"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.
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.
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" 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.
* * *
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.
Alex "Guitarcheese" Tarkoff, a skinny, 19-year-old, Aliso Viejo resident, was one of them. "I didn't play until 7:15," he says, five hours after his scheduled game time. "I wasn't at all warmed up anymore."
Luckily for Tarkoff, he's one of the best StarCraft II players in the United States. He easily blows by his first opponent, winning two games to zero (competitive StarCraft II matches are regularly played in best-of-three or best-of-five series that last about half an hour, with players gathering resources and building armies to vanquish their enemies). He does the same to the next, then runs into a Korean player who flew to Anaheim specifically for the tournament. Tarkoff loses two close games and drops to the lower bracket, where he will beat two more players before hitting another Korean, who knocks him out. Tarkoff finishes the tournament 29th out of 268, the highest finish for an American open-bracket player.
Despite his talent and promising finish, Tarkoff doesn't harbor any dreams of going full-time. He plays for hours every week and has won $3,000 in prize money and salary in the year and a half he has played competitively, but Tarkoff works full-time and is preparing to transfer out of Irvine Valley College. "I'm not playing to be a professional," he says. "I'm playing because I have time to play and I happen to be doing okay at it. I'm passionate about it, but I also understand I have to focus on real life. . . . I wanted to be really good because it's the competitive aspect that got me going, but I never looked at it like I was going to do this as a job. It's not financially secure to do that."
Less pragmatic players chase the siren song, but even getting to the skill level necessary to go professional is difficult in North America. The goal is signing with a team, and talent scouts scour MLG Anaheim during the weekend, popping into games and taking notes. Even if a player does sign to a team, life doesn't get any easier. In the best cases, a team will offer a house in which players can live, eat and practice at no charge. Some players are also afforded a small stipend and can make money by winning tournaments and through ad impressions. As with most professional sports, only the biggest stars make big money.
"I got picked up by My Intent [Tarkoff's first team] because they were recruiting and I asked to try out," Tarkoff says. "They have you play their players to see how you fare, to see if you'll be valuable to have on their team.
"Nowadays, I have enough relevance that they already know who I am," he continues. "My most current team, Solaris, contacted me right off the bat with an offer. I made WCS Challenger [a large tournament organized by Blizzard] with a 10-0 map score. I didn't drop a game to anyone on my way up. . . . I was contacted shortly after that."
By the time Tarkoff leaves MLG Anaheim on the first day, it's 1 a.m. Thousands of spectators have already filtered out, the room echoing any loud, percussive noise inside it. In the open-bracket area, a handful of players are still finishing games, attracting the remaining 50 or 60 kids mulling around, waiting for friends.
* * *
Day two of MLG Anaheim starts slowly. Players and their support staff arrive early in the morning (comparatively early; the first matches start at 11), but spectators filter in later, many not arriving until the afternoon. Fans of Call of Duty, a first-person shooter produced by Electronic Arts, are energetic and arrive first, but many of the StarCraft fans are still tired from the late night before.
At MLG Anaheim, the collapse of the convention center's Internet affected less than one-third of the event's attendees; StarCraft II is the only game that requires an active Internet connection. MLG's other main draw, Call of Duty, plays completely fine offline. It also attracts more people: On the convention center floor, the Call of Duty stage demanded roughly the same amount of chairs as StarCraft II, but also featured bleacher seating erected just for the weekend. The middle stage featured representatives from the fighting-game community: Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Melee, Injustice: Gods Among Us and Microsoft's Killer Instinct.
The tournament completely transforms the center, a building better-suited to host regional volleyball tournaments, trade shows and faith healings. For MLG, the sprawling complex turns into something resembling Zion during the rave scene in the second Matrix film: low lighting, thumping dance music, crane-mounted cameras that arc over the spectacle. Thousands of teenagers and twentysomethings crowd around three separate stages or meander through the main hall, where they can look over merchandise, get autographs, play games, or listen to vaguely hip-lookingyoungish adults talk about the negatives of tobacco (TheTruth, an anti-tobacco nonprofit, is one of the event's most visible vendors, and its staff is the pushiest). On two of the event's three days, a Darth Vader and Princess Leia wandered the floor—they weren't fans, but rather actors hired to help sell headsets.
In the center of it all is two-tiered scaffolding that MLG brings in just for the weekend. On the top floor, professional gamers and shoutcasters (game speak for commentators) participate in role-playing games or livestream so that spectators at home can get to better know their celebrities; below that is a VIP-only bar area, with a complimentary cheese-and-fruit plate.
In the rest of the hall, one-quarter of the floor is roped off for the event's open bracket, the portion of the tournament that's untelevised and anyone can enter. The atmosphere there is calmer than in the rest of the venue. Regular fans aren't allowed behind the rope; the space is reserved for players, their managers and team professionals. It offers a place for those in the industry to schmooze and for rookies to get attention in hopes of signing with a team.
Though eSports fans may appear to the mainstream as a giant group of nerds, attendees fracture into small factions as in any other subculture, split mainly by the games they play and watch. StarCraft fans tend to be the oldest, wealthiest and most reserved, people who enjoy 20-minute-long games and hourlong, chess-like matches. Many of the fans were teenagers or just hitting puberty when StarCraft: Broodwar, StarCraft II's predecessor, was released in 1998. The relative affluence of the players also means it's the game with the biggest prize pots.
In contrast, Call of Duty's followers tend to be younger. Many of them grew up playing first-person shooters on the computer—Counter-Strike and Quake—but more discovered rifles and pistols on home video-game consoles after playing the original Halo in 2001 on the Xbox or Halo 2 in 2004. Their game is much faster-paced: two teams dash around, constantly firing guns and throwing grenades on maps modeled after favelas, airports and war zones. The rounds usually last less than five minutes, and the matches rarely longer than 15.
Then there's the fighting-game community, the group that stands out the most at these events. Featuring titles that have players pick a character to go one-on-one against, players and fans are easily the most diverse, largely working-class Latinos, African-Americans and whites who honed their skills at urban arcades. The energy around their matches is closer to that of a rap battle than either the strategy or first-person-shooter scenes. While Call of Duty and StarCraft opponents sit either across from each other, separated by computers or a table, or in private, soundproof booths, fighting-game matches are played with competitors sitting directly next to each other, with either fight sticks on their laps or a controller in their hands. Spectators stand just a few feet away, yelling and trash-talking and sometimes even placing side bets; the most popular players can count on a posse to follow them around.
The difference in the communities is best illustrated by their most famous shoutcasters, all of whom were working at MLG Anaheim. Call of Duty had Chris "Puckett" Puckett, a 28-year-old white guy with slightly spiky hair who has worked with MLG for longer than a decade. On the first day of the event, he wore a too-big gray suit with heavy shoulder pads, a blue shirt and a patterned tie. StarCraft had Kansas native Sean Plott, whose outfit was more somber, at least above the waist. He wore a white shirt with a plain black tie and a black jacket, but below his desk and out of the view of the cameras were jeans and flipflops. The fighting-game community has Wynton "Prog" Smith, a 27-year-old black man in a perfectly fitted tweed jacket and stark, square-framed glasses.
Smith announces games confidentially, buoyed by years of experience and swagger. While detailing plays, he hypes the audience with ease. His instructional knowledge is an asset, but the best thing about his casting is how effortlessly he energizes his audiences, pushing them to their feet.
"I don't hear the West Coast talking," Smith, who has East Coast roots, says mockingly, as the West Coast-vs.-East Coast battle nears its end, his team losing badly. West Coast fans cheer immediately. "East Coast, you guys are still here?"
The few East Coast fans still paying attention do their best to overwhelm their opponents, launching into a full chant.
On the second day of the tournament, it was the fighting-game fans who dominated the floor. Dozens of attendees gather around an old cathode-ray television, used because it can display fighting-game action with virtually no delay. The crowd is in the tournament's open-bracket area, a space normally off-limits to non-players. No one is wearing a lanyard that would mark him or her as a competitor or coach, but everyone is watching the same thing.
Jeffrey "Axe" Williamson, a charismatic 19-year-old from Arizona dressed in a slightly oversized T-shirt and jeans, the flag of his home state draped across his back, is playing against Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman, a 25-year-old who was at one point in the weekend nearly unbeatable at Super Smash Bros. Melee, a game in which players engage in hand-to-hand combat with different Nintendo characters.
Last night, Axe and Mew2King briefly faced off during an hour-long team match between the East and West coasts. Zimmerman had dismissed Williamson quickly, finishing off the beating that Williamson had just undergone by an earlier opponent.
Now, it's time for a rematch.
"I can't see anything," a young man wearing a red T-shirt emblazoned with "West Coast" tells his friend, momentarily tiptoeing in an attempt to see over the three rows of standing viewers in front of him. He's one of Axe's fans, and last night, he joined in on the "A-Z" chant that pushed Williamson to victory.
They're standing on the outside of the yellow rope that divides the group of viewers in half. To their left, people closer to the action start to mumble: Axe is staging a comeback against Mew2King, one of the projected champions of the tournament. A few minutes before, Axe was down two games in a best-of-five series, but now he's tied it 2-2. They're playing their last game.
"Mew2King looks tilted," someone in the crowd says.
"He looks salty, too," someone replies.
Williamson and Zimmerman's hands fly faster as the game reaches its final moments. The audience grows quieter; everyone is engrossed in the fight.
And then, an explosion: Axe's Pikachu, a character few others use because of his perceived weakness, has landed a killing blow on Mew2King's Sheik, a character from The Legend of Zelda series. The crowd roars as Axe jumps; his combo just made Mew2King's character go through its death throe and fly off the screen.
Everyone's yelling excitedly. The convention center staffer in charge of making sure only players enter the area turns around and is shocked to see such a large group.
"You guys can't be here," she says to no one in particular. She attempts to shoo them away but gives up after five seconds, instead cording off their section.
Mew2King says something to Axe, then storms away from the crowd.
"What'd he say to you?" one of Axe's fans ask him.
Smiling, the adrenalin and endorphins still racing through his veins, Axe replies, but most people can't hear him over the excited crowd. One of his crew, though, has an idea: "I'm pretty sure he said Mew2King felt like he was cheated," he says.
Axe will finish the tournament tied for fifth and take home $1,000. Mew2King will end up placing third after crushing Axe in a second rematch. He wins $2,250.
* * *
MLG events aren't just for players and vendors. They're also a time for the eSports media to gather. The MLG Anaheim media room was full of volunteer staff members and interns from various websites and teams, putting together interviews and updating websites as results roll out.
Kevin Knocke is one of the most successful producers in the business, working directly for Blizzard. A tall, wide man, he manages the company's video teams for two of its major game titles, as well as appears in front of the camera. Just two years ago, Knocke was a graduate student living with his wife in his parents' basement in Saint Louis.
"I started playing StarCraft II in grad school, and I started watching people, too," he says in a clear, loud voice that doesn't really turn down. "I was part of college radio and some drama groups, and I wanted to bring something different to shoutcasting. Watching games became casting games."
Knocke began to put out content, streaming broadcasts of games, and then uploading them to YouTube. Five viewers became 10, then 100. Soon, he was broadcasting to thousands each night, putting in 40 hours per week toward a hobby. "My wife would wonder why I would yell about Mutalisks every night," he added, laughing.
Eventually, Knocke scraped together enough money to travel to MLG Dallas 2011, attending both as a fan and to network. At an early StarCraft II event, players didn't have personal booths and could hear the shoutcasters as they played. The sound was cut from the room, and Knocke spent the games casting for the people around him. Two weeks later, one of those people offered him a full-time job.
"[MLG Dallas] was incredible," he says. "Thousands of people were celebrating at an event that was on the outside of mainstream entertainment. . . . From that moment, I was hooked. I knew I was in the right place."
* * *
The third day of MLG Anaheim begins with more energy than the second. The crowd is even more excited: The qualifying games are over, seeds have been determined, and the championship brackets are finally set. People arrive earlier. By the end of today, MLG Anaheim's champions will be crowned.
The chairs closest to the stage fill hours before the finals. Games move at a quick clip, previous hiccups having been worked out. Each stage now has an extra camera crew and an interviewer ready to speak with whoever comes out on top. Each of the three stages has a corresponding trophy; a heavy acrylic block shaped into the MLG logo: a red, white and blue game controller.
Joseph "Mang0" Marquez is crowned Smash champion, taking the trophy home for the United States. He placed above 320 other players and won $5,000. "I can't even explain how good it feels," he says. "I knew the one thing missing on my résumé was an MLG title. . . . My career feels fulfilled now."
Cho "Trap" Sung Ho takes the StarCraft II championship. To get to Anaheim, he beat 31 of the best Korean players at a qualifier; here, he placed above 267 other players, taking a $15,000 purse. It was his first major win. "To be honest, I'm just so happy," he says through a translator. "This is my first time winning something, being a champion. I'm just extremely happy."
Evil Geniuses, a team based out of the United States, is proclaimed champion of Call of Duty, beating its archrivals Optic in the finals. "We hate losing to Optic . . . so to be able to beat them in a series like that is really satisfying," Tyler "TeePee" Polchow says. "A lot of work went into this tournament, and it paid off."
The event wraps up by 9 p.m. on Sunday, and though the attendees go home, the players and much of the staff involved in running the event head to the unofficial after-party.
But there's a problem: lack of communication. The original location, Fire and Ice at the nearby Anaheim GardenWalk, closes at 10 p.m. People arrive to find a mostly empty restaurant. After multiple texts, calls and tweets, partygoers begin congregating at the Anaheim Hilton's hotel bar. Though not an official after-party, players, corporate staff and fans show up—hundreds in total. The staff there, two bartenders and a barback, is completely unprepared.
The rest of the hotel is eerily quiet. Families heading to bed after a day at Disneyland pass the gamers with confused looks. The soft jazz filling the atrium is soon drowned out by conversation.
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Players in mismatched jerseys embrace. They buy rounds of drinks, waiting for nearly half an hour as the bartenders work their way through all the orders. The drinks are simple: Adiós Mother Fuckers, Long Island ice teas, vodka cranberries.
The few fans who found the after-party wander around starstruck. They spend much of night just gawking at these gaming stars acting like normal people.
By 1:30 a.m., the bar's closing time, many of the attendees have left for home or gone to private parties in the hotel. Many of the players will drink too much and recount the tales of their hangovers on social media the next day. Most will get back on airplanes, some of them heading immediately to other tournaments.
It's not a forever lifestyle, but hey, it works for now.