Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.
This column usually focuses on Dota 2 exclusively but today I'm looking at the experience of going to live eSports events so it'll dip into League of Legends territory. I'm not sorry!
Over the last year or two I've been to a lot of live eSports events. It started with The International 3, the 2013 iteration of Valve's annual Dota tournament. It was one of my favourite gaming experiences of all time, I think. It took place in the moderately sized Benaroya Hall in Seattle, whose main auditorium seats 2,500 people, and I'd say the non-arena setting was great in terms of the atmosphere it generated – large enough to accommodate a decent crowd, good acoustics so cheers and shouts didn't seem to get lost and it was easy to navigate.
Of course, the tournament itself played a large part in that enjoyment too, particularly the knife-edge grand final between Na'Vi and Alliance. That was some fantastic Dota and, played out in that particular space, one of the most exhilarating evenings I've ever had.
There have been other tournaments since which have offered up some great matches. For instance, I'd put Alliance v Cloud 9 at ESL One Frankfurt in the same league as the TI3 final – game 2 in particular. But the thing is, the setting was different and thus the mood was altered.
ESL One Frankfurt took over the Commerzbank Arena for a weekend at the end of June in 2014. I had access to players and commentators (kind of crucial to the work I was there to do), a great view of the stage, was surrounded by enthusiastic fans (one of whom accidentally sat on my head) and knew far more about the pro scene this time around.
But Commerzbank Arena and Benaroya Hall are very different experiences. Commerzbank is huge. It has a concert capacity of about 44,000 people and some zones of seating weren't being used. It wasn't like going to a packed football match or sold-out concert. From my own experience the atmosphere was less close and the crowd, less prone to getting caught up in the emotion. That didn't stop the games from being exciting but the spectators appeared less closely aligned with the action taking place.
Interestingly, though, I'd say the atmosphere grew livelier and more prone to emotion as the sun set and into the night. Perhaps it was because more was riding on the games – not least because they were threatening to last past the time an audience was allowed to be in the arena – but I'd also suggest there's a contributing factor in the form of the lost daylight.
In the day, I find it harder to see the screens and therefore harder to follow the action. As night falls the artificial lights in the stadium and the gigantic screens up front come into their own. Their colours are vibrant, the action is clear. You can also use lighting to draw attention to parts of the stage or to create spectacle where it's invisible in the daytime.
I noticed a similar effect at Worlds for League of Legends. The finals took place at the World Cup stadium in Seoul, South Korea – an open-topped gargantuan arena. The event kicked off with a bombastic performance from Imagine Dragons. Pyrotechnics, dancers banging massive drums, that kind of thing. It was a great performance to kick off the event but I'd say there was generally more faffing about in the audience while it was daylight.
At night, the stadium stage was lit up in the opposing team colours of red and blue, spotlights shone and suddenly the massive screens popped with colour and action. It drew the attention and had the attitude of sustained spectacle. Obviously, as time progressed the crowd was increasingly desirous of seeing a victor emerge, too, but I believe the aesthetic changes helped build that sense of atmosphere.
My favourite live League of Legends event was actually the All-Star in Paris earlier this year. It took place in an indoor arena – Le Zénith de Paris – which has a capacity of about 6,000. The audio translation system was broken so I couldn't follow the commentary easily and was going back and forth between the main auditorium and the press area (where I was streaming the English language commentary). Outside it was bright and quiet, inside it was dark and joyously raucous. Even in the press area, just outside the main space, you could feel the crowd's enthusiasm and be exhilarated by it. The vibration of feet stamping in unison, chants being taken up and recirculated, reactions to picks and counter-picks…
All-Star is a different kind of tournament to Worlds. Worlds is the culmination of a year of work. It's about proving you're the best on the planet. All-Star is more about fan service and includes a few novelty matches as well as international face-offs. As such, that affects the relationship between crowd and player. But I think the smaller size of arena, the enclosed space, and the ability to curate light in the darkness all play a big part in easily generating that wonderful infectious crowd energy. I noticed it again – albeit slightly less potently – when LoL held a live weekend for the LCS in Wembley earlier this year. Dark space, moderately sized crowd, massive enthusiasm.
This year's Dota 2 International was kind of a cross between Worlds and Wembley. The setting was KeyArena, an enclosed space capable of holding 17,000. It felt enormous but not overwhelmingly so, and the enclosed nature helped control the general mood and guide audience attention. The final matches were very different to the previous year's though – anticlimax was a word I heard a fair bit. There's obviously no way to prove this, but I wondered at the time whether a smaller venue would have alleviated a little of that feeling simply through generating a slightly more intimate-seeming relationship between members of the crowd and the action taking place on the stage.
For me, my ideal event in terms of that buzz, seems to be something with a capacity of several thousand rather than tens of thousands. I like the dark because I like the way you can curate the experience people have within that, and it has the advantage of making the giant screens more legible. I don't know that that's a common experience, but I'm sharing it in the hope that you'll share something back. Please tell me about the best live gaming experience you've ever had.