At this point, I don’t have much patience for the argument that eSports fans should stop watching other people play video games and just play those games themselves.
For one, it’s an argument that few people make about spectator sports like basketball and football, where the skill difference between a pro and a novice is roughly the same as in eSports. For another, the thrill of watching a competitor at the top of his or her game is entirely distinct (and better in some ways) from competing yourself.
What I’ve never quite understood, though, is the concept of paying money for a ticket to watch a live eSports competition in-person .
The appeal of the live experience for most sports is obvious. For all the convenience of a televised game, it can’t compare to the sense of scale and 3D perspective you get actually seeing professional sports in person, watching plays develop and players perform nearly superhuman feats right in front of you.
None of that really applies in eSports, where you’re basically going to a large room to watch a big screen that has the exact same game content you could see at home on Twitch, down to the pixel. Watching the eSports competitors themselves as they sit like statues and become part of the machine during a match hardly seems worth the price of admission, either.
Yet plenty of people pay that admission. The League of Legends World Finals alone filled 80 to 90,000 seats in the Beijing National Stadium this year. What were these people seeing that I wasn’t?
To find out, I decided to check out the Rocket League Championship Series (RLCS) Season 4 world finals in nearby MGM National Harbor last weekend. What I quickly found out is that the point of being in a live eSports crowd is, to a large extent, just being part of the crowd .
Take a seat
Rocket League is by far my favorite eSport to watch as a spectator. While I can follow a high-level game of Hearthstone or Smash Bros. with the best of them, Rocket League ‘s simple two-teams, two-goals format makes it incredibly simple for even a novice player to keep track of the action.
Watching a high-level Rocket League match, you get a real sense of the strategy and coordination necessary for the three-person teams to balance an offensive threat with the ability to rush back and knock a ball away on defense. And while pros make it look exceedingly simple to make precision passes and shots while rocketing at high speeds through the air, regular players know how hard it is to just make contact with a ball high above the arena.
I’ve only been a casual fan of the RLCS, checking out a few stray matches when my weekend schedule allows. Going into the finals weekend, I was at least peripherally aware of the stories surrounding competing teams like the robotically efficient Cloud 9 and the crowd-pleasing G2 eSports. I also knew that these hometown favorite North American teams were extreme underdogs to the European powerhouses like Method and Gale Force.
But it was something else to see a crowd of 3,000 react to those teams right in front of me, rather than just hearing their cheers through an ambient microphone via Twitch. In that National Harbor ballroom, the crowd itself practically became a participant in the competition, going crazy for the North American teams and icily silent for the European competition.
The competitors themselves almost faded into the background in this environment. Ghost Gaming player Zanejackey tried to get the crowd riled up at one point, standing and raising his arms above his head to get the noise pumping louder, but he received little to no notice for his efforts. While the crowd was treated to live webcam close-ups of the players at many points in the matches, the stony-faced videos may as well have been photographs.
What the crowd did react to was the action on those big projection screens. In tense overtime situations, the entire room swooned in crescendo with each shot and cried out in pain or glee with every close miss or solid goal. In quiet moments between matches, audience members might pick up a cheer of “Let’s go G2!” or try to get a wave going through the stands.
If I had been watching from my living room, I wouldn’t have heard the guy sitting behind me exclaim “it’s getting lit now, man!” after a big overtime goal. I wouldn’t have witnessed a neighbor literally jump up and slap his knee after a close crossbar miss.
I’m still not sure these kinds of moments are in and of themselves worth the significant money it costs to attend one of these events live. That said, I can now say I at least understand the potential appeal of sharing a dramatic eSports competition with a few thousands strangers.
Listing image by Kyle Orland