Video gamers take the stage for first time at Aspen’s X Games
There was mayhem at a first-year Winter X Games event Saturday. Lots of blood was spilled. Crowds cheered feats of athleticism and groaned when their favorite players missed golden opportunities to crush a foe.
While thousands of fans slowly gathered at the base of Buttermilk for the men’s ski slopestyle finals in the morning and the women’s event in early afternoon, about 125 spectators gathered in the dark of a gaming tent to witness “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.” Eight teams — three from North America, four from Europe and one from Brazil — were invited to wage war for a $50,000 purse.
Two five-member teams were perched in soundproof booths, transfixed on their screens and oblivious to the small crowd watching in the audience and throngs watching on MLG.tv, the Major League Gaming network. Major League Gaming said 2014 was a breakout year for the eSport. An estimated 71 million people participated in or watched tournaments around the world.
In Aspen, two large screens on either side of the competitors’ booths featured the action. One team was selected as the terrorists trying to detonate a bomb while the other team of counter-terrorists tried to disarm it within a certain time. Teams worked in unison to negotiate an animated course that featured abandoned adobe structures, empty courtyards, dark alleys and junked cars.
Stephanie Harvey, 28, traveled to Aspen from Montreal, Quebec, to catch the action. She met up with four other female friends, ranging in age from 19 to the mid-20s.
“We’re not here for the X Games. We’re here for MLG,” Harvey said.
The women are gamers themselves and are competing next weekend in a tournament in Denver. They came from across the country, from Maine to Los Angeles and Dallas to Denver. They wanted to check out the eight teams at the X Games to pick up some pointers.
“You learn from watching all the time,” Harvey said. “Every player has strengths.”
Harvey and her four friends compete in gaming events as the UBINITED team. Gaming is very much male-dominated, she said. They are one of the few all-female teams. Gamers are tight-knit. Members of several of the men’s teams regularly greet Harvey and her colleagues during breaks between matches. Participants and spectators mingle in the tent.
Although Harvey and her colleagues are spread across the country, they regularly get together online to engage in competition. Harvey estimated they spend 40 hours per week gaming; roughly 25 hours per week as a team and 15 hours individually.
While there is camaraderie in gaming, there’s also competition.
“The Swedish girls, for us, are arch-enemies,” Harvey said.
She acknowledged that her team won’t get rich pursuing their passion, but that’s not why they do it.
“It’s passion for the game,” she said. “Now there’s a lot of money involved. That’s really recent.”
On stage, Team Liquid, of North America, struggled against Team LDLC, of Sweden. All the players are young men, ranging in age from late teens to mid-20s. None appear particularly geeky. Many of them could mix with the crowd and athletes that the outdoor sports attract at Winter X Games.
As the players stare at their computer screens in their separate, soundproof booths, the spectator TV screens rapidly flip back and forth to display different players’ perspectives. The on-screen warriors stalk each other, hugging walls and hiding behind obstacles, waiting for an opportune shot. A grenade fries some. Others prevail in a shootout when they spray the landscape with an automatic weapon. The action goes fast and can be confusing for the uninitiated. They play as many as 30 rounds of no more than a couple minutes each. The first team to reach 16 wins.
The TV announcer goes nuts when a player named Nitro mows down a couple of opponents. Their blood spills on the ground.
“Are you kidding, Nitro? This guy’s absolutely ridiculous. His skills are immense,” the announcer screams.
Audience member Ricardo Rodriguez gently shakes his head when Nitro or some other player pulls a good move. Rodriguez, 28, and two cousins traveled from Riverside, California, specifically to watch the Major League Gaming. They didn’t hesitate to dish out the $100 to buy a ticket to watch three days of gaming.
“Not at all,” Rodriguez said.
The players in the competition are so far above his level that he enjoys watching the masters, he said. He is particularly impressed by the angles some of the players take to shoot a foe. The pros also impress him with their ability to coordinate their team play, he said. Individual skills are important, but winners are coordinated as a team. That becomes clear in a quarterfinal match when the well-coordinated Ninjas in Pyjamas team from Sweden crush Kabum from Brazil, 16-3.
Rodriguez estimated he’s played “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” for more than 400 hours. It’s one of his favorite games. He’s on a team with his cousins, Sam Rodriguez, 22, and Andrew Beck, 15, who traveled with him to Aspen.
Sam Rodriguez said they will keep practicing and aim to win regional competitions with the goal of getting invited to higher-profile tournaments. Some of the best gamers in the world make seven-figure salaries, he noted.
He and his cousins might not have the chance to reach the highest levels of competition, he said, but it’s exciting to get an up-close look at the professionals at the X Games.
Gaming became part of the Summer X Games in Austin, Texas, last year. Event organizer ESPN and Major League Gaming were so pleased with the results that they expanded eSport to the Winter X Games.
A winner will be awarded today and the team members will receive gold medals, just like in the other X Games events.
The Rodriguez cousins said they regularly attend gaming events that are much larger. Gaming competitions are much bigger in Europe than in North America, but it’s catching up in the U.S., Ricardo said.
“2015 is going to be a big year,” Ricardo Rodriguez said. “The X Games is just the beginning.”
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