I went to your not-so-average viewing party last month to find out about the Irish eSports scene.
The Woolshed Baa & Grill on Parnell Street, Dublin is a veritable modern sports bar. The Australian influence is there to see; it doesn’t remotely look or feel like an Irish pub. The downstairs feels somewhat cramped. The steps going upstairs take an almost inordinate amount of space. This cavernous space allows for the giant screen to be seen by punters on all sides. On any given day any one of their many screens could be showing football, rugby, horse racing, aussie rules, golf, american football and even pro wrestling. Indeed, they boldly claim that if it’s a sport, they show it. Even the ones not necessarily considered ‘real’ sports.
Walking by the bar upstairs in the Woolshed, you enter a separate room, often used for private functions, such as viewing parties. This is one such party, but with a difference: they have all gathered here to watch some eSports, otherwise known as competitive video gaming. The game they are watching being played is League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena video game developed and published by Riot Games. Two teams of five face off against each other with the goal smashing one another’s ‘nexus’.
These teams are all competing in the global League of Legends Championship. More specifically, the people here have come to watch the week 8 matches of the spring split in the European division. This is just one of a number of series that takes place around the world, spanning from Europe to North America to Asia. The 2014 World Championship final was held in Seoul, South Korea at Sangam Stadium, perhaps best known for being one of the venues of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. It was a sell-out, with 40,000 spectators bustling in to see the Korean team Samsung Galaxy White defeat Star Horn Royal Club. Their reward for doing so? $1,000,000, or roughly €748,000. Even the last placed team received €18,704 for their efforts. (Just keep that in mind next you tell your child grow up and stop playing video games).
Competitive gaming has been around almost as long as gaming itself, from the days of Pong in the 1970’s. How League of Legends, however, has turned this into not only a commercial success but also a social and quasi-cultural one is mystifying, at least at first. As a viewing sport it’s not the greatest. There are a number of characters of varied sizes, all of whom are moving around doing whatever they need to do to beat their opponent. For a non-player of the game, it’s almost impossible to make out what is going on, so I just go along with the cheers.
At one point a man wearing a pale yellow buttoned-up shirt walks in. Quite evidently, by accident. As far as I can tell, he’s American. Bewildered, he enquires about the action on-screen with the nearest person and he reacts with a disbelieving, elongated “noooooooo”. Probably not the first time that’s happened.
When the first match finishes I have no idea why. The commentators are yelling things like “27 yellow stars” and “awwww snake up!” I’m immediately regretting committing to writing this piece. Ahead of the second match there’s an interview with one of the players, who are all referred to by their usernames. This guy goes by PowerOfEvil and he aptly plays for the Unicorns Of Love. They’re playing FNATIC. I’m able to follow this one a little bit better, and even find myself being dragged into the action. It’s a proper tug of war with victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Searching for a field sports analogy I think of football’s “against the run of play” or the Irish rugby team’s last gasp loss to New Zealand in 2013. Something like that.
The emotions are evident post-match. UOL are jubilant, FNATIC are despondent. The stakes are huge, especially this late in the split. The prize money can be astronomical, while only the top three teams from the EU qualify for the Worlds, where the real money is at. Teams that make it there can attract serious sponsorship, such as the aforementioned Samsung team from South Korea. The marketing potential is massive. All of their gear, such as keyboards, mice, etc., is supplied for them by gaming and software companies. They want a slice of the action too.
The matches are subsequently dissected by pundits who run through play-by-play analysis. In many ways eSports imitates other sports. “It follows the formula of a lot of sports you see on TV”, I’m told by Andy Clucas, who has been put in temporary charge for tonight’s event. The people involved are certainly trying their best to be taken seriously, so I ask Andy does he think they will ever be able to shake off the ‘e’?
Does it matter? Probably not, and Andy himself doesn’t seem too perturbed by that fact. It’s doing well enough off its own steam without the need for mainstream recognition, although coverage from the BBC and Sky News doesn’t hurt. In Ireland the phenomenon has developed into the country’s own gaming championship, the G-Series. Andy tells me RTE are dropping by the next day for Series 4 of the championship. I feel gazumped. This isn’t quite the niche story I originally thought it to be.
If anything, this is a modern day cottage industry that has ballooned in a short space of time. Throughout the G-Series, a two-day event, Andy is selling his own brand of merchandise, as well as commissioned drawings of all sorts of otherworldly gaming references. “I thought I was going to have just a table in the room. Turns out I have an entire hall. I’m going to need some help,” he says. Between himself and his small business partner, Aidan, he says they have easily invested at least a grand over the last three events.
Oisin Molloy walks into the room at some point during the conversation. Resplendent in his official G-Series jacket, he is greeted by everyone who sees him. He talks and talks and talks. Hardly surprising when you find out talking is his occupation; he’s a broadcaster, or ‘caster’, for the G-Series. I try to pull him away from the action to ask him why these events are becoming so popular.
“Well why do people like football so much?” he asks back. “It’s basically a community of people who enjoy the game and enjoy watching it being played to a high standard. And through that community people with common interests can meet each other.”
Oisin points to the person sitting next us. His name is Conor Nolan, a competitive better known as ‘Wolfie’. “This guy lives around the corner from me — I had no clue for years — and now we’re friends with each other through League, all because of that community.”
I come to the conclusion that this is the key behind the success of eSports. The fact that League of Legends is free to play doesn’t hurt either.