Flying out of the country at this time of year? I should have known what a nightmarish scene I was about to enter. The airport was full of Scummy Brits all jetting off to sun-kissed destinations, long since ruined by their recurring presence, for a week’s diet of alco-pops and chlamydia.
And while it is the busy season for these morons waddling through airport security in matching T-shirts, the Summer also sees a rise in e-sports activity too. So here I am and here they are…
Of course, this was a bit different from the usual event for me. It was the first time I’d been to an event that was exclusively Starcraft 2, a sign no doubt of the changing times and altered e-sports landscape. Sure, we’d covered SC2 on many, many occasions, big events too such as ESWC andf IEM, but it was also perceived to be some kind of afterthought, a “while we’re at it” job. Never the case but some labels are hard to shift. My detractors always like to label me as “That Source Journalist”, the implication being that because I’d written about a second tier e-sports title, then that was also applicable to my ability. The game was in a decline, so naturally so must be those who write about it. In truth there probably hasn’t been anyone that has covered as many games as I have down the years but I had always resisted the call of Starcraft 2.
Why? Well, firstly I watched with some distaste when I saw many characters who had showed no interest in BroodWar make the sudden announcement they had always been closet Starcraft fans and suddenly everything they were involved with was that game. Perhaps some weren’t lying but it really did smack of cynical money-grabbing… And indeed those people grabbed money and status and were, strangely enopugh, championed by the people who they were effectively lying to. It was a classic e-sports move, people exploiting the well documented short memories of e-sports fans the world over.
It probably could have been me if I was wired that way. I was one of a handful of journalists at the UK’s pre-pre-launch, an evening with Blizzard in a five star hotel where the journos were as interested in the smoked salmon and cream cheese blintzes and chugging back litres of bucks fizz as they were the game. I’m told, although it seems insane, that mine was the first UK review of the game published. I’d had access to the online beta for many months but ultiamtely grew tired of being stomped inside of nine minutes and called “trash” before I’d even had time to type “GG”.
But there were other reasons too if we’re all being honest. I’d watched the events right from the start and seen the difference in SC2. For me all the excitement and character came from the fans and the commentators, little by the way of emotion from the players. I compared that to the years I’d spent watching other games, such as Counter-Strike, where players screamed at each other mid-game to gain a psychological edge and winning and losing was about more than prestige and prize money. There was a genuine fear factor in facing defeat, the savage nature of the communities so unforgiving of any kind of failure that you could see people literally deflate before your eyes as the other team hit 16 rounds. Their faces looked like slaves awaiting the lash. There is little of that in SC2, something some people say is a great thing, and yet for someone used to something very different it feels a bit sterile by comparison.
Controversy is often a word that is also bandied about in SC2 and yet it rarely lives up to its billing in the Starcraft world. It’s not like I have my fingers crossed for another Brood War betting scandal but when so much ire and response can be generated from something as simple as a probe rush in a meaningless game, for me it does seem borderline puritanical in comparison to other scenes. Tie that to the fact that the level of punishment is meted out on the basis of what you did but based on fans reaction, bandwagoning and mob mentality ensuring a permanently uneven playing field when it comes to bad behaviour, and for me it’s a fact that the biggest controversy of all is often overlooked.
But what else is an old pro to do now that competitive FPS has hit rock bottom? Of course you have to move with the times and there’s plenty to enjoy about the SC2 scene, especially for someone new to it. However, I didn’t want to get swamped in one of the grander events, something that’s so large that I would simply be one of hundreds of would be journalists scrambling for limited time. At events the players are like kings and the press are generally strung along all day hoping for ten minutes of their time, unless you’re big enough for it to be worth their while. With the revenue they make from streaming the time it might take to do a run of interviews would be best spent hammering the shit out of laddder matches on Twitch TV.
This was why this particular assignment appealed to me so much. Dennis “TaKe” Gehlen’s HomeStory Cup stands as a unique proposition in the SC2 scene, if not e-sports as a whole. It is an invite tournament that boasts a sizeable prize fund, this one matching the prize at DreamHack Summer, and yet it takes place entirely in the former player’s home.
It seems insane that any one would attend such an event. If it were happening in almost any other title I care to name the players would be derisory about such a set up and cynical about the prospect of it paying out. Even smaller LANs ran by reputable companies struggle to fill their venues. However, for a game like Starcraft 2, the setting makes sense. The players are so many times removed from so many fans, accessible only through their streams and occasional dabblings with the press, that the opportunity to see them in such a relaxed atmosphere and in a human setting appeals massively to the fans.
Not only that but the players themselves are relieved at the prospect of such an event. It is a chance to win a respectable prize away from the heaving crowds. Everyone in attendance is invite only, so you have to be part of the inner circle to enter the building. There are no crowds to deal with, no intrusive journalists, no huge stages to play on and no prying eyes. The setting is catered to players, giving them the comforts of home, and as such everyone relaxes and enjoys themselves.
Dennis explained all this to me moments after I touched down in Dusseldorf and made the short journey to Krefeld. The origins of the event are humble, a few German players having an in-house competition that they streamed. People liked it so much they did it again and before Dennis knew what had happened he was suddenly hosting a tournament people wanted to play in. He was so committed to the idea he even moved to a bigger house to accommodate more players.
“All I want to create is an environment where people can relax and have fun but at the same time win some money” he told me on his balcony. Behind us was the kitchen he had stocked with everything the players needed. Next to home cooked meals of pasta there were dozens of bottles of water and cola, and ten crates of Birburger. He caught me counting and said “of course, it’s a party too”.
Dennis’s apartment is above an Irish themed pub called Limericks. The German locals, all fancying themselves as beer afficionados, can’t get enough of Guinness and Kilkenny. In between games the players sit down here soaking up the atmosphere and shooting the breeze before taking the short walk back up the stairs to join Dennis on the couch for his HomeStory TV rolling coverage. The atmosphere resembles being on a university campus. The locals barely bat an eyelid even as the many different accents drift out across the quiet. A warm night like this is the ideal time to catch up on some essential work and local shop owners are out painting the front of their stores hoping to attract some Summer trade.
Dennis is an extremely affable host. Rather than behaving like a tournament organiser, most of whom sit in their private office counting the money and talking to underlings through a walkie-talkie, he moves around his apartment like the host of a dinner party. Have you got enough to drink? Would you like some food? Anything he can get you? I watched you play out in the last tournament, you were so unlucky… If polite smalltalk ever becomes competitive this guy can definitely go for gold.
He strikes me as extremely honest too, not dodging the questions about money which remains a taboo subject in e-sports. “Of course, it’s nice to make money and that is what I have to do” he responded without even flinching. He publicly stated that his last event didn’t make the money he had hoped for but this time around he had better contracts and sponsors.
“The prize fund… I know I could have made it five thousand less and kept that for myself. No one would say anything about it. The same players would still be here and people would still want to watch and I’d be five thousand richer. But, for me, it was nice to be able to say that little TaKe could have the same prize fund as DreamHack while doing something very different. Already I’m thinking about how to invest my money for next time, to make it bigger and better.”
I would hope not too big because to do so would be to lose the unique charm of this event. The apartment has cameras everywhere but no-one tells you not to walk through their shot. It doesn’t try to hide the fact that it is in someone’s living room, a contrast to all the bedroom broadcasters posing as if they are reading news for CNN. This is where e-sports comes from and, even when we apply a veneer of glitz and glamour, this is what it is at its core. People playing the game they enjoy against players they know and respect and just hanging out; Enjoying the Summer, enjoying their youth and earning money in a way that beats humping an office job. When you drop all that wannabe rock star nonsense this is what you’re left with.
It is often said that players, and SC2 players in particular, are unrealsitic in their expectations. I see none of that here. They know exactly what it is and they are happy to be here all the same. And even I am. I had feared I’d be out of my depth but in truth, between these four walls, everyone has been especially welcoming. Even Greg “IdrA” Fields is smiling and I can think of no stronger endorsement than that.