Premier League: Games Takeover Wembley
Professional eSports already have a foothold in Asia – specifically South Korea where TV channels are dedicated to broadcasting genre staples such as Starcraft and DOTA 2 – but even a growing fanbase in the West hasn’t guaranteed widespread coverage here in sunny old England. That changed on the 21st and 22nd of June as the League of Legends Championship Series sold out the SSE Wembley Arena. For the fans it was a chance to witness top players battling it out in tense matches; to see the trappings of broadcast sports applied to their digital pastime. For those unfamiliar with the game – namely this intrepid reporter – it was an eye-opening experience, a window into an avenue both hopeful and problematic for the future of eSports.
It’s worth clarifying that, when it comes to any broadcast sports, I’m quite possibly the worst spectator. That Mitchell and Webb sketch about the endless cycle of football, pointless in the grand scheme of the world, applies to almost any sport in my mind. What’s the point of it all? Someone will win next year and the year after that and after that again… Only the most historically significant moments provide any lure to my dwindling concentration – Murray winning Wimbledon a good example – but this is more likely a method of surviving the inevitable discussions that follow.
This same apathy resurfaced when confronted by five thousand League of Legends fans filling the Wembley Arena, there to see top-tier teams like Fnatic, Millennium and Alliance. These teams meant little to me – even more so when the pro-athletes turned out to be the expectedly fresh-faced, slightly gawky looking teenagers you’d expect. The juxtaposition of their chosen monikers – Cyanide, CandyPanda, the eye-rolling Supa Hot Crew – at times crossed the boundary into parody and yet to attendees these chaps were celebrities. There were banners, autographs were requested and the only thing apparently missing was branded merchandise (although there were in-game items linked to teams that could be purchased online).
As an outside observer who comfortably associates themselves with being part of the gaming scene it initially felt alienating. Not knowing the game didn’t help. Those familiar with the uber-popular free-to-play League of Legends will have a good understanding of its innate strategy. Two teams, comprising a set of champions selected from a huge roster, attempt to destroy their opponents’ nexus – essentially a good ol’ fashioned base rush. At such a professional level every detail matters, proceedings complicated with the addition of a sporadically spawning dragon and ‘Baron’ (a giant worm with substantial health). Defeating these blesses the team with buffs and gold, vital to a win. This is the game boiled down to its base elements – there are layers upon layers of tactics and gameplay nuances, all of which makes watching a first match a tad bemusing.
Nevertheless, when surrounded by hordes of enraptured fans, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the general flow of a game. This was no silent crowd – as loud as supporters at a football match chants broke out and cheers erupted, punctuated by ‘FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!’ whenever teams came close to clashing. Despite my initial cynicism it was thrilling and the more I watched the more each team’s strategy began to reveal itself. Without familiarity I was also clueless as to which teams and players were the favourites, although there were definitely teams less than welcome on UK turf by dint of being French or something.
Despite only six matches fought, the event lasted for the better part of seven hours, all livestreamed via Twitch with commentators (‘casters’) present in the Arena. Yet for all the onscreen spectacle I couldn’t help but watch the crowd. Things were immediately identifiable – predominantly male, the audience adhered in many ways to the ‘gamer’ stereotype. Underneath the rowdiness, individual members were generally gentle-natured. There was little of the alcohol-exacerbated, boorish rivalry you’d expect at a sports event. Unfortunately a wearying strain of sexism apparently still exerted a strong grip – as soon as the attractive female presenter appeared on stage there were wolf-whistles and deafening applause, doing nothing to dispel the negative treatment of women as little but eye-candy. The lack of women within the teams disappointingly didn’t help paint League of Legends as particularly inclusive. There were women in the audience, yes, but eSports could well position itself as a more openly inclusive alternative to the segregated sporting tournaments that dominate terrestrial stations.
Also surprising was the ease with which the players managed to blend into the crowd once their matches ended. When wearing their sponsored hoodies they were semi-recognisable but without their Cyberpower branding they merged right into the assembled fans. This is celebrity still based on skill – on the mouse-clicks and key-commands of each match, not the personalities of the team members themselves.
Is eSports the future of entertainment? Potentially. The MOBA genre is perfectly suited for spectators, what with the infinite strategies on offer. What perhaps needs to be dialed down are the histrionics. Still, after seeing the horrendous behavior to be found in Call of Duty tournaments, the League of Legends Championship Series looks like a bastion of gentility and respect, at least between opposing teams. There wasn’t any trash-talk, players shook hands after each match and, barring some occasional swearing in the inter-team communication, the whole event was largely family-friendly.
eSports have finally reached our shores and they left an indelible message to critics of gaming. Despite some hard-to-shake stereotypes and some (probably to-be-expected) juvenile attitudes, it was a surprisingly enjoyable affair. Had I been familiar with the game the excitement would have been heightened, yet I still felt like I was part of something. Maybe not the fervent supporters of Riot Games’ global phenomenon, but at least a part of gaming history – the arrival of eSports as a viable sensation in the UK. Onwards and upwards, onwards and upwards.