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Money on the fringe -- Gears of War continues its esports march

Players compete in the Microsoft Store in New York in the Gears of War Regional finals. Provided by Microsoft

The fifth floor of the Microsoft Store in New York housed the Gears of War regional finals on Nov. 11 and 12. The venue is used by the Mixer Studio, an esports production space with monitors and telescoping cameras to broadcast competitions on Microsoft's video game streaming service, Mixer. On the final day of the event, three remaining teams -- Ghost, eUnited and OpTic -- were fighting for the largest share of $20,000.

The Gears of War circuit is in its second season, but will dish out a total of $2 million in cash prizes. But even in its grandiose production and generous prize pool, the community is still small and grassroots.

Gears of War is probably underappreciated as an esport. When it comes to shooters, much attention is given to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Call of Duty. But because of Gears' third person perspective, it's instantly more visually engaging. Seeing characters on screen jump and somersault around barriers and sylishly eliminate opponents is a lot more graphically stunning. While a precision shot can be appreciated for its difficulty and complexity in a first-person shooter, the movement options in Gears deserve commendation.

"One of my favorite things about the Melee community is how excited people get watching and playing the game. Gears esports reminds me of this in a big way," said Matt "MattDotZeb" Zaborowski, a professional Super Smash Bros. Melee player who attended the event. "While you're watching the games they have a fast pace, there's not often a break in action, and players love to get into it with one another with friendly trash talk."

Interestingly, the Gears of War 4 development team, The Coalition, kept many of the exploits that competitive Gears players have found since the series' launch in 2006. Things like wall cancelling, which makes it look as if your character is bouncing between walls, or Reaxion shots, an advanced technique allowing players to shoot from behind while looking forward, have given the scene a rich metagame.

This is in contrast to other developers, which are quick to patch a games as soon as an exploit is found. But by allowing certain exploits to stay, Gears has a certain awe. Imagine if the NBA banned slam dunks the first time college basketball player Bob Kurland of Oklahoma A&M did it in the mid-1940s.

Taking a glance over at the Mixer streaming platform, there wasn't a large number of fans tuning in to see the acrobatic splendor of Gears; viewership maxed out at around 3,000.

Mixer is Microsoft's competitor to Amazon-owned streaming giant, Twitch. To put it in perspective, Twitch is like the YouTube of game streaming. Its main rivals, which somewhat ironically are YouTube Gaming, as well as Mixer, are like the Vimeo or Daily Motion.

"Our team has worked closely with Mixer to launch creative growth promotions, including two exclusive reality series: Gears Esports Offseason and Gears Pro Circuit All Access," said Rose Gunson, esports media and content manager for Gears of War. "These promotions are aimed at gradually building a sustainable Gears of War Esports audience on the platform."

It's very likely that if the Gears Regional Finals were aired on Twitch, it would have amassed a larger viewership. By limiting Gears to Mixer, it may hinder the scenes ability to attract new eyes. And attracting new viewers is critical to any esports' survival.

And for Howard, success is not defined by pure numbers. "It's all about our fans and continuing to support our existing fans while also attracting new ones throughout. Season 2 of the Gears Pro Circuit would be a great success that we'd all be proud of."

"The Gears of War community is full of loyal players who have competed through trials and tribulations for 10 years."

Jordan "Ribs" Ribeiro

That's not to say that Gears doesn't have its passionate fans. The attendees loudly cheered and called out to players. A major play, or a disrespectful chainsaw attack, were met with deafening "yeahs!" or fans jumping out of their chairs.

Gears of War was never organized like League of Legends. The game's publisher, Microsoft, only recently got involved with creating a competitive circuit with the release of Gears of War 4 in October of 2016. For much of the life of competitive Gears, it's been largely a homegrown affair with community members organizing tournaments.

"The Gears of War community is full of loyal players who have competed through trials and tribulations for 10 years," said Jordan "Ribs" Ribeiro, who is a member of Ghost Gaming's Gears of War squad. "Throughout all the struggles we always kept on the grind because there's no other shooter like gears. Now with the growth of esports the platform is set for each and every gears player to show why this is the most unique and exciting shooter around."

Much of the Gears community is geographically defined, which is unlike League of Legends or Counter-Strike, both of which have strong presences around the world. While the best team is US-based OpTic Gaming, much of the new talent is springing out of Mexico.

The popularity of Gears in Mexico might have to do with the game's diverse cast of characters, or it being translated in Spanish, but the Mexican Gears scene is definitely the most hardcore. There are active Spanish-speaking online Gears communities, and fans trick out their cars with Gears decals or even get tattoos. And even at the finals, Ghost's Daniel "Identivezk" Santillana addressed his fans back in Mexico in Spanish during the event.

So, if you're an esports fan looking for something to watch during the League, DotA, or CS:GO offseason, and don't mind seeing bodies explode into bloody bits, Gears of War might be a worthy distraction.