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.

WHAT HAPPENED ONSCREEN

Onscreen they were shooting or some damn thing.

Describing what is actually happening onscreen during a CS:GO tournament is a dicey proposition. When a member of Astralis or VP plays the game, he sees the terrain from the first-person POV. He has no idea where the opponent’s sprites are on the field of battle. The audience has no such mystery: the program is designed to show us the faint outlines of players in hiding. For example, when TaZ is creeping down a hallway, he has no idea if there’s an enemy hiding around the corner. But the audience knows: we can see a yellow pixelated body-shape holding still behind walls.

In itself, this kind of dramatic irony in spectator sports is nothing new. The audience knows Oedipus has killed his father, but Oedipus does not know. If you have ever spent time wearing a helmet while playing American football, you will appreciate the distance between what the (relatively) omniscient audience can see, and what the player can view from out of his restricted field of vision. There is never a mystery, at all, to what is happening on the field of play. The audience observes it all, like the court of Olympus staring down on the plains of Troy. Or, if you prefer, like a player pushing pieces around a chessboard. In sports viewership, there is the mortal perspective (subjective, immediate, sensory) and the heavenly perspective (objective, time-removed, data-driven). Strangely enough, when it comes to watching, the audience must actually pay more to receive less overall information: watching in person at an arena is pricier than sitting at home; seats closer to the action will take you away from the god-eye perch and closer to the sounds of huge-ass men colliding a dozen yards away from you. The trade-off, of course, is that what you lose in omniscience you gain in impression. Your experience is narrower but deeper, like the point of needle. Watching racing or tennis means you lose the perspective which comes from television, but all the wonders which we ostensibly gravitate to in watching sports—the speed, the exertion, the skill—are made much more splendidly manifest.

Some sports franchises have experimented with getting the audience more involved in the action, such as NASCAR including in-vehicle cameras so that the home viewing audience can watch the festivities on the track and experience the vicarious thrill of moving at many times the velocity of an ordinary human body. However, these cut back and forth between the driver and the long shot of the track as a whole. We are never set adrift in the sea of first-person experience. We are always in sight of the mainland; the camera regularly switches back to bird’s-eye view.

CS:GO is different from other viewing experiences in this way: there is no God’s eye view, no heavenly perspective. The entire proceeding happens from the mortal perspective. A feed of a CS:GO game is a series of cuts from one player’s POV to another, according to decisions made in the control room. This may explain the confusion for newcomers and the enraptured thrill of watching esports for longtime aficionados. Almost all modern movies operate under a visual language established by the movie directors Eisenstein and Griffith over a century ago: establishing shot, close up, pan, repeat. If we see a shot from a character’s point of view, the director will show us a close up of that person’s face, then their eyes, then what they see. Our hands are held the entire way. It’s so native to us now we don’t even think about it, just like you’re not thinking about what your brain is doing when you read this sentence.

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All of the devices which suggest connection and continuity between two visual images are cut away by CS:GO. We see from one player’s view, then another’s, without any warning.

The effect is somewhat like reading an amateurish pulp novelist who jumps between character perspectives several times a chapter. The overriding theme is of hunter and hunted, Peter and the Wolf but with automatic weapons and no predator-prey asymmetry, since everyone here is in both categories simultaneously.

Astralis beat the Swedish team, Fnatic, in the semifinals. VP stepped over SK Gaming, a Brazilian joint, to make it here. VP, the established team, came into the fight with a ranking of seven, and Astralis hovered at the first spot.

In the finals, the Danes got their choice of map, and went to Nuke. Concerning the videogame levels where CS:GO rounds are played, needless to say that for all of their impeccable design, the levels are subject to endless series of debates about which ground gives which faction an advantage during the battles.

In real life, CS:GO levels would leak negative chi like a boa constrictor nailed to a plank of quartz. Onscreen, these locales have the well-rendered pleasantness which is the fate of even the most grotesque and unpleasant digital landscape. Even in horror games, which are deliberately designed to trigger your repugnance circuit, you can’t help but smile at the vision required. The more art required to design the horror, the more you have to admire the handiwork.

As in most versions of war, choosing the ground is of paramount importance, and so competing teams approach the map-selecting part of gameplay like opposing attorneys treat jury-picking: it can make or break the whole megillah. Teams have a veto stage where certain maps can be ruled right out. Nuke is generally thought to be unpredictable, a wildcard who could flip either way, like a loaded gun at a child’s birthday party. Expert opinion has it that Nuke is used as a worst-of-all-worlds card when opposing teams choose their stage. The order of map-picking preference goes like this: maps which favor my team, Nuke, maps which favor the opponent.

If you have put hundreds of hours of practice into CS:GO, then you know Nuke and every other map like you know the trip from your bathroom to your bedroom. Perhaps even more so. Take the spot near the staircase which descends to Bombsite “B,” which is perfect for smoke-producing grenades. For ordinary players, this is a neat discovery, but being a player at the level of VP and Astralis means that not only is the character of the B-staircase known, but has been considered, digested, analyzed and discussed by the players; there are plots and counterplots, defenses and counterfeints. Strikes, and counter-strikes.

How well do these teams know these maps? The usual trope to deploy here is “Like I know the back of my hand.” But that does the business a rough justice. Reader, suppose you were paid a good amount of cash and glory to know the back of your hand down to the last micron of hair and dermis. I submit to you this level of attention, memorization and interaction is more intimate than most of us know the back of our hand. Could you, at this moment, without any guide, draw a map of every freckle on the back of your right paw? This is the way the CS:GO player must know these digitally-designed universes, as a spider in its own web.

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It’s enough to make you wonder if all this hard-ass business prep hasn’t rendered the entire process of gaming into a dry, muddy slog for these guys. But this is unlikely unless the players in question are oblivious in the extreme to what they do for a living. Absent being born rich and staying in the womb of cash your entire life, there is evidence aplenty that what most people do for money is not as fun as videogames. Videogames also, notably, do not involve heavy lifting or, barring wrist, arm and hand strain, serious injury the way working on an oil derrick does. So even the most boring and unsurprising day working for, and on, a game produced by the Valve Corporation, is a thousand times better than most of what the rest of the world does for bread. Did I mention that these people are professional athletes? With all that implies. Glory, etc.

With all of Astralis’s preference for Nuke, VP still showed why they have lasted so long and endured so much: at the risk of falling into the most stupefyingly empty patter of sports writing and videogame journalism, they’re just really, really fucking good. VP, on a map they didn’t pick, still dominated. They had Gretzky-level comprehension of Nuke, swooping up an early lead of 9-6 in the Ts role. This allowed VP to continue until concluding the map match, 16-12. Easy. Player NEO, Virtus Pro’s vice president in charge of murder, is just striking down everything in sight. It’s beautiful and appalling to watch.

NEO, who is a digital serial killer of Patton-level proportions, prefers a SteelSeries Siberia Elite Prism Headset, which matches his SteelSeries Apex M500 Keyboard, which definitely clashes, brandfully-speaking, with the ZOWIE by BenQ FK2 Mouse he is displaying in combat. But that’s okay: ZOWIE’s FK line of gaming mice is named for him, Filip Kubski, and has been on the market since 2013. NEO’s ZOWIE has an effective DPI of 724, but that interests me much less than the fact that with a beard, NEO looks like a heavily sedated low-key McGregor-era Obi Wan Kenobi, or Matt Damon from The Talented Mr. Ripley.

The Overpass map followed. VP and Astralis batted wins back and forth. Dupreeh the Dane and teammates managed to beat out a win, 16 to 14. That meant a third round. Did it ever.

In Train, one of the Ts (the one carrying the C4) must destroy a nuclear payload on one of two trains. Out of 703,000 results for “CS:GO Train” on YouTube, the first one is titled “Train for Noobs.” VP has historically been Homeric on this terrain.

“This is Shower slash Washroom slash Bathroom slash Locker Room,” says the video maker, JRiceroni, at 3:25 into the video file, as his character’s hands, black-gloved and knife-carrying, dart in front of the camera view. He directs us around a grey and white tiled area. As I am a noob, I am duly impressed. He has another video on the autoplay list, titled “Peeking Properly,” which has less than half the views of “Train for Noobs,” which clocks in at 51,882 views. “Of course the Dumpster,” he says, forty seconds later, indicating where an attacker might crouch, “a very classic spot.”

All of these locations in the Train map appear to be very classic spots, and VP knows it. They begin the game by smashing Astralis seven times over, and it seems like the Poles will have an easy walk into Valve-halla. Astralis rallies and scores six victories, though. This forces the Poles to return with great vengeance and furious anger, and the matter stands at 12-6, and it’s manifestly obvious to the entire world that Astralis is going to be thrown down like Icarus, that all must bow down in glory before the Polar Bear of the East. But the Danes won’t be put down. Somehow, they put together a win, and then all of a sudden, it’s the game-winning round, a quick dance at the bomb site on the outer reaches of the map, and boom, Astralis is the ELEAGUE Major Champion. The entire auditorium erupts in a deafening, wall-to-wall thundering. I cannot stress how loud it is, even more for being in a closed space. Confetti shoots skyward from cannons and the feeling is like a victory party at Hogwarts.

The crowd approves. The media approves. They are not alone in their regard for what has just transpired. One user on Reddit, named LambOfGojira, whose flair reads “Team Astralis Fan” will write, “Best major final there’s been since Kato ‘15, at least. Super close games, some of the most sickest clutches I’ve ever seen and a beautiful storyline. Congratulations Astralis!” wmarch7, with “Virtus.Pro Fan” attached to their handle, will agree: “It was absolutely unreal on both sides. Nuke had at least 3 or 4.” “I think its one of the best matches in the history of csgo,” chimes in cptwillow. RobertZocker, less charitably, will say “Virtus.Choke” and MattJah will add: “Virtus.pro > Virtus.throw > Virtus.plow -> Virtus.choke The full poland circle.”

“Virtus Plow” is a meme, which refers to the powers of VP: an astounding team, but inconsistent. Imagine if God, instead of omnipotence and omnipresence, had frequent cases of the Mondays. The Incredible Hulk, with his tendencies to either smash or be left alone, might be a better mental image to employ here. Indeed, if you have several minutes to kill, I advise you to search Google Images for “Virtus Plow” and see photoshopped heads attached to large, earth-moving vehicles. Reams of speculation as to the how and why of this disorder can be found on various corners of the Internet. There’s even an article titled “Virtus Throw or Virtus Plow? – Deciphering the bi-polar form of the Polish Giants.”

THE CALL OF DUTY

I wanted more. On Feb. 10-12, Atlanta hosted the CWL Atlanta Open, an event put on by Major League Gaming’s Call of Duty World League and sponsored by PlayStation®4. The contest featured the “top world competitors and major prizes.” I went to that event, too, with my friend Ann. This was on the second day of the tournament. I needed a parenthetical close to what I’d seen at the Fox. This contest took place in another Atlanta landmark, the galactic-sized Georgia World Congress Center.

I’ll spare you a recitation of what this event looks like. The same general setup applied as at the Fox Theater, except expanded. The front of the room was filled with computers for the open brackets, all the people who wanted to play up to the big event. There was a huge line for signatures from OpTic Gaming, a premiere Call of Duty enterprise. About two hundred people by my count. The entrance to the tournament was a dramatic, Wagnerian presentation: thumping music, dark corridors, and miniature spotlights shooting beams of light off in every direction. It made for an impressive display, which, of course, was the point.

The Call of Duty event was remarkable on its own, as an extension of the gaming world and what a tournament could be. But it’s mostly memorable for me because I got to meet the wizard behind the curtain—or a version of him, at any rate. Based on the constant references of the people I talked to, one person in particular, “Scump,” seemed like a party worth interfacing with. While I was watching the events on the big screen, I texted my press handler and asked for an interview. Eventually, it was granted.

Scump was in a dark room lit by the light of computers. About that room: take someone who has never worked for the government in any capacity, and filter through that perception a paranoiac’s idea of what an all-hacker NSA would be, and this is it. Scump was sitting at one of the terminals. He turned around in his chair and talked to Ann and me for a couple of minutes. The press handler stood behind my back like a janissary the entire time.

Scump is twenty-one years old. He plays Call of Duty for a living and is captain of OpTic. He’s had various sponsors, and won about a quarter million in prize money. His dad is Shawn Abner, who used to be a pro ball player. Scump is generally in the mold of other pro athletes I’ve interviewed, but much more thoughtful.

There’s a courteous, poised, mackintosh-like air about him, watertight. If you’re a famous person who is not an idiot, then you are aware of what the press is and what it can do. Thus, many famous people develop a complicated façade or manner, which is not exactly phoniness; more the stance you would adapt if talking to an intelligent friend who was liable to take any of your slightly off-color comments with the greatest degree of seriousness. At the same time, celebrities, at any level of wattage, are well-aware of how easy it is to appear fake and phony. In America, we have all grown up in the same democratic and now post-Letterman culture, where even the old necessary artifices of fame seem contrived, the tools of hustling.

The impression I got from Scump was of the slightly-geeky wholly confident variant of the All-American boy hero, the kind of kid that in the Thirties would be designing ham radios, and in the Fifties was head of the Boy Scouts in Indiana. He’d have a friend like Huck Finn who was into some wild barn-burning shit but would come back around after several years.

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Scump said he became professional in 2011. “Hand-eye coordination definitely plays a big part in it. I played sports growing up my whole life, so that came pretty natural to me. But other than that, the people that are set apart from the pro to amateur level, it’s really just putting in the time and effort and really grinding it out. A lot of people think that it will just come to them because it’s like ‘Oh it’s a videogame. It’s easy. I can be the best at that.’ It’s really not easy. There’s so much more that goes into it than just pointing and clicking and shooting. There are so many mental things that go on and learning that and putting in the hours is really what sets people apart.”

I told Scump I’d played Halo and was, frankly, pretty bad at it. “That’s how I got started,” he said.

How so?

Halo is MLG’s like first game that they picked up and then that sort of paved the way for other games to have the communities and stuff like that and the events thrown. So whenever they started doing tournaments like that, Call of Duty got picked up as well and there was a big growing process. Now I think that this game is bigger than Halo ever was. And I mean you see other sports all around the world they’re even bigger than Call of Duty. The sky’s the limit and Halo definitely allowed for this to happen.”

He started in “sixth or seventh grade. I came home from football practice. There was a website called Game Battle. I played with my friends from football. After our football practice, every night we’d come home and play for six hours until bedtime. Then we found out about the MLG community and the events and stuff like that and eventually just kept working, working, working, got put on better teams, better teams then eventually won my first event in 2011.”

There were a few more questions along these lines, mostly about the mechanics of gaming becoming good, then better, then best of all. Ann and I didn’t have any further queries, so we shook Scump’s hand and left. He turned his attention back to the screen as we walked out.

In Jim Butcher’s urban fantasy series The Dresden Files, the protagonist, Harry, a wizard-detective who mostly concerns himself with various doings in Chicago, has a side trip in one of his books. An ancient being of unimaginable power whisks him away to the boundary of reality, where the mystical forces of this reality are arrayed in power against a horde of nightmarish outsiders: there has been a war going on, and he hasn’t known about it, although he is, in some sense, distantly related to it. That was the feeling I had going among the players. There was a great happening, and although my presence was not resented—far from it—it was very much like stumbling into a clearing in a foreign land where all sorts of important business is happening around you.

HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING, AND LOVE NINTENDO POWER

Gaming is a growing sport, and not in the conventional sense of numbers, influence and money. I mean that it affects our society in surprising ways. This is professional sport, and like all sport, it has unusual and unmeasured ways of shaping the culture.

All the ideas we have about sports come from years of congealed sedimentary pressure. We understand sports geologically because it coalesced from amateur Victorians terrified about losing masculinity and their edge in a machine age. Radio and television transformed displays of physical skill into mass media entertainment, which first seized our educational institutions, then took Sundays away from God. We have watched the rise and fall of sports stars. We understand the ins-and-outs of this stuff in the same way we understand how government works—we have seen all the intricacies revealed to us over a long period of time. We understand sports and politics as social phenomena, because we’ve had so long to watch them, and they’ve evolved so slowly. Videogames, with their recent development, meteoric rise and unique ecology, are not so clear.

Gaming is still too new to understand where on the curve players play. We don’t have enough information to make the same generalizations about gaming that we craft for other sports: when do players peak? What counts as a prodigy? Does gaming have its own disabilities the sport encourages, like CTE and football? What are our settled opinions about players and the amount of money they’re paid? What happens when several generations of players grow up with these guys as role models? What about women? Are there enough persons of color in gaming? And so on.

So much of this is still so new, and every piece of boilerplate about games and gaming has been used and processed and sent into rhetorical battle, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need re-examination or consideration. Baseball and basketball and its ilk have been around for so long that we forget that they, like other sports, are essentially sideshow displays of physical prowess that only have the imprimatur of father-to-son transmission, American character and money because they have been popular for generations. If baseball was invented today, it would be seen just as arena football or MMA are: a strange collection of men and women engaged in impressive but impractical displays of skill and prowess for rapt onlookers. If you’re curious about the economic import of these games, or why major telecom providers—”content sharers”—are involved here, Wikipedia is at your command. There is serious, no fuck-around money to be made in the Elysian field of pixels, no joke.

This story, and these tournaments, are really about how quickly this culture is evolving and growing, and honestly, nobody really knows where to. It is so easy to make foolish, easy statements about videogames, because the tropes are so insulting and come with no thought attached: hur hur, gamers are nerds, hur hur. They are not merely cruel; they blind us to the truly unique and unprecedented nature of what is happening. I object to glib statements about gaming for the same reason I dislike facile historical analogies about the Trump Administration: something new is happening, and we don’t have correct language to describe it, or predict what happens next. Kotaku, the gaming site, noted that

By one analyst’s calculation, the 11 million or so registered users of the online role-playing fantasy World of Warcraft collectively have spent as much time playing the game since its introduction in 2004 as humanity spent evolving as a species—about 50 billion hours of game time, which adds up to about 5.9 million years.

Kotaku was quoting the Wall Street Journal in their story, who titled their feature “Gaming Is Good For You.” Subtextually: It’s not bad for you! Nobody ever titles a feature “Breathing Air is Great For You,” because everybody knows it.

eleague fox getty crowd.jpg

My point is not to attack gaming, or defend it. I simply point out we do not know what gaming will be to professional sports, and by extension its larger import as an omni-cultural and cross-economic force is not fully understood. Is it the rebirth of community? An entry into a Black Mirror-like future? Our first foray into the next stage of evolution? We don’t need to access sci-fi boilerplate, just have open minds about what could happen next. I have no emotional investment in these games or interest in playing them … and I am still fascinated by them, top to bottom.

In the dawn of gaming, it was commonplace for arcade engines to begin the player’s entry into the digital universe with the words “Ready Player One.” It was done to alert the individual at the controls that the adventure was beginning, to smooth their passage into a wide new world, featuring light which had never been seen in the world, that the magic mirror of videogames was about to let in a foreign, outside consciousness to play in the field of bits and bytes. William Gibson gave this world a name, cyberspace. Gibson was right: there is a there out there. I am more convinced of it than ever. But while we were waiting for the bridge to the far land—for VR, like the VR helmets I saw on display at the Call of Duty contest—the games got here first. They are shaping the Earth in large, mysterious ways. They made it to our world first, before we had a chance to make it to theirs. As a wise man pointed out, the Turing Test was passed a long time ago: whenever we call up an automated teller line, and act in accordance with what the machine asks, we are essentially operating according to the rules of the machines’ game. Player One has not been ready for some time, but that’s okay. The game is not over. It has not even begun. Boom, headshot.


Jason Rhode is a staff writer from West Texas. He’s on Twitter at @iamthemaster.

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