I stuck around for about an hour. It was enough.
I wanted to see if these events were as spectator un-friendly as I had suspected, and I was pretty disappointed to find that I was right.
It’s not that I want to rip on the biggest thing gaming has going in the States, or that I have nothing better to do. It’s just that I don’t see a whole lot worth cheering about, if I’m considering the long term growth of what we do. I don’t enjoy being a miscreant, I’d like to say that everyone should get aboard the MLG train, but quite frankly I don’t see how the MLG’s model is one that’s workable over the long term. Either I’m way off my rocker or just about everyone else is, and I suppose this blog in general is an attempt to settle that score, in a way.
So first, I’ll mention what they’re doing right.
The competitions appeared very well staffed. It appeared that there was at least one admin overlooking every match going on, and there was room for about 20 simultaneous matches in the Halo area, which sat in the center of the hall and occupied the majority of it. The location, relative to other places in the city they could have staged the event, was also a good choice even though the event should technically be called MLG Maryland; the National Harbor (or ‘Plastic Town’ as Smeagol and I refer to it as) has plenty of places for the competitors to walk around, hang out, have a bite, etc. without being in an area that’s ridiculously expensive or kinda seedy. I already knew the Harbor pretty well as I used to work at an office there, so I knew where to park and where to go. Once inside the sprawling Gaylord complex, it was easy to find where the event was.
(See, MLG – I’m not a complete bastard. No reason for you to ignore my requests for a press pass, and not respond AT ALL.)
I saw some parents genuinely getting into some of the matches their kids were playing in. I stood behind a small group spectating a Halo match, and mom went bananas when her kid pulled off a small frag streak to end the match. You could tell they actually understood the game a bit, which was good since I couldn’t fathom what was going on in any Halo match I looked at, but more on that later. If, in the end, this is all that MLG boils down to – greater acceptance of gaming as a serious endeavor by people over 40 – then I suppose it’s not all bad for the scene.
But if MLG continues to make hay on their marketing campaign that they are the peak of professional gaming in the States, if the most enthusiastic fans on location of the marquee game on the MLG circuit are friends and family…then we either need something else to grab the torch and run, or we’re in some serious trouble.
It was easy to pick out the parents from the crowd watching Halo. The vast majority of the rest of Halo onlookers were also easily identifiable as competitors. They were either wearing team-branded apparel, random MLG apparel (usually co-branded with a sponsor…‘I pwn piggy banks’ gimme a break PNG), or had their MLG branded Astro headsets around their shoulders.
This left me as the only person like me that I could really identify in the Halo area – an onlooker that had no direct relation of affiliation with a competitor or the competition…a true spectator.
When I arrived, there was a Halo match taking place in their main stage area, and the bleachers seemed to be filled…with fellow competitors that had likely been eliminated at that point. There was no commentary…and no cheering; when the match ended, everyone filed out without much of a word – pretty anticlimactic, really.
I tried to follow the match for a few minutes and just couldn’t grok what the hell was going on. All eight first person views were up on two projector screens, with a ninth point of view which seemed to flip between points of action; I couldn’t figure out whether it was human- or algorithm-controlled. I can’t say, though, that I’d have understood what was going on in this Halo match even if there was commentary. It’s a game that is simply incomprehensible unless you’ve played it. That brings up other issues, but more on that later.
I moved on to the PC area, stuck back in the far left corner of the hall: the redheaded, smelly, funny looking stepchild of MLG. This treatment would seem quite strange, given that there were WAY more people watching Starcraft than there were looking over the shoulders of Halo players. When I sauntered over and took up a position at the back of spectator area, I estimated around 350 people gathered to watch Kiwikaki vs Select. How many of these people were competitors already dispatched from other competitions I couldn’t really tell, but I’d say there were likely a fair amount of true spectators like me in this crowd – there were just too many for this crowd to be entirely comprised of other players. Reactions to the course of the match were genuine and frequent, and large skirmishes were met with a fair deal of applause and cheering. That said, I did spot several pockets of Halo players hanging around the perimeter, obnoxiously mocking the crowd by parroting cheers to get laughs out of their teammates. (Jealous much?)
The strange thing was that there was no commentary audible from where I was standing, maybe 30 feet back from where the screen was hanging, even though I knew that this match was on the live stream, and that Wheat and Day9 would be commentating. Every once in a while, one of Wheat’s distinctive open ‘ah’ vowels would come sailing out to where I was standing, so I at least knew that the closest 100 people or so were probably able to hear, but that’s about it. I finally spotted where the commentators had been set up; they were stationed clear on the other side of the PC competition area from where the spectators were.
The setup doesn’t make much sense until you take into account that on-the-floor spectators aren’t really the main point of MLG. When you get right down to it, it’s all fodder for the streams. And they get the participants, the people actually bringing the raw competitive material, to subsidize the whole product. Pretty nifty.
At the point that I literally saw a walking Hot Pocket bumbling around the floor, I figured it was time for me to head out.
I plan to write some more analysis on my experience and how it further illuminated what the circuit should mean for gaming, at least from my perspective, in another post soon; however I didn’t want to delay getting this out any further. (thanks, vertigo!) TBC-