WePlay Ultimate Fighting League (WUFL) Season 1 is almost upon us: less than a month left before all the best players in the Mortal Kombat 11, SOULCALIBUR VI, and Tekken 7 pro-scenes gather at the WePlay Esports Arena Kyiv. The offline tournaments in these titles offer hefty prize pools of $50,000 each in addition to the opportunity to prove themselves on the grand stage.
We spoke with James Banks, one of the organizers and a host of all three upcoming events, about the importance of the FGC for esports, how WUFL can help the scene grow, and also asked some of the most pressing questions the community had in mind.
Hello, James! WePlay Esports is mainly known as a Dota 2 and CS:GO events organizer. How did the idea to host an FGC tournament come to be?
Hello! Well, it was actually the WePlay Esports team. They were really looking at different avenues and what they could combine in traditional sports, like when you look at the boxing and the fighting and see what could be done. I just remember the conversations going on in the office. I was at the time working as a host for different events, like the Counter-Strike, VALORANT, and Dota side of things. Maksym Bilonogov and Eugene Shepelev came to me, and they said, "We've got this idea for the FGC. We're thinking of doing this, this and this.” I replied, "Well, actually, I used to do some hosting, used to compete in the FGC, played Virtua Fighter 5 professionally." It was one of those things where, when we had the conversation, the ideas of what I wanted to see happen in the FGC and what they were trying to do started to align.
It turned into a beautiful partnership for something we could make happen that really can take the FGC to the next level. Because the one thing the FGC has struggled with is, and I can't pinpoint the exact reasons why growing into what it potentially could be has not happened. And that's not to say that it's doing bad or anything like that. But first of all, I think there was not enough investment from certain parties, either the publishers at the time or people who really understood what to do in terms of tournament organizing or selling parts of a broadcast. There were always limits and boundaries. Like when I hosted for Capcom and Bandai when I was doing the few events in the Capcom Pro Tour and Tekken World Tour, everything was not sold in a normal way of how the other esports were being done. It doesn't mean you have to copy what any other esports does, but there were definitely some holes that we saw, "Actually, this could be beneficial, not just for you, but for the viewers. This could be beneficial from a business case, we can try and make something sustainable." And sadly, it didn't work out. There was a lot of pushback, even certain people in the community did not like it and that is when I stopped hosting within the FGC even though I wanted to continue.
Probably, because it was different. When you are trying to do something different, you will get some hate and some pushback. But this time around when we did the WePlay Dragon Temple – everyone loved it. Obviously, there was good criticism that came through, but it wasn't horrible criticism. It was smart things that we can improve on and take into the WePlay Ultimate Fighting League. I see a great future for this now because it feels like it's the right time. Things have advanced, we started to get further with it all. And the fact that we have amazing publishers in Bandai and Warner Brothers who have given us the opportunity and actually been super supportive has made this project come to life in a big way outside of just what myself and WePlay are doing.
COVID hurt the whole FGC in a major way, yet WePlay Esports still decided to hold a LAN tournament – WePlay Dragon Temple. Would it still have happened at the same timeframe if the other events were still around?
Yeah, it definitely would. It is a shame that COVID happened globally, and it really hurt the FGC because it's so offline focused. When I think of some of my friends that work at Combo Breaker and Evo, I feel so sorry for them because their passion, and also their business that they were running alongside other work was just killed off because of COVID. We were really lucky at WePlay Esports to be able to put up such strong safety measures for the first event. Unless there were really strict rules put in place, we could have possibly not even gotten permission to run the tournament.
We had to rethink everything about how we looked at COVID, what safety measures we took for the players, our own staff, the talent, everything that went alongside it. I will say one thing in terms of the event taking place: no matter what, if there was COVID or if there was no COVID, this would be taking place. And this isn't something for the tournament organizers out there in the FGC to be scared of. I want this message to be very clear: we are working directly with all the publishers that we work with on the games that they have to make sure that we do not clash with other events. I don't want to be putting the WUFL on top of Evo, or on top of a Combo Breaker, or on top of a big event that's happening in the UK, for example, or somewhere else in the world. We want to work with the publishers to make sure that this is a benefit. This is an addition to the entire community. I want to make sure we only increase opportunity and chances for the players. I don't want to make them have to choose between events. And that is so important because I do not want to lose the grassroots element that is there for the FGC.
Medal ceremony at the WePlay Dragon Temple
WePlay Dragon Temple was an MK11-only tournament. WUFL added Tekken 7, and SOULCALIBUR VI. How did you pick the disciplines?
What it came down to was looking at what games had a good set of viewership, following, and also maybe games like SOULCALIBUR VI that doesn't get as much attention. We did speak to Capcom, we wanted to get Street Fighter V involved. Hopefully, we can get them involved for the next season, but just in timescales and how they are also trying to run their things, and we're trying to do our things, it didn't work out. A lot of people were upset that we didn't include the game that they play. The key point is, I don't want to just run a tournament if we're not working with the publishers. I think that's the main thing behind everyone at WePlay – making sure that we deliver in a way that is only beneficial for everyone, both the people playing and the people watching. In terms of these options, Tekken 7, for me, was a must. Because first of all, Tekken 7 as a game looks beautiful, and it runs really well. I think the community itself has been incredible in terms of when I've been to the events. I did an event in Poland in 2018, and it was crazy. The passion, the love for this game. It's also a game that I had from my childhood. Yes, when I played fighting games professionally, it was Virtua Fighter. But Tekken was the first one I ever picked up. Tekken 1 was the first game I had in terms of playing FGC titles. It has a legacy, it's legendary, a lot like Mortal Kombat in that sense. And when it came to SOULCALIBUR, it was an option of whether or not we have two titles, or we add the third and try and push this further? Adding the third title was key for us to make sure that we didn't have just a couple of events that ran back to back. I wanted this to look like a professional season.
So we agreed at WePlay that we'd take on a third title. We were talking about it, and we said, "Well, what about SOULCALIBUR?" Yes, it may not be the biggest in terms of numbers, but it plays really well. And again, it looks so good. Also, the community; you should just look at the comments we have on some of the social media posts. I'm speaking to some of the most famous players that play the game since the original SoulCalibur came out, and everyone is so thankful for it. So for me, this gets me very excited about what can be delivered. Because the key thing everyone has to remember here is that everyone that does love these games – now is your time to show it. Now is your time to jump on and watch it, show us that this can be something that we can do for a long, long time because already we have a multi-year plan for this. We don't want to just be doing one season, and that's it. We are trying to make this sustainable. We are trying to make this something that can grow and actually benefit, not just ourselves, but the players, the environment from the ground up. That's the key message that I want to push on here.
The upcoming event is WUFL Season 1. Are there plans to expand the roster of the games for the next seasons? Which ones are on the organizers' radar?
It's definitely not just my call, obviously, there's a lot of people in the back. If I had a choice, I'd love to obviously have Street Fighter V, a hundred per cent. I think the new Guilty Gear Strive could definitely be one that could be added to it. SEGA teased something about the Virtua Fighter. They put a tweet out quite a while ago now, and they haven't really said anything afterwards, but as a Virtual Fighter guy myself, I would love to be able to have that in there. But the thing is, the sky's the limit with this on how far we can go. So many people have come into FGC before, and they've done one event and then they were gone, "Oh, this wasn't enough." We're playing the long game here, you know? So it's going to be a gradual expansion. It's about making this not just beneficial for the people watching and seeing an amazing show, but also the players if we can bring more sponsors and if we bring more organizations that want to pick up players. It's getting everyone together in trying to have one big push to show that the FGC can have this. Because we've had ESL do events before, we've had ELeague do some events before as well, but it's not like a consistent set that's benefiting the whole community. They're amazing events, take nothing away from it. It helps, it really does – every little bit of great prize money, good events that we can watch and enjoy. But I'm looking at the whole system, the whole community we have in the FGC, and what we can do and what we can deliver to them.
What does the partnership with such a figure as the world-champion boxer Oleksandr Usyk mean for WUFL?
Having a partner like Usyk is huge. WePlay Esports is registered in the United States, but we have offices and a lot of staff here in Ukraine. And the great thing about Usyk is that obviously, he is Ukrainian. He is also helping us to bridge that gap between esports and actual, real fighting in terms of boxing and what we can deliver. I think it opens up a different avenue of where we can bring new people from outside of esports, and also bring some people from esports to look back at boxing because it is a time-loved sport. MMA obviously is a big sport that people are talking about, but boxing has always been the classic. We've got so many legendary matches in it. So I'm excited just to see how this partnership will grow and what happens going forward.
Oleksandr Usyk presents WUFL Season 1
This can also possibly help to silence the doubters that like fighting games and esports are not real sports.
Exactly. Sure, you may not be physically training as much as someone who's doing boxing. But these people are putting a lot of hours in to be good at their games. And this is the beauty of FGC: everyone can understand what's going on the screen. Sure, some games are more complicated to follow than others, but you've got the health bar, you can see when the hits are landing. I think that's what I really enjoy about the FGC is that we can educate and bring more viewers in and help them understand what's going on as well.
WUFL S1 will feature 48 players to DT’s 14. Does this create any additional problems when it comes to the COVID precautions? What health and safety measures are being put in place?
We have some really, really strict guidelines on our COVID side of things. Everyone, before they fly in, has to come through with a negative test. Everyone gets medical insurance provided by us as well. Everyone's got different flight options of what's going to be the best way to come through, with obviously the least number of transfers to be able to get here. And when they come to Ukraine, they quarantine as well. They get tested again. All of our staff is tested as well.
All of these precautions have been put in place not just by us but also by the government rules that we have within the country and also what the publishers have seen and been happy with. In terms of the bigger number of players, the fact that it's week by week – one week of Mortal Kombat, then SOULCALIBUR, then Tekken – it's not that big a deal. It obviously is a bit more in terms of numbers. It's just gonna be the same protocols followed, and just make sure that we're really strict with it all from start to finish. Because I think that the thing I was really proud of with the Dragon Temple event is that everyone at WePlay did an amazing job of not going out anywhere else, staying there, focusing just on the event. It can be very hard to get everyone to commit to that, but everyone had the right vision. In the end, we had no cases shown, no one came back with a positive result. Everyone stayed safe. Yes, it sucks that we have to limit who can and can't visit. I know there were people who already said, "I'd love to come to watch the event." Sadly, that's not possible. People would like to bring their family members with them, people would like to bring their brothers with them. Some of the players have asked before. Sadly, at the moment, it's just not possible. But trust me, when COVID is out of the way, when we've had all the vaccines, and things are going well for other people, we will be having our arenas filled up. There'll be some screaming and shouting fans out there. And that's what I can't wait for.
The FGC community prides itself on being very grassroots-oriented, with open tournaments everyone can enter. And many people said they had hoped that WUFL S1 wouldn’t be invite-only. WePlay Esports made a statement explaining why it wasn’t feasible to have open qualifiers for this event. Do you have plans on the specific implementation of qualifiers for the next events, or will you look at it when they come?
Even WePlay Dragon Temple was not meant to be invitational. I looked at every option, and I worked with the different teams and the publishers, and I explained what we could do if we held the qualifiers. And some people are like, "Oh, you could hold qualifiers? It's no problem." But there can be problems. You hold the qualifiers. Someone qualifies. Say they don't get a visa. Say they don't manage to get a negative test result. It's a huge amount of risk that can damage the whole event. And then a player would not be able to come and attend. We'd have to find another player who could come, who might be next on the list of the qualifiers, but maybe they have a problem. What people have to understand here is, we started inviting players and planning things over two months ago. Just because you saw the announcement on a certain day doesn't mean that's when we started work.
We are having to go through strict measures with every player, every talent, talk to them about what's needed and required. So sadly, it is an invitation to start off with, but what people don't really understand, and I can let you on to a little secret here, is that we are doing stuff that is going to be coming to the public soon that is going to help from the grassroots. I'm talking about tournaments the pro -players can't enter, tournaments the pro players can enter. Qualifying events to try and get yourself that anyone can enter to take part in another season of WUFL. It's one of these things where there was a lot going on that maybe people aren't aware of. If they saw the announcement that WePlay and Usyk had the idea of putting this $25 million investment into it, this isn't just about doing the events and making it look cool. This is also stuff like our tournament platform going on, then when we're at events, I want to have setups where we can teach players, fans, how to learn the basics. Because that's still something that people don't really understand. They may like it, but they may not know how to play. Maybe they learn from one of the players that are there. So, for now, invitational, sadly, is just what it is. We will be able to fix that, there will be qualifiers going forward. As long as COVID permits it all. But we're doing an investment into the grassroots side of things that is going to be hugely beneficial for the whole FGC. I think that's what people should be talking about and getting excited about when it does come because it will open up like cash prize tournaments for everyone that they can take part in doesn't matter what level. It won't just be where top players enter, and they just clean up the money every single time because it's easy games for them. There'll be amateur tournaments. There'll be non-pro tournaments. You know, I want something for everyone. And I think that's kind of missing at the moment.
WePlay Dragon Temple had had an outstanding participants list, but with WUFL, you outdid yourselves: SonicFox, Dragon, Kombat, Rewind, the list goes on. What does it mean to have so many household names attending this event?
People obviously questioned some of the picks that we had for the original Dragon Temple. I'll be honest, straight away: some of these players got invited because they were further down the list, and other players at the top didn't want to travel during COVID. And I said straight away to everyone, "Look, this is a great opportunity. We can provide you with all these safety measures, but I fully understand, and I will not hold it against you. It doesn't mean you won't be invited for the future if you say "no" now." Because personally, I understand if someone doesn't want to travel. You may want to avoid the risk. Now, when it comes to this event, I have players who would reach out to me before I started reaching to them and said they wanted to attend. What we aimed to do was have 16 of the best players for every game invited. I feel like what we've done that this time around has been almost spot-on. I'm really excited to see probably the highest level of competition across all the games and the players we have that people have seen. Because remember, as you mentioned, it's been a year, and we have not seen any of these offline events. So a lot of these guys have not had these kinds of tournament's go down. And an interesting part is, some of our Tekken players from around Europe and the Middle East are all going to Pakistan before the event to practice as well and still having to do the COVID safety measures. So they're going a step further because it's been so long of them just playing online. They want to be in the best shape possible, especially when they have to go up against the South Koreans as an example. So it's going to get really interesting.
The next one is one of the biggest questions from the community: what are some of the lessons you learned after organising the WePlay Dragon Temple tournament that you’re going to implement in WUFL? Was there any specific player feedback or anything that you intend to do differently?
I think obviously everyone was so blown away by the production, but if you look at WePlay Esports, Maksym Bilonogov and his team, and everyone behind it, they are so good at this. They’ve done this for a long time. They know what they're doing. I think now it was getting the fundamental stuff. As in, the traditional stuff that you normally see on FGC broadcast. Luckily, we had the 2v2 tournament on the opening day, and that gave us a bit of a practice run. So what we did is kind of just get feedback from the players that attended, the people, watching some of the experts in the scene, even some of our own talent we've hired for it as well, the commentators and the analysts. We've just put it all together. I don't want to give too much away, but just expect WePlay Dragon Temple times ten, because the production is going to be fire. The players are even better, and we've been able to add some stuff. I'm talking about stats, looking at player profiles and characters, that's really going to impress the whole community again. Some stuff even I haven't seen yet, by the way, I'm just hearing the conversations. I'm not involved in seeing it fully. There's this thing, some of these guys at WePlay are so into it. That's the other thing, for me, this is a passion project, but for a lot of the people at WePlay, this is also a passion project. They get to work on something like this and be one of the first to be innovative in the style of the event and what you're going to see on your screen. So I'd definitely just say stay tuned. Cause you're in for a wild ride.
Dragon Temple’s style was this ancient temple where kombatants fought to demonstrate their prowess before the watchful eyes of the elder beings. It will be different this time. Who is responsible for all that?
This is more down to the production team, and this is the thing that people may not notice if they hadn't seen Dragon Temple or the other events WePlay has done: this team is super creative. They come from the film, they come from the TV shows. They don't just come from esports, they've got incredible backgrounds and a lot of experience. So first of all, they come up with the concept and the idea, then they put it all together. Then they put the clothing in. Then they look at the set design, they take inspiration from movies. Huge props to the team behind it. It has nothing to do with me, I deserve no credit for any of that. But these guys... We did a Dota 2 event where we were dressed up like the Greek gods, in the mythology kind of style, but using the Dota 2 characters. That was amazing. We did a VALORANT one where we had a cyberpunk style. And then we did a Counter-Strike one where we were on a survival island. So honestly, it's just going to be a lot of fun and, and, and it's going to bring another element and another dynamic to the whole show. Huge props to the team that works on it.
Anything you want to add or to tell the viewers eagerly awaiting the start of the tournament?
WePlay Ultimate Fighting League is something so new, something so different from what the FGC is used to. And we've had such great feedback, and yes, there always are some negative comments or people not happy with certain things like the invite format. But trust me when I say this, I have been involved in esports since 2003, I've been a part of the FGC community initially through Virtua Fighter 5 since 2007, I love this stuff, but it's not just me. There are people like Maksym Bilonogov, who's the head of the production and the visionary officer. Then you've got Eugene Shepelev, who's putting all the tournament and the esports side of it together, making it all run well. There are so many people behind the scenes that have made this possible. It truly makes me feel funny in my body and warm because I've dreamed of the FGC having something like this, because I've worked on some of the biggest CS:GO stages, I've done some of the biggest events around the world, and that feels crazy. And it feels amazing that I finally get to do this now for the FGC. I'm just, I'm so proud of what we've done, but this is only just the beginning of it all. I'm going to keep pushing, I'm going to keep trying to make as much good stuff happen here. The reason I feel this confident is because I've got the WePlay guys with this amazing vision. There are amazing ideas who also believe in it. That was the biggest thing for the FGC. There were so many people that came in, did one event, made it look good, sold it to the partners, and left the FGC. I think that kind of left the burn of what esports is to a lot of the FGC people. But WePlay, they've really shown all of us that they are committed for the future, and they're committed for the long-term on this. And I'm just so happy that I'm involved in any of it. It's just like a dream come true.
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