The Greatest Spectacle in Gaming

MLG Providence 2011

by by David Scofield

illustration by by Robert Sandler

The Major League Gaming National Championship is the premiere competition for video game players worldwide. This year Providence is hosting.  From November 18 to 21 gamers from around the world gather in the Rhode Island Convention Center for the eighth annual championship. Every celebrity of professional gaming is here: NaNiWa, HayprO, HuK, MVP, MMA, DongRaeGu, NesTea, and even Tyler. One spectator boasts, “you won’t find guys this good at this kind of thing anywhere else.” It’s as though the best boxing prizefighters have set aside their weight divisions for the weekend and come together to see who has the hardest fists.

The A-list is intimidating, but anyone can enter the championship. Entries for each of the three main video games—Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Starcraft 2—cost $70 per competitor. Starcraft competitors play alone, but Halo and Call of Duty require a team of four, so teams must purchase a $280 ticket package to enter. Spectator passes are $20.

The three games have separate tournament brackets. Winning players move through a tier of hundreds of matches to a tier of half that number and so on until they arrive at a single championship match. Those who lose at the beginning have a chance to defeat the entire loser’s bracket and jump to the winner’s at a middle stage of the tournament. Everyone has to claw his or her way through. The supreme victor for each game must win almost every match in over 20 hours of game play throughout three days.

The three video games open to competition are all warfare simulations. Call of Duty and Halo both pit two teams of four players against one another in combat. Although Call of Duty is set in a contemporary Middle East landscape and Halo in deep space, they share a game play template. Players work their way across an arena, collect weapons and ammunition, kill their opponents, kill them again when they re-spawn and repeat this method as many times as they can before time runs out. Sometimes the competitors play in a special mode like King of the Hill, in which the two teams battle for control of a small territory. Think of Call of Duty and Halo as pick-up death matches.

The other game, Starcraft 2, approaches war on a more intimate and yet much larger scale. Starcraft matches are one-on-one, but each player controls an entire army. Players choose between Zerg, Protoss, or Terran military forces. notes that, “the Terran are the most popular race in Starcraft 2, since they are humans, and we can relate to them.” The game gets going fast. With a frenzy of keystrokes, each player harvests resources to build troops, scouts out the opponent’s fortress, and charges into battle. Players show off their prowess by moving their soldiers and machines as though the blinking characters had speculative personalities. In matches of the best players, every military unit advances and retreats according to conflicts all over the map. Death tolls are far more severe than in Halo or Call of Duty, but a strange mark of nobility imbues the dead Starcraft troops for their part in a struggle larger than themselves.

The crowd in the competition hall is dense, but that’s no surprise. MLG Orlando, the previous tournament, had 181,000 concurrent online viewers from over 170 countries. Spectators bring banners to support players, and each game has broadcasters that provide play-by-play coverage for the audience.  Since Halo and Call of Duty are dorm room standards across America, one might expect that most of the audience at MLG Providence have come to see whether team “Instinct” or “Believe the Hype” will take home $100,000 for winning the Halo tournament. Perhaps everyone is interested in team “Quantic Vengeance” and their stranglehold on the $50,000 in the Call of Duty bracket. The uninformed reader might even expect the loudest oohs and aahs when “Ryan” of Team “BTH” proves himself to be the nimblest Master Chief by crouching as “Maniac” tries to snipe him. But at the competition’s center stage, where the Starcraft players square off, the audience nearly out-roars the constant rattle of gunfire from the two adjacent stages. Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” has never sounded so faint over a loudspeaker as when a group of Protoss catches NesTea off guard. On this stage, $50,000 is at stake for one gamer.

NaNiWa, MVP, HuK, and everyone else in the aforementioned list of gaming celebrities are Starcraft 2 players. Maybe the genius required to command war so fast with so many people watching is responsible for propelling Starcraft players to eminence, but maybe it’s just the awesome sight of the game play area. The players sit in private booths far above from the apron of the stage, almost flush against the wall. Behind them hang three television screens that rival the size of most jumbo-trons in minor league baseball stadiums. Two of the monitors follow the on-screen decisions of the players in the booths, and the central monitor focuses on one particularly cinematic spot of the battlefield. The televisions relaying the players’ computers are difficult to watch for long. Small windows featuring characters stats and development costs flutter up and down the screen like the thin leaves caught in an updraft. Each player moves his camera around the map at a speed just barely slow enough for the pixels to ignite. The action on the screen is so frantic to an uninformed bystander that it verges on appearing choreographed.

The austerity of the rest of the room heightens the intensity of the Starcraft stage. Although bulbs hang all over the high ceiling, the only light in the room comes from the television monitors, clusters of computers, and scattered halogen bulbs close to the ground. The spectators outside in the lobby mill about in a bright, formless mass of hoodies. The darkness inside is necessary to show maximum gameplay detail, but it feels oppressive.

A booth against the wall offers samples of Stride gum, but no food is sold. Keeping food away from the game consoles makes sense, but no refreshments at all is extreme. One marketing representative says, “Doritos sponsored MLG last year. They had a booth that handed out packages of chips all day. They pulled out sponsorship this year.” When pressed for comment on why sponsors retract funding, the representative simply says that buying space in the tournament is expensive. Then changes the topic to why Hotpockets has not shown up: “the Rhode Island Convention Center won’t permit them to sell indoors,” he explains, “NO-S [the energy drink], isn’t even allowed in the same room as Dr. Pepper because they’re both beverages. So tonight at 10:30 in a suite at the Biltmore, NO-S is having a pro player’s lounge for the top gamers.”

The marketing representative brings to the foreground another aspect of the championship that ratchets up the tension around Starcraft: errant sponsorship visibility. The logos of Dr. Pepper, Stride, Old Spice, NO-S, Sony Ericsson, and BIC razors appear on team jerseys, but players on stage are mute when they might give shout-outs to whomever sent them to the big game. It seems like the sponsors and MLG just happen to be having conventions in the same room. Most companies have small booths or signs for a new product, but Dr. Pepper has the nerve to bring a super oversized plastic Dr. Pepper can as their station.  One of the women running the can stand is pleasant and provides juicy details on a side competition at MLG. She says, “five players from a raffle will win a Saturday night date with five Dr. Pepper girls to the Cheesecake Factory. A lot of the guys are so…gamer. It’s a different world. We like to open up people out of their shell.”

The players may sound pampered, but the league makes demands of their behavior. An email in August 2011 from an MLG employee named Alyssa Yee addressed to pro players says that, “all players/coaches must wear MLG produced jerseys when playing on the main stage. The front and sleeves of the jersey may only have the team logo. Sponsor logos may only appear on the lower half of the jersey. Players/coaches who do not follow the above guidelines and refuse to wear the [alternate] blank jerseys will forfeit the match.” Many of the players’ hair-dos dangle past their ears, but the e-mail shows that some appearances do matter. And the total situational stress is higher than it may seem at first glance. The austerity of the room, the concessions made by the sponsors, the promise of a Dr. Pepper date: these elements together put tremendous pressure on the gamers to perform.

However, the players and spectators prevail over the bombastic nature of the games and the event itself. The serene faces of Tyler, NaNiWa, and NesTea as they play are striking because video games impose a special type of violence. Unlike other competitive subcultures like board games or Magic cards, these video games rely on instinct rather than chance. When the audience cheers at a well-thrown grenade or a sudden explosion of troops, they are both relishing the image of destruction and approving of a player’s skill against an opponent with agency. In theory, these games should breed people who truly catch their stride as they wade in blood, but the scarcity ofwild eyes and foaming mouths confounds expectations. Oliver Tague, a Call of Duty player from Manchester, U.K., dismisses any serious tension at MLG and says, “I have never seen any strangers not get along [at MLG]. We’re mostly college youthfuls, and we know that a rough word here and there doesn’t mean much.”

On the weekend that MLG attracts thousands of viewers, the Irish Dance Teachers Association of New England hosts a competition in the same building. Hundreds of adolescent girls in curly wigs dart to and fro as their mothers chase them. The girls and the loitering MLG spectators do not talk to each other. The parties may come closest when a man in Ray-Bans sitting by himself spots a girl and says, “Who the heck is bringing their daughters to this? What are they doing all day?” Only in this moment of social awkwardness does the isolation of the championship become apparent. Although the peculiarity of the games and the venue’s design snatch away attention, the excitement between the stage and the audience exudes all-encompassing restorative competition. Wherever it is possible to live, it is possible to celebrate in grand fashion. Behold a surprise Zerg rush on a championship television, and try to doubt the possibility to celebrate at MLG.

DAVID SCOFIELD B’13 is seeing a Dr. Pepper girl.