It was a massive week for professional gaming, but it takes a true fan to realize it.
I say true fan, you may say big nerd – poh-tay-to, poh-tah-to. The key to understanding the growth of professional sports lies in perspective. Most people look at “League of Legends” and see young men staring at colorful screens, but I see the skill. These people are doing things I can only dream about.
It’s similar to when the Olympics roll around. At the beginning, we view a sport like curling with confusion. “Wait, what does the dude with the broom do? Why are they wearing those ridiculous pants?” But we watch for a few hours, hear stories about what the individual athletes may have gone through in their personal lives to get there and get proper context from broadcasters, and we’re all avid curling fans by the end of the Games.
Professional gaming is no different. The players and teams have individual stories and drama. Let me give you a look inside the week of a major fan.
It started last Saturday, when my friend and I sat down to watch the North American League Championship Series, America’s official pro “League of Legends” organization. We do this probably every other week: Grab a pile of takeout far too large for two human beings to consume in a sitting, add a few alcoholic beverages, and sit on a couch watching flashing lights on a big screen TV for about four hours. It sounds a lot like a Sunday during football season because it is. We do that, too. The rituals mirror one another.
The first game we popped on was Echo Fox vs. Team Solo Mid.
Echo Fox, named after owner and former NBA player Rick Fox, is the New York Yankees of professional “League of Legends.” Most of the established pro teams operate similar to club teams in domestic soccer leagues – they recruit teenagers into lesser academy teams to develop their skills while simultaneous signing the occasional free agent to fill a hole. Echo Fox entered the sport late, so Fox spent a boatload of money to secure strong players from around the world.
Most of those players got held up because of visa issues. The federal government recognized competitive gamers as professional athletes for visa purposes in 2013, but the organizations themselves aren’t as adept at handling the process as say, the Toronto Raptors are. Echo Fox had to field a team of fill-in players, who got absolutely pounded the first few weeks of the league.
Now, they have their full roster back and are looking to push into playoffs. Those hopes were probably dashed by Team Solo Mid, who rallied from a slow start to absolutely stomp Echo Fox.
Team Solo Mid is led, in part, by Doublelift. He is, by far, the most charismatic American “League of Legends” player. He is also one of the most tenured, having played professionally for five years now (most players have a shelf life of around two years). He was also my favorite player, until he became a traitor.
Doublelift joined the team after playing for Counter Logic Gaming, Solo Mid’s mortal enemy and my favorite team, for four years. Counter Logic’s owner used to be Doublelift’s teammate, and he left him for a supposedly stronger roster. Doublelift won tons of championships with Counter Logic, including a massive showing during a rout of Solo Mid at the American championships at Madison Square Garden last year.
To put this into perspective, it would be as if Tom Brady left the New England Patriots after a Super Bowl year to join the New York Jets. Would I become a Jets fan at that point? The thought makes me physically ill.
In Saturday’s next game, Counter Logic beat Team Immortals, which was previously undefeated. Immortals features Wild Turtle, the player whom Doublelift pushed out when he joined Solo Mid. Counter Logic, in its first season without Doublelift, has a better record than it did with him. Take that, traitor.
In the following game, NRG Esports beat Renegades. It was an ugly game, as Renegades – the worst team in the league – got absolutely stomped.
Renegades have a bit of a sad story. They qualified for the league through a lesser tournament, in part due to Maria “Remi” Creveling, the team’s support player. She became the first woman and the first transgender player to qualify for the American championships after some disgustingly good games.
And then she quit. Remi listed a number of reasons, among them personal anxiety and depression. If you look at the comments section of any article or highlight video showing her, you can guess why.
That’s why I was glad to see that Intel and the Electronic Sports League have partnered to create AnyKey, a two-part program seeking to add diversity to professional gaming while also creating an inclusive space for LGBT and female players. Researchers at MIT will collect data, and former Ubisoft employee and gamer Morgan Romine will use this information to create solutions.
It’s important – and not just because the sport needs diversity and safety measures in place for female players, who are subject to unending waves of online harassment. It’s important because now we have proof that the quality of play has suffered because of a toxic environment for women. I had to watch a male player, who is not as good as Remi and doesn’t have the relationship with her teammates that she has, get smashed for weeks. If she were there, I’d be watching a closer, more entertaining product.
I’ll cap the week off by watching the Intel Extreme Masters in Poland, where my favorite “League of Legends” players will share a stage with an all-female “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” tournament sponsored by AnyKey. There is literally room for both of them up there.