Whenever an artist scheduled to play Qudos Bank Arena at Sydney Olympic Park doesn’t sell enough tickets, the venue tactfully drapes black cloth over the empty seats in the theatre’s uppermost section. Filling more than 18,000 seats is quite an ask, which is why only top-flight acts like Pink, Katy Perry, Shania Twain and Kendrick Lamar are attempting it in coming months.
The black cloth is not needed today. Sydney gaming enthusiasts have filled the venue almost to capacity for the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM), a three-day professional video game tournament that rivals anything Qudos has hosted in terms of scale and spectacle.
Two groups of five men are onstage, seated at computer monitors. Headphones on, hunched forward, they sit almost completely immobile save for their flickering hands and darting eyes. Their coaches pace grimly behind them, watching the screens and muttering directives into their microphones.
Behind them, two enormous television monitors broadcast their onscreen actions. On the dusty streets of a Moroccan village, a band of balaclava-clad separatists is shot to pieces by a matching squad of Special Forces soldiers. Thirty seconds later, the soldiers are the ones cut down, caught in the crosshairs of a sniper as they stumble through a veil of smoke. A bomb planted on a cache of chemical weapons ignites, presumably killing thousands.
From the VIP seats to the nosebleed section, the enraptured crowd watches on, occasionally roaring its collective approval or disappointment. It is overwhelmingly male, although not noticeably more so than your average rugby league match. The main difference to any other sporting audience is that of age: the vast majority of attendees are in their 20s and 30s.
During lulls in play, they amuse themselves in the time-honoured way of bored Australian sports fans everywhere: by batting around a few beach balls and taunting security’s efforts to stop them. Chants of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” are just as regular and inane as they are at the cricket. When events onscreen reach a climax, the immense amphitheatre thunders with the crowd’s euphoria.
If this scene sounds made-up, you have officially missed the boat on the eSports phenomenon. Competitive gaming is a billion-dollar industry, and Sydney has become the field’s domestic epicentre.
IEM is dedicated to Counterstrike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), a multiplayer first-person shoot-’em-up where teams of five compete against each other in simple, objective-based rounds. Teams either assume the role of “terrorists” trying to plant a bomb, or Special Forces-style “counter-terrorists” trying to stop them, with much carnage resulting.
Sixteen professional CS:GO teams from as far afield as the European Union, Brazil, the United States and China are competing at IEM for a share in the $310,000 prize pool. Individual games take less than two minutes, with tournament rounds decided via a best-of-30 format. Whichever team wins 16 games takes the round, like a set in a game of tennis, and the team that wins two of three rounds wins the contest and advances to the next stage.
For competitors, this is not an amateur pursuit – it is a livelihood, and a possible ticket to sponsorship and stardom. While large-scale eSports events like IEM are relatively new in Australia, tournaments overseas routinely attract tens of thousands of attendees and millions of livestream views.
As the scene has become increasingly professionalised, competitive eSports has begun to resemble traditional sport far more than the old cliche of nerdy kids playing in a basement. Like any other sport, it has its own doping scandals, injuries and pay and contract disputes.
Teams are increasingly joining the World eSports Association, a peak body designed to standardise pay, conditions, rights and regulations across the industry. The major brands – Fnatic, Cloud9, Legacy – attract the same loyalty and fanaticism of elite sports teams. Their uniforms are adorned with the logos of hefty sponsors like Audi, Dr Pepper and Vodafone, and they scout lower pool-stage tournaments for talented players to sign.
Australian Oliver Tierney, known by the handle DickStacy, turned 21 three weeks ago and has been playing professionally for a year. Tierney has already played at international CS:GO tournaments in London, Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia and New Zealand, and is headed to Dallas in two weeks with Australian team Grayhound Gaming. His celebrity with the IEM crowd is evident by the reception he receives when he tries to use one of the venue’s bathrooms.
“I love the competitiveness of it, I love the group aspect,” Tierney says. “I never thought I’d be here in a million years.”
While Tierney has established himself overseas, he’s also keen to grow eSports domestically.
“The industry’s just going to keep growing and growing,” he says. “We’re completely behind in Australia at the moment; our internet’s too patchy, no one takes games seriously, the culture’s not there yet. But every kid these days knows what eSports is. The new generation coming through is where it’s going to happen.”
As the 16 male teams battle it out, the CS:GO Women’s Sydney Open plays in a side room. Around 100 people sit in the audience, making it the only space at IEM with more than a handful of women at any given time.
It’s a sober reminder of the gender disparity that permeates both sports and gaming culture. Like almost any other sport, women eSports players are woefully underpaid compared to their male counterparts. The two women’s teams in the grand final – Sydney Saints and Control ESports – are only competing for the lion’s share of $10,000 in prize money.
The fact that eSports are gender segregated at all points more to the sexism present in the wider gaming scene than any disparity in ability. The 2014 Gamergate scandal, which saw female gaming journalists and critics of gaming culture’s more boorish aspects targeted by waves of online abuse, was the first rumbling of what would become the weaponised misogyny of the Trump campaign and the violent “incel” movement.
Nicole Constantine is the Sydney Saints’ manager, handling their schedules and day-to-day logistics. She thinks that while gender equality in eSports is a way off, the “step-by-step” work of women like the Saints is wearing down the barriers.
“If you give girls the opportunity, they will perform”, Constantine says. “Constantly criticising and comparing them to the boys’ leagues is useless, because they stand on their own.”
By Sunday, the 16 male teams have been whittled down to two: FaZe Clan, the home crowd favourites, and Astralis, hyped by MC Oliver D’Anastasi as “possibly the best team in the world”.
Despite FaZe Clan eventually blitzing the best-of-five rounds contest, the final takes nearly five hours. When they finally complete the whitewash, the arena erupts.
As Sydney goes about its Sunday, unaware of the growing phenomenon unfolding in its midst, 18,000 gaming devotees stand to cheer their new champions.