Enthusiastic fans stream into Madison Square Garden. The atmosphere inside the building is thick with anticipation. Strobe lights and Jumbotron clips illuminate eager spectators’ faces. Tonight’s event has all the trappings of a Knicks game, but the garden isn’t showcasing an athletic competition. Instead, it’s hosting the League of Legends North American Summer Finals, a live video-game competition attended by thousands of enthusiastic fans.
Aside from a brief middle-school infatuation with “Starcraft,” a spiritual predecessor to “League of Legends” that is best understood as the Lucy to the newer game’s fully-articulated homo sapiens, I am utterly unfamiliar with the world of competitive video gaming. An acquaintance helped organize the event and offered us tickets, and her description was intriguing enough to get us to show up.
Before arriving, a cursory Google search revealed that competitive gaming is a popular and growing subculture, complete with its own celebrities, customs, and even a spiritual homeland (South Korea). As we enter the stadium, a quick glance at our surroundings reveals that it has also found an impressively large and boisterous audience for its live events.
Duck Inside the Competition Hall
The “League of Legends” championship pits two teams of five gamers against each other in a digital Battle Royale. Spectators observe the clash between the contestants’ computer-controlled avatars, all of whom boast special abilities and seem vaguely inspired by European or Asian mythology, on several massive screens. The gamers’ characters fight over a symmetrical map dotted with defensive outposts, exotic terrain features, and monsters that can be dispatched for bonuses.
The ultimate objective is to destroy the opposing team’s base, which is where contestants’ heroes begin the match and where they are (eventually) reincarnated after dying. To the uninitiated, watching the competition on-screen is a bit like hovering over an impossibly busy Looney Tunes brawl.
The experience of walking into a live video-game tournament is almost indistinguishable from going to a National Basketball Association game. Vendors—including a “League of Legends”-themed tattoo parlor—line the halls leading up to our section. The ushers, long inured to the full range of human spectacle, calmly and competently direct guests to their appointed seats. The ubiquity of hot dogs, popcorn, and overpriced beer suggests the “League of Legends” culinary experience isn’t appreciably different from your average Knicks game.
The Hot Spot for Young, Asian Men
The demographics of the event are about what you’d expect. Female spectators, some sporting elaborate costumes, are in attendance, but the line to the men’s room spills out onto the concourse while the ladies’ room is less heavily trafficked. Seven of the ten competitors on stage are of Asian descent. Before the match kicks off, an enthusiastic MC interviews this season’s North American League of Legends MVP with the help of a Korean translator.
By the time the match begins, the gamers are hunched over a row of computer terminals on a stage at one end of the stadium. The terminals are illuminated by team colors and feature front-facing displays that alternate between the competitors’ screen names—“Lustboy” was a particular favorite—and pictures of their chosen avatars.
The gamers are equipped with massive headsets that allow them to communicate with their teammates; despite sitting next to each other, they don’t exchange so much as a glance during competition. In “Ender’s Game,” another middle-school favorite of mine, Orson Scott Card imagined teenage strategists remotely directing interstellar fleets via ansibles, console-like devices that eerily anticipated today’s gaming terminals. Unsurprisingly, one of Israel’s top missile-defense operators has admitted to being weaned on Warcraft, another computer game that prizes fast-twitch reflexes and tactical improvisation. League of Legends might just be training our next generation of ace drone pilots.
Announcers Like Sportscasters
If you’ve ever watched “SportsCenter” or “Monday Night Football,” the jargon of a live video-game event will seem oddly familiar. Competitive video gaming may be relatively new, but the announcers are already well versed in the hoary clichés of Late American sportese. We are solemnly informed that players “overcame adversity” to reach the finals.
“Internal strife” splintered one contender, resulting in former teammates competing against each other on their game’s biggest stage. On the Jumbotron, a sideline reporter peppers celebrity competitors with the same questions LeBron James fields before every Cavaliers game. Presumably, one of these fresh-faced teenagers will eventually sour on his PR obligations and start taking cues from Gregg Popovich’s surly public persona.
At times, the activity’s newness shines through and the seams begin to show. A gamer commenting from the broadcast booth is surprisingly critical of one contestant’s tactics, eliciting a hail of boos and catcalls from the crowd. Whatever the merits of his analysis, it’s a striking departure from the conventions that govern professional athletes’ carefully-choreographed TV appearances.
Much of the pageantry we associate with live sports is easily adapted to live video gaming. The constant visual and audio barrages so beloved by modern stadiums—the walk-up music, the hype videos, the highlight reels—are well suited to an event that centers around fast-moving, riotously colorful cartoon brawls. At a baseball game, the announcements, advertisements, and exhortations to chant and clap are twenty-first century practices awkwardly grafted on to a nineteenth-century pastime. At a “League of Legends” tournament, the game itself is already optimized for the modern stadium experience.
Do Live Events Work in Gaming?
Other borrowed elements are best left to the athletes. Clips of a professional linebacker talking about toughness or a hulking power forward striding towards Madison Square Garden are a bit easier to swallow than similar posturing from a teenaged point-and-click artist.
All this pomp and ceremony raises one inevitable question. Why would anyone want to attend an event that can just as easily be enjoyed remotely? Sports fans still have good reasons to buy tickets to a game, even in an age of HDTV and lavish, league-affiliated cable channels. Athletes’ body language, an offensive lineman’s stellar block, or a telling glance between a coach and star player are easily overlooked if you’re not watching the game in person. Ten unexpressive teenagers staring into their computer consoles as the action plays out on a Jumbotron is another thing entirely.
In a pre-event interview, one gamer dutifully answered a question about playing at home versus playing onstage in front of thousands of screaming fans, but from our vantage point, it’s difficult to tell what difference the venue makes. The gamers are utterly absorbed by their terminals, and crowd noise doesn’t seem to penetrate their massive, military-style headgear. As soon as the first match ends, the contestants walk off the stage without so much as a wave to their audience.
Maybe the experience of attending a live event with thousands of fellow enthusiasts will be enough to sustain live gaming, even as the competitors they cheer for remain totally insulated from their surroundings. The possibility brings to mind Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, another science-fiction universe that anticipated the rise of e-sports.
Banks imagined technology where the aural and visual experience of attending a concert is indistinguishable from watching the performance remotely, yet the possibility of witnessing a transcendent event in person was still enough to incite a mad scramble to “be there.” Does watching an animated brawl play out on a stadium Jumbotron qualify as a transcendent live experience? I’m skeptical, but then again, I use a flip phone.
“I feel like I just got back from the future,” says my brother as we exit the garden. Maybe so. Or maybe we’ll look back on all this as a symptom of competitive gaming’s growing pains, an awkward attempt to emulate another recreational activity it had no business copying in the first place.