[28 August 2014]
I’m sitting near the front row at my first live eSports event. It’s the League of Legends North American Regionals quarterfinals featuring Curse vs CLG, and the stakes are high. One of these teams has a chance at attending the World Championship in South Korea. The other is going home. The two teams file into their rows of computers on stage, while a huge screen starts a countdown to this pivotal match. From somewhere in the back row, up in the bleachers, comes the sound of a vuvuzela.
The atmosphere of any live sporting event is a unique slice of that sport’s spectator culture. Baseball might be about hot dogs, cracker jacks, and long breaks between plays. Hockey might be about chants or throwing octopi onto the ice. They can be heated affairs with hostile rivalries between opposing fans, or they can be calmer affairs dedicated to the appreciation of a match well played. Where does eSports, and specifically League of Legends, fit in?
The first thing that I noticed when entering the movie studio lot is that Riot approaches their North American matches in a different way than usual sporting events, specifically in terms of the food and drink selection. More specifically, they were not serving beer at the game. It’s telling that alcohol consumption and sporting events are so bound together in my mind. Sports spectatorship can be a raucous event, heavily fueled by alcohol. I had assumed that in the pursuit of cultural legitimacy, a rowdy game of League of Legends would be well stocked with booze.
Of course at some other events, Riot does serve alcohol. I suspect the minimal drink offerings have more to do with the venue and its lack of a beverage license than to catering to the event’s young audience. What came first when selecting a venue was a location amenable to the production of a high production event, not an opportunity to mirror traditional sports concession stands.
The high value production atmosphere made the event more like a game show in some ways than a competitive event. In between matches, a “hype man” came out to rile up the audience, tossing out branded plushies, building excitement among the fans. The play screen in the center stage would air League related YouTube videos, and with commentators on an elevated stand behind the crowd, each match felt very much like a performance. There were no jostling drunks or human waves rippling through the crowd. It was limited, but strategically so
On the other hand, most of the audience openly and loudly cheered for their team of choice, waving signs showing their support (or some League of Legends in-joke). Coming off a boot camp training session in Korea, the CLG hype was real and the meta drama of the event could be felt in the crowd. After CLG’s painful 3-0 loss to Curse, their interpersonal conflicts leaked over into the internet with trash talk coming from fans and other League personalities as well. The conversation surrounding these live events can feel like the trappings of professional boxing or even pro-wrestling.
Last year at the League of Legends World Championship, Riot sold out the LA Staples Center. It was the closest that eSports has come to mimicking the live spectator culture of traditional sports, but its fate is far from decided. The diversity of the crowd, both its gender and racial makeup, was greater than I imagined, but it is still something that the eSports scene struggles with. Likewise, live spectatorship could take on the antagonistic fervor of a heated soccer match, and maybe this is the extreme, the quiet and restrained applause of a golf audience. There is a separate culture not just among players, but among viewers, which is still being shaped today.
What gives me the most hope for a healthy and vibrant spectator culture? As the first match came to an exciting finish, everyone in the crowd stood up to applaud uproariously. Whereas before there were noticeable chants for CLG, there was general jubilation for a match well played. In the heat of the moment, when the game takes on its most realized form, when one of the star players stands up, huge smile on his face and nearly throws his headphones off in excitement, the crowd is a unified whole, embodying a passion for skilled play. I have written a lot of about League of Legends, especially its growing, shifting, indeterminate eSports culture, but in that moment more than any other, I felt part of something grand and enduring.