Thunder sticks are loud. You get used to them at a baseball game, when tens of thousands of people clap them together throughout the late innings. When you’re sitting in a small ballroom with a few hundred strangers, all eagerly watching other people play a computer game on three giant screens hanging before them, the occasional, unpredictable crash of thunder sticks is jarring. Despite the often rambunctious crowd, despite the suit-wearing color commentators on the floor to my left, despite the sideline reporter waiting to interview athletes after a match, what I was watching when those thunder sticks boxed my ears wasn’t immediately recognizable as a sport.
2014 is a few years too late for another piece where an old guy grumbles about not understanding esports. Bernie Goldberg already took the “it’s not a sport” argument to HBO, which is not TV, and when Goldberg touches a subject you know the debate has already been settled in the opposite direction. And yet I don’t know how else to start writing about the Smite North American Pro League Kick-Off LAN 2014, which Hi-Rez Studios held at the Cobb Energy Center outside Atlanta, Georgia, this past Saturday. There were some unapologetic esports happening, just some viciously for real esports, and at first none of it made any sense to me.
I’ve never played Smite. I’ve never played League of Legends or Dota. I can never remember what “MOBA” stands for. A man hardens with age, his mind slowly closing itself off to the new, retreating at length to the bittersweet comforts of the past. At least that’s how I justified not putting in the effort necessary to learn about this decidedly 21st century endeavor, an industry that literally could not have existed when I was as young as some of the tournament’s competitors.
Despite my ignorance, despite my fear of the effort required to remedy that ignorance, I accepted Hi-Rez’s invitation. They brought four of the top North American Smite teams to suburban Atlanta to compete for their share of a $50000 pot, and welcomed local media like myself to witness the future sport of today. I’m not sure how much I learned—I discerned a few strategies, but the specifics still elude me—but I did learn that esports can possess the same passionate spark for the spectator as a “real” sport.
Drama is as crucial to enjoying sports as understanding the game itself. I have no idea what any soccer position is expected to do outside of the goalie (and I guess the striker—that one seems self-explanatory), but I was as wrapped up in the World Cup as any clueless, fair-weather American fan. I felt something similar at the Smite LAN. I have no idea what these young (very young) men were doing, clicking away in rows of five on either side of the stage, but I recognized the drama inherent in competition and found myself invested in the larger storylines.
Hi-Rez picked a good foursome for a traditional sports journalism narrative. In the first round Cognitive Gaming, a concern sponsored by Fry’s Electronics that fields both Smite and League of Legends teams, took on its sister Smite team, Cognitive Red. Cog Red is a de facto juniors squad, with an average player age under 17. Cog Prime, as the main team is called, was a one-seed in the tournament and a formidable favorite going against a young, hungry four-seed out for respect. The second round featured Snipe, a team that was formerly Cognitive’s official Smite squad, until Cognitive cut them loose late last year. They weren’t just playing for their share of the $50000—they were out for revenge against their former partners. The fourth competitor, Dignitas, is merely one of the leading esports franchises in the world, with star teams for every major esport game.
The day started with the biggest possible upset, as the kids of Cognitive Red stunned their sparring partners from Cog Prime by taking two out of three matches in the first round. For me it was a crash course in Smite. By the end of one game I realized the goal was to knock down the other team’s three towers and phoenixes. To level up to the point where that was possible players had to pick off random computer-controlled grunts and the occasional opponent for gold and experience. Various unaffiliated creatures throughout the field would spawn in specific locations, a Gold Fury here or a Fire Giant there, and when downed they provided a team with various buffs or additional gold. When the towers fell the phoenixes could be attacked, and once those glorious creatures, associated historically with Greek mythology and locally with Atlanta’s rebirth and rapid growth after the Civil War, were killed, Cog Red claimed its victory.
The first round champions entered the ballroom after their victory to watch the second semi-final, their backpacks, sodas and snacks making them look more like a high school quiz bowl team than professional athletes competing for thousands of dollars. They weren’t just too young to drink—most of them couldn’t officially buy a ticket to an R rated movie.
With Cog Prime beating an early retreat, Snipe’s revenge on its former partners would have to wait. At least they could take a swipe at Cog Red, the squad that replaced them on Cognitive Gaming’s roster, presuming Snipe could make it through its first match-up. The mercenaries of Diginitas had a different idea, though, snuffing Snipe’s plans with definitive victories in the first and third rounds.
By this point I had learned at least some of what I had hoped to learn. I had gained a very basic understanding of the game of Smite, but more importantly experienced first-hand the passion of an esports competition. The crowd was never that large—even if the ballroom had been completely packed, its capacity still probably tops out in the low three figures, which makes it the smallest professional sporting event I’ve ever attended—and many of them seemed to work for Hi-Rez, but it was a vocal and responsive audience, regularly oohing and applauding at surprising strategies or especially nimble play. I didn’t find myself openly rooting for any team (although I was impressed when I read the next morning that the schoolboys in Cog Red had downed Dignitas in four rounds in the finals) but I did leave with my former ambivalence towards esports turning into admiration. I don’t know how far a sport can go when its announcers primarily go by their Twitter handles, or when its top young stars are known by names like Snoopy and ShadowQ, but the fundamental thrill of high-level competition was as strong at this event as at any late season match-up of American League bottom-dwellers or 2-12 NFC teams. I can only imagine it’ll be even stronger at the Smite World Championships, happening next January in the much larger main section of this same building. Still, though, the thunder sticks might be a bit much.
On the way out I passed ShadowQ of Dignitas standing alone near the restroom. If it wasn’t for the jersey I’d have no idea he was a competitor. The athletes were indistinguishable from the spectators. Esports don’t just offer cash prizes and third-tier ESPN time slots for the same computer games fans play at home—unlike almost any other professional sport, the barrier between athlete and fan is essentially nonexistent, and not just because the winning team might come sit in the row in front of you, drinking Coke and eating Skittles. You can practice every day and never possess the abnormal genetics needed to consistently and accurately throw a baseball 95 miles per hour. Part of the promise of esports is that, with practice, patience, quick reflexes and a clear, smart head, you too could be on stage at the Cobb Energy Center playing a computer game for a few thousand dollars. A very small percentage of players will ever be that good, but the sort of skills needed to excel at esports aren’t tied into genetics or physique, and that must be inspiring to all the kids who can’t cut it at soccer or basketball. As I pulled out of the parking deck I started to think about what Smite character would be my first when I got home.
Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor and reviews games for the Boston Herald. He might give Smite a try. You can follow him on Twitter @grmartin.