If you’ve ever driven through Burbank California you’ve no doubt seen the endless rows of unmarked warehouses that fill neighborhood. While most are crammed with old movie props and industrial supplies, behind the walls of one of those unassuming buildings the future of sports is happening. This past weekend the ESL (Electronic Sports League) hosted the second season of their Halo Championship Series in their American Studios. We joined a crowd of incredibly vocal fans in a custom built digital sports area to watch the best Halo teams to duke it out for trophy and the lions share of $150,000 in cash prizes being awarded.
It was in every way a sporting event, from the custom team jerseys to the coach anxiously pacing around with a clipboard between plays. The stands were filled with fans excitedly discussing every tactic and stat of the player in the same fashion as the office football super-fan does on lunch breaks. We came in as outsiders, unaware of the teams, the terminology or the eSports format and walked out as true fans rapidly discussing our favorite nail-biting turn arounds and catchphrases from the days matches. The entire production was mercilessly high tech with center stage being a giant 9 panel LCD screen, expanding out to team specific screens on either side and finally two player booths (see above) at the extreme ends of the room. It was a totally immersive experience. The screens spoon you a curated feed of the players as on-air commentators like Alex “Goldenboy” Mendez constantly spice up the analysis of the play-by-plays with clever quips and asides. This is a sport for all those that skipped out on the mainstream sports offerings like Football or Basketball in favor of all-night headshot filled LAN parties. The fans we met adorably identified themselves with both their birth name and their online handles with several traveling great distances to be part of the three day event. There were several couples that bonded over bomb drops and a few puzzled families there in support of the players but many we talked to came alone, passionate about the game but unable to find friends with the same level of interest in it as they had. Events like this are essential in building local communities and will help bring the much needed real world interaction to the largely anonymous online gaming world.
The level of access the fans have to the coaches, players, commentators is unique to this new sports frontiers. On the lunch break we grabbed burgers alongside players from the various teams, fans identified themselves by their call signs to their idols and we even spotted a fangirl nervously crafting an excuse to talk to a certain handsome commentator. The eSports scene is growing fast but its still pretty new for not just the players but for the fans. The idea of playing videogames as a sport and making a living must perplex the 40 and 50 somethings that are just getting wind of this hitting the mainstream. I’m sure somewhere in a sports jersey manufacturing plant a 50 year old guy is scratching his head wondering what country the last name of “snip3down” comes from and why the hell this hockey team called “Winterfox” only has 4 players. I mean, hell, drug testing standards are just coming to this brave new world. I for one am excited. Though I didn’t see it on the competition side there were plenty of legit female gamers in the crowd. The potential for equality exists here in eSports more so than any other sport that I know of. Theres no limitation of physical ability, no long standing walls of tradition to break through. Its simple skill, if you’re good, you’re in and I hope to see more of the co-ed experience in future tournaments.
We spent the final day of the championships watching from outside the arena via a live HD stream on Twitch and it occurred to me as I took my first break from the action and walked outside to the roars of my neighbors cheering at a Soccer game that I was doing the very same thing for eSports as I cheered on the Evil Geniuses to their victory in the final matches. At one point the cheers from next door blended so perfectly together with mine that it became clear to me the stellar heights to which eSports would rise to in time. The three day event closed up with the very same last second ties and neck and neck competition that keeps you on your seat during the best of Superbowl’s 4th quarters. When the Evil Geniuses raised their trophy at the end in victory, I screamed with all the passion of a life long sports fanatic. I finally understand the appeal of sporting events and through eSports have the chance to beging to makeup for a lifetime of missing out on belonging to something greater than myself.