When I was growing up, I would play video games in my basement until 3am, trying not to wake my parents — or sometimes I'd sprint to my friends' houses after school to thrash them at Super Smash Bros. It was a hobby, something we did in our downtime. It was a world away from today's stadiums filled with hundreds (thousands?!) of people who buy tickets to support their favorite professional gamers. Professional esports are sweeping the entire world, and I, being the person who cherished her red Game Boy for years, wanted to see firsthand what this phenomenon was all about. So I went to the League of Legends NA LCS Championship Finals, a two-day event held every year to determine which teams will advance to the World Championship Finals.
The entire esports community is made up of professionals who just happen to be extremely good at playing their hobby. Of course they train and practice, but at one point almost all pros were just casual players turned serious. “I mean, my favorite thing professionally is just playing League itself,” said Huhi, a professional mid-laner for Counter Logic Gaming, who was playing on the stage during these Finals. “The reason why I started to be a professional gamer is because I just purely liked playing games as a hobby. I’m just thankful that I was given this opportunity and have this job. Thinking about back then makes me motivated to work even harder.”
Even after becoming a pro, players usually still play the game with the rest of the community. This is the one major difference between esports and, well, every other kind of sport — as a basketball player, for instance, you don’t hit the courts with your fans. Especially now with streaming platforms on YouTube and Twitch, it’s easier than ever to support your favorite player. Streaming allows pros not only to practice with an audience but it also allows their fans to get a better idea of who they are. Huhi streams and uploads videos to YouTube. “It’s just really cool for me because I can also see myself as I stream more with viewership going up, and I feel like people are supporting me more and more,” he said. “Even in chat, they’ll say nice stuff, so for me it’s also a way to get confidence I guess because people are supporting me directly through the chat and we’re spending time together. It makes me more motivated to play better so that I can prove to them that they’re not supporting the wrong person,” he said with a laugh.
I got to Boston a day before the matches started. After I arrived I sat in my hotel oddly anxious about the whole thing...even though I wasn’t going to be up on stage. Just the thought of seeing my favorite pros play in person made me feel the second-hand-nervousness you feel when you watch a comedian completely bomb on stage. Of course I wanted my favorites to win, but I think I wanted the games to be spicy even more. The second I left my hotel on the first day of the Championship I immediately saw so many people wearing merchandise representing their favorite teams and players. This was the coolest shit I’d ever seen. I’d never been surrounded by so many people who enjoy the same hobby, let alone a specific game. And people were ridiculously nice. You would walk by someone, lock eyes, and just slowly nod, silently acknowledging this hidden bond that you share as complete strangers.
It's wild how the Internet has changed gaming. Gone are the days of plugging our Gameboys into each other when you happened to be the same room. Back then you had yourself, your friends, maybe some of their friends, maybe your dad(?), but that’s it. Being able to walk around a city filled with thousands of people and relating to that one guy at the bus stop who was also wearing a Cloud9 hoodie was super cool. The closer to the stadium I got, the more jerseys and t-shirts I recognized. TD Garden is home to the NHL’s Bruins as well as the NBA’s Celtics, so you can imagine how not-tiny this place was. Inside, smack dab middle of the stadium, were four massive screens hovering above the playing stage. I actually had forgotten that even though this was a live event, you still have to watch through a screen. The announcer (or shoutcasters, as they are known in esports) desks were perfectly sandwiched between the stage and the crowd. The stadium was alive with energy and anticipation.
Watching professional gamers live is completely different than watching in your home...even though you’re basically just watching a big screen either way. Whenever a clean play was made, you’d hear the instant reaction from the crowd surrounding you. You would jump and scream and even hear suggestions of “better plays” from the stands. The announcers and shoutcasters would hype every call to the point where they would be screaming excitedly themselves. The energy was like lightning — powerful, electric, and really freaking fast. If you blinked, you could miss a play. My eyes were glued to the game the entire time. When you play League of Legends, you can only see your side of the map clearly — but as a spectator, you can see the entire map, making players sneaking around feel about as suspenseful as watching a horror movie where you know the bad guy is waiting just around the corner. The crowd would start to quietly gasp as enemies almost ran into one another. Every aspect of it was glorious — even walking outside the stadium afterward and talking endlessly about what you would’ve done instead or that one baron steal or even how you touched Bjergsen’s hand as he walked to the stage. Even now as I’m writing this, I’m wishing I was there again.
I personally have only been playing League of Legends for about a year now (get at me, n00bs), but I’ve followed the professional scene ever since I started playing and was excited to see my favorite players and teams in person. I was baffled by how many fans were there walking around before the matches even started, and I ended up talking to a guy sitting next to me. His name was Josh, and apparently he had been playing since season 2 (we’re now on season 7) and even played alongside one of the pros recently. He was rooting for Team Dignitas, who was playing on stage for third place. “A bunch of my friends had been to events before,” Josh told me, “and when they invited me to go with them, it was awesome to kind of mix a great social opportunity into an opportunity to watch the best of the profession play, and the best really makes you as a player learn and become better yourself.” I asked him how they all got here, since I couldn’t imagine coordinating a trip with so many people. “A few of us flew in,” he said. “I’m from DC, and I drove about nine hours to get here. So it was a...trip, but I think it’s well worth it. It’s my first esports event and my first time in Boston as well, so I’m really excited to be here.”
I was amazed at how genuine he was, answering my questions easily and excitedly. His friends next to him would occasionally chime in, and it blew my mind to see how welcoming they were. I asked Josh which pro he would want to meet if he could meet any of them and what would he ask them. He launched into an in-depth, impassioned explanation of why Ssumday — a top Korean player who recently became a top North American player — was his number one choice. I listened intently. Being able to talk to someone else who played the game that I loved so much, and who loved it as much as I did, was completely absorbing. It was entertaining to listen to what Josh said, especially because he was a seasoned veteran compared to little ol’ me. It was a nice reminder that it’s never too late to get into esports-related games, or any video game for that matter.
The esports industry is rapidly growing, and it’s so amazing as an avid gamer to feel at home within a community. For so long, video games have been a solo endeavor as you sat in front of your television or computer and played late into the night. Nowadays literally anyone could become a professional player, and fans feel a special tie with pros because eSports is a community formed by gamers for gamers. The industry is gearing up to be one of the most successful sports industries ever. Esports is powered by the strong bonds between the members of the community, ranging from the recently-turned-pro who still plays with his buddies from school or the relatively new player meeting her favorite pros at her first Championship Event. :')