Entering the Shadow Realm

IEM Oakland was a strange experience for me. I basically entered the shadow realm when I went into the arena. Let me explain.

I’ve spent years watching esports from a distance, very rarely at an event. I never went because I never had to. Hell, you could argue that me going serves very little purpose as even though I’m a writer, going to events doesn’t necessarily add to what I’m writing. I don’t do many interviews and at times feel bad for doing them because if I was in a high stress competitive discipline, I’d personally want to shut everything out and focus on that. More importantly, all of the narrative pieces I do are all based on analysis, and the primary means of doing that is watching a game, which I can do at home. When I did try to watch the games, it became incredibly difficult to concentrate, and I wasn’t nearly as effective as I was at home.

The other point of going is to network, which is what normal people do. I even acknowledge that for writers or journalists this should theoretically be a great thing to do, to build relationships and rapport with various people. Personally, I’m not interested in that for a few selfish reasons. It takes away time from my writing/research, there are only a handful of people I’d like to meet anyway and I want a more pure judgement on the work I do. If people know you as a person rather than some shit poster on the internet, it’s easier to brush off mistakes and heap praise in some weird way.

Because of my entire ideology, personality and skill base, this has put me into a unique position of entering an entirely different world. So instead of doing normal things like getting interviews (I only did the one because it was convenient for both of us), I spent my time making rounds to every single section multiple times. If you were there, you might have seen some Asian guy walking/standing around with a small book writing notes into it; that was me.

I was the hermit that entered society for the first time so to speak. It was like entering the shadow realm.

Entering the arena reminded me of a casino. When you enter a casino, the entire area manipulates the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, and the mind. Sound is magnified either from the game, the casters, the machines or the crowd milling about. It was a dark cordoned area with blue and orange incandescent lights from the stage and multiple light sources from monitors on the floor level. There is a distinct feeling when you are enclosed in an area with so many people. When it is very loud, you can feel the sound vibrations. When it’s quiet, there is a weird tangible feeling you don’t realize is there until you step out. The entire arena is pumped with air-conditioned air that has an almost vanilla smell to it, but your nose picks up something wrong. It is only after you go out that you realize it was dried sweat and body odor mixed with air.

They were passing out Totino’s pizza rolls to the fans and because the food stalls closed (or people being too lazy, or whatever the reason), everyone ate a bunch of them. By the end, it all combined made it very hard to concentrate on a game. It is easy to remember a singular round, but to recall a string of them and how they interact with each other is hard. This was all amplified by the entrances being narrow and the stairs steep so that when you sit down, you don’t want to get up again.

So it was a shadow realm where everything was cut off in some way from the outside world. But there was a purpose to all of it. A casino is constructed to make people gamble. If I had to guess, this venue was constructed with the purpose of the management and creation of energy, more commonly known as hype.

When you go into the arena, the buzz of energy at any given moment is palpable. All of the spectators here came together for one purpose: To watch some Counter-Strike with a bunch of like-minded people. It is here that you can feel that the spectators are almost letting go of an everyday mask and revealing the inner Counter-Strike fanaticism within. There is an energy that seems to be connected to everyone in the audience that only needs a spark to ignite it. This weekend, the spark was Ninjas in Pyjamas.

The energy isn’t evenly split; it is sectioned. The venue is split into two areas: the ground floor and the stands. The ground floor is superior in comfort as they are closer to the large screens and the very front row has monitor displays so they don’t crack their neck looking up forever. The stands are much less comfortable. The seats are more tightly packed, the screens are farther and you can’t see the minimap. But they were superior in the one quality that people go to live events to feel: Hype. The packed nature of the stands makes the energy from one person to the next contagious.

For those on stream, you can hear the roars and assuming the mics were working you should have figured out that the crowd wanted NiP to win. What you didn’t see or hear or feel was the offshoots of energy that came off the crowd. The very subtle tics in a yell or the one-off screams of emotion.

When FaZe Clan’s Finn “karrigan” Andersen had a round where he got multiple kills with a scout on the eco, the crowd roared in approval before it turned into a pained groan. His play was so good that for a single moment, they forgot their allegiance.

Håvard “rain” Nygaard seemed to get the most fearful roars that turned into groans during the FaZe/NiP game. There was a sense of real audible relief when he went down. When Jacob “pyth” Mourujärvi won the pistol against FaZe, you could hear NiP chants so loud and so forceful in the stands that you could feel gravity drop into the pit of your stomach — a similar sort of feeling you get on a roller coaster.

The only thing that could supersede the NiP wave was the clutch rounds. When rain and Karrigan won that round against NiP, the crowd roared in approval. The same thing happened in every 1-v-X situation or incredible AWP/deagle shot. Sometimes the roars of approval were tainted with a tinge of fear if it was against NiP, or sheer happiness if it was for NiP. In the later rounds and games of the tournament, you can feel the crowd swing moods from happy to fearful to happy again depending on how the round plays out.

It wasn’t just the noise made in unison by the crowd. There were pockets of energy that found different ways to manifest. After NiP won a hard fought round against FaZe, a father screamed NiP and then hugged his son in celebration. In a completely different section, a kid stood up and cheered for NiP and hugged his dad in celebration.

In another round, Patrick “Forest” Lindberg had to run away from the remaining FaZe players and save his gun, and two kids on the lower level yelled “Run Forest Run!” People were pulling at their hair in frustration from how close FaZe was playing NiP on nuke. Another moment was when a child did a mini dance and clapped his hands when SK won the first map in the finals against NiP. My personal favorite was when Aleksi “allu” Jalli hit a nasty AWP shot against NiP and one fan reeled his head back as if he was the one shot. He rocked his head back and forth for minutes.

At the very end of the tournament, there was one fantastic round where the crowd screamed “Yes, Yes, Yes!” after every kill and then SK pulled back a few kills and the cheers stopped and you could one person yell “NOOOOOO” before NiP closes the round and the entire crowd erupted again.

After it had all ended and we filed out, a guy I had noticed earlier raised his hand as he passed. In acknowledgment of what we had both witnessed, he yelled “Sick game.” It is a brief connection of a moment of a shared love of a game and experience we now had in common. As I walked out into the cold, I could still hear and see leftover pent up adrenaline and energy rushing out of people as they screamed “N-I-P!” in louder and louder voices.

So after all of this, what did I learn? I don’t know. All I can say is that I started the day at 7 a.m. Sunday. I’m writing this at 3 a.m. Monday and still feel wide awake, even though the finals ended hours ago. Take of that what you will.

Cover photo by Vince Nairn

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