MLG Anaheim: This eSporting Life

Internet outages, trash-talking and dreaming at one of the largest videogame tournaments on Earth

MLG Anaheim: This eSporting Life
Illustration: Cameron K. Lewis | Design: Dustin Ames

"In the lower left corner, we have the Queen of Blades, Acer Scarlett," announces a man from a stage looming above the hundreds gathered in the main hall of the Anaheim Convention Center, his voice rising with each word.

In South Korea, the biggest professional gamers command as much star power as traditional athletes; in Sweden, tournaments attract more than 20,000 players. In the United States, millions of dollars in prize money is awarded each year.

The crowd cheers loudly, jumping from their flimsy plastic chairs to thrust their fists toward the sky on this Friday afternoon. On a massive screen before them, they're about to watch the Queen face off against her opponent in StarCraft II, the wildly popular strategy game by Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment that pits players against each other for the future of civilization.

A camera pans so that the screen now shows the other side of Overgrowth, a map based on the jungles of StarCraft II's world. "And in the top right corner, we have the red Terran, our reigning champion, Polt," says another man, his voice booming over the speakers that surround the viewers.

You can almost smell it from here
Enrique Espinoza/MLG
You can almost smell it from here
Cameron K. Lewis

More screams.

Wearing suits, ties and large headsets, the two announcers sit next to the giant display, their faces lit not by the dim overhead lights, but by the glow of monitors embedded in the table before them. The man on the left clicks a button that initiates a countdown. A soft beep marks each second.

Behind announcers Sean "Day[9]" Plott and Kevin "RotterdaM" van der Kooi, the screen—until this point broadcasting a redundant feed of the desk—cuts to the two competitors, sitting in soundproofed, private booths flanking the stage. In one is 25-year-old Choi "Polt" Seong Hun, a Korean graduate student from the University of Texas at Austin. In the other is 20-year-old Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn, a transgender woman and one of the best non-Koreans to play the game. Though looking tired, the fan favorites stare intently at monitors, ready to wage war. Just days earlier, the two had faced off in a tournament in Santa Monica, where Scarlett easily beat Polt, 6 games to 1.

The energy is rising—5, 4, 3, 2—the crowd starts throwing themselves into a fervor. But there's a problem: The Internet connection is failing.

It's a small thing, a half-second hiccup in time every four or five seconds, but everyone notices. It's annoying and repetitive, and it won't stop; at this level of competition, it makes the game completely unplayable.

All the positive energy in the room quickly deflates. Polt and Scarlett try to play, as the announcers gamely offer running commentary, but the rumbling in the audience grows. People grumble and murmur. After one or two minutes, the match stops.

Officials claim the Internet connection at the Anaheim Convention Center is lagging under the weight of so many people using it—the price of success. The screen behind Plott and van der Kooi cuts to an announcement: The game will resume at 4 p.m., an hour and a half later than planned. (In an hour and a half, the announcement will be revised to say 4:30 p.m., and when 4:30 comes, the sign will say 5. Games won't actually start until 5:14 p.m.)

But the crowd won't take it. Many people leave their seats to explore the rest of the cavernous hall. The games of MLG Anaheim 2014, one of the largest eSports tournaments in the world, have begun.

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The weekend of June 20 to 22, wasn't the first time Major League Gaming (MLG) had visited Anaheim. The promotion is one of the largest and oldest eSports leagues in the U.S., holding annual tournaments at the convention center since 2011. It's capitalizing on the multibillion-dollar gaming industry, which is growing in respect and money. In South Korea, the biggest professional gamers command as much star power as traditional athletes; in Sweden, tournaments attract more than 20,000 players. In the United States, millions of dollars in prize money is awarded each year. Just a month ago, Robert Morris University in Chicago began to offer an eSports scholarship. The U.S. State Department treats visas for gamers the same way they treat visas for athletes.

In simple terms, MLG is an event producer—it hosts tournaments across the country and on the Internet, attracting thousands of players battling for prize money and qualification for larger purse tournaments, as well as millions of viewers who watch the games online in real time. The games rotate as new titles are released, but at the live events, the main attraction is to see dueling players and teams in the flesh. The tournaments are akin to miniature conventions, bringing together players, fans and vendors. By the end of MLG Anaheim 2014, more than 18,000 attendees will have visited the Convention Center, and more than 2 million will have watched the event online.

And while some players are seeded based on their performance in previous qualifiers, the glut of the competition enters through the tournament's open bracket, mostly amateurs who've spent years perfecting their craft to face off against hundreds of others for a chance at getting into the main tournament—and to live the gaming dream.

MLG Anaheim 2014's doors opened Friday at 11 a.m., three hours before the start of any broadcast matches, so that players could warm up with quickie games and fans could mingle with vendors and fight for seating. But even that early, players knew about MLG's Internet stutters.

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