Paris might be known as the City of Love, but for one day in October it became the City of War—Summoners War: Sky Arena, specifically, the mobile strategy game from Korean developer Com2uS.
The Summoners War World Arena Championship 2019 was held at the Maison de la Mutualite, an almost 90 year old building that has held all manner of concerts, performances and other events since before World War II. Eight players from around the world vied for their cut of a prize pool valued at $100,000. Their path to the finals took them through both a preliminary and group stage, and then the winners of three regionals—the Europe Cup, the Asia-Pacific Cup and the Americas Cup—punched their tickets to Paris.
Summoners War: Sky Arena’s path to esports was even more protracted. The game launched in 2014 as a turn-based RPG, and quickly became a mobile smash, with tens of millions of downloads in its first two years. Still, something was missing. As David Mohr, Com2uS’s general manager for Europe, explains, “People are very competitive. And people like to play against each other. Previously we didn’t have real time battle in the game until we added this in early 2017.”
Once players could go against each other head to head, it was only a matter of time before Summoners War made the esports jump. 2017 was also the first year for the Summoners War World Arena Championship, and viewership doubled for the 2018 follow-up. And it’s not just the audience that’s responding to the Championships. As Mohr tells us, “Our players are taking it more and more seriously. All the qualifiers are more and more important to them. We’ve been able to increase our prize money. We managed to get sponsoring by Google Play, which is something we’re very proud of. They’re the best possible partner we could think about for something like this.”
I might not know a great deal about Summoners War specifically, but I’ve been to enough esports tournaments to know the score. Esports are still young, especially compared to the hoary theatrics of something like baseball, but its events already have a well-defined vibe. It has the flash of a pro wrestling event or NBA game, with the lights, the personalities, the passionate crowds, and the rapid fire announcers who are often as much characters as the players themselves. And although all three share a love for loud music that resonates with a youngish, male audience, the particular style of that music diverges greatly; whereas you’ll hear hip hop or current pop hits at most mainstream sporting events, and geriatric oughts-era dunce rock still predominates at a WWE show, the esports sound of choice remains dubstep. Always and forever dubstep. Walking into an esports event is like being whisked magically back to 2012, when Skrillex surveyed his boundless musical fiefdom from his booth on high, and everybody everywhere was still waiting for the drop. The Summoners War World Arena Championship 2019 summoned the brostep spirit of the recent past with absolute verve and commitment, and frankly I wouldn’t have had it any other way, no matter how terrible that music has always been.
Still, it was very much unlike other esports events I’ve been to. Maison de la Mutualitie is not necessarily a modestly sized building, but it’s one of the coziest I’ve seen esports in, and it wound up being a perfect size. Instead of getting unreasonably ambitious and booking a venue far larger than the demand—instead of running a quarter-full NBA arena or a larger theater with hundreds of empty seats—Com2uS realized that an absolutely packed building creates a much better impression, even if it’s smaller in size. There were no empty seats at the Maison de la Mutualitie, which turned into a standing room only sweatbox thick with the steam of excess human bodies closely quartered to one another. Sure, that made the room hot and sticky, but piling people in almost on top of each other made the action more exciting, raising the passion of the fans and making each round of the tournament feel even more pregnant with pressure and importance.
Also setting it apart from other esports events I’ve been to: the hosts on stage spoke in French. In Paris, of all places!
Summoners War: Sky Arena isn’t a squad game. Get those images of two rows of identically dressed, hyperalert teens with call center headmics staring with unblinking eyes at banks of computer monitors out of your mind. This is a gentlemanly game with two opponents going head to head in a battle of magically powered anime superpeople (and beasts). Each player sits at their own private mobile device and summons their team of five creatures, all of whom’s power is ranked on a five-point scale. Each player bans one critter from the opposing army’s lineup, and then gets down to the business of pummeling every enemy into submission through a variety of basic and special attacks. There are cooldowns and characters “awaken” into more powerful versions of themselves and there’s a hierarchical battle system based on the elements, like the ‘80s toy Battle Beasts. It’s a videogame full of videogame ideas, and one that anybody with a phone or other mobile device and the desire to play it can play.
Only a handful of players throughout the world are good enough to make it to the world championships, though. Among them is the American known as Tree!—yes, the exclamation point is part of his name. Brian Choi, of Los Angeles, is one of two Americans in the Championship tournament—his rival from the Americas Cup finals, Thompsin, a fellow Los Angeleno and good friend and sparring partner in real life, is also in Paris. Tree lost his first-round matchup to a hometown hero, the French player Rosith; as Tree tells us, after using a slightly unusual strategy in that matchup, “I took a gamble, and I lost.”
Tree represents something else that sets Summoners War’s competitive play apart from many other esports leagues. Although he’s good enough to make it to the championships in Paris, this isn’t his fulltime job. Unlike players in the major esports events, who spend their lives focusing on whichever game they compete in, Tree is able to still view this as a hobby, albeit one that has the potential to pay off very well. “The reason I play Summoners War is not about a gaming career,” he tells Paste. “It’s about fun. This is something I really like. I’m going to keep playing Summoners War, and maybe next year [will be better].”
Tree might have fallen to Rosith in the first round, but his friend Thompson carried America’s banner all the way to the finals. His opponent was L’Est, from China, who won a semifinal round that was about as exciting and unlikely as any playoff series in a mainstream sport. L’Est faced Rosith, France’s favorite, in that round, and was routed in the first two games in a best of five series. Facing elimination after another loss, a stone faced L’Est hunkered down and eked out his first victory against Rosith. L’Est then took game four as well, and with the momentum now fully in his direction, he went on to utterly trounce Rosith in the decisive fifth game.
It was the kind of victory that will often carry a team or athlete throughout the rest of the playoffs. Remember the Boston Red Sox of 2004, the team that came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and won four games in a row, complete with a massive rout in game seven. That Sox squad went on to crush the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series four games to none.
L’Est was poised to have the same kind of performance against Thompsin in the Summoners War finals. He beat America’s last hope in the first two games, and a sweep felt inevitable. But then Thompsin steadied himself and took a win in the third game. Thompsin remained strong and took game four, as well. Suddenly both were tied up, two games to two, with one last final game left. The momentum now seemed to be in Thompsin’s favor, as he was on the verge of pulling off the same kind of shocking comeback that L’Est himself had done in the semifinals.
Here’s the thing about “momentum,” though: if you read certain sports writers, including Paste’s own board game critic, Keith Law, whose dayjob is covering baseball for ESPN, you’ll know many of them don’t believe in the idea of “momentum.” It’s like saying somebody is “clutch”: it’s an invisible, unquantifiable, impractical concept that has no basis in actual statistical analysis. It’s a nice thought, sure, but “momentum” doesn’t win championships because “momentum” isn’t real. Victory is a result of skill, strategy, and, yes, luck. I can’t say what combination of those three resulted in the finish of the finals of the Summoners War World Arena Championship 2019, but I can tell you that L’Est absolutely destroyed Thompsin in the finals, in one of the most lopsided routs of the entire tournament. The player who seemed to have momentum on his side instead suffered as resounding of a defeat as any other player that day, at the moment when it mattered most.
You can’t fault L’Est for not having much to say upon his victory. He was a Chinese citizen on a foreign stage in Paris speaking to an international audience that spoke several disparate languages. He’s massively talented at what is generally a solitary pursuit, and in no way a performer. What he is is the best Summoners War: Sky Arena player on the planet, at least as of right now, in the dying days of this century’s second decade. It’s an accolade that never could’ve existed until this moment in time, a championship that didn’t exist as recently as the last presidential election. After watching it in person, let’s hope it lasts for at least a few more election cycles.
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.