Fan Expo is huge every year, so you may not have noticed that it’s slowly taken over even more of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. In 2014, the main attraction in the North Building was new to the convention. While Intel set up dozens of high-end PCs and gaming laptops for people to demo games such as Batman: Arkham Origins and Destiny on the highest possible settings, the centrepiece was a gigantic stage setup hosting an Intel Extreme Masters StarCraft II tournament. Organized by ESL Gaming and sponsored by Intel, IEM is one of the most prestigious gaming series in eSports today.
It’s more pageantry than is usually found at Fan Expo, where video game tournaments are often run by local game stores on fold-out wooden tables. This year, two large stadium screens showed the action, while players emerged from backstage on a WWE-style entrance ramp. On one side, professional commentators called the matches, while on the other, a couch was set up for post-game interviews, which were also broadcast on the screen. The players themselves competed while encased in plexiglass chambers, isolated and undisturbed by the loudspeakers and the din of the crowd seated before them.
For the IEM series in Toronto, some of the top StarCraft II players in the world were flown in to compete for a chance to qualify for the grand finals later this year. Among them are several well-known players from South Korea, including Yun “TaeJa” Young Seo and Lee “Flash” Young Ho.
Jarett Cale, the host of the event, is a Toronto native who may be better known as the fictional pro gamer Jeremy from Pure Pwnage, a web series that started back in 2004. His professional but energetic demeanor is nothing like that of his fictional persona, a bandana-wearing, basement-dwelling stereotype. For him, eSports and professional StarCraft are enjoying a coming-out party the likes of which he’d never imagined.
“I think it’s come to the point where you can’t not notice it,” he said. “It’s not just in a basement or a hotel anymore. You drive by [the Staples Center, site of last year’s sold out League of Legends championship] and wonder, ‘What’s happening?”
The same phenomenon occurred at Fan Expo, where the frequent applause encouraged people to stop to see what the heck was going on. Some had probably never heard of the Protoss or the Zerg. Others had never seen top-level tournament play. Some where fans who came to see the stars.
“All the Korean players here are the top of the world, so that’s the main draw for a lot of people because they’re not going to see them [in person] anywhere else,” said one spectator in the audience.
Three Canadian players – HuK, MaSa and Scarlett (one of the few women players at the top level) – took part in the tournament, but were eliminated. Even though the eSports scene in Canada is relatively small compared to the U.S., Germany or Sweden, “Canada consistently puts out some of the world’s top RTS [real-time strategy game] players,” said Cale.
Michael Blicharz is the managing director for ESL, the company that runs the IEM’s StarCraft tournaments as well as several other eSports series. His passion for the growing sport is evident.
“Back in my days, there was no such thing as pro,” said Blicharz, who is still known on the floor by his old online handle Carmac. “We used to compete and train almost as hard as today’s pros, just for the passion.”
A player of Unreal Tournament years ago, he would travel across the U.S. to play in events with a $70 prize pool. “It was about the competition, the love for the game, wanting to be better than everybody else, and I think that to this day, that spirit has stayed with the current pro gamers.”
There is, however, far more glory awaiting the newest generation of players. “Our IEM world championships have one million concurrent viewers watching the finals,” said Blicharz. “We used to be happy when we had 10,000 people tuning in online to watch a game. Now we have 10,000 people inside a stadium, watching what’s happening on the stage.”
The winner of the IEM Toronto event, South Korea’s Lee Young Ho, better known as Flash, is undoubtedly known to anyone who follows StarCraft. He’s been a pro player since the days of StarCraft: Brood War, and is considered one of the greatest StarCraft players of all time. So it was no shock that he took the trophy in Toronto, along with a $10,000 prize. He’ll move on to the IEM world championships later this year.
Meanwhile, IEM’s future at Fan Expo is unclear. Cale said that if they return to Toronto, it may be for a standalone event.
“There are so many eSports fans in Toronto that they could have ten times this audience, and they would probably prefer to go that route,” says Cale. “I think this is them testing the waters a bit.”
While it’s sound logic for IEM to spin off its own Toronto event, hundreds of everyday conventioneers who may have had only a passing knowledge of eSports were given a taste of the best, seeing first hand how enthusiastic the fans are. That’s something that doesn’t really translate to the screen, no matter what kind of hardware you’ve got inside.