Israel hosts esports championships in premier event

Here is a look at the world’s premier gaming championship event, hosted this year in Eilat, Israel.

 THE IESF World Championships is comparable to the World Cup of gaming.  (photo credit: IESA)
THE IESF World Championships is comparable to the World Cup of gaming.
(photo credit: IESA)

Gamers from all over the world will flock to Eilat from November 16-20 for the 13th iteration of the International Esports Federation (IESF) World Championships.

This is the first time Israel will host the event, the largest iteration of the competition yet, which is expected to be watched by hundreds of millions of viewers around the world. This event has been in the works for years, since the 11th World Championships. At the time, Eilat had been slated to host the 12th iteration of the competition, but this was ultimately delayed due to the corona pandemic. The competition itself was ultimately held online.

Now, however, the long-anticipated world championships are finally here.

“It is amazing that we finally reached this point in time where we can show Israeli hospitality to the world,” explained Ido Brosh. “Gamers from 71 countries all over the world are coming to Eilat. I’m super happy and excited about it and I hope we enjoy it.”

Brosh is head of the Israel esports Association (IESA), the Israeli representative organization within the South Korea-based IESF. In addition, he also sits on the IESF’s board, the first Israeli to do so.

 IDO BROSH (R), IESA head and member of the IESF board, at the controllers with IESF secretarygeneral Boban Totovski. (credit: MORAG BITAN) IDO BROSH (R), IESA head and member of the IESF board, at the controllers with IESF secretarygeneral Boban Totovski. (credit: MORAG BITAN)

Progress on getting the event off the ground and into Israel was done through the cooperation of the IESF, Israel’s Culture and Sports Ministry, Tourism Ministry, the Maccabi World Union, and the Eilat Municipality. A few select games had been chosen, and in 2020, it was expected that gamers from 60 countries would come to participate.

This nation-based focus of the IESF world championships is something that makes it different from other major esports competitions and tournaments around the world. Rather than consisting of participating clubs and teams, the world championships instead uses national teams, with individual countries sending representatives through their representative organizations within the IESF. This makes it similar to the FIFA World Cup, and just like the World Cup, not everyone can attend. Rather, a number of qualifiers are held around the world to narrow down the contestants.

The gamers compete with each other in a few different titles, this time being DOTA 2, a popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) title that emphasizes strategy; Tekken 7, a fighting game considered one of the most popular competitive esport titles in Israel; Counter Strike: GO (CS:GO), a first-person shooter considered to be the most popular esport title in the world; and eFootball 2022, a soccer game that is the most recent title and is a full rebrand of the previous soccer game of choice for the competition, Pro Evolution Soccer.

 COUNTER STRIKE: Go,’ arguably the world’s most popular esport title, is one of the games set to be played in Eilat.  (credit: IESA) COUNTER STRIKE: Go,’ arguably the world’s most popular esport title, is one of the games set to be played in Eilat. (credit: IESA)

In addition, one other game will also be featured. Titled Audition, it is a Korean-made dancing and rhythm game that is not as popular in the West as the other titles. As such, it will be an exhibition game, not one of the main competitive titles. But it does have one other advantage: female players.

“Esports is unfortunately a very male-dominated scene, and so we’re very happy to have more women participating,” said Brosh. “It’s a big part of our agenda.”

So who are the favorites to win the World Championships?

“For me, the favorite is, of course, the Israeli team,” Brosh said with a laugh. “As for who is more likely to win? Well, that’s another story. There are lots of good competitors this year, like South Korea, Sweden, who are bringing a big team this year, and Namibia, who are bringing a very big team, and I think they have a chance at achieving some very good results. Audition is different. It’s a rhythm game and new, but it’s more popular in the Far East, so players from there might win because they might be more familiar with it.”

The international reach of the competition, however, means that there are political aspects to consider, especially given that many nations do not recognize Israel or have diplomatic ties with it.

Indeed, when Israel was originally chosen as the location for the 12th iteration of the IESF World Championships, many nations voiced their opposition, such as Lebanon, Syria, Indonesia and Iran. However, some of this opposition soon began to quiet down, and after Iran qualified for the World Championships last year, it seemed like the Islamic Republic might actually send a delegation to Israel.

This year, however, there is no chance of that happening, as Iran has elected not to participate at all, though Brosh suspects other internal issues as the reason why this time.

Some still oppose the decision to hold the event in Israel, and in fact, this is why Pakistan withdrew.

However, several countries in the Muslim world are still participating, such as Azerbaijan, Kosovo, the United Arab Emirates and Senegal. But the most notable participant from the Muslim world is Indonesia, a country that lacks any formal ties with Israel. The history of Indonesian-Israel relations is long, and there are visa permissions in place, but sending a delegation for an international event is another story.

In fact, sending any delegation is impressive, given the many different corona travel restrictions around the world.

Indeed, the fact that such political and pandemic issues are able to be overcome is something Brosh is very proud of, calling it “the triumph of sports, or triumph of esports, not only in the face of politics, but the face of COVID.

“Countries like Syria and Lebanon were very opposed to it being in Israel. The difference this time though wasn’t that they were shut down by us or the IESF itself, but by the countries in Europe and Asia. They [Lebanon and Syria] were the ones who were illegitimately bullying Israel, not the other way around, and that was recognized here because this should be beyond politics.

“This illustrates just how important it is to invest in these projects early on, and not to wait for countries who don’t like Israel for some reason to call for a boycott. I’m very proud we were able to make these friends in the esports industry who could shut down these boycott talks so easily.”

This was also helped by Brosh’s fellow IESF board member, Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Bin Sultan Al Nahayan, of the Emirati royal family.

Their working relationship began when Brosh was appointed to the board in 2017, long before the Abraham Accords brought formal normalized ties between Israel and the UAE, though as Brosh admits, he had nothing to do with those ties being formed.

However, they did give him hope for the future.

“When the Abraham Accords came to life, we had further ideas that I hope could lead to collaborations between Israel and the UAE in esports,” he said. “They have a very big esports presence, and I hope we can work together with them on collaborations between our communities. This is part of our attempt at international outreach between Israelis and non-Israelis.”

This type of outreach is important for Brosh, as it is a way to give a good first impression of Israel to the younger generation.

“Last year, when we had to have the event online, it reached more than 400 million people around the world,” Brosh said. “In Europe and America, where Israel isn’t always shown in a positive way, and in Asia, where Israel is featured rarely if not at all.”

This is very important for him because it doesn’t just show that Israel is not what most Western news outlets say it is, but because it introduces the Jewish state to an audience that might not see those news outlets at all.

“Most younger people live their lives on TikTok, Facebook and other social media, not news outlets,” said Brosh. “We need to reach these people there, and esports is one of the best ways to do that. It isn’t shoving any agenda down their throats, but it’s showing them what Israel is all about: hi-tech and the hospitality of a modern country. Not by sharing a press release with the BBC or whatever.”

According to Brosh, if you show Israel to people exposed to the BDS movement for years, their opinions might be very difficult to change. But showing it to younger people less aware of all the politics surrounding it, who may be less familiar with the BDS movement than they are with Team BDS, the Swiss-based esports club, then it might be easier to give a good first impression.

“I am proudly a Zionist, and I go around in a lot of countries and I show this message,” Brosh said. “This is the future. I am here only to represent Israel in this framework, and so far we’re doing quite well.

“For me, as head of the IESA, it is very important, and I’m very proud of it so far. We’re showing Israel not to people who love or hate us, but to people who don’t know enough about us, and we’re hitting them in the right place.”

Right now, a big success in this endeavor is the work being done with countries in the Far East, such as China, Mongolia, Japan and South Korea, countries that are very prominent in the esports scene and where news about Israel is not as prominent.

“We’re showing them something they didn’t know,” said Brosh. “That between Europe, the US, Asia and the Middle East, you have Israel, a country that can do so many amazing things. And I hope it can lead to more collaborations with Israel and the Far East in esports and the sector it belongs to, digital entertainment.”

But these future projects will have to wait, as Brosh has his hands full at the moment.

“The World Championship is taking most of our capacity this year, but afterward and thanks to our partnership with Maccabi World Union, I think a lot of projects for Israeli and Jewish esports could come to life in the future, not in 10 years, but sooner,” he said.

One of the projects he was able to reveal now is that there will be an esports exhibition at the upcoming Maccabiah games in 2022.

The purpose for this is to showcase esports to the Jewish world.

“We are showing how there are Jews playing esports right under their nose, and we should engage in this for kids who aren’t as interested in traditional sports, and Maccabiah is interested in this,” Brosh said. “We need Israel to become the absolute leader of esports and gaming for the Jewish world, and I think we are at the beginning of doing just that. If I am not too presumptuous, I will say it is good for Israel through esports.”

The IESF World Championships will take place at Eilat’s Ice Mall beginning on Tuesday at 10 a.m. It will be broadcast (in English) in Israel on HOT’s Channel 66, as well as 24 TV channels worldwide. It can also be seen on the websites of the IESF and the World Championships, as well as on Twitch and on social media.