When my editor asked me to travel to Cologne, Germany to watch a professional eSports competition, my initial reaction was something along the lines of “Oh, God, no.”
You see, I hate eSports. No, not even that: I straight up hate any kind of sports. Not really because I dislike any specific element of them, but because I repeatedly fail to understand them. I once went on a date with a girl where we watched Wales in the rugby trophy seven countries… thing. I listened intently to all her (really good) explanations of how the game worked, but she may as well have been talking Mandarin. It’s like I’m not wired for watching people play games - physical or digital - at all.
But the competition I was being sent to watch was the Rainbow Six Siege Pro League, and I really do like Rainbow Six. So I set myself an open mind. An actual date may not have been enough to get me to like sports, but maybe machineguns, exploding walls, and domestic terrorism was just the ticket. Perhaps I, Matt Purslow, could learn to love eSports.
A plane ride and trip on a cool double-decker train later, here I am in Cologne. But should I have come?
After reading some confusing articles and talking about eSports in our PCGamesN Slack chatroom, I have certain expectations for what I am going to see.
I expect this:
I get this:
In hindsight obviously I wasn’t going to be in a glitzy stadium with glitter and lights and music. I was there to watch Rainbow Six, not League of Legends. It’s a game played by about 7,000 players per month on Steam, as opposed to the literally gazillions that fawn over LoL. Naturally the pro scene would scale with that.
So instead of Stadium Supreme HyperX 2000 I'm in ESL’s TV studio, which is equipped with a set of tiered, ultra-comfortable seats, just like the ones you pay an extra £3 to sit in at the cinema if you’re seeing something very special. And that’s quite a problem when it comes to combining Matt Purslow with eSports. After a day of almost relentless traveling and not much sleep, a comfortable seat in a very dark studio is just a first-class ticket to snoozeville, especially if there’s nothing to hold your attention.
So, will the semi-finals of ESL’s Rainbow Six Siege Pro League be enough to keep me awake and alert? Never before has a more tense tale been recounted.
The match is between PENTA Sports and VWS Gaming, who for as far as I can tell are two teams of five nerds in football jerseys. A presenter (Matt Andrews) speaks to the numerous cameras positioned around the set floor, detailing the tournament to people ‘at home’ watching on Twitch. He looks and sounds like a man who really wanted to be on Match of the Day. I like to think he secretly resents being here discussing nerdy nonsense, but he’s clearly loving it. I grow to enjoy his enthusiasm, which is a good thing considering the level of entertainment on display elsewhere.
The first match starts, and within seconds I find myself engaged. Unlike when trying to watch LoL or Dota, I know what is going on. The map is House, and the Rainbow men have to find and disarm bombs. Four TVs around the studio show the action, and two chirpy commentators named Chris and Aaron explain what is going on in a manner so fast I lose grasp of it in roughly 50 seconds.
Men die, walls explode. The camera cuts from view to view in such quick succession it's difficult to follow the progress. Beside me, fellow PCGN man Chris Higgins grins. “Brutal,” he says. I’ve no idea what I’ve just watched.
My initial engagement is lost. When I’m playing Rainbow I understand exactly what’s going on because I’m part of the action. Pulled out of the game, with no ability to shape the narrative and being forced from perspective to perspective by unseen directors, I find even a five-minute play session too busy and too complicated to follow.
My anti-sports circuits spark up. Familiar things like breach charges and flash grenades become a haze of just ‘stuff’ happening in front of my eyes.
With one round complete the teams head in for a second go. Within seconds a player controlling Sledge (an SAS operative armed with a giant sledgehammer) has rappelled from the roof and battered a window through. However, while the window frame shatters, the barricade behind it remains in place.
Have the enemy team pulled a prank and replaced the hammer with an inflatable one? Is that something you can do in eSports?
The game has to be stopped and restarted, and the subsequent minutes are identical to before. Sledge climbs to the window and batters it with the hammer, and once more the barricades stay fixed in place. The game’s bugged.
Thus starts an absurd amount of downtime. While browsing recipes for a lime cheesecake I’m planning to make, I chat to a guy from a Proper eSports Website who informs me that lengthy periods of nothing are common, and eSports in general hasn’t found a way of filling it with useful or entertaining stuff yet. I suggest a Katy Perry concert would be pretty great about now, but it’s clear that’s not happening. No- one’s even put Spotify on.
The two commentators are chatting away to pass the time, and I realise I could have made quite some headway in a Call of Duty campaign during the period of inactivity. Or, indeed, made that lime cheesecake.
The teams disappear from the stage, and when they return an announcement is made. The bug can’t be fixed, but they’ve agreed that Sledge can be used, provided he doesn’t use his sledgehammer. I’m confused.
The game begins afresh, and I notice in the loadout screens that the attacking team are still opting to use Sledge. The only reason I can think of is that they really, really like his gun, because he’s nothing but a generic recruit without an ability. It seems like a wasted choice to me when there are other useful operatives to be chosen, but far be it from me to tell a pro what to do.
Things are moving faster now. The crowd actually cheers at some kills. A man is punched off the roof of the house, which I can’t deny is a little exciting. A man named Mr. Po Po seems to be doing well, but whenever the commentators discuss him it sounds like they’re narrating a children’s TV show. Check out CBBC at 3pm for The Exciting Adventures of Mr. Po Po.
PENTA go on to win the first game 5:2, which clearly makes them very happy. They’re obviously quite good at Rainbow Six too, as they win the next game, bringing the semi-final to a close. PENTA are officially better shooty people than VWS Gaming.
They’re not as good as me though, not by my reckoning. Because when I play Rainbow Six Siege, it’s one of the best shooters around. When they play it it’s really bloody dull. As 5pm rolls around I find myself slouched half-way down in my super comfy spectator’s chair, two-thirds of the way to sleepy town. Clearly having a good understanding, not to mention a lot of love for Rainbow Six did nothing to make watching it being played any more enjoyable.
eSports should be like Robot Wars: catastrophic fun with slick presentation. Instead they’re just like those times when you used to crack out single-player games with a sibling or friend: sitting there being bored, watching them play until it was your turn. But it’s never your turn. Ever.
And so I’d found the answer to the most pressing question of our generation: can Matt Purslow learn to love eSports? No, absolutely not.