COLUMBUS, Ohio — Bleachers full of mostly young men watch and cheer as teams battle for a shot at a five-figure payday.
Above the fray, two announcers call the action for a legion of fans viewing at home.
Off to the side sits an analyst desk, where two players whose team failed to advance to this stage join another former player, whose competitive days are long behind him at the ripe old age of 29.
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When the championship is decided and the celebration is through, the owners of these teams will reconsider their rosters, maybe dip into the free-agent pool and begin to plot the course for the next competition, which is just weeks away.
Players will look to adapt and hone their skills in the offseason. If they’ve joined a new team, they work on fitting in with their new teammates and learning their styles. If they’ve been released from a team, they’ll ply their trade on the free-agent market, show they still have what it takes to compete. Some might move on from their competitive days and start a team of their own.
Sure sounds like what we all consider sports, eh?
Welcome to the "Call of Duty: Ghosts" Season 3 playoffs, which took place over a three-day stretch last weekend in Columbus, Ohio. It was the culmination of months of online play for Major League Gaming, the leading electronic sports association in the U.S.
MLG hosts the play all season through its own online matchmaking service and then brought the eight playoff teams to its brand-new MLG.tv Arena Columbus for the double-elimination tournament.
OK, let’s get this out of the way: It’s not sports … but it’s a hell of a lot closer than you probably think. And if you have kids, this might be the equivalent for a lot of them, both as spectators and as participants.
Here’s the basic gist: Teams of four players battle each other in various staged military scenarios. Generally they are shooting at and killing each other — virtually, obviously — while trying to complete objectives that will give them points. Usually it’s either timed halves, with the sides switching at the midway point, or it’s played to a set score. There are five possible scenarios that can be contested, but the first to win three decides the match and moves on. Each team is in a (mostly) soundproof booth, with a glass front facing the crowd. The players are each at their own Xbox One, communicating with each other through headsets.
A ninth Xbox One hosts the game and sits with the announcers, who can choose whichever player’s perspective to show it from as they call the action. That scene, along with the announcers’ calls, is streamed out on the MLG.tv website and through mobile apps and the Xbox Live interface.
The bells and whistles are what you’d expect to find in a sports broadcast: overlaid stats, analytics, interactive polls, guests commentators. And after it’s over, it goes to YouTube, where fans can watch it on demand.
As this goes on in the arena, owners of the teams, often with competitive or professional gaming backgrounds of their own, stand back and watch, or mill around nervously. Players on the other six teams either watch from the players’ lounge or join the crowd (and interact directly with the fans, who clearly recognize them) as it goes on.
Three correspondents from "Esports Nation," a website devoted to covering it with no brick-and-mortar establishment to call home, take photos, talk to fans and players and, probably most important, report the scores of the matches in progress on Twitter.
The executives and staff from MLG also keep busy, making sure the inaugural event here goes off as smoothly as possible. It’s an important initiative for the company, the first arena of its kind dedicated to electronic sports in the U.S.
Mike Sepso, the company’s president and co-founder, has watched interest grow in the company since its inception in 2002. It grew steadily over the first several years, but the past few years have seen tremendous growth. He saw a dedicated arena, both for competitions and as a video studio backdrop, as a logical step.
In fact, he envisions it being just a small step — Sepso suggests we might see arenas like this in several cities that either show heavy support for electronic sports or that house one or more of the premier teams.
So why Columbus? Sepso explains:
"We’ve been running pro circuit events here for eight or nine years, and we happened to have our warehouse with all of our equipment here, so we decided to build this and test out this theory: Can we have local home arenas for some of the big teams?"
And if it works?
"Maybe we get to four or six in the next couple of years. This for us is just a test to see if the model works, if we can draw people on a regular basis. Also what the right size is, in terms of live audience, because you want to have a live audience, but this is really for the broadcast. You know, there’s hundreds of thousands of people watching the broadcast and only a couple of hundred here.
"Look we already know we can sell 15 to 20,000 tickets for a big competition (larger events regularly pack convention centers and arenas); what nobody really in electronic sports has done or thought of is like every week.
"We’re now big enough where we can take risks like this, where we can experiment."
Back to the action in this "experiment" — once the fans had filled the small bleacher sections, the teams settled in to play. The first match pitted one of the league’s most popular teams, OpTic Nation, against another popular squad, Faze. Several Faze employees and friends filled in the area around the stands, clad in all the team’s swag to root them on. They stand out among a crowd littered with OpTic gear — the other most popular team being OpTic Gaming, which both fall under the purview of team owner Hector Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is a former competitive gamer, one who made a name for himself more for posting YouTube videos than for any professional accolades. His success — and the outrageous interest in the "Call of Duty" franchise — prompted him to jump into the MLG Pro League with both feet.
His success as a YouTube personality specifically, where he goes by HECZWE and has nearly half a million subscribers, also seems to be a major force behind his ownership style.
After watching his OpTic Nation pull out a clutch, five-game victory in the opening match, Rodriguez talked about his past as a gamer and how he’s worked with the players on these teams.
One of those players happens to be NaDeSHoT, not nearly better known as Matt Haag, who is easily the most famous player in the game. He’s got three times the YouTube subscribers of the channel run by his boss, and that’s no accident. Rodriguez says he helped NaDeSHoT foster the persona, both online and off, and that he looks at that aspect of players’ personalities as he looks to fill out his teams.
The YouTube and MLG.tv components are huge factors when it comes to these players. The prize pool in Columbus was $75,000. The winning team — Team EnVyUs, for the record — took home $30,000 for its efforts. Good money for playing a video game, sure, but not the stuff professional careers are made of.
The money from streaming, and the money from endorsements and team apparel, that is what keeps the average pro in the game and truly successful raking it in.
Rodriguez says NaDeSHoT, in particular, and his other OpTic players have embraced that, then turns to the wall of merchandise in the arena to make a point.
"Every other shirt on that wall is either NaDeSHoT or OpTic, man. You can go right down the line," he says.
Around then, a trio of fans approach HECZWE — it’s always gamer tags and online names to them — and Rodriguez, patiently lets the first one blurt out an awkward introduction before all three start barraging him with details of videos he’s posted. He jumps right in the conversation with them, either with total recall of the things they bring up or the greater gift of feigning it, and it’s hard not to appreciate the impromptu meeting of hardcore fan and approachable owner.
Another owner, Paul Radil, spends most of his time in the lobby or outside. He’s always got his eye on his players, but appears more comfortable watching from a distance. And remember, you can watch it from anywhere.
He brings up his team, Noble Pro Gaming, outside, just before they start their first match.
"This is the underdog story of the tournament," he begins, then telling how he bought the team after it started the season 0-8 as the players and previous owner had a falling out. After buying the team and smoothing out the relationship with the players, they went on to qualify for the playoffs as a 7th seed.
Sure enough, his team opened with a 3-1 victory over the No. 2 seed, Rise Nation.
The next day, Noble took on the Denial eSports team — based in Columbus — and dropped the first game handily. Undaunted, Radil’s team defied the odds again and won three straight games to advance to the winner’s bracket final on Sunday.
Noble finally meets its match Sunday afternoon, falling in the winner’s bracket final to Team EnVyUs — setting up a situation where it could have to play three straight matches, provided it could win the losers bracket final just a half-hour later.
Team EnVyus co-founder and managing director Mike Rufail, better known by his gamer tag Hastr0 here, agrees to discuss his team’s success after their match, but after it ends, he’s clearly focused on getting his team prepped for the finals.
He watches the last minutes of its victory, then disappears quickly backstage.
One of the original pro players for "Call of Duty," he appears in tune with what his team is doing and what they’ll need to succeed.
Back to Noble and its second match of the day, the final of the loser’s bracket, we find them locked in another tense battle. The teams — this time Noble was up against Most Wanted — had split the first four games and were in a final game that required a best-of-11 finish to declare a winner.
The teams pushed it to the absolute limit, splitting the first 10 and forcing a winner take all final, which was still undecided with seconds remaining when a member of Most Wanted started to pull off a sneaky move that would have sealed the victory.
And then … controversy! A Noble player sees the small crowd going nuts through the clear glass of the booth, realizes what must be going on and pops up firing at the only place the enemy could be, killing him and earning his team a victory with just a split second to spare.
That sure sounds like a sports scenario, does it not? (You can watch the match below in the embedded video.)
The day ends with a rematch of the winner’s bracket final earlier in the day, but this time the clearly superior Team EnVyUs dominates throughout and easily shuts out Noble.
The losers look shell-shocked, dazed and quiet as they make their way out of the building.
The winners gaze at their trophy, share jokes, sign autographs and then gather around their car to head back to their hotel for the night.
They’ll celebrate, but it will be short-lived. After all, they are representing the U.S. in the Electronic Sports World Cup, which started Thursday in Paris.
After that, the next installment of their game, "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare," will launch to worldwide fanfare.
To EnVyUs and the rest of the teams, though, it will merely be training camp. After all, MLG will host the first major tournament for "Advanced Warfare" will be a couple of weeks later at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, with 140 teams looking to stake their claim as the first champs — a point of honor, to be sure.
And for some of the thousands of fans who turn out to watch that event — nearly all of whom play the game competitively on some level — the thinking will probably be along the lines of Shontez Whitlow, the 24-year-old who talked to me through the first match of the weekend.
"Next year, that will be me in that f%#$ing booth."
Hey, in this virtual world, where anybody can play and make a name for themselves, why not?
Kerouac Smith is an aging gamer who is now raising a couple of potential professional gamers of his own. He rarely tweets, but you can find him @kerouacsmith.
Fans fill the bleachers, facing two giant screens and the players sequestered in their booths.
When teams aren’t playing, they are often on the sideline practicing, usually scrimmaguing against other teams.
Apparel featuring NaDeSHoT, shown here signing for a fan, and the OpTic teams make up a good chunk of the swag for sale.
Today’s fan is tomorrow’s potential pro. At least that’s the hope of Shontez Whitlow, foreground, in black tee-shirt.