Staring fixedly in a darkened room as if watching a satellite being launched, the audience full of boys proceeded to make noises that otherwise travel rakishly through mortified, thin walls. But it was only e-sports debuting at the Asian Games in Jakarta, watched by an audience that expressed its glee through those sighing inaudibles.
You wondered if the men in their late teens and early 20s causing this euphoric vocal reaction — the players at the centre of e-sports’ demonstration dazzle at the Brit-Ama Arena — ought to be someplace else. Somewhere out, getting some sun rather than being holed up sitting in console chairs bringing down turrets and taming dragons on a screen. Sporting broad-rimmed spectacles and Beatles mops, looking socially awkward without their keyboard and mouse, these were geeks walking onto the Greek God field of sport shielding their eyes from the sun (and spotlight) that shines bright on the regular sportsperson.
The chosen game was League of Legends, a multiple player challenge where a throne is coveted – there being three lanes and a million permutations to reach it.
At the arena carved out of the centre of a giant mall, Chinese set designers have managed the impossible — altering shapes of a regular DVD screen to set up the atmospherics. The big screen airs the game and its drama real time, while players with phlegmatic visages betray no emotion at all. And you thought shooters were the blandest of them all. But there is hysteria in the stands as warriors go on kill sprees and are up against dragons. The contradictions don’t end there. It is fascinating to watch gamers who live out lives within virtual lives, attempt to attract the attention of the outside world. Adulation is shyly processed. Korea’s biggest name Faker grew up as a shy kid with Harry Potter glasses and a mop. Now he is the face of Korea’s LOL pantheon – the marked man for the Chinese 5, with Ming charging him down the middle lane for rampaging kills.
Online forums had been chattering about Korea’s imminent fall at the Asiad – which is when it became clear that ‘gaming’ was catching on at the Games.
Indonesian LOL fans would get behind Uzi, the chubby Chinese champ with a cheek mole whose flashy plays and high risk-high reward style have snatched fans away from Faker, the original aggressive gamer. The crowd went into spasmic satisfaction when China could shut down Faker during the Jungle. Uzi and Faker as well as Peanut, Ruler, LetMe and Score are what they call in Jakarta the players’ Rockstar names. “We don’t know their real names. We just know Faker and Uzi’s playing styles,” diehard Joseph Ramamugel said. He was conflicted of course at the outset when ESPN streamed the first ever DOTA. “People were asking what’s the definition of sport. But isn’t fighting against other rivals for the same prize what sport is. Olympics loves how many fans e-sports has,” he says, adding that the Games are wooing gaming, rather than gaming dying to get in. Gaming at the Asiad was not too different from one of the Chinese or Korean leagues, with their buying and selling of players in summer and spring splits, with All Star and all that.
A gamers’ candy story has set shop right outside the arena with the latest gadgetry, though the biggest buys in Gaming are the cosmetics – not unlike an online Barbie dress-up from two decades ago. “The avatars of League of Legends have back stories, and it’s a universe of its own like Marvel. The gaming goes on, but most people also start aligning with these alter egos Shen and Akali. “It’s a beautiful world we have and Faker and Uzi are the real-life fighters,” he says, a man having bought into a story that plays out on screens. E-sports deeply divides opinion, though, on matters of its psychological effects on players; the substance abuse of beta blockers among hardcores; and whether all of it even amounted to physical health. Uzi is recuperating from a back injury, and all of the turret storming and installation blasting seems plausible – never mind a bad back and strained neck, something unthinkable in sports played not sitting.
Gaming has reached a stage where coaches like Yamato Cannon are chased in Europe, by Asian gamers who keep their options open from Counterstrike to Cornell.
The hero of the day is China’s support player Mngx. Besides picking key kills and protecting Uzi, Mngx would make the big calls and help China overturn Korea’s dominance. In China, they call him Spicy Hotpot – his social media following rising steadily as the clock ticked down.
Perhaps the popularity of e-sports could be gauged from the fact that Yao Ming watched two days of LOL as a fan. Traditional sport’s biggest superstars are known to be keen followers of gamers who attract a cult that could include someone more famous than them in conventional terms.
Navaneetha Krishnan, representing India, literally laughed off as spam an emailed personal invite calling him to enlist after the developers tracked his performance and wanted him on board. “I was stunned and thought it was spam. But here I am representing India at the Asian Games,” he says.
“Being a gamer, we crave for recognition. We want people to watch us. I never thought anyone cared till a few years ago. It’s like the future is here,” PES player Ankur Diwakar says.
The Asiad has factored in the continent’s inclinations – so there’s the Japanese developer’s PES picked over FIFA, where gamers reckon they can do things that are more akin to real-life backyard football. Of course, League of Legends trumped Defence Of The Ancients. There’s also the chess plus poker game Hardstone.
E-sports might still be finding a slot in the middle of the action for flag-waving and chanting that’s endemic to formalised amateur sport. But it has ensured sport’s biggest dream pulling out the most reserved, reticent, indoor gamers from their lairs and unleashing them on the world. Even a shy kid who abhors all exerting activity and prefers the confines of his room with a console can be pitchforked into the Asiad.