How Phoenix Blue is reimagining youth esports
March 31 2022
Swedish organization Phoenix Blue is challenging our understanding of esports and shaping the grassroots thinking for the future. We spoke to Creative Director, Adam Peleback, about their work, why it’s so important today, and getting 30 CRT TVs on a boat.
Hi Adam. Thanks so much for speaking with me. Maybe you could start by introducing yourself?
I'm Adam. I'm an avid gamer. I've been playing games all my life and always knew that I wanted to get into gaming somehow. I tried a bunch of different stuff. I started writing. I helped some small companies and esports teams: doing press releases and running their social media. Anything I could get my hands on.
How did you get involved with Phoenix Blue?
When I was about 15, I was introduced to a couple of people who were thinking about starting a nonprofit here in Sweden. They wanted to focus on making gaming and esports available to young people, especially those who don't have the financial situation to go out and buy a gaming PC.
A friend of mine in Jönköping started Phoenix Blue (called Amplitude Esports back then.) It was initially founded under the sobriety association in Sweden for young kids. They helped us out and supported us with getting it running. But after a while, we realized that we were doing this for the gaming, not to take another stand. So we started doing our own thing.
All of us worked in gaming or esports in one way or another. Some others had way more experience and had been doing it professionally for a couple of years; I was just getting started. We knew that we had various areas of competence that we could use. We began to run small tournaments and broadcast young talent who weren't getting the chance to show themselves. To help people be able to play games and help those who want to pursue a career in gaming.
Tell us about the kinds of events or activities that you run.
It's varied a ton over the years. Depending on how much time we've had and the contacts we've gotten with different municipalities here in Sweden.
We've done LANs with Malmö and Jönköping Kommuns, as the municipalities are called here. We've done—I don't even recall how many—online tournaments in any game you can think of. Just setting up a bracket, administrating the tournaments ourselves, broadcasting on our channels. Some of the people involved have broadcasting experience, and we have our own little studio with professional cameras and stuff. So we try to get commentators and whatnot to broadcast events.
Everything from hosting small online tournaments to helping bigger LAN organizers do small tournaments on-site. Hosting weekly Super Smash Bros tournaments in our own facilities down in Jönköping. Tons of stuff.
What was your coolest experience?
We've gone to Switzerland twice to help out with their equivalent of Dreamhack. We ran the stage there. That's probably the coolest experience I've had. It was this Swiss Comicon in Basel and Zurich. I got to meet Henry Cavill, who plays Superman. I brought him on stage. I was really starstruck. He's absolutely huge in real life.
That was a challenging experience too. For that event, we weren't really doing esports. The organizers flew us out because we were experienced and knew cameras and lights. They said, "Okay, you'll handle the main stage. This is the schedule." And it was intense. These guys were very passionate, but they hadn't really done something of that size before—there were about 40,000 people at the event.
The schedule for the main stage was completely packed. We had 1 hour for the kids to play Fortnite on stage with Swiss streamers. Then 1 minute after that, we were going to have a talk with Henry Cavill on stage about movies. So I'm thinking, "How do we get 14 computers and a PlayStation 5 off the stage before getting him on?" Of course, the schedule didn't work. It was a couple of intense days but really, really fun.
What kinds of events or projects would you like to do more of in the future.
There's this one thing actually that we've been planning since before the pandemic hit...
A couple of years after we started, Kasper [Kamateros] joined our board. He attended one of our events, fell in love with the community, and wanted to help out. Since he was so very passionate and we were perhaps becoming a bit tired at that point, he became the head of our association. He has a background in fighting games and Super Smash Bros. specifically. We switched towards focusing on that community more which is also very welcoming. Since the game is 20 years old at this point, they are so used to doing their own thing, and it's a very tight-knit community.
Anyway, 10 years or so ago, there was an event called Njut, which is Swedish for "enjoy." It was at a campsite somewhere in the woods. They played games for a week and just hung out—150 people or something. As we were starting in Smash Bros., we kept hearing tales of this event. We didn't really know what it was, but everyone said, "you should have been there. It was great." It was something of a legend.
We'd done 2 major Smash events: flying in people from all over the world and broadcasting it. Major LANs. We like to do things bigger than before, so how could we do Njut but better?" Then one late night, I suggested, "Why don't we look for a similar cabin/camping situation but in the Stockholm Archipelago? On an island," We found an island called Grinda, about an hour and a half from Stockholm. We rented it for August 2020, but then the pandemic hit, so we moved it up a year and then another year. Now—fingers crossed—it's actually happening this year. That's the craziest thing we've done. Something I've wanted to do for a long time.
That sounds incredible!
Yeah. Since the game can only really be played on CRT TVs, we'll need to bring about 30 CRTs on a boat to the island! So when I'm not working, I spend my time figuring out the logistics of that.
Where are you even going to find 30 CRTs now?!
Fun fact: we actually have the second-largest collection of CRTs in Europe. 36 or 40 or something. Stored away waiting for us. We bought them from a speed-running community that had a bunch they were going to toss out! And we said, "No, no, no, no, no. We'll take them off your hands."
It's going to be so cool. Stressful but so cool.
Wild ideas aside, what would you say has been the most rewarding part of your work as an organization?
The most rewarding part was about 4 years ago. Jönköping municipality offered us the chance to open a facility in Huskvarna, one of the area's poorest suburbs. We opened this small facility, maybe 100 square meters or so, and put in 15 computers, gaming consoles, etc. We invited the kids from the area to come and play in the evenings. We hosted group chats about what we were doing, teaching them how to stream or write about what you're passionate about and make that work. Giving them the chance to exercise their interests.
That was rewarding because that's why we'd started in the beginning. Seeing the young people come there, being so happy. Especially hearing from some of them that being there and playing games kept them from hanging out in the suburbs and in the rougher areas. That was very cool.
That was rewarding because that's why we'd started in the beginning. Seeing the young people come there, being so happy.
I feel like there's an idea these days that "everyone has a computer" or "everyone has a phone." And it's just not true. I feel like addressing this disparity is a topic that isn't really talked about.
Yeah. And it's definitely not true. In my first 5 or 6 years of gaming, my friends played heavier PC games. They wanted me to join them, and I couldn't; my PC couldn't run those games. And that's as someone fortunate enough to have a PC. It really stopped me from doing what I was passionate about. It's really, really costly and many people who want to play games aren't able to.
People will say that access to games is a luxury, but I also know from friends that gaming helped them learn English, for example. Computer literacy is essential if you want to do almost anything these days, from paying bills to doing your tax return. Do you think giving these kids access to gaming helps them in other ways than just finding their passion?
Speaking from personal experience, I can say that playing games was a huge help when it came to learning English. My teachers, classmates, and even my parents were impressed by how early I started to learn the language. The only reason for that was to understand the stories in the games I was playing at the time. And speaking English fluently (fluent for a Swede, at least) has been a huge help both personally and professionally. So that's definitely a big perk.
Other than that, I think becoming well-versed with computers and how they work can be a huge asset in many fields of life. Learning how to use common software instantly makes you eligible for more jobs than you'd otherwise have been. Starting to use computers early also raises your chance of finding a skill that you can use your entire life, be it programming (a bigger and bigger part of the workforce), graphic design, or advanced mathematics.
What other challenges are young people today facing when it comes to gaming and esports?
It's always been, unfortunately, a very harsh community. Especially if you don't identify as a man. I remember playing online when I was really young. People were being called really bad names for not being the best at the game. It almost made me quit, and I know my friends have experienced similar things. It's really rough. I think that that's the first hump: realizing that those are the toxic people out there. But if you move past that, you find the beautiful gaming community. That's what made me stick around: finding my friends and peers to play with.
I have an example that I use when talking about gaming to my older relatives who don't understand gaming. There was a Norwegian guy called Mats [Steen]. He had a serious muscle disease and always knew he would die young. He was in a wheelchair and couldn't really do the things his friends were doing, so he started playing World of Warcraft. He made a bunch of friends in the game, but he didn't tell them about his condition because he was ashamed.
Sadly, he eventually passed away. He'd given his parents the password to his blog, and they made a post so people would know what happened. His parents thought he'd been alone his entire life, but at his funeral, people started showing up from Amsterdam, Sweden, Finland, the UK. They told this story about growing close in the game, playing every night. And not only in the game but talking about life and emotions.
That's what I found too. Not to the extent Mats did, of course, but finding people from all over the world that I'm still friends with today—just from playing games. You have to get over the hump that is the internet and find the people you can connect with and play with.
That's so true and so important. I remember a comment from a parent at a GLL tournament. He said, "All this time, I assumed my son was upstairs alone in his room, and now I meet all of these people who know him and support him." That must be very tough to explain to adults who haven't grown up with gaming. There's this outdated idea of the loner gamer in their basement, and it's just not true anymore.
No, and I think that idea still resides in a lot of people. And I think having someone—a parent or something else that supports you—is probably the most important thing.
One of the first tournaments I attended here in Sweden was for MadSkillz, the mobile motorcycle game. I remember thinking, "Are people really competing in a mobile game?" That was weird for me. On the way home, I was sitting on the bus next to an older gentleman. I said to him, "You seem a little out of place considering everyone else here is about 18," and he replied, "I'm here with my grandson, Zach. This is the first time we've ever left the USA." He had been supporting his grandson's interests all along.
It reminded me of my parents, who always said, "Okay, you can play games as long as you do your schoolwork first!" They were always very understanding and supportive. If you don't have that, it is really tough. No matter how you talk about it, it is sitting in your room in front of a computer. It doesn't seem social! I can understand not getting it if you didn't grow up with it.
Hopefully, as more people who grew up gaming have kids, we'll see a shift toward that supportive parenting. That's also where organizations like Phoenix Blue can be so impactful—if kids don't have a parent at home who understands—being an adult who they can talk to.
That's right, and it's also useful for those parents who want to be supportive but just don't understand how it works. We also had that at Huskvarna, parents coming and asking us to explain things. There are groups on Facebook for parents to go and talk about the games like Fornite amongst themselves. They want to be able to talk about the game or play with their kids.
I think there is a change in progress in terms of people's mindsets. It is not just about parenting but also about toxicity and equality in gaming. It's super slow, but I see the change. I've followed esports for a long time, and when I started, the toxicity was never brought up. Now some of the biggest esports teams are addressing it.
One video I like is by a professional Counter-Strike player. He recorded himself playing under a female username to show the abuse he faced. Of course, he knew what would happen but experiencing it firsthand taught him about it and made it visible to others. I've seen a bunch of initiatives like that. Change is happening, not at the pace I'd like, but I think we're moving in the right direction.
More and more official organizations are starting to understand the importance of esports. What do you think of this trend, and will it continue or die off?
I think it started because people wanted to jump on a trend. It might not have started for the right reasons, in my opinion, but I do believe it will continue. If you look at today's youth, they watch far more gaming content than "regular" sports. Organizations will have to jump on this train; it's departing whether you like it or not.
I think it's going to continue and grow quickly as well. Going back to Jönköping again, the university has its own gaming association called Justice. They also have one guy employed full-time doing esports and gaming research. It's pretty cool.
What could esports teams or organizations be doing to help young people more?
Everyone could be better. What we're lacking in Sweden and all over the world is the grassroots thinking. You have all these cool esports pros that you're watching. They're doing their thing, and you read that they're making a ton of money but what's never mentioned—or only rarely—is everyone else. Those striving to become competitors can't live off what they're doing. If you want it to become real and to make it a legitimate career choice without a 99% risk of failing, there needs to be infrastructure and a grassroots scene.
That's what it's like with every other "real sport." If you start out and see that you have some talent or passion there are local competitions where you can win some money and sustain yourself. You might even be able to acquire a sponsor because the lesser tournaments are broadcast, so the sponsors still see the value. All of these chains have been built over the years to help you climb to the top if that's what you're striving for. Or if you just like the competition on a smaller scale, there's availability to do that. But it's hard for someone like me today, a casual gamer, to find regular competition and exercise my gaming interest.
I think all the teams and especially the tournament organizers need to think about how we can build a sustainable structure that allows people to continue. Otherwise, it's just going to become more and more that the 1% are able to live off what they're doing, and everyone else will have to quit.
If you want it to become real and to make it a legitimate career choice without a 99% risk of failing, there needs to be infrastructure and a grassroots scene.
As well as not seeing the 99% of players, people don't realize how much is required for esports. Players don't just show up and plug their keyboards in, and they're ready to go. There are so many people involved. What other avenues are there into esports for people who maybe don't want to play?
People haven't realized this until quite recently. You can basically pursue any career you want—almost—and apply it to esports. Bigger organizations have product managers, writers, social media managers, community teams, people working in finance, people doing all of these "mundane" jobs if you will. Doing them for an organization within a business they enjoy. I think that's something we should emphasize more to people with a gaming interest. You don't need to commit all-in to become a pro gamer. You can find something you're interested in, educate yourself, and then apply that to gaming and esports.
There was a recent movement to make Stockholm the "capital of esports." Do you think Sweden is different in any way regarding gaming?
I think it is different, but not because of those initiatives. What we have is a long tradition of, firstly, using computers. We were really early on that train. That's why we have so many people who grew up with that gaming interest. We had the most thriving LAN community in the early 2000s, and we became a powerhouse within esports in the first 10 years or so. But after that, we've fallen off, and I think that is because it hasn't really been supported here. Many countries were quicker to recognize that this is a real thing and it matters to a lot of people. These initiatives that are coming now from Stockholm and other cities are, in my opinion, quite late. We're different because of the people who've been gaming here all their lives, not because of the people running the country.
What can people do if they want to support Phoenix Blue and your work?
The easiest and most significant support is becoming a member. It's completely free and comes with no demands or anything. It helps us show the government that we exist, and we're doing something. Anyone who signs up to become a member helps us a ton. Then, of course, if you wish to support us even further, we're always happy to have you join us for one of the events. Or if you have a particular area of expertise that you can help with. We know nothing about graphic design, for example, so we have 2 people who help us out from time to time when we need to make announcements. Whatever interests you have, there is room for you within our organization. The more, the merrier, to be honest! Become a member or reach out and tell us what you're all about!
And where can people find you?
Thank you, Adam, for taking the time, and best of luck with your island adventure! Make sure to follow Phoenix Blue to stay up to date with their work and events.
Do you know another organization that’s changing the future of esports? We’d love to speak to them. Contact us on Discord
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