I knew eSports were popular but I wasn’t expecting the level of mania that I saw at Intel Extreme Masters Sydney (IEM). Crowds of people walking around in team colours, fans in the stands screaming. The noise was deafening and the excitement was contagious. I can honestly say I have never been to a sports event quite like this.
At the start of day one I knew nothing about eSports, about IEM, or about Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. By the end of day two I was cheering for SK Gaming over FaZe Clan and even understood what “banana” was. This isn’t some flash in the pan phenomenon. The prize money for first place alone was $100,000. We weren’t given exact attendance figures but I was told there were roughly 10,000 people in the stadium on the second day (with roughly 7000 on day one).
One thing that was constantly made clear to me was that this is a legitimate sport.
At the opening press conference with ESL Global’s Ralf Reichert, Intel’s Frank Soqui (GM of VR & Gaming Group) and George Woo (eSports Marketing Manager), all three speakers made the point. These are real sports. Science has quantified it, they said, by studying the heart rates and endorphin levels of eSport athletes against traditional athletes. The online viewership numbers, in the hundreds of millions they said, validate eSports. The hours and hours of practice, the dedication, the money, the potential that eSports may be part of the 2022 Asian games, all of it combines, they said, to make this a real sport.
Maybe it does. I mean honestly we’re living in a world where golf is considered a sport, so why not? But even with all of the money and fans this sport has a long way to go.
The crowd at the Qudos arena in Sydney were raucous and having a great time. They were, however, a homogenous crowd. White men between the ages of 18 to 25, many drinking heavily. On the second day alone I counted five shoeys (where you pour a beer into your shoe and then drink from it). The cameras never pulled away, the crowd brayed for more. Based on my previous experience covering sports events, they weren’t as bad as cricket fans but worse than football fans.
Every major sport has fan issues, but eSports is still growing and it’s difficult to grow a fanbase when a chunk may not want to come to live events. Especially when the MCs would also make casual “edgy” jokes, lowering themselves to the level of drive time radio DJs.
Of course live events are for the spectacle; online is where the big money is. Distribution of IEM is, like other eSports tournaments, available on multiple free platforms. Partners like Twitch, Twitter, and Facebook enable easy growth and, as Ralf noted, “we don’t want [IEM] behind a wall”.
All of this skirts around the question of inclusion. More fans means more people wanting to compete, but looking through the teams competing in IEM Sydney you saw the a mirror image of the crowd: white men aged between 18 and 25.
The question on diversity was put to Frank Soqui in an odd fashion: “Do you see a time when women’s teams will compete against men?” The answer was perfect though: “Why wouldn’t we have mixed teams? It’s not like men and women are any different.”
Sadly though that goal is a long way off. When I asked how far away those mixed teams might be the answer was 20 years.
“eSports moves faster than other sports. We see other sports, like football, finally embracing the women’s side, but after maybe 30 or so years”, Ralf admitted, “So it might be 15 or 20 years away.” Considering that by age 20 most players are about to reach retirement, so the first women who will compete in a truly mixed competition haven’t been born yet.
And it’s a shame because this sport is exciting and more people should be into it. I mean, it only took me 24 hours to get totally hooked.
Soqui and George Woo said they wanted IEM to have the same kind of sports moments that you associate with the Superbowl or Australian Open. I’m not sure if this tournament offered that but there were some cool plays, at least one 5 kill, and a chance for a “that’s not a knife, this is a knife” joke.
SK Gaming had bulldozed their opposition Optic Gaming in the semis and came into the grand final with a lot of momentum. FaZe wasn’t going down easy though. They clawed back a close 13-16 round on the Nuke map to make the score 2-1 in the best of five series.
It was clear that the crowd was behind FaZe, the self described “band of rejects” and one of the few player-owned teams. But there were no boos or jeering of the eventual winners SK Gaming (a large tick in the “positive” column for the fans). It was a grand celebration.
Later in the press room the winners finally emerged, looking exhausted and carrying the over-sized plate which was the trophy. Sydney’s first ever IEM championship team were then split by media managers and asked a series of sports-cliches by waiting game journalists. No panel press conference in front of a wall of sponsor logos.
As we waited I chatted to some of the other journos, from both sides of the Tasman. Could we have something like IEM in New Zealand? Who will create New Zealand’s first fully pro team to enter? As a small country can we get more young women involved earlier? How do we get past the fact that we are really quite far away from everyone else?
Needless to say we had all the questions and none of the solutions. But there is an inevitable rising tide, and eSports is like a tsunami.
Hadyn travelled to Sydney to cover IEM 2017, courtesy of Intel.