Top 10 things I learned attending an eSports event
By Clare Fitzgerald
So when I learned there was going to be a major eSports event right here in Boston, I decided to go see what the fuss was all about. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but as someone who has spent many interminable hours watching other people play video games and ghosted on several friendships over it out of sheer boredom, I was incredibly curious to see how this was going to be fun. Which is how I found myself in the balcony of the Wang Theater in downtown Boston on a Friday morning for the quarterfinals of the Boston Major, a Dota 2 tournament hosted by PGL eSports with a million-dollar prize up top.
10. People came dressed to impress
Some of them, anyway.
Most of the audience of young-ish, predominantly male nerds was wearing the standard gamer dude uniform of a hoodie and jeans (or a hoodie and pajama pants), but a good number of people took the event as an excuse to go to the other extreme of geeky sartorial habits and turn up in full costume. Costumes of what, you ask? I'm not entirely certain, but I can tell you that some of them were pretty impressive.
Dude in crowd is happy dancing pic.twitter.com/yaBl5tFxZO— Clare Fitzgerald (@EditressClare) December 9, 2016
9. An incongruent atmosphere
While footage gleaned from the internet gives me the impression that most eSports events are hosted in industrial warehouses and sports arenas, the Boston Major was hosted in Boston's historic Wang Theater. It is a beautiful building, and the lavish Art Deco interior is a) gorgeous and b) neither modern nor sporty. The busy gold accents and richly patterned marble columns made a sharp visual contrast to the sleek, high-tech event being hosted. The pastel-colored scenes of muses and mythological events and other artsy Rococo nonsense painted on the ceilings had a jarringly different artistic style from the supersaturated graphics of modern computer games.
Between matches I entertained myself by trying to imagine what a truly opulent dedicated eSports theater would look like, with paintings on the ceilings of scenes from video games and lots of black-and-neon accents instead of frilly gold leaf, but then I stopped because I was weirding myself out.
8. Impressive production values
PGL eSports has clearly thrown a lot of money into making their live events a smooth-running, technologically rich experience. The game itself played out on not one but two large screens — one for viewers in the orchestra seats and one for those in the balcony. The façade of each player's console setup was a video screen with the player's gamertag and photo, which was then replaced by the player's hero when the heroes were picked. A team of four commentators was backed up by a second team of two commentators and an additional analyst who covered the highlights of each match.
Throughout it all, nothing noticeably froze, glitched, started showing the wrong footage, or otherwise did what technology usually does; i.e., fail to work at the least convenient time. One screen needed to be recalibrated between matches once, but that was it. This probably shouldn't be surprising, but I'm the sort of person whose fingers touchscreens don't recognize. When a machine freezes on me and I try to force a reboot, it usually turns out the power button has stopped functioning too. My first Kindle died on me 20 minutes into an eight-hour transatlantic flight. By now, my baseline assumption about technology is that it is a myth designed to keep gullible people sitting around pressing "refresh" all day instead of doing something useful like robbing a bank.
So I was about 90% certain that there would be some sort of tiresome "technical issues" that held everybody up at some point during the day, and . . . there weren't? I don't understand?
7. The lack of delay and fast pace make it very different from poker
In poker, the most important information is hidden, which makes it kind of boring to watch in real life. Poker TV shows compensate for this by showing you people's hole cards, but broadcasting those to the audience of a live tournament while the tournament is still going on would obviously mess everything up. This is what makes covering, say, the final table of the WSOP such a pain in the ass, according to my colleagues who have covered that event in the past. Even poker Twitch streams have to build in delays so that players who are watching Twitch while playing can't cheat.
This is not a problem in eSports, much like how it is not a problem with basically anything that's not poker. The result is that everything and everyone can be onstage at the same time. And since everything is on screens anyway due to the nature of the event, the live show ends up being functionally identical in presentation to the way it would be displayed on TV.
There is also no tanking problem the way there is with poker sometimes, because if you stop to think about stuff in Dota 2 you get killed.
6. A steep learning curve
The other big difference, for me, between this event and when I first dove into watching poker events was that the learning curve with Dota 2 is much, much higher. It's not a turn-based game, meaning all 10 players plus several dozen computer-generated critters (called "creeps"; I did manage to pick up that much) are all acting at once. Each hero has its own collection of powers, none of which are Pokémon attacks, meaning even with the commentary I still didn't know what they were actually capable of doing.
There's screen text that quite helpfully narrates all the most important actions, like who killed who, but there are clearly a lot of details that, for a novice, just get lost in the busy screens and constant action.
5. Audience engagement
While I may have been a bit lost at times, the audience clearly knew exactly what they were there for, which was to geek out. In addition to the abovementioned cosplay — a venerated tradition at geeky events of all stripes — audience members had brought along an array of props, signs, flags and other wave-at-the-camera-able items that gave the venerated theater the air of a political protest or rally, but with memes instead of opinions. Cameras crawled the audience for interesting characters and broadcast them on the screens during downtime.
I didn't get a pic of the guy in the audience with a giant stuffed pegasus but I did get this one pic.twitter.com/LL6K6V9PbU— Clare Fitzgerald (@EditressClare) December 9, 2016
I'm not 100% sure what that means, but it went over really well.
PGL eSports also ran something called the Secret Shop, i.e., they gave presents to random audience members. This is never, ever not fun.
4. Sustained adrenaline is best in short batches
The first matchup of the day, between Evil Geniuses and Virtus.Pro, was over in 19 minutes. From the reaction of both the audience and the analysts, this is exceptionally — and brutally — short. Even to me, it was clear that team Virtus.Pro was never really able to build up any momentum, and Evil Geniuses just steamrollered them.
A regular length match seems to be more along the lines of half an hour to 45 minutes, and the second match of the day fell within this window, and that was perfectly fine. (Evil Geniuses still won but V.P put up more of a fight.) But the third match of the day, between OG and Warriors Gaming, went on for nearly an hour, and by the time it had ended I was tired just from watching it. While the match had some interesting twists and turns in it, it was largely an unrelenting barrage of explosions and general loud mêlée sound effects. The drawn-out excitement proved overstimulating.
Your mileage may vary, but for me, it seems that if I'm going to watch a single battle for that long, it needs to have pacing and structure and possibly some character development—in short, it needs to be a Game of Thrones episode.
3. Root for the home team
The home team for the first matchup of the day was the Evil Geniuses, which is the best possible team name and everyone else can stop trying. The Evil Geniuses are an American team, to the great delight of several gentlemen in the audience waving American flags, and one dude dressed in a fully American-flag-printed white denim cowboy suit and hat.
The opposition, Virtus.Pro, was Russian, and even though I'm pretty sure at least 50% of the audience at this event was born after the fall of the Soviet Union, there's nobody Americans like beating more than the Russians. So there weren't a lot of Virtus.Pro fans in the audience.
Most of the other matchups were a bit more lacking in these sorts of grand international rivalries, or possibly they weren't and my grasp of world history is weak. The second set of teams to face off were OG, a European-based team whose team members come predominantly from Scandinavian countries, and WarriorsGaming.Unity, a Malaysian team. While a number of fans of each team were clearly visible in the audience, overall sentiment was split. Team DigitalChaos is theoretically a North American team, although its current roster comes from all over the place; their first rivals of the day, Team NP, are also North American, and their roster does currently feature all North Americans. The last matchup of the day saw Greece's Ad Finem facing off against China's LGD.Forever Young.
2. What is up with the initials?
Every activity has a culture that grows up around it, and eSports is no exception. Every one of these subcultures develops its own body of slang and, often, an entire way of speaking, and eSports is again no exception. In addition to all the terms associated with the actual gameplay of Dota 2, the commentators all displayed a pronounced tendency to refer to all the teams solely by letters. Now, quite a number of team names actually are just initials to start with: this event saw teams named OG, MVP, LGD, NP and LFY all compete. But other teams saw their names brutally abbreviated, even when it didn't save many syllables: Evil Geniuses became EG; Virtus.Pro became VP; WarriorsGaming became WG even though "W" is a very long letter to say out loud.
This clearly has its roots online, where typing things out in full can really start slowing you down. But it's surprisingly annoying in speech.
1. Massachusetts could make a fortune if it handles it right
To bring this back around to why we here at Casino City are even paying attention to eSports in the first place: eSports betting is both an increasingly lucrative market, and it's currently illegal in Massachusetts.
The Boston area itself is poised to capitalize on eSports in whatever ways it is allowed. It has a robust geek culture that regularly hosts other large gaming-related events, most notably PAX East, which draws tens of thousands of attendees. Some cranky Hearthstone players in Cambridge have already launched an eSports training startup called Gamer Sensei. The guys behind Improv Asylum are hellbent on turning the city into an eSports capital. And, of course, it's a wealthy city in a wealthy state, and hardcore video gamers as a group are willing to pour absurd amounts of money into their hobby.
Currently, none of the three casinos being built in the state have signaled that they intend to build any "eSports lounges" like the Downtown Grand's, but I would be pretty unsurprised if that changed by the time construction is actually completed, depending on how well Downtown Grand's experiment goes. And the Massachusetts Gaming Commission has dropped one or two hints that eSports would likely have to be considered if the Massachusetts legislature goes the suggested route of developing omnibus online gaming regulation instead of taking it game by game.
Judging by the enthusiasm I saw on display at the Boston Major, the Massachusetts casino gaming industry would do well not to let eSports pass them by.