Hi-Rez Studios' 'SMITE' may put Atlanta on gaming map 

How the most casual MOBA is affecting the rapidly evolving gaming community

PLAYING GOD: Zeus and other gods are playable characters in SMITE.

Hi-Rez Studios

PLAYING GOD: Zeus and other gods are playable characters in SMITE.

Atlanta's spot on the international video game map depends on whom you talk to, but thanks to a popular computer game created by local developers, that could change. Earlier this year Hi-Rez Studios in Alpharetta released SMITE, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game that's brought the city into the gaming world's consciousness.

"Atlanta and Georgia [together are] emerging as a player, as far as video games," says Todd Harris, co-founder and COO of Hi-Rez Studios. "There's a lot of things it has going in its favor, like really good talent coming out of Georgia Tech and Savannah College of Art and Design."

SMITE's March launch tournament, with a $200,000 prize pool, sold out at Center Stage. Seemingly in response, Red Bull sponsored a StarCraft tournament at Center Stage in July.

"We're seeing momentum," Harris says. "I think we influenced that a little bit. They saw that there was an appetite for it. I think people were like, 'Why is there not a lot of this in Atlanta? We got Dragon Con, and it's a big city, and people can get there.'"

Like other MOBAs, SMITE is a three-lane-highway tower defense game with an end objective. Its main difference from other MOBAs is its accessibility, with a third-person camera, familiar god characters, and a more casual atmosphere.

SMITE was received well last year during previews at gaming trade shows PAX Prime in Seattle, PAX East in Boston, and gamescom in Germany. At such trade shows, hundreds of game developers gather to preview upcoming games to fans. As the March 2014 release date for SMITE loomed closer, the Hi-Rez higher-ups played with the concept of giving Atlanta its time to shine.

Hi-Rez tested the idea of building a stronger video game community in Atlanta last October at the Southern Interactive Entertainment and Game Expo (SIEGE), hosted by the Georgia Game Developers Association (GGDA). The resulting SMITE tournament was a resounding success. In a recent press release, Hi-Rez Studios announced a new tournament in January 2015 at a venue twice the size of Center Stage: Cobb Energy Centre. The prize pool is starting at $600,000.

"We thought, 'Hey, what if we tried doing [a tournament] in Atlanta and kind of built this scene here around e-sports?'" Harris says. "Why isn't anybody doing that? It'd be right in our backyard! It'd be easy to get the players here, because of Delta and the airport!"

The Atlanta gaming community is fully embracing SMITE. Georgia Tech's Gamefest and MomoCon included SMITE in their rosters this year. The Marietta gaming bar Battle and Brew live-streamed the Smite launch tournament. More and more game developers are moving to the greater Atlanta area, because of the low living expenses compared to those in other video game-crazed cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin.

The Atlanta gaming community, and the growing numbers of students at Georgia Tech and SCAD who are pursuing careers in video games, are keeping the momentum going. According to gamedevmap and the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the number of video game development companies in the greater Atlanta area has doubled from 13 to 26 in the past nine years. MARTA is also boarding the game train with SMITE bus and transit station advertisements mentioning that SMITE is "Made in Atlanta, Launching Worldwide." If Atlanta isn't internationally recognized as a video game hub in the next couple months, it will be by the time the January 2015 SMITE tournament begins.

Die-hard gamers won't have to wait till 2015, however. On Saturday, at the Cobb Energy Center, there's the SMITE North American Pro League Kick Off LAN, in which four of the top teams to emerge from the qualifier season will compete. The prize pool is set at $50,000.

The big money is leading to even bigger moves for the Hi-Rez team. After finalizing their servers in China, Hi-Rez Studios plans to expand to the other big e-sports hubs of the world: South Korea, Russia, and Southeast Asia.

So, when will e-sports be as big as "real sports?" One look at the competition's viewership compared to the ratings of the 2013 NBA Finals offers a glimpse. According to viewership data provided by the NBA and Riot Games, the 2013 League of Legends Season 3 World Championship had 32 million viewers worldwide, whereas the NBA Finals (Game 7) had ratings of 26.3 million on ABC. The future of video games is now, and Atlanta's already a part of it.

With additional reporting by Cass Lanford.

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