I sit here in my hotel room writing this with 10 hours to go until I have to leave South Africa on a long plane ride home. Usually after an event I return feeling a little blue, it’s a bit of a comedown after the adrenaline rush of live tv and stage, so it feels only natural to be a little blue. This time however I’m already feeling blue and I haven’t even left for home yet!
There isn’t a single reason for this, but instead many. Mostly, it was due to the people I met who were kind, friendly, and helpful and went way beyond any reasonable expectations. They took me in to their groups, their friends’ circles, in to their houses for dinner or lunch with their loved ones, shopping trips to great places, meals in great restaurants and even held a braai in my name (a South African BBQ – but even better!). They didn’t need to do any or all of this, after all I was in South Africa to host an esports event. Usually, we fly in a day before and head home the day after the last day. Most of the time without having seen much or any of the place we are visiting other than the streets used to get to and from the venue. And honestly I’m ok with that, especially when I’ve been there before and because, well, it’s work.
I should also point out that South Africa has been on my bucket list since forever. I’d always wanted to go, even having some family out there, I’d somehow never managed it, so when Telkom approached me to host their launch show, I jumped at the chance. I’ve actually been a big fan of the more niche scenes in esports too and I think without being rude it’s fair to say South Africa hasn’t enjoyed international success in esports as of yet, so I am always keen to help if I can, much in the same way as I’ve supported the Australian scene in various games over the years.
I officially entered the last continent on earth I had never visited as my plane, a South African Airways airbus 330 entered Moroccan airspace at 10.07pm GMT on Tuesday night and landed on South African soil for the first time at 6.43am on Wednesday 20th January. The flight was not the best I’ve ever had with long periods of turbulence meaning I didn’t get more than an hours sleep on the 11 hour flight, so landed feeling pretty tired. That was quickly ignored as I was picked up by two gentleman called Wayne and Johann who then drove me to my hotel, giving me introductions to South Africa and explaining the traffic wasn’t always this heavy!
We got checked in, had a quick coffee and headed to the venue, which was still in the throes of being put together, but the majority of it was advanced. The show was planned for 7.30 on the Thursday evening, we had 36 hours to go, plenty of time to catch up on sleep. I was introduced to a host of people and as I’m terrible with names, had to ask all of them at some point over the next two days to remind me again. I wish I could be better at this!
Day 1 was fairly uneventful, we did a few practice runs, the producer (who I shall spell as Yuri, but although that’s his name, it isn’t how you spell it I am sure!) barked out orders and got people on their toes, but showed great patience with me as we got to grips with the shown rundown. We also went to lunch nearby at a gourmet burger joint where my first impressions of cost formed. The entire meal cost the equivalent of £1.60!!!
More rehearsals in the afternoon took their toll on my sleep deprivation further, but the show was getting slicker and I got to meet all the Telkom guys and more importantly all the team captains or owners. Now, I’m always a bit prone to doing stupid things while I’m away, not on purpose, but just silly things that seem to happen! Today was no exception and although I blame a bit of tiredness the reality is that I was just being an idiot.
After one particularly long rehearsal section, I decided to jump off the stage, landed on a carpet which was itself sitting on a slippery floor and promptly fell on my knee heavily.
Somehow I managed to take a large gash out of my jeans which in turn took out a large piece of skin on my kneecap. I wasn’t in a great deal of pain, but never the less, the medic thought the wound was pretty deep and might need some stitches. Luckily, after 20 minutes of cleaning it up and dressing it, it stopped bleeding. We carried on with more rehearsals until I could do no more and at 8 oclock, Wayne (not for the first time this week) saved me by taking me back to the hotel. I slept like a piece of concrete at the bottom of the ocean, waking up 12 hours later completely refreshed and ready for show day!
Thursday was very much about hurry up and wait. We didn’t get through much it seemed so I was thankful for the heavy rehearsal load the day before and felt mostly confident about my speech and hosting. I’d worked on the speech for a while in any case, but as is customary for me now, I trimmed the notes from 5 full A4 sized pages to 12 cue cards and then finally to just a handful. I was ready.
Before we got in to the show however, we had to record a press conference style Q&A which seemed to go pretty well. I mingled with the players and team owners for a couple of hours listening to their passion for esports and how important this entre league was for them and inwardly resolved to ensure I didn’t let them down in the show.
The show itself is a bit of a blur actually, though I will say I have to thank the guys for a tremendous introduction to stage. I heard it in rehearsals and was immediately humbled by the words and delivery. I went through the speech ok, only missing a couple of points I wished I’d raised, but mostly hit the marks with a few cheeky cricket jokes thrown in (England just beat South Africa in the test series) and the crowd of more than 200 seemed to take the jokes well.
More importantly, the speech generated genuine interest among those attending, not all of whom were esports experts or actually had any knowledge of competitive video games at all. If just one of the potential brands that attended gets involved in the league, I’ll consider that a success.
I did have a brain freeze at one point that was really annoying when I forgot Enzo’s surname after his speech “lets here it for Mr Enzo…..” damn it brain. I’d practiced it all night too and it wasn’t even that difficult a name to remember, Scarcella for the record. Still, apologies Enzo, but you have the coolest name, though I feel like you should have been an F1 driver and not a Chief Marketing Officer!
Once the teams had been revealed and the players shown off in their new team jerseys with a big fanfare reveal, the crowd came and joined us for selfies on the stage and with the fantastic (and bloody heavy!) trophy and we had a lot of fun. The rest of the evening I tried to get around to speaking to as many people as possible, but that also meant it was never for very long, but everyone I met was enthusiastic about the current state of esports in South Africa and I really feel like they are on the verge of a serious breakthrough. The launch itself should be used as proof of that.
Once again, late in the night, Wayne came to my rescue, just as the party was about to get seriously heavy and prized me away from a bunch of newly found friends who were persuading me to do some shots! It turned out I’d need to be up at 6am for a news interview on the TV, so impeccable timing from Wayne!
Day 3 was my cooldown day, though I spent the first part of it at eNCA, the TV station with the main South African news on it and was interviewed live on the morning news for about 5 minutes of great exposure for esports. It’s always amazing to get to do these things and hopefully I did a good job of representing esports and helping my new friends in South Africa. I also had lunch in the local square close to my hotel with the guys from the league including Steve, who had been the initial introduction to getting me out there in the first place. Sharing stories and success and failures in esports so that the league can flourish and improve over a nice bottle of rose and some great lunch.
Friday evening was also to be my first ever braai, a South African barbeque, but I’d been promised great things from Yuri (my producer on the show) who had invited me up to his incredible house to have the braai with members of the production team, the league and family members.
It was my favourite night in a very long time, filled with fun stories around an open fire on a warm summers evening as the sun went down, incredible food and fantastic people. We even had music from Wayne (who can play the guitar and sing with excellence!) and one of Yuri’s sons too, also hugely talented. Yuri also gave me a traditional South African walking stick and the guys had gotten me a South African t-shirt too. It was just such an amazing night and I’ve not felt so loved by strangers in my entire life. Yet again, Wayne saved me just as the party was going to get out of hand and despite Yuri’s protestations that I should stay and help finish off the bottle of tequila were doing rather well to destroy, it was time to go and Wayne made sure I got in the car! To Yuri, his wife and two sons, Jenny, Cambridge, Ian, Johann, Wayne and everyone (sorry I can’t remember everyone’s names!) that came and treated me like a friend they had known for years, thank you so much for a wonderful night, it will stay with me forever.
Something else that will stay with me forever happened the following day as Wayne and his wife took me up in to the hills to the Lion Park. I’d never seen a lion up close before, let alone touched one, so imagine my shock when I found myself less than 5 feet away from a pride of them and then spend time in an enclosure with the cubs, rubbing their bellies and stroking them! Amazing!
We spent a long time at the park, visiting the cheetahs, lynx, springboks, antelope with the most incredible colouring on their skins, giraffes and zebras and leopards and birds of all description. We also enjoyed some lunch and Wayne then got me some gifts to take home too, it was just such an amazing day and now I have things to remember it by too thanks to Wayne and his lovely wife who were great company all day long.
My evening was to be spent with Steve and his wife who had invited me up to their house for evening meal and drinks. We were also due to try a few new things too (which has been a big thing for me on this trip!) including a Cuban cigar (I’d never smoked one), cognac and more importantly this Biltong which everyone had been going on about. I’d spent an hour in the hotel restaurant before Steve came to pick me up and here is where things started to go wrong. I’d had a couple of cups of coffee in the hotel the day before but as I’m intolerant to caffeine, I’d ensure I got decaff. This time however, I wasn’t entirely sure the lady had heard me, but rather than check, I assumed she knew from the previous three days. Before I remembered to double check, I’d drunk the cup and ordered another. “same again please”….
Half an hour later and I’d started feeling a little odd, light headed even, so I headed up to my room to get some final things before Steve arrived and then waited. By the time Steve arrived I’d started feeling very unwell but I didn’t want to spoil the evening he had worked hard to plan for me (he’d gotten me my favourite cream soda and found some Prime Circle to play on the music system – my fave band in South Africa) and he and his wife had put together a lovely meal for me. So I took my allergy pills with me rather than take one now and then not be able to drink for the night. Mistake.
By the time I got to Steves I felt really rough, admitting to him once in his kitchen that I wasn’t feeling great but not to worry I’d take my tablet now and be ok within
the hour. Sadly that didn’t happen and so I had to lay down, then Steve decided I needed to get checked out, so we headed to hospital. I don’t remember much from here on until I started to feel better on a hospital bed with a drip in my arm, blood taken, stabbed in the bum with a needle and had lots of plastic electrodes all over my chest! Bloody hell! All because I drank some caffeine! Stupid body!
So a huge thank you Steve and his wife for looking after me, taking me there and ensuring I was ok afterwards.
I want to say a big thank you to everyone I met out here for being so kind and friendly, South Africa may well have the most hospitable people on earth. In particular thank you to Steve for the chance to come and work with you all, to Enzo and the guys at Telkom for supporting esports, to all of the teams and players I met for their passion and enthusiasm and to all of the different agencies I worked with on the show. A big thanks to Yuri and Jenny and all the crew on the production and to those who looked after me during my stay like Steve and Johann and their families.
But a very special thank you to Wayne who was like a bodyguard, a best mate, a brother and a PR manager all rolled in to one and was never too busy to help me with something or make me feel so welcome and of course take me on a trip of a lifetime to the lion park.
My final day is spent doing a little shopping and some lunch with Steve and his family and then I head home to England, determined to be back again in South Africa as soon as I can. If you have never been but only judge by what you see on the news, it’s really nothing like it. I’ve only seen a snapshot of course, but for the friendly welcome you’ll get from South Africans to the incredible diversity of the country, the weather, great food and the excellent exchange rate, you have to sample South Africa at least once in your life. I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.