It’s not every day the Qudos Bank Arena is packed to the rafters with gamers.. It’s equally rare that the arena is filled with more cheers and groans than you’ll find at an A-League Final.. but this is one such day.. this is the Intel Extreme Masters.

 

(Before you barrel headlong into this article, it’s worth noting that I’ve departed from my usual style of writing. This article is about IEM Sydney, but is also a love letter to gaming and esports. It’s meant for those that are new to, or curious about the gaming community. To my friends in the gaming community, share it with your parents, siblings and friends that could use a bit of insight into your life! It’s a long read, but it’s worth it. Stay a while, and listen…)

 

On Friday May 4th, while most of Sydney was biding their time to get to the usual Friday pub lunch, thousands of people were queuing up to be first through the doors of Australia’s largest ever esports event.

 

The culmination of months of work by Nick Vanzetti and the team at the Electronic Sport League (ESL), the Sydney stop in the global Intel Extreme Masters series of events brought some of the biggest names in esports to town for the second year in the row. They competed over three days for fame, bragging rights and over $300,000 in prize money.. Not bad for a weekend of competitive video games.

 

The Intel Extreme Masters is a global series of esports tournaments and has run for 11 years. It is one of the largest, most prestigious tournaments in gaming, and it’s like the PGA Tour of golf, or the Super Rugby of, well.. rugby. They’ve awarded upwards of nearly $10,000,000 in prize money and millions of people watch each live broadcast.

 

The main event was for a game called Counter-Strike:Global Offensive and the premise is simple: two teams of five go head to head, with one side trying to plant a bomb and the other side trying to stop them. A common misconception is that a game based on bombs and guns is all about violence, but that misses the point entirely.

 

For all intents and purposes, the mechanics are much the same as rugby, or footy. One team is trying to score a try or goal, and the other is trying their level best to stop them. In essence, most competitive video games can be broken down into the same basic mechanic, so if ever you’re ever out of your depth in a conversation about a competitive game, just ask how the game is won and what the opposition can do to get in your way.

 

Now I know I just made it sound simple, but the devil is as they say in the details, and that is where the simplicity ends. There many different maps to learn and hundreds of different tactical strategies for each role on each map. It’s like a game of chess, where decisions need to be made in a split second, with equally quick reflexes. Again, not too dissimilar from rugby or footy.

 

 

To those outside of the gaming community, it’s hard to appreciate just how much skill is required to be a professional gamer. The chasm of skill between the average gamer and a professional, is pretty much the same as the difference between your mate that plays football for a local team in Sydney and Christiano Ronaldo. Outside of individual brilliance, there’s issues like communication, teamwork and big match temperament that can be the difference between sitting on the main stage and watching from the stands.

 

The professional players and teams are managed in the same way one would run a traditional sports team, and this has created an entire industry, with managers, coaches and support staff within the teams, as well as everything from tournament organizers to broadcasters as part of the wider industry. Esports is currently on a meteoric rise and is on track to be a $1.5Bn industry by 2020. This is further evidenced by both the fact that the AFL recently announced their first esports event and the Asian Games are introducing display esports matches this year, with actual full medal events in 2022.

 

Australia is a bit behind the rest of the world when it comes to esports, but its steadily catching up. The Australian Football Federation just wrapped up their first 10 week esports league called the E-League, which had higher viewership than the actual A-League matches, and teams like the Bombers and the Crows are investing heavily into esports. Almost as a coming of age, our local teams put in unbelievable performances at IEM Sydney, and made the world sit up and take note of the talent that’s coming out of the region.

 

With esports being a fledgeling industry in Australia, and there are many growing pains as the industry takes shape. To help deal with this, some of Australia’s esports veterans recently launched the EGAA; an esports peak body to lead the way in creating standards that facilitate sustainable growth of the esports industry in Australia.

 

I asked Chris Smith, an Australian esports veteran and one of the founders of the EGAA what he thought about this years event.  “Events like IEM are single-handedly the best way to inject new fan and business interest in CS:GO and more widely, esports. There is only so many times you can discuss the sensations, scenes and feelings that an esports event provides… actually being there is a whole different ball game. I can confidently say that IEM Sydney is a large boost for the Oceanic Esports economy.”

 

 

It’s not just the Australian esports fans that love IEM. If you ask the international players which of the IEM Series they look forward to the most, I’m going to hazard a guess that their answer will be Sydney. It’s not the biggest, nor the most prestigious, but it’s without a doubt the most fun.

 

The Aussie crowd has a global reputation for bringing the banter, and picking a hero and villain in each match. Regardless of who’s actually playing, the audience gives each match a true derby feel as they cheer and boo, depending where their allegiance lies. The players, the crowd, and the broadcasters feed off each other to create a sporting spectacle that has to be experienced to be understood.

 

There’s all manner of hijinks, from roaring chants of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi” to mexican waves, beach ball battles and about ten too many contraband shoeys. More than any of this, the crowd is invested heart and soul into the match happening in front of them. The epitome of this was when hometown heroes, the Renegades went up against European team mouseports in the quarter finals.

 

It’s a rare occurrence for Australians to have a team at this stage of a global CS:GO competition, so it meant a lot to the home crowd to have the Renegades in the quarter finals. Unfortunately it looked like things were heading the wrong way, with 4th seeded mouseports predictably gaining the upper hand by the middle of the match.

 

Every fan in the arena was holding out for a hero till the end of the night. For Australia, Noah ‘Nifty’ Francis was that hero. He was strong, fast and fresh from the fight. He lit up the crowd with an incredible performance that prompted chants of “Nifty, Nifty, Nifty” to echo through the rest of the weekend, regardless of whether he was present or not. The best way to describe it is to show you.

 

Watch this video and bear in mind that the crowd is being picked up through the commentators microphone. For any Australian esports fans present, this was an unforgettable experience, and it’s a great showcase of the passion in esports.

 

 

Sadly, the Renegades went on to narrowly lose to mouseports, but their performance will be forever imprinted on the minds of Australian esports fans. Along with fellow Oceanic team Grayhounds, they have set a new bar for what Australians can achieve at international CS:GO competitions.

 

The finals on Sunday evening offered up a similar underdog story, albeit with two of the top three teams in the world. Crowd favourites FaZe (seeded 3rd) tackled the best team in the world, Astralis. With a best of five match format and each intense match taking about an hour, this was set to be an esports marathon.

 

FaZe however had other plans and rode the wave of energy the crowd was offering up to take the win after 3 swift matches. They capped off IEM Sydney with jets of smoke, pyrotechnics, a blizzard of glitter and a chorus of “Nifty, Nifty, Nifty” chants.

 

IEM Sydney is Australian esports crowning achievement, and hopefully a sign of things to come. We now look to the recently announced State of Origin style tournament for League of Legends, run in partnership by the AFL and Riot Games. I hope they take a leaf out of the ESL’s book and build on the foundation / standard that Nick and his team have laid.

 

(#FAZEUP, FaZe Clan secure the IEM Sydney trophy)

 

If that’s warmed you up to CS:GO, be sure to watch highlights of the most skilful moments from the whole of IEM Sydney.

 

 

The Qudos Bank Arena didn’t play host to just a main event, with lots more to do and see scattered around the arena over the three days. There were multiple expo halls, as well a community stage that played host to both a CS:GO Women’s Open event and the regional finals for the grandfather of all competitive games, Starcraft.

 

Despite a 20 year relationship with Starcraft, I was covering the main event, so I’m not going to do the Starcraft tournament justice. Fortunately for both of us, Alex Manisier penned a fantastic piece in the Sydney Morning Herald that you should read. After you’ve finished this… 🙂

 

(Credit: Maynarde)

 

I did however spend a bit of time watching the CS:GO Women’s Open that happened on the community stage. This was a local community tournament, organised to encourage more feminine participation in esports within Australia.

 

For a wealth of reasons (that’s probably a separate article), female participation in esports still pales in comparison to men, despite the fact that women can compete on a level playing field. Due to this, I think it’s a fantastic initiative to get the ball rolling. This isn’t the final form that women’s participation in esports should take, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

 

Representation alone is very important and this gives little girls that came with their parents some female role models to look up to. It also gives the female players a taste of what it’s like to play in front of a live audience, which is a fairly rare occurrence in all but the highest level of competitive play.

 

 

After a few days of gruelling action, two teams, Control Esports and the Sydney Saints made it to the final. It was the Saints that emerged victorious and won the lion’s share of the $10,000 prize pool, with some skill that and performance that made everyone sit up and take notice.

 

(A jubilant Saints team after their win)

 

I wanted to know what this tournament meant to women in Australia’s CS:GO community and had conversations with both Mads ‘Shadowfax’ Brown, who is both the team captain for a mixed gender CS:GO team called Supastellar and broadcast talent in the Fifa E-League I mentioned earlier, and Nicole Constantine, the team manager for the Sydney Saints.

 

GFTW: “What did you think about IEM this year? Feel free to weigh in from a women’s perspective!”
Mads: “IEM Sydney was amazing this year and it does so many incredible things for esports in this country. It lets our best teams compete against the best teams in the world and shows what our region can really do. It’s also so amazing for us fans who get an event on our home soil to showcase to the rest of the world how passionate Aussies are about esports.”
Nicole: “This question hinges around the idea of the male to woman ratio found in esports but at the end of the day, you can be from any place in the world – male or female, young or old and you can get involved and compete. I think it’s much less about my perspective as a woman and more about someone who enjoys gaming. I was just happy to see it on Australian soil. IEM was an incredible event which held several opportunities for not only the best players in the world on the main stage, but local (and yes, female) talent whether that be through the main event, side-events or simply appearances. Australia’s atmosphere is unbeatable and makes IEM Sydney what it is. Plus, I got to meet my amazing friends and even make some new ones!”

 

GFTW: “What did you think of the addition of the Women’s Open this year?”
Mads: “It’s great that more and more big players are thinking about women in esports and how we can encourage a more inclusive industry. It’s the first step to more inventive and holistic thinking around what equality really means and what the best steps are to actually achieving it.”
Nicole: “I’m not a competitive player in the scene, so for me it was much less about a stage to play on, and more about a stage to celebrate and represent the Australian female CS:GO scene. It was pretty much brought back to life through this event. It’s a relatively tight-knit community and the display of support shown throughout the event and even the qualifiers prove that there is room for growth, not only through future infrastructure but genuine viewership. I’m very happy it provides local opportunity for women in esports and can only hope that support is mimicked when it transitions into open circuits.”

 

GFTW: “When it comes to encouraging more women/girls to play games, both for fun and competitively, what would you like to see more of?”
Mads: “I’d love to see ESL continue their work in providing women opportunities in gaming – I think they have the ability to bring legitimacy to the cause and to actually be able to execute it professionally. I know they’re doing a lot of thinking behind the scenes about different ways to do this beyond the stock standard female only competitions. It would also be great to see more prizes that help in the development of skills for female players, like being able to win coaching lessons or bootcamps instead of straight cash prizes.”
Nicole: “Women-only events are a stepping stone, but they aren’t the answer. In a way they almost do more harm than good as it creates an exclusive league which hinders growth, competition and often are used at benefit of a sponsor rather than a player. They are absolutely great for development but they should not be seen as the pinnacle of competitive female CS:GO. There is an evidently smaller pool of competitive female players than there are male competitors, and that is fine – but the ability to join and perform on a tier 1 or 2 team is available to those who wish to attain it. At this stage I would love to see more woman competing within the open circuit which means rosters taking the chance to develop as a team rather than forming solely for women-only events. The blame doesn’t just fall onto the females though, it falls onto how the system was created with organisational support not being offered unless there is an event exclusive to the female league.
Organisations who pride themselves on supporting the scene or region should not have a female roster just to have a female roster. Instead, they should dedicate the same time and resources displayed within their main rosters to develop and cultivate the hidden talent in the female competitors (assuming it aligns with their interests, of course). Is being female an added benefit? Yes, just look at the sponsorship opportunities made available from a business standpoint! Do not however ignore the talent you can foster due to that. When you give someone a platform to perform and allow them to grow as an individual and as a team, you will see results. As for the fun side of things, just find friends who don’t expect you to take it too seriously and have a laugh (you can get carried in the process too)! Regardless, anyone can play the game and if you want to be a competitive player – go for it.”

 

It’s only fair that I wrap up this review of IEM Sydney with a look at the expo halls and by extension the community. Were it not for all the passionate fans and the community by extension, none of this would’ve happened. The organisers themselves were gamers and fans before they stepped into event management.

 

Esports started as grass roots, community run events, ranging from a few people in a room, to meet-ups where hundreds of people would lug huge ungainly computers around in order to play games with their friends. While IEM didn’t give you the option to lug your own computer along with you for the weekend, there were countless happy reunions, gatherings and celebrations within a community that’s tight knit and incredibly welcoming.

 

One day, if my girlfriend manages to convince me to have a child of my own, I’ll hope they choose to become a part of this community. If you gathered 7000 people at almost any other sporting event, you’d no doubt have far too many people being drunk, disorderly and testing on site security’s patience at every turn. This crowd however, was well behaved and respectful, with a shoey being their darkest deed. Wins all round as far as I’m concerned.

 

(Credit:Miggie)

(Credit:Miggie)

 

Outside of the community aspect, there was as I said earlier, tons to keep everyone engaged during tournament down time. Two of the expo halls were computer and hardware wonderlands, with the news technology and tons of multi-coloured custom computers to both look at and play on.

 

Away from computers, fans were lining up in droves to get the chance to meet their esports heroes… and yeah, you guessed it, the queue to meet Nifty was the longest.

 

There was also virtual reality aplenty, with many different experiences to try out. I’d already known about it, but freshly released game Beat Saber was on show, giving people a first look into the no doubt Star Wars inspired mashup that can probably be best described as guitar hero with light sabers. Better than describing it, I’ll let pictures do the talking below.

 

And with that, my near 3000 words about IEM are over, and I’m left feeling much like I did when IEM was over. Exhausted, happy and gutted that I have to wait a whole year to do this all over again.

 

 

 

 

 

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