Competitive gaming and eSports have emerged from their pupal shells as a burgeoning industry over the last few years, quickly carving out a space for themselves in the mainstream entertainment media. It’s hard to believe it was only a year ago when America was collectively baffled by Heroes of the Dorm, Heroes of the Storm’s collegiate level competition, debuting on ESPN2. Since that groundbreaking moment, eSports from around the world have progressed by leaps and bounds, with the market now attracting high profile investors like Mark Cuban who are ready to capitalize on the growing potential.
Curious to learn more about the emerging eSports phenomenon, I hopped in my truck and headed for this year’s Heroes of the Dorm finals in Seattle to answer the titular question: what are eSports like live?
Not Your Typical eSports Viewer
I think it’s safe to assume I’m not the eSports market’s target audience. Competitive games are not my preferred type of game, I rarely watch Twitch streams, and up until recently, I haven’t actually followed traditional sports either. I basically avoided every possible hook the industry could have sunk into me, which is why up until last week, I hadn’t even done so much as watch a match stream online.
However, I’ve always found that most forms of entertainment are better in a live environment. Whether you’re at a concert or a sporting event, there’s nothing quite like the human energy that ripples through a crowd enraptured by a performance, or the camaraderie inherently there when thousands of people come together to experience a single shared interest unfolding in real time. It was exactly this kind of experience that engaged me with my local Major League Soccer team (RCTID!). When I saw that the Heroes of the Dorm finals were being held in my neck of the country, I jumped at the chance to answer the question posed earlier: what are eSports like live?
Live at Heroes of the Dorm
I arrived in Seattle the morning of the Heroic 4 semifinals and headed to the event center. I was running a bit later than I had intended to be and found there was already a substantial line built up as excited spectators crowded together in eager anticipation of the event’s commencement.
The crowd was about what you’d expect if you’ve ever been to a convention like PAX before: nerdy, but in a pleasant, sartorially quirky, dyed-hair kind of way; not the bad-personal-hygiene way that used to be the prevalent depiction for the demographic shown in popular media. People were achatter with talk of the game, their experiences playing it, and the competition’s remaining teams. I only saw one person in cosplay, which was a tad disappointing (though perhaps not surprising with Emerald City Comic Con the same day), but Blizzard gear was absolutely everywhere throughout the event.
Entering the main event space, I could tell immediately that the production team at Blizzard had put an enormous amount of work into the event, and it. was. awesome. The Heroes of the Storm soundtrack accompanied my prowl across the floor as I took in the lights, sound, and smoke contributing to building the event’s thrilling atmosphere. It seemed that no expense had been spared here, from the stage-work, to the graphics on the omnipresent monitors, to the surprisingly comfortable seating provided on the event floor.
To the right of the main of the stage, ESPN’s casters were rattling off pregame banter, going over Heroes of the Storm‘s mechanics as well as what spectators could expect from the remaining competitors. Curious, I kept an eye on their teleprompter at various portions of the debate, and was surprised at exactly how much of it was ad-libbed. It’s a credit to each of those personalities that the prompter almost always only gave them a broad topic to talk about rather than the specifics of what to say.
Before the matches began, Heroes of the Storm developers were on-hand signing posters and talking with fans, and a lot of recognizable YouTube and Twitch personalities were in attendance as well.
Never one to miss out on a merchandising opportunity, Blizzard had a shop set up just a few quick paces from the entrance to the stage area. It was stocked with everything you would expect, from Heroes of the Dorm swag to cross-promotional merchandising from Blizzard’s other properties. This included my personal favorite item in the store, a $150 statue featuring you know who‘s butt. It’s a shame it wasn’t in the infamously removed pose.
The Hype Man Cometh
What impressed me most about Blizzard’s production is the number of ways they went about maximizing the crowd’s hype. There was a hype man, of course, who was good at his job if not a bit transparent in the we need to make this look good on TV, please don’t be boring department.
Everyone was equipped with “thunder sticks,” inflatable wands that are much louder than clapping when beat together. If anyone from Blizzard reads this, please make vuvuzelas in eSports a thing next year. I promise that they’re fun and not horribly annoying – really!
Blizzard employees wandered the crowd, handing out swag and prizes to the most animated attendees. There were a lot of signs in the crowd that I noted were made with suspiciously uniform card-stock and markers, and it didn’t take me long to hunt down the sign making booth where materials were provided.
One of the bigger differences between Heroes of the Dorm and a traditional sports event is the lack of a home and away mechanic; while there was a small cadre of traveling supporters to cheer for the finalist schools, the great majority of attendees were simply there because of an interest in the game or eSports in general.
Rather brilliantly, Blizzard engineered partisanship for Heroes of the Dorm with giveaway contests. Before each match, attendees would vote for the team they thought would win, and prize winners would be selected from among the pool correctly predicted votes. The prizes weren’t too shabby, either, as the events corporate sponsors had provided high end computer components and peripherals for giveaways.
No one was more hyped than the man sitting behind me during the finals, who I believe went on to win the Heroes of the Dorm bracket competition by correctly predicting each match outcome between the competition’s 64 teams. In his own words, Blizzard was paying him ten-thousand dollars to be ASU’s biggest fan.
There was a little bit of chanting from the crowd during the finals. It wasn’t anything too special – generally it was just A-S-U or AR-LING-TON -, but it definitely added to the environment and built the crowd up while it was occurring. I have to admit I might be a little bit harder to impress than the average attendee here as a soccer fan, since this is something we’re genuinely good at in a way that other sports aren’t even close to catching up on.
The crowd was at its loudest whenever the players were on the verge of securing a kill. Each death was accompanied by a roar reminiscent of every Roman gladiator-focused film ever made. I held out my thumbs down in a call for death and nobody thought I was funny.
What are eSports like live?
What are eSports like live? Pretty damn fun, that’s what. Though only in its second year running, Blizzard has pulled out all the stops to make sure that Heroes of the Dorm puts eSports in a good light in the mainstream sports media, and from my experiences, they succeeded fairly resoundingly at making the live environment a success, something that was reflected in the television coverage.
Even to someone like me, who spends basically no time at all watching other people play video games, the experience was a blast. Despite knowing nothing about the schools involved or the players beforehand, Blizzard’s clever tools to engage the audience worked, and I was cheering and jeering just as much as the die-hard eSports veterans.
The event was appropriate for all ages. There were some (but not many) children in the audience, with a secluded beer garden for people like me who won’t leave the house without knowing they’re headed towards an adult beverage. I would say that the environment was much more child-friendly than your average sports game, if only because eSports have no need for referees for people to get angry and yell profanities at.
The biggest barrier to attending is that eSports are generally more mechanically complicated and convoluted than their traditional sports cousins, and there’s a greater barrier to enjoyment for a spectator as a result. Fortunately, I do actually play Heroes of the Storm, admittedly in an extremely intermittent and casual way. While I’m no expert, I did have the benefit of being able to follow what was happening on-screen and understanding how different hero compositions fit together within the game’s meta.
At the risk of stating the obvious, anyone interested in attending an eSports event should do their best to familiarize themselves with the game’s mechanics, and there’s no better way than hands-on experience. It might have to be that specific game as well; I’m not sure players of even same genre games like DotA or League of Legends would be able to spectate Heroes of the Storm enjoyably without knowledge of its unique heroes, map mechanics, and team composition meta.
If you’ve got that requisite knowledge, you may want to consider attending an event in your area. As eSports are still a growing industry, these events are cheap, if not completely free, so there will never be a better time to give them a shot. If you have any interest at all, peel yourself away from your battlestation, put on your best nerd swag, and head out into the great RL for a damn good time.Related: Blizzard Entertainment, eSports, Heroes of the Dorm, Heroes of the Storm