that are radical, niche, and extremely rewarding on a personal level. Seriously, it’s fucking ridiculous what some people get paid for.
Check out Bart’s stream Monday through Friday, 3 PM – 7PM EST, on twitch.tv/smitegame, and follow him on twitter @HiRezBart