Thousands of eSports fans find rapture at IEM Sydney 2018

It's one of the world's fastest growing sports and whatever you may think about it, experiencing eSports live in a packed stadium will you make you a believer.

This thing is huge and it's only going to get bigger.

Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Sydney 2018 was held over the weekend and showcased some of the very best Counter Strike players in the world, battling in front of an incredibly passionate - and very large - Australian crowd.

A reported 18,000 people packed into the Qudos Bank Arena at Sydney Olympic Park to watch teams like TyLoo, FaZe and Fnatic compete for a prize pool of AU$310,000 (NZ$330,800).

The event's poster adorned the stadium's entrance, in between similarly popular events like the upcoming concerts of P!nk and Celine Dion.

Brenda Lynch, the global marketing strategist of eSports and Gaming for Intel Corporation, reckons Aussie fans have a special energy that's "contagious".

"It is our second year here in Australia, since we launched this tournament 13 seasons ago in 2006," she told Newshub at the event.

"It's one of the longest running eSports events in the world and we're very happy to be back in Sydney."

IEM is not only a tournament; there's a big tradeshow attached to it, offering PC gamers discounts on many of the latest upgrades and giving modders a chance to showcase their creations.

Kiwi YouTube sensations Viva La Dirt League were among the masses, meeting their fans and hosting PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds contests.

But the Counter Strike: Global Offensive tournament was undoubtedly the main event.

Yes, it's a sport

Like most sports, eSports now has its own highly-paid professionals, lucrative sponsorships, merchandise for fans - even doping scandals and injuries.

It also has intense rivalries. At IEM Sydney 2018, the Australia/England rivalry that pervades many sports was the most visible.

The English team was led by a chap named Henry Greer, who was greeted countless times over the weekend by thousands of Australians chanting "Henry is a wanker!".

Kiwi UFC star Mark Hunt came on stage to help amp up the crowd and even he joined in the calling Henry a wanker. Later, he threw the Englishman into a bed of whipped cream following Team UK's defeat to Australia, to deafening applause and cheers.

For all the crass chants and audience jeers, it's actually a surprisingly friendly atmosphere. Henry has abuse hurled at him in jest and he loves it - he plays the villain and works the crowd just like a WWE superstar.

Not once during the whole event did I sense any aggro, despite the large amounts of beer flowing. There were Pepe the Frog signs flashed in the crowd - once harmless cartoon character but now adopted as a white supremacist symbol - but that was the only arguably toxic bit of crowd behaviour I saw.

It's the sort of crowd I could easily imagine taking root in New Zealand and I really hope it does.

As fun as it is to be in such a passionate audience, I never need to hear another "Aussie Aussie Aussie!" chant again in my life. Nor do I need to see another shooey.

The shooey

If you're blissfully unaware of what this practice entails, I hate to break it to you, but some people think it's a good idea to express their excitement by pouring a large amount of beer into a shoe before drinking it.

It ruins the beer and the shoe. It achieves nothing. It's just a weird part of contemporary Australian culture.

Although the official IEM website proudly mentioned the shooey in the lead-up to this year's event, the activity was reined in by the particularly strict venue staff.

Alas, I still saw a shooey and indeed, it really is as bad as it sounds.

Even when fans weren't drinking from their shoes, they often held them up high as sort of an homage to the shooey.

Surely Kiwi fans wouldn't be this feral - just one of the reasons arena-level eSports can't come to New Zealand soon enough.

"I don't know that we have Auckland on our horizon in 2018 or 2019, but never say never," said Lynch.

Back in February, a state-of-the-art eSports studio opened at Auckland's Sky Tower as part of a partnership between SkyCity Entertainment Group and eSports company LetsPlay.Live (LPL).

The sport is getting more and more mainstream coverage in New Zealand, too, in addition to the plentiful streams it delivers online.

Never say never indeed.

A boy's club?

The crowd and players at IEM Sydney 2018 were overwhelmingly male.

There were women-only matches as part of the event and the audience appeared no more exclusively male than your average rugby or cricket game, but the gender gap was unavoidably obvious.

Though that might fit with some stereotypes about gamers, statistically females play games pretty much the same amount as males. And there's no need for gender segregation in the sport like there is in contact sports.

"What's special about this sport, from my perspective, is the barrier to entry is zero," said Lynch.

"You can be from any place in the world - man, woman, any type of person of any age can get involved and compete."

And the gold medal for Counter Strike: Global Offensive goes to...

While most of the teams at IEM Sydney 2018 were of mixed nationality, the Australia versus UK match was easily one of the most exciting moments.

How great would it be for a team of Kiwis to punch above their weight in yet another world cup?

"It's exciting to think of the potential of an eSports World Cup. In Asia, they're talking about having it become a medalled sport as part of the Asian Games,"  Lynch said.

"Intel recently produced an eSports tournament in conjunction with the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February. These things represent what's happening in the sport and how it's transforming and changing."

The crowd at Intel Extreme Masters Sydney 2018.
Photo credit: IEM/Twitter

It still might sound strange to sceptics, but the numbers cannot be argued with.

"eSports is really the next entertainment media platform - it's growing exponentially," Lynch said.

"There's 386 million people watching and participating in eSports today, which is bigger than some traditional sports."

Business Insider reported in 2017 that the competitive gaming industry is set to be worth NZ$2 billion by 2020.

After experiencing the industry's elite players competing in front of thousands of fans Down Under, that estimate seems conservative.

This is an unstoppable global phenomenon that is on its way to New Zealand stadiums.

Game on.

Newshub travelled to IEM Sydney 2018 courtesy of Intel.

Newshub.

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