Mentioned in this article
I decided almost immediately that I would return to the Intel Extreme Masters Katowice as long as I was able. The tournament’s fervent festival atmosphere and the tenacity of the local Polish crowd is still unmatched by other esports events I’ve been to several times larger. I and thousands of fans travel every year for the thunderous roar of the Spodek, but unfortunately this year, no one heard it.
As world markets are recoiling in panic from fear of the novel coronavirus, the Polish Governor of Silesia closed the Spodek to fans just hours before its doors opened. It is the first game-related event outside of Asia to be affected by the outbreak, with GDC following shortly after, and several others undoubtedly to follow. The tournament itself was played out to the bitter end, with both the caliber of competition and audience reception barely affected.
Esports press are fans too, and we’re pretty privileged to be able to get behind the scenes of a live event and meet the players and talent we admire. In 2019 I was actually able to present on the IEM stage as part of the Global Esports Forum. With only media and few select personnel able to enter the Spodek this time around, it was an all-new, bitter-sweet experience.
On my way to the arena on Friday, there were 20 or so people marching the other way, chanting something wildly in Polish. I can only assume they didn’t hear the news the night before and arrived at closed doors. Entry for media was straightforward; the only change from previous years was a mandatory temperature check, and hand sanitizer dispensers dotted all around the venue.
I expected to be kept out of the main arena, but press and photographers were allowed to walk in and out as necessary. Polish production company ARAM is responsible for all of ESL’s biggest stages, and their setup for Katowice features years upon years of reinvention. Despite not having much of an audience, the show was staged as normal, with the LED, pyrotechnic, and even commercial partners all brandished to a dozen or so onlookers.
ESL press staff urged us to limit photos of the vacant stands, a surreal thing to be asked for an event that never fails to fill. I’ve been to more than one esports event which barred photographers entirely, or even cracked down on images appearing on social media, to hide the fact they didn’t draw the big crowds they were hoping for. This time, the circumstances are out of everyone’s hands, something even the more combative reporters respected.
The lack of audience cheering in the arena doesn’t seem to have deterred those at home. ESL staff confirmed that streaming numbers during the surprise finals between Natus Vincere and G2 Esports were the best for any non-Major Counter-Strike competition in history. [Majors are twice-annual tournaments sanctioned by the game’s publisher, Valve.]
While not all teams are giving one-on-one interviews, they are still answering questions in periodic press conferences. “Katowice is one of the absolute best tournaments in the calendar year,” Fnatic’s coach Andreas “Samuelsson” Samuelsson told me. “We understand the decision, but of course we are very disappointed.
“All the players will remember this, for sure. It’s the first time they’ve had a big arena that’s supposed to be full, but still they managed to prepare very well mentally. We did the best with it.”
Some competitors jetted out the day after they were eliminated from the tournament, but most maintained good spirits. During press conferences there was the occasional question about the virus, the lack of fans. Otherwise it was business as usual. “Do you think the Krieg 552 rifle is overpowered?” “When will you start bootcamping for the Brazil Major?”
The media room itself, usually a humid and deafening environment, is quiet and sparsely populated. Few places outside here and the main arena can be explored without escort, and just like the cosplayers and flash mobs, there are no food trucks or stalls to speak of.
In fact, only one merchandise stall remains open this year. While stocks would usually be depleted by lunchtime, there’s plenty of jerseys and pins to go round. In an ordinary year, the 11,500 capacity Spodek fills a giant expo space with dozens of vendors from gaming and (increasingly) mainstream brands. This spills out onto the city streets, with entire sides of buildings using local esports heroes to promote local brands.
The arena atmosphere (or lack thereof) could be described as eerily intimate. What stood out immediately is, after a tense round of Counter-Strike, the loudest noise I could hear was the players shouting wildly either in triumph or frustration—something you usually only catch snippets of during the studio-broadcast group stages.
There’s a tragic irony in the lack of audience reaction. Going into the tournament, ESL VP of Pro gaming Michal Blicharz said if crowds proved to be too noisy during a decisive moment (a big problem for a tactical shooter game, which cropped up during last year’s Pro League finals) then their ability to see the action would be restricted.
This time the in-game gunshots, grenades, and sound effects are the loudest noises in the room, accompanied only by the voices of the casters doing their best despite the circumstances.
I sat down to watch a few games with Wu Li, a fellow journalist. We met at Katowice a year ago, and I’ve come to appreciate both his insights on the Chinese esports market and his genuine enthusiasm for Counter-Strike. His cheers are often the loudest in the arena, undeniably so this time. I wasn’t sure whether to join in or discourage him. Should I be trying to fill the void with applause, or would it just be spit on the fire?
Wu Li has told me how multiple cities in China have tried to copy the “Katowice model,” and replace their own defunct economies with one built around esports. The industry may reliably reach a young audience, but it’s ultimately still in its infancy. Consequently, these cities and their dilapidated, dedicated esports venues are even more ghostly now than the current empty halls of the Spodek, and they don’t have a global pandemic to blame, just poor local and regional transport, and too few local attendees.
Despite its legacy, several esports pundits have argued that IEM Katowice has outgrown its humble beginnings; that the local government support doesn’t outdo the obscurity of this former mining city, its lack of an international airport, and limited nightlife options. I maintain that Katowice is worth keeping precisely because of its location. It is an esports event for esports fans.
The mostly Australian Counter-Strike roster of 100 Thieves has been playing IEM Katowice since 2014. Manager Chris “GoMeZ” Orfanellis told me that his team feels comfortable in the city, and now know where all the restaurants are and what hotels will provide them. “Just to make the playoffs in the way we did and not have a crowd, it’s just sad.”
He added that for the now his team isn’t altering their plans for other tournaments in the year. “We have invites to tournaments, we have bookings, we’re going. If it gets canceled by the organizer or the city, it’s out of our control. We’ll get on the plane if the tournament’s still happening, and if it’s not, I guess we just don’t get on.”
Even the arduous route to Katowice (which for myself, from Berlin, is either two planes and a bus ride, or a seven hour train journey) acts as a test of commitment, weeding out outsiders looking to enrich the space from those who just want to board the esports bandwagon.
IEM Katowice’s seemingly last-minute public closure is actually a strong sign of how the line of communication between competitive gaming and government is growing. It should be noted that a FIFA competition at Poland’s Silesian Stadium was also closed to the public last weekend. Elsewhere in the European continent, Switzerland has banned all “public and private” events involving more than 1,000 people, a six nations rugby match in Dublin next week is postponed, and the final two stages of the cycling UAE Tour were canceled after two cyclists were taken ill.
We find ourselves in historic times, but it’s just one blip in IEM’s historic legacy. Walking through the Spodek to the IEM stage, you’ll always pass through a hallway lined with posters of past champions not just in Counter-Strike, but StarCraft II and League of Legends as well. However unfortunate the situation in 2020 was, years from now a fan will look at a photo of the trophy lift, and probably won’t think about who was there (or not) to see it.
Credit: Source link