Last Sunday, as two top League of Legends teams battled in Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden in front of thousands of cheering fans, a stadium usher grumbled a complaint that a lot of first-time esports spectators mention. The pro players, whose facial expressions appeared in close-up on big screens all over the stadium, seemed way too chill.
“I would be screaming,” the staffer said, as a cosplayer dressed as the pink-haired, Sailor Moon-inspired League of Legends champion Star Guardian Lux stood by. The cosplayer had been patiently trying to explain parts of this popular but often-inscrutable game. “I would be like, ‘Focus up! Go go go! Get your butts in gear!’”
I, too, once felt that disappointment, and I saw a sharp contrast between those League players and the fighting game players I saw at another Boston competitive gaming event the week before.
In fighting games, players mug for the audience and play up years-long rivalries while onstage at tournaments and on social media. These games revolve around one-on-one battles and facilitate pro-wrestling style strutting and trash talk. League of Legends is a team-based game where individual rivalries and player personalities tend to get sanded off in favor of synergy. So, the opposite of wrestling.
Both sides of the competitive gaming spectrum tend to eye one another with skepticism. The fighting game community tends to see slick corporate esports events as boring and lifeless. Fans in the rest of the esports world tend to think the fighting game community needs to straighten up and fly right.
On Sunday September 3, I was at the North American League Championship Series summer finals, where, with thousands of fans in the stadium and tens of thousands of dollars on the line, young pros almost always kept their cool, both in the game and outside of it.
The week before, on Sunday August 27, I was at Shine 2017, where well-known Super Smash Brothers rivalries played out face to face as they squared off over a prize pool that was only five percent of the size of the League summer finals pot.
Fighting game players get rambunctious. At Shine, that means players snarking back and forth on stage using the text in their characters’ custom name fields. You don’t get that at events like the League tournament at the TD Garden. On stage, players stick to polite handshakes and smiles. Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, who currently plays for Team SoloMid, is one of very few League of Legends pros known for breaking that mold and even engaging in trash talk at times. His most famous one-liner is “everyone else is trash,” which was meant as a joke; his more serious trash talk involves calling his opponents “awful” at their respective in-game roles. But in Boston, he refused to dish out any insults at the post-game press conference. “When I talk trash, I always lose,” he said. “I’m just superstitious now.”
As Riot Games’ League of Legends franchise has grown, so too has the media training for players and the corporate slickness of the game’s championship series. The LCS feels like a well-oiled machine. The players keep to their lanes and stick to their scripts.
Shine 2017 did not take place in a stadium that seats over 17,000 people. It happened in a carpeted ballroom big enough to hold a few hundred chairs at the Seaport World Trade Center.
If the League of Legends Championship Series is the senior prom, then Shine 2017 is the hip house party that, somehow, never got broken up by angry parents coming home too soon. Super Smash Brothers does have pretty negligent parents. Nintendo doesn’t support Smash’s tournament scene, let alone build a league like Riot Games has done for League of Legends. Shine is a fan-run, fan-organized, fun-funded Smash event. It’s also as “official” as Smash tournaments get.
The energy at Shine felt infectious, immediate, and electric. The players didn’t have mics, but they still found ways to perform their rivalries for the audience’s benefit, such as by modifying the names of their characters. The event’s official commentators could only be heard on the Twitch broadcast, so the attendees rose to the occasion, each row shouting out their own rambunctious take on the events at hand.
After Shine finished up Smash Wii U brackets and started the evening’s Melee finals, a few hundred more attendees dragged chairs over from the casual fighting game setups all over the rest of the ballroom, building further haphazard rows behind rows. Every trip to the bathroom or the snack bar required serpentining through a jumbled, aisle-free maze of chairs and backpacks and splayed legs. It looked like a fire hazard, but there weren’t any venue staffers around to keep the rows in check.
At the League event, audience members stayed respectful. They pretty much had to. As I wandered from section to section to take photos and check out fan-made signs, ushers kept guiding me (and anyone else on the move) to return to my seat and just watch the game. Most of the signs were polite, too. I did see one “Free Tyler” sign, in reference to a notoriously banned League player. “Free Tyler” signs, by the way, were against the sign-making station’s rules. (Yes, of course the sign-making station had rules.)
At Shine, fans kept lifting chairs over their heads and waving them around after key victories and sweeps. That trend had started the day before, when Melee competitor Johnny “S2J” Kim lifted his own chair over his head after solidifying his spot in Sunday’s grand finals. As S2J fought through the Melee bracket, fans celebrated his wins—and other players’ wins, too—by lifting their chairs and screaming in frenzied solidarity.
Two rows ahead of me, a guy with a big stock of Four Lokos under his seat and a growing fistful of cash began placing bets on every single match S2J played. S2J kept winning, the cash wads passed from hand to hand got bigger and bigger, and the Four Loko toasts between rounds got all the more exuberant. Neither the alcohol nor the betting were legal, but I’m no snitch, nor was anyone else in my section.
The tournament organizers probably wouldn’t have cared even if anyone had tracked them down. They were pretty busy putting out a proverbial fire: the controversial rematch between Daniel “ChuDat” Rodriguez and William “Leffen” Hjelte, which had to happen due to a mistake with the Melee set-up during their initial matches. Long before the rematch got announced, the tipsy peanut gallery sitting behind me had already heard about the problem through the grapevine of the event and had begun to speculate at length about what should happen. By the time Shine’s hosts came on stage to tell everyone the bad news, fans had gotten keyed up enough to rise to their feet, screaming, “Fuck no! BULLSHIT! THIS IS BULLSHIT!” You can be damn sure no one left the room, though. Everyone had to see how that match played out, “bullshit” or not.
In real life, Leffen and ChuDat are friendly with one another. But after the rematch, ChuDat still told HTC Esports that he’d “beat his ass next time… the diss track is gonna be so good!” ChuDat isn’t speaking figuratively about the diss track. He plans to lay down an actual song with Chillindude, another Smash player who has recorded several dis tracks, the most famous of which is this 2015 rap about Leffen called “Respect Your Elders.”
Just like League pro Doublelift, Chillindude struggles with talking trash and then losing. Chillindude put out that track as a preface to a one-on-one challenge against Leffen. Leffen beat Chillindude, 5-0. But that loss only made the diss track more legendary… and more hilarious.
Coming hot off of attending Shine the previous weekend and walking into the well-maintained order of the LCS summer finals made me feel like Eliza Doolittle going to the Ascot. Compared to the unpredictable antics of Shine, Riot Games’ recipe for hype feels like it was built in a lab.
The stadium’s sound designers turn the bass up to ear-splitting levels. The event commentators, who all wore three-piece suits, could be heard reverberating throughout the entire stadium, so no one else felt any need to offer commentary of their own. The event was too loud for that, anyway. The lighting technicians sweep colorful spotlights through the crowd during tense teamfights. The stadium hallways sell League of Legends team jerseys and sign-making tools. Official photo stations encourage fans to pose with League of Legends props, or schedule a time to get a pic with the pros.
The stadium chairs are bolted to the floor, so no one could have lifted them overhead without a wrench. The venue has strict rules against bringing in outside food and drinks (or wrenches). I didn’t see anyone placing cash bets on matches, or sneaking in a Four Loko. Unlike Shine, there never seemed to be any shortage of venue staffers around each corner, keeping an eye on everything.
Riot even got a traditional sports star to show up for a quick segment: Celtics player Gordon Hayward hopped on the hosting desk to express his well-rehearsed surprise that so many people had showed up to watch League of Legends. (The TD Banknorth Garden did not sell out, but it did appear to be over halfway full.)
The atmosphere at the NA LCS Summer Finals felt cordial, perhaps because the stakes were relatively low. Even without this win, Team SoloMid had already stacked up enough wins over the course of the series to qualify for World Championships this October. The same was true for Immortals, their opposing team. The prize was honor. Well, that and the $200,000 prize pool. But mostly honor.
That was true for the competitors at Shine 2017, too. The only thing on the line was prize money—much less of it, with the pot only totaling $11,560—and honor. But diss tracks have dropped over less.
Fighting games encourage individualist personas. League of Legends, and Riot Games, do not. That difference arises in part from the games themselves. League of Legends is a five-person game that requires intense communication and role-assigned teamwork, thereby discouraging players from antagonistic lone wolf behavior. League pros have been kicked off teams for not abiding by these social norms. Competitive Super Smash Brothers, on the other hand, involves one-on-one battles between people who don’t have to worry about pissing off Nintendo or anybody else.
Sometimes, the fighting game community gets huffy about the word “esports.” It’s not just because “esports” is a silly word (it is), but rather because of what that word has come to represent: selling out.
The League of Legends Championship Series is peak esports, with all the good and bad that the term entails. Riot Games’ North American league structure now guarantees each pro player a $75K starting salary. The visibility and popularity of League means that pros at this game might have more post-retirement opportunities in careers like streaming, commentating, or coaching, whereas pros who play less popular games have a tougher time finding work after aging out of their reflex-based skills.
Team SoloMid, the esports organization that owns the League of Legends team that won the NA LCS summer finals, also happens to sponsor Smash player Leffen. A handful of the other Smash competitors at Shine have also gotten picked up by esports organizations in the past two years. But there’s no Nintendo-enforced league that guarantees a minimum salary or benefits for sponsored Smash pros.
As the developer of League of Legends, Riot reaps the ultimate rewards by owning the game, the broadcasting rights, and the league. Any pro League player has to play by Riot’s rules, in the game and in terms of etiquette. By contrast, many fighting game players are essentially free agents, but that also means they have no recourse if tournaments don’t pay out prize winnings. That’s why some Smash pros want to unionize. (League pros don’t have a union, either. Riot Games is starting a players’ association for them, although there are some downsides to Riot starting it rather than the players.)
The spirit of esports loomed large over Shine’s shoulder. The commentators didn’t wear three-piece suits, but some did wear jackets and ties, either in parody or in earnest tribute to the formality on display at more well-heeled gaming events. Shine felt like watching a great band in a small venue and knowing, deep down, that they could do better than a dive bar. They could get discovered, do a stadium tour, and never be the same again.
No one in the hallways of Shine was asking why the players at that event didn’t seem excited. But the Smash pros at Shine didn’t have a team of four other people to worry about. I wish Doublelift would put out a diss track, but I understand why he won’t.
The traditional sports template has laid out its red carpet for fighting games. This fall, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park plans to host an esports tournament featuring Super Smash Brothers alongside League of Legends and a plethora of other genres of games. League of Legends has already learned to sand off its edges and mainstream it up in traditional sports venues. But something would be lost if fighting games did the same thing.