With hundreds of millions of players, online gaming now has professional ‘eSport’ competitions watched by huge global crowds. By Andrew McMillen.

‘League of Legends’ and eSports

The League of Legends 2016 Oceanic Pro League grand final, in Brisbane.
The League of Legends 2016 Oceanic Pro League grand final, in Brisbane.
Credit: Dylan Esguerra

Ten young men sit on a stage behind computer monitors deftly manoeuvring mouses and frantically stabbing at keyboards. These two teams of five are the best in Australia at a game called League of Legends, and it is their full-time job to stare at screens while attempting to outsmart their opposition. On a pedestal between them sits the winner’s prize: the Oceanic Pro League (OPL) cup, a gleaming silver trophy lit at all times by an overhead spotlight.

Facing the stage is a raucous crowd of 2000 fans who have each paid $26 to sit on a hard plastic seat at the South Bank Piazza, in Brisbane’s inner city, and cheer on their favourite team. Hundreds have dressed in custom-made costumes based on their favourite game characters. Two commentators provide a running dialogue of the action, which is displayed on three enormous screens above the players and their machines. Wearing headphones to block external sound, the players communicate with each other via headsets. A battery of green and blue LED lights flashes overhead, while at the front edge of the stage live webcams capture the gamers’ facial expressions above their gaming nicknames: among them Swip3rR, Tally, k1ng and Raes.

There are also tens of thousands of fans watching the OPL grand final at home on Fox Sports, at several cinemas around the country, and streaming the footage online around the world.

Welcome to eSports, short for “electronic sports”. Such competitions have been enormously popular overseas for years, particularly in South Korea, where strategy games such as StarCraft and Defense of the Ancients – or DoTA in the online world’s abbreviated fashion – are watched and played by millions. The OPL 2016 grand final is Brisbane’s best-attended live eSports event to date, and one of the biggest yet held in Australia.

League of Legends is the world’s most popular online game – the most recent figures this year show that 100 million players log on to its servers each month. LoL is a multiplayer online battle game, where each player controls a “champion” with its own strengths, weaknesses and special moves.

Leading the Legacy eSports club is Tim “Carbon” Wendel, a 24-year-old health sciences graduate whose boyish features offset a lanky athlete’s body. “It’s kind of a mix between basketball and chess,” he explains. “It’s five-a-side, every person has an individual role, in the same way you’ll only have one centre or point guard, and you’re always moving. It’s obviously a lot less physical, and very strategic like chess, but the difference there is that it’s in real time.”

Beside him sits Aaron “ChuChuZ” Bland, Legacy’s second-longest-serving member, a 19-year-old in a black hoodie and dark-rimmed glasses. The five members of this minor-premiership-winning team live in a share house in Sydney’s western suburbs with their coach, An “Minkywhale” Trinh. They spend about six hours a day training together by playing friendly matches with other teams. There are also regular video reviews of their performances, and individual practice is expected on top of that. Heading into events such as this, the players will spend up to 12 hours a day in front of a screen.

“Mental exhaustion is a big thing for us,” says Wendel. “If one person collapses,” Bland adds, “or starts getting kind of twitchy, that can ruin it for everyone. We usually counter that by doing outdoor activities, and trying to make everyone smile, have a good time, and enjoy what we’re doing – playing video games.”

An hour later, sitting in the pre-match dressing-room while a publicist hovers nearby, I meet Samuel “Spookz” Broadley and Bryce “EGym” Paule from Chiefs eSports Club. The Chiefs and Legacy have met before in an OPL grand final and the Chiefs walked away as winners. When I ask them to describe the game, the pair launch into a long, complicated answer involving lanes, jungles, bots and nexuses, excitedly talking over one another. Both 22, they munch on chocolate bars and radiate self-confidence, though that could be a side effect of being sponsored by an energy drink company.

“I started playing League of Legends in year 10,” says Broadley, “And as you can imagine, me staying up late every night and playing computer games didn’t go down all that well. My dad started pulling out the computer cable.”

Things changed when they joined professional teams and were invited to compete at live events on the Gold Coast and in Adelaide. It was apparent that playing the game at an elite level could support a living, at least in the short term. Like their opponents, the Chiefs live, work and play together in a Sydney “gaming house”. Paule’s father is now an avid spectator.

Like traditional team sport, LoL demands of its players a high level of mental acuity, on-the-fly decision-making, teamwork, communication and raw talent. And although there’s no risk of broken bones and concussion, meaning players could potentially compete well into middle age, all four competitors I spoke with have career options outside of eSports, with university qualifications achieved or under way.

When the doors open and fans begin entering the stands, a hard-rock soundtrack fills the arena. The big screens cut to the analysts’ desk where four young men in suits and headsets chat amiably about the season’s best and most-improved players, and preview this evening’s finals. Behind them, a ferry silently glides past on the surface of the Brisbane River, while the outer edge of the nearby Victoria Bridge is lit in two colours: green for Legacy, blue for Chiefs.

As the sun sets outside, the teams emerge from beneath the crowd to a hail of applause. They sit at their computers and take turns selecting their “champion” characters. The coaches refer to notebooks. Then the games begin. Starting at opposing corners of a map, the goal for each team is to acquire resources by killing creatures, including powerful dragons, while gaining enough ground to destroy the opponent’s defensive turrets.

The games each last for about half an hour, punctuated by short breaks for strategy revision. Spectators are gifted with perfect vision to see exactly where each character is at all times; the players must earn this ability by manoeuvring through the game’s world.

In effect, it’s a slow-burning game of cat-and-mouse: there is safety in numbers, and the idea is to clash with the opposition only sparingly, when a victory appears certain, although champions “respawn” if they are killed in battle. Even as a lifelong Nintendo and PC gamer, the finer nuances of LoL are mostly lost on me, though I quickly appreciate the overall strategic intelligence the game demands. There are thrilling moments – accompanied by the crowd’s roars of surprise or groans of disappointment – that easily compare to the excitement that comes with watching traditional live sports in a stadium.

The only player to betray much emotion on the webcams is Wendel, whose second death in the first game sees him lean forward, hands over eyes, as he knows it means his team has all but lost. Earlier, the analysts’ desk had jokingly described him as “big daddy Carbon” – as the oldest player in the final, he appears to feel the sting of loss most keenly. After falling quickly to a near-perfect opening game, Legacy simply cannot match the Chiefs, who sweep the best-of-five series 3-0.

The winners rise from their seats, arms aloft in matching navy blue shirts covered in sponsors’ logos. As confetti cannons rain sparkly debris, the Chiefs cross the stage to exchange handshakes and hugs with Legacy. There’s a brief interview with Broadley, who admits he’s “so fucking happy”, and the OPL cup is held aloft.

The Chiefs picked up $16,000 for the win, while Legacy received half that amount for second place. The victors also won a spot in a wildcard tournament in Brazil, to represent Oceania and seek a place in the 2016 World Championships, though there they were narrowly beaten. The grand finals round between Samsung Galaxy and SK Telecom T1 starts today, October 29.

Within five minutes of the Chiefs’ OPL victory, the music stops and the colourful crowd begins filtering out into the night. It’s an abrupt close to almost four hours of entertainment, akin to a livestream ending as thousands of viewers simultaneously close their browser tabs. Before they exit behind a dark curtain, the Chiefs pack up their gear: keyboards and mouses.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2016 as "The other worlds game".

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