Video games for a cause

A small, competitive video game community creates more than mindless, explosive fun

Zach Simon

One more point and Grape would beat Ma3la. In a desperate move, Ma3la jumped at Grape, only to be met with a shotgun blast.

Match over.

That was just the final seconds of one “Team Fortress 2,” or “TF2,” tournament held during the Tip of the Hats 36-hour stream-a-thon for charity in March.

The event was put on by a niche community of “TF2” competitive gamers who raised a brain-melting $105,519.33 for the Children’s Oncology Services and One Step programs.

The charities raise money to help children with cancer attend summer camps, among other things, and it gave gamers the opportunity to demonstrate that gamers can do more than just play.  

 

Inside the game

Released in 2007, “Team Fortress 2” made a name for itself as a quality time-sink for those who like their bloody rocket giblets with a side of light humor.

  A fast-paced, team-oriented, first-person shooter, “TF2” is centered on controlling key map points by using the abilities of nine uniquely skilled character classes.

 “TF2” became free to play in June 2011 and formed its own economy. In-game items can sell for unbelievable amounts of cash. For example, the Unusual Killer Exclusive, a hat that gives the user’s character a fiery halo, is currently selling for $11,000.

Small sub-communities have cropped up, augmenting the rolling plains of the game’s geography into an intricate mountain range of hats and flamethrowers.

 

Tip of the Hats

As a high-level player and popular streamer, Sean “Seanbud” Stradley felt there was untapped potential to both grow the “TF2” competitive scene and give back to the community at large.

Stradley joined close friends and fellow “TF2” players Alex “Lange” Van Camp, Kurt “TrukTruk” Russ and Jason “WhiskerBiscuit” Baxter to organize the Tip of the Hats Tournament, asking for donated in-game items to help get the event up and running.

The “TF2” community met the tournament with enthusiasm, and the first Tip of the Hats extravaganza was broadcast on the front page of video game streaming website Twitch.tv in April 2013.

The broadcast — which included raffles for valuable in-game items and pick-up games pitting donors against pros —was only projected to generate around $5,000 for One Step, Stradley said. But the first iteration pulled in roughly $35,000, with more than 65,000 viewers tuning in.

The second Tip of the Hats event pulled in over $100,000. The stream featured an appearance by Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham, who is, according to Baxter, the “Grandfather of e-sports.”

 

Tight knit competition

For Carl “Enigma” Yangsheng, the competitive “TF2” scene is a “collection of talented, motivated individuals — all of whom are dedicated to the community voluntarily.”

As founder and sole proprietor of the competitive “TF2” hub “Teamfortress.tv”, Yangsheng has been heavily involved in the community since the game’s release with Valve’s “Orange Box.” He is regarded as one of the top players in the game and a huge influence in creating a place for players to gather and come together as a unit.

  Similarly, Eric “Salamancer” Smalley, a popular shout-caster for TF2 match broadcasting, commented on the scene’s lack of outside support over the last 7 years from either sponsors or other leagues.

“The community is special and not special — it’s a niche that has its small following that really enjoy it,” Smalley said. “The thing that really sets it apart is that ‘TF2’ players are so good at finding the tiniest scraps [of outside support] and turning them into something great.”

It’s even more remarkable when considering the small number of “TF2” diehards, some 800 according to popular “TF2” figure Wyatt “Ma3la” Smith.  

So, when someone does contribute, it’s like dropping a boulder in a glass of water, rather than a pebble in ocean. With role models like Van Camp, who has created numerous facilitating programs for the community, it’s no wonder others are motivated to put thousands of hours and more money than they’d like to admit into a video game.