These Things Take Time: ELEAGUE, CWL and the Growth of Esports

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These Things Take Time: ELEAGUE, CWL and the Growth of Esports

WHAT I SAW AT THE FOX

The Danes hunt the Poles in a concrete garden, and will soon murder them all. It has happened before, and will happen again.

The Polish team is Virtus Pro, the Danish group is named Astralis, and the contest is called Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). CS:GO is a videogame, a first-person shooter videogame developed by the Valve Corporation. The Grand Final of the ELEAGUE Major happened on Jan. 29 in the vast, venerable Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta. On a stage in front of me are ten men, the best in the world at what they do. They are all seated, and stare into monitors; the only hint of motion is with their wrists and hands, and when they speak into headsets. Behind them, their coaches and one or two respective assistants walk back and forth.

Most of my field of vision is occupied by a screen approximately the height of my childhood home. The prize for this competition is half a million dollars. No paltry piece of change, to hunt digital avatars. And here we are: after a week of play and sixteen teams, these are the final two. Millions of perfect pointillist pixels are hitting my eyeballs at the speed of 186,000 miles per second. The players sitting at their terminals are bathed in holy nimbuses of electric glory. When a player’s in-game avatar is killed, an emoji skull will pop up on the screen behind each of their chairs.

“TaZ! He’s doing it again! Yes!” a bodiless voice cries over the speakers. That’s a British accent, doing color commentary here for television and streaming online. It’s the same tone and patter that the Tour de France narrators have. “You don’t want to be gifting TaZ an AK at this moment,” he says, almost wistfully.

“Astralis still has a lead here,” the other disembodied voice says. American.

“VIR-TUS PRO” half the audience chants.

Around me is a young crowd, teens to late twenties. Middle-aged fans are here too, but the post-collegiate section of the crowd is mostly parental and professional. The fashion sense favors black, and the emotional tenor of the collective energy in the room teeter-totters alternatively between whooping and whispering. When they cheer, the sound is raw and hungry. It’s a wild moment. Noisewise, the crowd is as big as the world and echoes like a train coming down on you.

“Straight away … testament to how close the rounds have been,” the American commenter says. “Virtus Pro are looking good …. very hard to put into play if you’re on the T-Side.” T-Side refers to Terrorist, one of the factions in the game. “Mind games coming out here from the Biceps.” That would be pashaBiceps, of Virtus Pro (VP).

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“One Molotov can ruin your whole round!” the British commenter replies. A fiery death has just occurred onscreen. His voice can be heard over the speakers, but is drowned out by percussive, almost agonizing cheers. Not that they’re jeering or mocking—they are excited and well-meant—but the effect is loud and painful to the ears. The arena they’re playing, called Overpass, is a combination between a concert amphitheater and the sun-dappled concrete of Los Angeles.

The love for CS:GO and the men who play it is palpable, in the way that omnipresent and intensely-felt emotion sometimes congeals out of the air and lands in your lap. Nothing about this situation seems out of place, except it’s happening inside a theater, and everyone is watching a screen. Every context clue—the darkness, the setting, the tensed reactions, and, most obviously, the vast, glowing surface in front of you—suggest a movie. But the reactions are classic sports reactions; and so, if the mode of the room is odd, the problem is not with the fans or with the players, or with any other part of the apparatus of observation or participation, but rather with the boxes, big and little, we shove experience into.

The competition is broadcast on TBS, live, but more to the point: over a million people are viewing the event online, on a service called Twitch. Twitch will later announce that the ELEAGUE final is the most-watched broadcast on a single channel, ever. Today’s event also sets the record for being the longest final in the history of the tournament: hashing out the best of the best took a span of eighty-eight rounds, crossing three different maps.

(CS:GO is a popular game. Weeks after the ELEAGUE final, while writing this feature, at the exact moment I am typing these words [4:13 Eastern Standard Time, March 1st, 2017], half a million people are playing CS:GO across the world. Right now.)

If you’ve been paying attention to videogames, or gaming, as it is usually styled—in fact, if you are a human being with access to a direct connection to the internet, this will not come as a shock to you. I can list for you a catalog of impressive stats—advances made in modeling, rendering software, A.I., the truly gigantic population influxes which occurred during the console years, the early days of Massively Multiplayer Games, the dawn of social games … but my guess is that gaming is about as mysterious to you, a modern 21st-century person, as television is. Ads for social games are the common stuff of the Super Bowl commercial airtime and other Significant Events. This is the story of two such events: the Counter-Strike and Call of Duty tournaments in Atlanta.

I WAS CALLED HERE BY HUMANS WHO WISH TO PAY ME TRIBUTE

The final two teams are as follows. Astralis is Markus ‘Kjaerbye’ Kjærbye, Peter ‘dupreeh’ Rasmussen, Andreas ‘Xyp9x’ Højsleth, Lukas ‘gla1ve’ Rossander, Nicolai ‘device’ Reedtz. Virtus.pro, is Janusz ‘Snax’ Pogorzelski, Pawel ‘byali’ Bielinski, Wiktor ‘TaZ’ Wojtas, Jaroslaw ‘pashaBiceps’ Jarzabkowski, and Filip ‘NEO’ Kubski. Every single voice within auditory range, both on camera and in the hall, calls the players by their handles. Wiktor Wojtas is always “TaZ.”

To the average eye, they look like precisely what they are: extremely youngish-looking, highly-focused sports professionals. Astralis are boyish, and bear a collective resemblance to the American comic John Mulaney. VP, the older, more seasoned team, flush with fame and glory, look like a rugby team locked indoors for ten years.

Like more conventional athletes, their eyes suggest an all-consuming, border-psychopathic focus while the rest of their faces display expressions of Zen boredom refined to the highest caliber. This constant balancing act between rabid devotion and a display of beatific calm will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched camera feed of the benches at a college football game.

I discussed this with Seth “Scump” Abner, who is arguably one of the world’s best Call of Duty players. He used old-time competitive athletics as an analogy: “Their prime is like late 20s or early 30s.” Although he didn’t want to stretch the example too far, “a lot of the skills associated are the same. Your body’s not getting worn down as much. It’s your thumbs and your mind.” Who knew how long an esports athlete’s prime could be, as long as you “stay passionate about it and keep putting in the hours.”

Mathematically and technocratically speaking, electronic games or esports are a carved bird of paradise where quants are concerned. As Den of Geek’s Luke McKinney put it, “The only thing more electronically observed than pro videogames is the Higgs boson.” For example, the ELEAGUE Final “Man of the Match” is Kjaerbye, whose assist rate is .26 (which is .12 higher than usual), and whose headshot rate is 58.9% (fourteen-point-nine higher than the average). That means that on one out of every two shots Kjaerbye makes inside the ludic universe, he’s liable to take your digital block off.

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Scump has given a lot of thought to this. “A lot of people think that we’re nerds and we don’t have social lives. They think that we sit at home and play all day, which it’s true. It is our job. But we’re not the antisocial geek a lot of people paint us to be. The sports fans are like ‘Oh, I don’t like gaming. I want to see you hit somebody, hit a ball or something like that. That’s real talent.’ And then it’s like ‘Try and play against one of us and say we’re not talented.’ It’s just a different world. It really is.”

This is, by the way, a small portion of the fantastically complex esports world, which is filled with Byzantine business arrangements, team member-swapping, internecine drama, and sociopolitical brinkmanship of such fractal, Mandelbrodtian complexity that it makes the travails of the House of Atreus seem like a side-plot of The New Adventures of Old Christine. VP’s specific CS:GO Team is based in Poland, but the larger Virtus Pro franchise—that is, the parts that play other videogames, aside from CS:GO—received a cash influx from Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek plutocrat who is Russia’s richest human being.

We’re all familiar with the weird dealings of the major sports leagues: NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL. A better framework for you to use in relation to esports would be boxing or MMA fighting. Even with big-league sports, there is a certain amount of skullduggery and obfuscation that goes into the subculture. It is not that Don King has made boxing sketchy, but boxing was always a sketchy world, tailor-made for Don King. There are stories of esports organizations commandeering player computers to mine for Bitcoins, of teams bringing in ringers, of throwing matches with millions of dollars on the line.

With a few exceptions, the shadier side of the business seems not to touch the players or the audience. The fans are a diverse crew, but united in their admiration of the sport itself, and the people who master it.

“I saw Halo was booming,” Scump says. “I saw that Call of Duty was starting to get into the scene and I was like ‘I really want to do this.’ Ever since that day I’ve just been putting nonstop effort into my brand and getting better and winning championships.”

At the Fox, I catch some of the audience during an intermission between rounds. Why do they like this game? “The game requires good strategy, and they’re good players,” says Brenton Oane. When asked why he loves CS:GO, Trevor Book will respond “The community.”

“You can really see the progress,” he adds.

“When we live stream,” Scump says, “people come into the chatroom and we talk to them and reply to them. They build that relationship with you because they see your everyday life and it’s like-I don’t want to put it on the same scale as a celebrity or people like that, but they just really enjoy seeing what you do. Then that relationship-like I said, they just really want to see what we do and how we do it. Our day to day life through our blogs and stuff like that is just really cool for them. But I feel like they latch on to what we do and they aspire to do what we do so they just feed off of that.”

Megan Villablanca, a game developer, appreciates the aesthetics. “I just like how Counter-Strike is designed. It takes a lot of strategy and understanding to be competitive.”

OUR WORDS ARE BACKED WITH NUCLEAR WEAPONS

Gaming used to be broadly segmented along the usual lines: children played videogames, adults didn’t. None of the revered talking heads who were on television during my childhood quite knew how to pronounce “Nintendo.” Nowadays it is a viable cultural force, financial powerhouse, social glue, uplift of civilization, manifestation of the collective yearning for spectacle, simulated violence, new bastion of sports, or whatever other name you want to give it. You can’t call gaming a “subculture,” because almost everyone does it. It’s more like a mainline religious denomination. Everyone has feelings about it, but even people who dislike it know it is a complex and impressive collection of human wills and desires … and understand it is best to not trample on it indiscriminately, or condescend to it.

The only undeniable fact about playing culture, or gaming culture, or whatever your preferred name for it, is that it is very much alive, and very powerful, and wants what it wants: to sit in a theater and cheer its champions, to gather its faithful unto it, and most of all, would you kindly not consider them to be unhealthy, adolescent or alien?

I am not a player, not in the sense that 1.8 billion people are. I play Civilization about three times a year, like an old German U-Boat captain taking vintage snuff on the anniversary of the Lusitania sinking: an occasional savory. Gaming is an aperitif to me, and that is why Paste sent me to this event.

Perhaps I should tell you something about the locale where this boggling display was taking place. Fox Theatre occupies a quarter-million square feet of prime deep-inside-the-city space. It is a holdover: an elegant pleasure castle from an earlier age, when mass spectacle was not yet projected into every home. The place was built at the long finale of what is called “the golden age of the American movie palace,” when cinema-going ranked in there somewhere between religious pilgrimage and populist duty.

It didn’t surprise me to read that the fabulous Fox began life as a project of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine—they of the fezzes, off-color jokes and tiny cars. The Shriners of Atlanta asked for a HQ right out of the Arabian Nights, and it shows. The interior is such a tableau of faux-Moorish splendor, it’s probably like dropping acid while watching Aladdin on endless loop. After a looming demolishment spooked the populace into saving the place, the Fox has been an irreplaceable, untouchable polestar in the urban firmament.

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Eventually one of the press agents was sent to fetch me. He directed me upstairs, and due to the size of the Fox Theatre, it was several thousand hours before I got to my seat on the second floor, right near the edge of the balcony. Joking aside, visiting an esports event is somewhere between walking into a baseball game and a movie. The sounds of explosion and gunfire are obviously simulated, and this part of the experience is just like the feeling you get coming to a movie premiere late. At the same time, the fantastic audio is punctuated irregularly by cheers and applause from the audience, which is not so different from sitting near the outfield in May. There’s the same low-level buzz of conversation in the background in-between the cheers, but while the theater never exactly falls silent, it is remarkably restrained in its noise for a crowd of young people observing a professional sporting event.

I should get the obvious cliché out of the way here: these people are athletes, bar none. Not all players play the same game. These are CS:GO players.

“It’s definitely surreal,” Scump told me, a week later, “because you never expect a hobby to turn into your job, your every day job, but it’s really cool. I mean, you get to come here every couple weekends to play for thousands and thousands of dollars in front of a lot of people that like what you do.”

Of all the many switches the market flips without our knowing it, the subtlest one is the one of taste. All the subcultural things I loved when I was young were suddenly relevant and cool when I got into adulthood, which, surprising nobody, is about the same time that my generation came into our purchasing maturity. Which is a way of saying, once companies discover your nerdy pastime is profitable, it will suddenly become cool for everyone. So it is here.

Gamers feel misunderstood by larger society, even though most of us game. Gaming is misunderstood, which is why some players object to the term “gamer,” because the noun is so freighted with baggage social, economic, racial and any other collocation of demographic data you can shake a joystick at. Take your pick.

Gaming has its own issues of privilege, media and social issues which are not widely understood outside, or, for that matter, inside the community as well. Games, like any other sport, can be both a sociable and a solipsistic pastime. The contest of skill I am watching below is gaming at its highest, most professional level. There’s also a parallel-universe aspect to the event. In the national news media, the fear of Eastern Europeans computer geniuses predominated in the election, and here they are being cheered.

Your correspondent wishes to point out the predominant aesthetic impulse on display seems to be The Hunger Games, the Young Adult series which won all our hearts several years ago, and behind each of these sporting gentlemen is a large, ready-to-represent-my-District, I-volunteer-as-Tribute computer display of their picture. One or two of these gents is smiling but the rest are Serious Business all the way, like a mullet with the party part chopped off and thrown into the pit of eternal darkness.

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