I love video games. It’s a love that was born in early childhood, when I first witnessed the magic of my uncle’s original Nintendo. I’d beg my parents to take me to his house, chanting “Mario! Mario!” The first system I ever owned was a Sega Genesis, and I still sometimes catch myself humming parts of the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack in my head. In high school, friends I went camping with managed to power a tiny TV screen and an original Xbox with their car so we could play split-screen Halo on that iconic “Hang ‘Em High” map. Video games have provided me with countless memories over the course of my lifetime. This personal passion has taken on a different form over the last few years, however. I’m currently in my late 20s, married, and working 40+ hours per week. It’s a common story for my generation, and those who can relate will likely tell you the same: finding time for recreation is a lot harder now. When I do get time, my instinct has always been to play video games, and not to watch them played by others.
So I haven’t really watched much competitive gaming. I regularly keep up to date with relevant gaming news and culture, so I’ve picked up some news here and there. I’m aware that MOBAs generally dominate the scene internationally, Starcraft is a really big deal, and Counter Strike is often viewed as the most
elitist pure FPS competitive experience. I’ve watched parts of various tournaments on Twitch for a few minutes when I found myself with a lazy Saturday afternoon, but that’s the extent of my experience. Generally speaking, I’m pretty green at this stuff.
This last weekend was different. I’ve been playing some Halo 5 over the past month, so when I heard that a Halo tournament would be a part of the Winter X Games for the first time, I did a double-take. Wait, that’s a winter sports competition. What’s Halo doing there? Then I heard that ESPN would be broadcasting the event, and the questions really started flowing. ESPN is really covering this? Are the winners going to get actual X Games gold medals? Is competitive gaming accepted as a sport now? Is Twitter freaking out about this? (I’m not sure why I still ask myself that last question.) My interest was peaked, and I resolved to give this tournament a shot.
It’s now five days later, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. One thing is clear in my mind: The eSports hype is real, and I believe it’ll get a lot bigger. But more on that later.
The medals at stake in all X Games competitions, including the Halo Tournament
Saturday afternoon, I was preparing lunch when it hit me: “Shoot, that Halo competition is this weekend!” My wife looked at me quizzically as I rushed to turn on the TV. Food in hand, we both settled on the couch to watch pro teams Allegiance and Evil Geniuses battle it out for a spot in the gold medal final.
***A note on tournament format, for the uninitiated: The semis and finals were decided through best-of-seven series, meaning a team had to win four games against their opponent to advance and win. The games were played on a variety of maps with a mix of different game-types, including Capture the Flag, Strongholds (capturing areas of the map), and classic Slayer (team deathmatch to 50 kills). And Halo is, of course, a first-person-shooter (FPS).
Alright. Back to the action.
As we began watching, the first thing to hit me was a feeling of amazement at the incredible skill, strategy, and coordination demonstrated by each team. This seems like an obvious expectation - of course they’re good, they’re pros! Regardless, I was blown away by what I was witnessing. I thought I was half-decent at Halo before, but the depths of my ineptitude became abundantly clear within minutes of watching these two teams battle. “I didn’t even know you could get up there!” I exclaimed to my wife. “How do they make those jumps?!” I must have muttered “oh my god” to myself dozens of times as I witnessed fantastic plays unfold. My feelings of awe were quickly interrupted with confusion, however, when the announcers decided to let us viewers “listen in” on the inter-team communication of Evil Geniuses. “It’s just a bunch of shouting,” remarked my wife. She wasn’t completely wrong - it sounded like loud, unhelpful gibberish. We both liked Allegiance’s communication style better, because it was comparatively quieter, slower, and less frantic. “They seem more calm and controlled,” I shared. Funny thing, though - Evil Geniuses won the round, and eventually the series. And no, I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
We kept watching. Games were often close and continued featuring great individual plays and impressively coordinated team movements. The announcers were pretty great as well, adding to the excitement of big moments. By the end of the semifinal series, I had looked up the time for the finals. It was later that day at 5pm. My wife and I were supposed to be running errands around 4pm.
...We were back by 5pm.
In the meantime, I’d done some research on the two teams in the finals (Evil Geniuses and Counter Logic Gaming). Turns out, a member of EG (named “Lethul”) left their team shortly before the tournament to join CLG. There was bad blood between the teams, with the traitorous Lethul telling reporters he hoped to play against his old teammates in the finals. He got his wish. Snip3down, one his previous teammates, told him before the match: “Watch your face.” As ridiculous as the “smack-talk” felt at times, it added to the excitement and drama of the upcoming final match-up. These guys had real history with each other. It was on.
If you want to watch the finals for yourself without them being spoiled, now would be the time. Spoilers are below. You can find the series here.
The showdown everyone was hoping for.
If I had to boil down my experience of the gold medal final into one word, it’d be this: exhilarating.
It was a best-of-seven series, and it went the distance. During the sixth game of the series, my wife touched my arm. “Are you nervous?” I was, but I wasn’t ready to admit it. I can’t be this nervous about watching video games! I’m not even playing! But for some reason I couldn’t yet recognize, I was hugging a pillow and clenching my teeth with anticipation. CLG were on the brink of winning gold, leading the series 3-2. Through the course of the afternoon, I’d grown attached to team EG, who’d been gutted by betrayal and left scrambling before the tournament. They were the underdogs, and I needed them to win. They did win the sixth game to force a deciding “Game 7.” I started to believe.
It wasn’t until that deciding seventh game wrapped up that I finally began making sense of this unexpected experience. The finals had everything: Fantastic skill. Good announcing. Different personalities. Team drama. A favored “villain.” An underdog. A nail-biting “Game 7” finish. And when EG scored their 50th kill in the seventh round to win it all… sweet revenge and exhilaration.
Here’s the thing: everything I just listed is what contributes to my love of more traditional sports. It’s why I yell in frustration at the TV when the 49ers are playing. It’s why I literally fell to my knees in pure joy when the Portland Timbers won the MLS cup. Here I was, having the same kind of experience watching video games. And I loved every second.
A weird thing happened the next day. My wife and I ran into my close friend Jeremy, who also happens to be a video game enthusiast. I told him about how we’d spent our Saturday afternoon and that I’d really enjoyed the event. He nodded, then turned to my wife with a mischievous smile. “How’d you like the tournament?” he asked, knowing my wife prefers crushing candy on her phone and isn’t into popping skulls with Halo 5’s deadly pistol. My buddy was setting me up.
“It was actually pretty interesting. I liked hearing how the teams communicated differently, and it was a close match!”
An unexciting analysis to some, but a jaw-dropping response from my non-gamer wife. I now know something many others have for a while: competitive gaming isn’t a fad. It can offer the thrills and experiences of traditional sports and catch the interest of gamers and non-gamers alike. It will continue to grow, and it’s here to stay.
Halo World Championship viewing party is at my place this March.
A Freudian Trip is a 20-something psychologist by day and Rocket League amateur by night. This is the first thing he’s written since his dissertation. His cat Mosby remains perpetually unimpressed, but additional sources of feedback are very welcome.
You can follow him at https://twitter.com/aFreudianTrip , if you’re into that sort of thing.