I came for exciting video games and celebrity players. I got a personality void and bags of flavored meat.
"I'd stand in front of it when you tweet, otherwise people are just going to grab whatever comes out," an attendant advises me, while I stare at a vending machine which rewards hashtags with bags of meat.
I'm at London's Alexandra Palace, which is in the middle of being commandeered by the combined wallets of Production Company Endemol, Retail Chain GAME, and Processed Meat Supplier Mattessons. I'm at Legends of Gaming, a live event organized to show off seven of the UK's biggest gaming YouTube stars to an audience who've paid £21.99 [$33.85] each for the privilege. It's a One Day Only competitive gaming stage show, pitched with a few star names like Syndicate and Ali-A. It doesn't matter if you've never heard of them. They're doing fine.
Legends of Gaming is aimed at children. I don't wholly learn this until I'm lining up to go inside. I had the suspicion that the crowd would skew young, because it's the weekend before the British school holidays end and the event starts long before you absolutely have to leave the sofa you've stubbornly occupied the night before. But I am soon made certain that the age range of people who'd go to an event where you can see Minecraft YouTubers is the same as people who would have been extras on Byker Grove.
Two lads from Hollyoaks are warming up the crowd. They're the MCs for the duration, appearing at once as if they're genuinely too talented to be here while earning probably the correct amount of money to set those intrusive thoughts aside. Big Names (trust me) Wroetoshaw and Calfreezy take the stage to massive applause. In collective scale, at least: the applause is produced solely from tiny hands.
These guys are independently known for producing videos where they open up packs of digital player cards in FIFA 15. Wroetoshaw's been riding around in a fucking Lamborghini recently. It's a rare video on his YouTube page that has received fewer than 2 million views. His work seems inconsequential, but people are obviously watching this stuff for a reason.
American talk show host Jimmy Kimmel dipped his sack in hot broth last week when he dared to misunderstand the importance of Google's new YouTube Gaming service, a plucky competitor to Twitch's dominance over the streaming video market. Unlike Mr. Kimmel, I'm fully invested in this scene and have only ever dreamed about being completely mismatched in a relationship with Sarah Silverman. YouTube gaming channels are now inescapable, a crucial pillar in the appreciation of video games and no less valid an experience than play. Some people want to see reactions and criticism from amicable personalities, others want to lessen the financial stake in remaining current with the latest releases and are happy to get their experience vicariously.
Even channels where the majority of action is opening packs, like W2S and Calfreezy, make sense. The viewers are excited, sharing in the suspense, knowing the next moment in the video could be genuine (if overacted) delight out of a charming lad from Guernsey.
Neither of the two opens a FIFA pack. Not even one. They're invited on stage to play Super Smash Bros. with members of the audience. I'm unsure if the real delight from the fans is meeting their idols or getting to escape from the voluntary human battery pen.
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I try desperately hard to become entertained and invested, but I have my first worry that this entire event might have been completely misbooked. This part doesn't feel like it values the personalities of the collected Legends. If criticism of their entire profession is "no one wants to watch people play video games" I begin to feel as if, without a transformative element, there might be some validity. The boys are not given microphones. They are not able to inject even a modicum of personality. They are not permitted to tell a joke. Wroetoshaw wins the round. I think.
While the next Legends are being woken up I wander around the show floor, occupied by merch stalls and a few stands with playable game demos. The entire venue smells like meat. I suspect this is intentional, initially, as a part of Mattessons' portion of the co-branding venture. Get the olfactory systems all hankering for globs of reformed chicken scraps youngins can chow down on while they grind out engrams in Destiny. This is not the case; a hot dog cart is pumping out pork fumes in a large annex beside the main stage. It's beside rows of round tables where adults have been discarded, used as tokens for admission by kids who just want to see some funny lads from Minecraft videos. I scan the crowd. Anyone on the show floor between the ages of 24 and 35 is in PR or working security. Anyone over 35 has a child on their shoulders attempting to get a better look at the stage.
The theater bell for the second Segment is "FRHANK," a robot appearing on the Jumbotron and PA system. FRHANK is a mascot that Mattessons has created to be "The Ultimate Gaming And Snacking Buddy." An ad agency designed this and someone signed off on it. That's how it works. I wish I didn't know that's how it works.
The Hollyoafs reintroduce Calfreezy, now joined by Call of Duty YouTuber Twiinsane, Ashley Marie, and Dan TDM (who gets the biggest reaction from the crowd so far). Dan TDM is absurdly handsome. Dan TDM looks like he's the boyfriend of someone who'd never date you. His speciality, along with Ashley Marie, is Minecraft. Ashley Marie is given a brief moment on the mic to acknowledge the gaming community's noted hostility toward women and one of the Hollyoaks Boys asks the girls in the audience to make some noise if they love games.
It's the first time the event's appeared genuine and meaningful, like it has a purpose, like kids who've attended might reject sexism and go on to improve the world. Maybe I'm being swung back around here.
They're going to play Minecraft. Again with members of the audience. None of the Legends are given microphones. After a few minutes I can't be bothered. I wander off. I see a stall selling sweets right next to a stall engraving names onto bullets. The reverse side of both is a booth where people can get genuine military dog tags printed. I worry about how these three things are, by their proximity, implicitly rendered as innocuous as each other and that's somehow not a cause for concern. This isn't the time, I'm forced to tell myself.
Despite Mattessons' involvement, none of the concession stands actually appear to be serving any Fridge Raiders. I wonder if being presented with the reality of the product might diminish from the allure, like we might begin to suspect what a robot has to do with strips of animal. On my way back to the stage I spot a rectangle advertising that it will spit out food if you're prepared to engage in a cynical marketing ploy. I'm starving. I send out a tweet with the hashtag it wants and I delete the message instantly, as if that somehow absolves me of having ever done it. I actually do this twice, because, like the attendant says, someone rushed in and grabbed something that was probably mine. There wasn't really a way to tell. Fridge Raiders are terrible. If they were good then Mattessons wouldn't need this pomp and circumstance to sell any.
I realize, at once, this vending machine is the entire show. It is the promise of a unique experience, something once completely genuine, mismanaged by people with money and cynically exploited resulting in a terrible day out not worth the bother. Similar events are often a little cynical too, it is inescapable, the feeling that just being here is you entering into an agreement that it's fine to be exposed to ceaseless advertising. The pitch of seeing pre-release games comes with the fine print, that you are allowed access to this stuff because you might be incentivized to buy the full version and evangelize further about what you've seen.
This said, community can win out against the aforementioned pact or whatever distracting, poorly planned shit is happening on stage. People show up to these events because of other people. They want to feel as if their hobby is justified by the presence of similar minds with shared experiences.
But Legends of Gaming at no point felt like an event anyone actually wanted to be at—or if they did, they wanted to be at it for reasons it wasn't capable of providing. Few of the kids around seem like they're having fun. A few seem exhausted, even, like being here is actually draining their innate unbounded joy. I'm not sure they know why they aren't having fun. They're here to see Minecraft and they're here to see the people they like to see play Minecraft. It just wasn't very fun when it happened.
Before the next event there's a sideshow that begins without much fanfare.
Ryan Hart and R2K are brought onto the stage. Neither of these gentlemen makes YouTube videos primarily. Both are through-and-through competitive gamers. Hart is the UK's best Street Fighter player, a fixture at the World Street Fighter Championships every year at EVO, and a Guinness World Record holder for the largest amount of Street Fighter tournaments ever won. When I think about the phrase "Legends of Gaming" I'm thinking about Ryan Hart: a consummate professional with a chilled attitude who can ruin your entire life in a single round of Street Fighter.
More kids from the crowd are recruited, and this time they're going head-to-head, expected to spectacularly lose against the men. They do.
The commentator Endemol has recruited for this segment admits he doesn't really know all that much about Street Fighter. This was presumably intentional in an effort to keep things from getting too technical, to remain accessible. Two screens above the stage show two different bouts happening concurrently, not allowing either one to provide the focus of your attention.
No one's here to see this, so it's not given the reverence it deserves. Street Fighter's not a YouTube game, really. Ryan Hart is immensely talented, but he's not a home brand like the people on the posters and the advertisements. The product that the Legends of Gaming provide is something that emphasizes and broadens their own celebrity. The product Ryan Hart provides is a loss, for you, that you should have seen coming.
This segment of the show makes me realize that nobody is here to see the Legends be good at games. A few of the Legends have quipped in their stage intros that they're actively terrible and don't expect to do well. I now properly question the validity of the "Legend" label attached to the YouTube stars. I'm happy enough with their achievements to call them celebrities. They've managed to justify renting out Alexandra Palace for an event I'm sure made a lot of money. I think the label's been designed to be contentious. To aid the confusion from adults. When questioned, like I'm doing, it helps to provoke the "you just don't get it" from kids who've never heard of Odysseus or Gilgamesh or Sun Wukong.
It's a fantastic trick. I bet it's worked, since these people from YouTube aren't even Legends in the way that your mate Dave is for picking up the breakfast tab at Wetherspoon when you're all hungover. "Legend" carries the weight of time and achievement. Hercules was a "Legend," y'know? These people aren't amazing at games, They aren't amazing presenters, they're just kind of charming and lucky. And this event leaned on absolutely none of their qualities other than their presence at an event on a random Saturday in 2015 people could pay to attend.
I'm bored. That's my biggest criticism. The stage show is uninteresting. I don't stick around for much longer. I think a few parents have cottoned on, too. Leaving, I hear a child say, "That was alright. It could have been better." And I know that this is shorthand, without having the proper perspective, to say: "This entire thing was put together with the expectation that if enough names and money were thrown at it, there'd be an entertaining show at the end." There wasn't. It was hashtags and bags of meat.
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