Three thousand people sit, tightly packed, in a dimly lit hall. All eyes are fixed on the screens hanging from the ceilings. The audience consists mainly of young males, somewhere between 15 and 25. Most of them are holding big, blow-up clubs, as people do when sponsors eagerly hand such tat out.
We're at The Main in Berlin, at a public viewing event for one of the world's biggest eSports finals, taking place only a few kilometers away at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. The game is Riot's immortal MOBA League of Legends, and the competition is the World Championships, the discipline's premiere tournament, a travelling knockout contest that's already called at London and Brussels. Its climax is staged here, in the German capital. And the capital is buzzing.
The prize, the money aside, is the Summoner's Cup, a beast of a trophy that dwarfs most found in "proper" (uh, you know what we mean) sports. Two Korean teams, SK Telecom T1 and the KOO Tigers, have made it to the final. SKT has already won the Worlds once and is considered to be the favourite for the title ahead of play.
"They always win everything," one audience member whispers to his friend. Today, this "everything" could be, in addition to the honour of becoming LoL world champions and a pretty big cup, a million dollars. Such rewards are becoming increasingly common in the world of eSports, but it's no sum to be sniffed at, and only one team can claim it as their own. The audience is pumped, and has been for some time – this Main event sold out in under 24 hours.
Some attendees around us have travelled for over eight hours to be here, across the country, to watch the LoL action unfold in the company of fellow fans. Others have IKEA bags packed with sleeping bags – it turns out that people don't just camp outside Justin Bieber concerts and Apple Stores to get the best place in a line.
You don't have to be a League of Legends expert to understand the fascination. The longer you stare at the screens, with the thousands of others in this hall, the more you get what's going on. It begins to click: why this player just decided on that move, and why nothing seems to happen for minutes. If there's an especially spectacular attack, the whole hall starts screaming and hooting, some of them even jump out of their seats, fists in the air. At points it feels like you're in a football stadium, except you don't know who is rooting for which team. People get excited at about every good action, no matter which team or player carries them out – or, at least, that's how I see it, as a relative outsider to this world.
In stark contrast to the crowd's liveliness are the rigid faces of the professional gamers themselves. Super concentrated, they display no obvious signs of emotion. "Faker is on a killing spree!" is sprawled across the screen in big letters when one of the SKT players lays waste to a particularly large amount of his enemies. But when the camera pans to the player responsible for the action, he doesn't crack even a sniff of a triumphant smile.
I'm impressed. Not only at the level of sportsmanship on show, the concentration and precision of these players, but also on a more human level. It must be insanely exhausting to stay that focused for hours. And that's the other thing: unlike sports like football or basketball, there's no clock running that decides when an eSports contest like those of LoL is over. If the two teams are well matched, effectively cancelling each other out, a single round can last well over an hour. They're playing a best-of-five model for the LoL Worlds final – so whichever team wins three rounds is the victor, and the competition comes to an end there and then. And by the early afternoon, it looks like the match, which only started at midday, might end sooner than expected.
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SKT take the first two rounds. That doesn't kill the positive attitude (or the appetite for hot dogs) in the hall, but the whole thing could be a little bit more exciting. Which it then becomes, as the KOO Tigers take round three in a win that's as masterful as it is surprising, and the hall goes nuts – and I'm all of a sudden entirely emotionally engaged. I have to make a call. Who am I rooting for: the underdog, or the perfectly oiled winning machine? I just don't know. And then I register for the first time that a lot of people have come here today dressed up in ghoulish costumes or sporting bloody make-up. It's Halloween. I almost forgot.
The fourth round goes the way of SKT, who win the championship and the trophy and the money, and the majority of the audience seems to be satisfied. This is the point when tears of rage or despair would be flowing down the players' faces after a football game. Instead, the pro-gamers politely hug each other before the losers leave the stage just in time for it to rain confetti on the winners and their cup. At The Main, many leave the seats they fought so hard to get to rush the stage – an after-party is about to kick off, where community icons and German pro-gamers will discuss the final, and several greats from the YouTube scene get to prove their LoL skills.
It's been great hanging out with these fans. They clap when someone does something good, laugh when someone fucks up, and in the end it doesn't seem to matter which team was better so long as the match was entertaining. The rougher elements amongst supporters of other sporting pursuits could learn something from this kind of fairness and serene sportsmanship.
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