A woman watches the quarterfinals at the Intel Extreme Masters in Sydney.

Counter struck: A diary of the Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Sydney

Half sports tournament, half trade show, all technology, all vaguely foreign to him. This is gaming editor’s Sam Brooks’ diary of the Intel Extreme Masters tournament in Sydney.

If you don’t need to be convinced that eSports are a thing, skip down to Day One. If you need to be convinced, read on.

The Intel Extreme Masters tournament is a three-day tournament where globally ranked teams play Counter Strike: Global Offensive in a stadium. Sydney’s Qudos Bank Arena is built to seat 7000, but for the tournament it’d been cut down to make room for the trade show stuff (similar to when I saw Duffy at Spark Arena a few years ago and they brought the stage so far forward we more or less all had front row seats).

It’s a big deal in the eSports world – think the Sydney Open, but for competitive video games. I was on the ground for three fish-out-of-water-in-the-desert days at the tournament. This is my diary.

Katy Perry, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, P!nk.

Day One

I go into this trip with a healthy amount of trepidation and raised-eyebrow cynicism. Other than a frantic crash course in the mechanics of Counter Strike: Global Offensive and a brief primer from my best friend, I know very little about the world of eSports. I know that it exists. I know that I will never be good enough at any of the games that people play in this arena (Counter Strike, Starcraft, League of Legends) to compete, and that it can be draining to watch.

On the first morning I – along with assorted media people, a miasma of journalists (some with extensive tech experience, some with extensive gaming experience, some with both) and web-streamers – wander from our performatively fancy hotel to the Quodos Bank Arena. Banners proudly display who is to perform there soon: P!nk, Katy Perry, Niall Horan.

When we arrive at the stadium, it’s strangely quiet. It’s just the journos, the streamers, and the people setting up their various tech booths. Some feature high-tech gaming set-ups that are beyond me, a human who can barely even keep his laptop screen clean, and others tout competitions to build a PC in an hour to get half off the price. One of these catches my eye. It’s fronted by Ethan Cooper, who has built an artistic Far Cry 5 mod and brought it all the way to the conference. (I interviewed him on the third day, stay tuned for that article soon.)

The lovely Ethan Cooper from Technology ad Gaming.

It’s a little like stepping into the future – or at least a 90s Star Trek version of it. There are cold-yet-bright colours, everybody is dressed in uniforms so blue they may as well be hi-vis and running around to get things ready. And right now it all feels distressingly empty.

As we walk back to the hotel for the first eSports roundtable, where we will learn about the present and the future of eSports and how it ties into exciting brand partnership opportunities, we walk past a large group of ticket holders waiting to be let in. I observe: Mostly male, mostly young, mostly white.

Ozzy. Ozzy. Ozzy. Oy. Oy. Oy.

It will not be the last time I make that observation.

As we walk far away, I hear them yelling “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi.”

*

Not pictured: Hormones, puberty, women.

I haven’t been to many live sports since I left my all-boys high school, where we would occassionally be asked to leave class to go and watch the first XV play – something that seems insane to me now. I went to a cricket match earlier this year, and found it a beautifully purgatorial experience – it felt like socialising in any bar but with less comfortable seating and even less understanding of what was going on. This is what watching sport means to me: it’s like watching a play but you’re allowed to talk and shout at people you don’t like.

And make no mistake, what is happening at the Intel Extreme Masters is sport. This is a sport. You might scoff at it, and that’s okay. This sport will outlive you and your generation. It will outlive me and my generation, and the one after mine. It doesn’t care if you think it’s legit; that’s a conversation that this sport has outstripped with its huge audiences, easy access and immense cashflow. It doesn’t need you. Diminish, and return to the west, non-believer.

When I sit down in the arena, and wait (and wait and wait), I realise this is going to be more like cricket than rugyby: There’s a lot of sitting around and waiting for things to happen. Every now and then the hosts come out and banter a bit, make in-jokes that make no sense to me but get the boys (and it is mostly boys) around me laughing. There is the occasional chant of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi” which will haunt my nightmares and an inflated ball being spiked around the arena, like a rabbit put out before the greyhounds.

It takes an hour for things to get going, and by that point I feel like I’m going a bit stir-crazy. I haven’t been around this many boys since high school, and it’s triggering to hear the meaningless kind of small talk than young men are fond of. I look over the shoulder of the one sitting in front of me, and he is snapchatting a friend with the screenname Fuck Marko. “Expected it just to be nerds here,” he writes, “but there’s lots of fit chicks here weirdly lol”. Hell is empty, and it has sent its demons to sit directly in front of me.

Then! The lights go down, which I’m used to signalling the start of a play. There are pyrotechnics. There are lights, too many flashing lights, and I darkly realise this set-up probably cost more than any New Zealand theatre production I’ve ever seen. Two screens the size of your entire living room start a minute-long countdown, while generic Film Trailer Orchestra™ music plays – the kind of music that’s designed to get a crowd non-specifically amped up for whatever is to come.

The team comes out to much fanfare and ostentatious lighting, and I realise this isn’t cricket, this is basically pro-wrestling. These guys are rockstars in this arena. I imagine this is what it would be like for me if I saw Imelda Staunton do Gypsy on the West End. (You can watch it right here, if you are so inclined. Trust me, it’s worth the click.)

The game starts. At this point, it’s easier to link directly to the match than to describe it. The fanfare goes from being deafening to being completely quiet and I immediately understand that this is just like watching cricket. You don’t have to pay a lot of attention, each match is less than two minutes each, a round is a best-of-thirty deal, and there are three rounds. The commentary is fast-paced, and you get used to the lingo surprisingly quickly. I now know what pop-flashes are, what an eco round is, and what a pistol round is. This information will likely never leave my brain.

It’s a fun as hell sport to watch – there’s an undeniable thrill about watching a team snatch victory from the hands of defeat with two seconds left on the clock. But about an hour in, I decide that now would be a good time to visit the rest of the arena. And as I walk up the stairs to exit the arena, I see the dark side of all of this staring me right in the face.

There are rows and rows of young men, sitting with other young men who look, think and act like them, who perpetuate their own ideas. They’re in sports shirts, they’re eating the surprisingly decent pizza they sell at the stadium, and they’re making inside jokes that the people around them get. (Do you know what shoeing is? It’s where you drink beer from a shoe. It’s not an eSports thing, it’s an Australian sports thing.)

This event caters to a very specific brand of adolescent masculinity that needs to feel both superior and safe. It needs to have winners and losers, it needs to have someone to laugh at, some system to make fun of. The entire event, and maybe the entire sport is arranged around this. The hosts play up and flopsweat to give these puberty-breaching boys a laugh, to keep them docile and entertained until the games are actually ready to begin. The fans are like Romans waiting for the gladiators to come out, but instead of suntanned and robe-wearing, they’re pale and wearing team t-shirts. They want blood, they want satisfaction. It’s like any sport, really, for better and for worse.

It’s like looking at a bunch of peacocks, tails flushed to make themselves look bigger and better than they actually are – to look like predators, to look desirable, to not look like victims.

One generation watches the next, and the next.

I walk out of the arena stage, and see a kindly woman in her sixties watching the game from a corridor. I wonder what she thinks of all this. She’s someone who lived through Vietnam, Y2K, Network losing the Oscar to Rocky – what on earth does she think of Counter Strike: Global Offensive? And then I realise how few women I’ve seen around – and that the vast majority of those who are actually working on the event – as PR people, handlers, security, or ushers, like this woman.

Day Two

This morning the assorted media have the chance to try out some of the VR equipment Intel have on offer. Despite being someone who plays and writes about games for a living, I’ve never experienced VR. This could be because I saw David Cronenberg’s bizarre-yet-excellent eXistenZ as a child, and so don’t trust the idea of handing all my senses over to a machine. There’s also the fairly high barriers to access, and how much it costs to set up an effective VR experience, and when all is said and done I’d just rather play Final Fantasy VII for the billionth time.

The first one I try out is Sprint Vector (which, should you be a lucky person with VR, you can buy on Steam right here). I put the headgear on and, you know, it’s exactly what you expect VR to be. There is nothing but the screen. You turn your head, more screen. You raise your hand, and a virtual hand comes up in your view. You step, not literally but virtually, into another world and the rest of the world is not there. I raise my hands, hold the triggers down, bring my hands down and release the tirggers. It’s a calming motion, but the in-game version of me doesn’t sprint very fast, and about a minute in I am sweating and tired.

I realise that one of the best parts of VR is that you don’t get to see people watch you, and that most VR experiences are in the comfort of your own home, where you can make mistakes and be a general dick without anyone else ever knowing. Because despite very clear instructions, I play the game like I’m skiing rather than sprinting. Two hands up, two hands down. I watch someone else play the game with an almost violent jealousy, because she manages to play it properly, and I move onto the virtual driving game. I fare better at this, despite being someone who has a learner’s licence set to expire in June of this year, and get mild applause from the other media for not crashing on the first corner. A God am I, etc etc.

Yes, this is what VR looks like. It takes real bravery to do it in public.

VR is a disorienting experience, and a lonely one, but I can’t help but feel it’s the next frontier for gaming. I remember when graphics got photorealistic, when characters stopped just being characters and became closer to representation of humans – and the uncanny valley which that created. (Think early PS2 games, which were aiming for a photorealism that graphics engines could absolutely not provide.)

(I interviewed Intel’s Head of VR about this – coming soon – and spoiler alert: it’s not terrifying. It’s actually kind of cool, and it has scope outside of gaming. Whoddathunk.)

When our travel around the Intel experience area ends, I realise that just standing outside the door, with their faces almost literally pressed up against the glass, are the attendees of today’s matches.

Not terrifying at all.

I skip out on watching the semi-finals for the tournament in the actual arena, and decide to walk around the floor and get more a sense of what people are around. It feels weirdly subversive to be wearing my massive Laura Dern t-shirt and listening to Troye Sivan’s newly released ‘Bloom’ – a massive pop song that is literally about the joys of bottoming – knowing that I blend into this environment, at least to some extent.

After a few minutes I make myself at home in the media room with the other Australasian-accented humans and watch the semi-final stream of Counter Strike: Global Offensive, feeling strangely perverse and blissfully safe: even though I’m just a two minute walk away from an even more amped up version of yesterday’s insanity, it’s a lot easier to watch the action here.

Day Three

It’s the light at the end of the tunnel: Today is the day I’m going to go to the ESL Women’s Open, presented by Vodafone. As the name might suggest, it’s the part of the IEM event where the women’s only teams compete. It’s in a space a fraction of a fraction of the size of the main event, and the vibe around it is quieter but more supportive. It’s the equivalent of going to a high school game – people are there to be cheer on their team, not to see blood spilled. They’re also there because maybe this space feels safer. They know that the sort of people coming to the Women’s Open probably aren’t going to be the same as those at the Finals, which are going on inside at the same time.

You have no idea how happy this sight made me.

When it comes to the actual game, I can’t discern any difference between these teams and those playing in the finals about 50 metres away – to an audience that’s exponentially larger. That’s not to say they’re as good as the main stage finalists – FaZe Clan and Astralis – just that to a barely educated observer like me, it’s hard to tell the difference. In theory, there’s an egalitarianism to eSports that makes it unique amongst sports. The barrier to access is low – you just need a computer and a high-speed internet connection – and it doesn’t matter what gender, race, class or anything else you are. The only thing that matters is how good you are at the game.

The guys playing in the main arena are rockstars – even better, they’re sports stars. They walk into an arena with thousands of people cheering for them, and hundreds of thousands (if not millions) watching them at home. Even ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been the case. These guys don’t look like the stereotype you have of athletes – they look like the guys in your office. There’s a certain upside-down Alice in Wonderland kind of beauty to that: the first shall be last, the last shall be first. But also… they look like the guys in your office.

There wasn’t a single woman playing Counter Strike: Global Offensive on the main stage. Dozens of players. Not one single woman. Let that fact sit with you for a bit. Dozens of players on stage, not one barrier to entry, in theory, and yet all the competitors are men. Egalitarianism works in theory, but when the end result looks the same as if you excluded whole groups of people then what’s the point? (There’s a very good conversation about this issue over at Kotaku if you want the opinions and expertise of both two women and two people more familiar with this world than I am.)

There’s progress being made, and watching the ESL’s Woman’s Open – a sub-section of the tournament held on a community stage – made me more at peace and gave me more hope than watching the main stage arena tournament two days earlier.

There was a sense of community there. There was warmth, there was a sense of fun, and there was no toxicity. It was people cheering on a game (a game that’s supposed to be fun, video games can be fun and sport and art now, you guys) and coming together as a slipshod community, brought together only through their love of this game – a game where people shoot each other to death over and over again.

When a woman heckled, “Fucking kill him!” I was filled with joy. I can’t wait until there’s an arena full of people of all genders, sexualities, classes and races screaming out for players from every walk of life to kill each other in a virtual arena.

So when I walked away from the arena – after three fairly overwhelming days – I didn’t leave feeling entirely negative towards eSports. I actually felt quite helpful. This sport is huge already, and there’s room for it to grow in ways that make it truly inclusive and truly welcoming for everybody, and that’s what I’m excited for.


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