The two fighting game athletes, if you want to call them that, sit uncomfortably close together, close enough to the television to get a warning from their concerned mothers. The crowd in the background make up an omnipresent backdrop that hollers when any player makes a decisive move or kill. The chairs on stage are the same brownish conference chairs all hotels must source from the same location. They look stiff, strangely formal, and terribly uncomfortable. This is EVO, the most important championship event for the fighting game community.
Compare this to the Season 3 World Championship for League of Legends, happening right now. The players sit with their teams at identical desks. They wear branded clothing identifying their team and their sponsors. Riot Games have presumably handed out identical noise-canceling headphones and provided the lavish, branded, cushioned chairs on which the best LoL players in the world sit while duking it out for an enormous trophy and a huge prize package.
The League of Legends Championship Series is an enormous spectacle. It doesn’t just showcase the game and its players, it lavishes the entire experience of fandom in bright lights and big sounds. Huge vertical screens behind each player show their picks as they happen to the crowd. Meanwhile, the commentators analyze the game on a stage hovering just above that crowd. Watching the show in between actual matches evokes awe generated in part through a high level of professionalism and polish. And this is just the playoffs, not the sold-out final championship match which takes place next friday at the immense Los Angeles Convention Center.
While the supporters and planners of EVO construct their event largely independent from the developers behind the games that they showcase, Riot is the architect of this event and their entire eSports strategy. Much of this strategy revolves around a strange blend of enthusiast celebrations. At the event itself, Riot encourages their fans to create signs and posters to wave about while the camera swoops over the crowd. The signage, some that root for teams and others that make terrible puns, remind me of basketball games or wrestling matches.
The chants of “USA! USA!” during Cloud 9’s match against Fnatic recall flurries of patriotism during Olympic games. Even Doublelift, a player and commentator during the series, said “I watched the American dream die” in response to the match. The division along international lines serves the purpose of creating discernible leagues among players who use similar languages, making the matches more easily consumable in foreign markets. But it also lends itself towards these strange sports practices common among other dominant sporting events.
These games are also increasingly a marketable experience. Corporate branded teams like Korea’s SK Telecom and Samsung Galaxy Ozone are obvious reminders of the money backing these players, particularly the international teams. While the stadium is not dominated with ads yet, you can easily see a future of advertising takeovers of the championship series.
None of this is to lay harsh judgement on Riot’s eSports efforts. But eSports fandom is largely a creation. In the case of EVO, the fan community itself is shaping the future of fighting game fandom, for better or for worse. Meanwhile, Riot has a chance to define their own eSports fandom (and of course the same goes for Valve and their Dota 2 coverage). Unfortunately the heart of both communities shares a trait with many other sports fandom. They are plagued by inclusivity problems and potentially vitriolic community members. Those constructing eSports fandom through events, big or small, have a unique opportunity to shape the future of fan celebrations and team sports for the better and should do so with clear intentions and knowledge of sports fandom inside and outside the game space.