I am going to compare esports to baseball, because I am an old man and that is the easiest way for me to understand esports.
I was in Los Angeles this weekend for the Clash Royale League World Finals, which were held at the historic Shrine Auditorium. Built in the ‘20s, the Shrine has hosted numerous Oscar, Emmy and Grammy ceremonies, was seen in the original King Kong and the Judy Garland / James Mason A Star Is Born, and was also where Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire in 1984. The Grateful Dead recorded Two from the Vault there. The Shrine has seen some shit, and this weekend it saw perhaps the greatest end of a match in esports history. Yes, I say that as somebody with an extremely limited grasp on esports history.
Here’s the scenario: Team Liquid is taking on SK Gaming in the semi-finals of Clash Royale League’s most important event. Each round is a best-of-three situation, with teams competing in 2 v 2 and 1 v 1 matches, and if they’re tied at that point they go on to a final King of the Hill match. This is basically like a three-on-three gauntlet match: both teams pick three players, and they go against each other in a series of single elimination one-on-one matches until all three players on one side have lost. If a round made it to the King of the Hill match, whoever won would win the entire round and move on in the tournament, and the losing team would be eliminated. The King of the Hill round was basically a game seven in a baseball playoff series, and if you know anything about baseball you know that a game seven is the most exciting thing in the sport.
So Team Liquid is up against SK Gaming. SK was one of the two top teams in the tournament, and got a bye in the first round. Team Liquid, meanwhile, included a pure rookie named Egor, and a player named Surgical Goblin who had never made it to the World Finals before. SK took the first round, with its players Xopxsam and Morten defeating Liquid’s Surgical Goblin and KaNaRiOooo in two straight matches. Egor then evened the series in the 1 v 1 round by beating Javi14 in two straight matches, thus setting up a climactic King of the Hill round to determine which team would make it to the finals.
Here’s where the matchup became something historic. Liquid immediately staked a commanding lead in King of the Hill, with KaNaRiOooo defeating two of SK’s players. SK was down to its last player, Morten, who had to bear the weight of the team’s entire season on his shoulders while needing three straight victories to win the round. There was basically no reason to expect him to be able to pull this off.
And then Morten beat KaNaRiOooo. Liquid’s second player in King of the Hill was the rookie Egor, who was in the midst of a star-making run and had not yet been defeated in a single match all day. And even if Morten could beat the unbeaten Egor, he’d still have a third match immediately after.
Well, Morten beat Egor, and fairly easily. He was making a last-ditch stand to keep SK from elimination, and now had only one match left, against Surgical Goblin. The momentum had clearly swung from Liquid towards Morten, who was riding high after taking down two Liquid players in a row. Morten quickly jumped out to a lead over Surgical Goblin, and seemed poised to polish off one of the most impressive and unlikeliest comebacks in Clash Royale League history.
Surgical Goblin wasn’t just going to lay down, though. He got back into the game and slowly started to steal Morten’s momentum away from him. By the end of the match’s regulation time there was no clear winner, so it went into sudden death, as so many Clash Royale League matches do. And again, the two were evenly matched, with neither earning a crown or clearly coming out ahead. As the sudden death clock ticked down to zero, both players were piling damage onto the other’s princess tower, sprinting towards the finish line to see who could inflict the most upon the other. It was neck and neck throughout those final 10 seconds, and when the countdown stopped the final result shocked everybody watching: Surgical Goblin and Team Liquid had beaten Morten and SK Gaming by one HP. Everybody in the building absolutely flipped out, screaming and hollering as if they had just seen the most exciting end to an esports match ever.
I witnessed a similar scene first-hand in 1992. (This is where the baseball enters the picture.) That October I was one of almost 52,000 people crammed into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to watch Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series. This was a make-or-break game between the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were facing each other in the NLCS for the second straight year. The winner would go to the World Series and the loser would go home. It wasn’t looking good for the Braves: they were down 2 to nothing when the bottom of the 9th inning started, in a series that they had one time lead 3 games to 1. They were able to score a run with a sacrifice fly (Ron Gant sailed out deep to Barry Bonds, playing his last game as a Pirate), but the next hitter popped out and left the Braves with their last out of the entire series and the bases loaded. Francisco Cabrera, an unheralded backup player who had 10 at bats in the majors that season, came up to face the Pirates’ usually reliable closer, Stan Belinda. I have never felt a greater sense of collective tension than I did that night, with tens of thousands of long-suffering Atlanta fans hoping for something magical but expecting to have their hearts broken instead. After two balls Cabrera hit a line drive that curved foul in left field. Pittsburgh outfielders Bonds and Andy Van Slyke briefly argued over positioning, with Van Slyke worried Bonds was playing too deep. The very next pitch Cabrera hit the ball straight to left field again, but this time it stayed fair and Bonds wasn’t able to get to it. Braves outfielder David Justice scored from third, but the runner on second, Sid Bream, was the slowest man on the Braves and perhaps all of baseball that year. Still, Bonds being out of position slowed down every aspect of his defense, and the Braves’ third base coach waved Bream around third. Bonds’ throw was off line but came in at almost the exact same time as Bream, and for a split-second it was impossible to tell what happened at the plate. Everybody in the stadium held their breath for what felt like an eternity before the umpire made the call. When he waved his arms and yelled “safe,” 52,000 people erupted in the loudest mass outcry of joy and relief I’ve ever heard. The Braves won the game 3-1 on the very last hit of the season, in an at-bat that would’ve ended the game if Cabrera had made an out. Any swing could have won or lost the entire series. it was as unlikely an outcome as a Clash Royale League match being decided by a single HP, and the passionate, almost animalistic reaction of the Clash Royale fans at the Shrine reminded me of that night in Atlanta 27 years earlier.
I won’t even try to act like the Clash Royale League finish hit me in the same way as that Braves game. My interest in Clash Royale and esports is purely professional, with an almost clinical remove; my love for the Braves and baseball is a lifelong passion integrally tied up with my sense of community, family and self. Still, I can recognize passion in others, and can tell when something shocking has happened. And the reaction to Surgical Goblin beating Morten by one HP, although coming from a crowd that was 50,000 people smaller, immediately made me think of that impossible Braves victory in the 1992 NLCS.
Team Liquid went on to the finals of this year’s Clash Royale League World Finals, and unlike the Atlanta Braves in 1992 (and 1991, and 1996, and 1999…), won the championship. To compare it to another baseball playoff series, it almost felt like the Red Sox’s 2004 World Series run. The Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS to crush their hated rivals the New York Yankees and make it to the World Series—and although they hadn’t won a Series in 86 years at that point, it actually felt a little anticlimactic after that absolutely unthinkable comeback against the Yankees. Liquid won the whole tournament, but the series and match that will always stand out the most from this year’s World Finals—and, indeed, probably from the entire history of the Clash Royale League—will be that semi-final King of the Hill round between Liquid and SK.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.