Southern California, and particularly Los Angeles, has become the de facto home base of esports in North America, and that has never been reinforced more than this past weekend.
Three of the biggest game publishers in the world in Riot Games, Blizzard Entertainment and Capcom were all on display in balmy Southern California. Riot hosted its annual League of Legends All-Stars event, Blizzard cut the ribbon on its highly anticipated Overwatch League with four days of preseason action and Capcom, rounding it all off, crowned the world champion of its headline esports title, Street Fighter V, at the PlayStation Experience in Anaheim.
Instead of picking one like a normal person and covering it, I wanted to experience all SoCal competitive gaming had to offer. The plan was simple enough: Start off with All-Stars in Santa Monica on Thursday and Friday, travel down 30 minutes (or, you know, an hour and a half since we're talking about L.A. traffic) for Overwatch on Saturday at Blizzard's new arena in Burbank and finish it all on Sunday with the culmination of the Capcom Pro Tour at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Although all esports in name, the trio of events, when there live, at the heart, couldn't have been any more different. This was my crazy weekend in Southern California.
The All-Stars experience
I go to the LCS Arena in Santa Monica more than anywhere else in the world other than my apartment. For the past two years, I've traveled there two to three days a week to cover the North American LCS. I've seen the place full to the brim with hopeful attendees being turned away at the door and lines of fans wrapping around the block to meet the members of Team SoloMid. I've also seen it when there were more Riot staff members in attendance than fans, when it's a Friday nearing midnight in the third week of the regular season and neither of the teams playing are going to make the playoffs.
I've never experienced anything at the LCS Arena like All Stars on Thursday.
The usual crowd at the LCS ranges in age from teens to early 30s. It features lots of TSM and C9 uniforms and that one funny guy who likes to try and start a chant like "TEE-MO SUCKS!" to no avail. The crowd at All-Stars was not that. In fact, I'm pretty sure 80 percent of the crowd was from China. When I turned around from the press section in the Battle Arena, I was met with fans yelling for the Chinese players, League of Legends Pro League signs, and even the signature light-up neon cheerfuls that are ever present overseas for the LPL and international events held in China.
When the Chinese team took the stage for the first time, a few brave fans got out of their seats and tiptoed near the stage to yell encouragements out to Jian "Uzi" Zi-Hao and the rest of the LPL representatives. A minute later, a few more fans realized the opportunity in front of them and joined their compatriots in taking pictures of the players. By the time security finally realized what was going on, a swarm of fans was crowded around the LPL side of the stage, with some fans even getting on the stage itself to get the closest picture possible of their favorite player.
Outside, European superstar Martin "Rekkles" Larsson met fans in the parking lot and posed for a few pictures. One girl started crying into her boyfriend's shoulder following her meeting with the Fnatic AD carry. These moments for fans are few and far between, especially in the domestic system Riot Games has crafted over the past five years, as inter-regional matches only occur once every few months.
On Friday, I finished the night with an interview with SK Telecom T1's Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok. When I was first told I had gotten the one-on-one with the game's best, I sat in the media lobby waiting for him to ascend up the stairs. I waited, and then waited some more, watching as games continued on the TV beside me. Finally, I was told that the interview would still occur, but there was one issue: Faker was still alive in the one-on-one competition, and even if it was a fun side event, he wanted to take it seriously and diligently practice for his upcoming match with TSM's Soren "Bjergsen" Bjerg.
After the match (which Bjergsen took in a close affair), Faker walked up the long stairs in the LCS Arena through the press lobby to do the interview. Another major difference between the NA LCS and All-Stars was the media contingent: There are usually only four to five outlets at the venue on any given day during the regular season, but at All-Stars that number quadrupled, with South Korean, European and Chinese media making the press area the busiest I've seen it in two years.
During my interview with Faker, my eyes kept shifting toward the window looking into the room on the door, the eyes of other media peering into the room to try and see if they could catch Faker when he was done. It got to the point where a screen had to be placed over the window to make sure people would stop interrupting the interview.
When we were done, we lifted from our seats in unison, shook hands and I exited the room. A split second after I left, those people lying in wait flooded in, hoping to snag Faker for a quick interview before he left the press area and probably went back to practicing for the upcoming semifinal with the LPL All Stars on Saturday. As I descended the stairs to leave the venue for the day, the same fans who crowded the stage earlier to get pictures of the LPL players were waiting in the front lobby, lined up against the wall in hopes of catching one of the All-Stars leaving the player area for a quick picture, an autograph, or -- if they were lucky -- a touch of the hand.
A Saturday at Overwatch League
"Where are you trying to look?" asked the dad sitting in front of me.
"I want to get on camera!" his son answered, turning his head and looking past me to see if he could locate exactly where the closest camera was so he could get on the broadcast.
From the tried and tested halls of the LCS Arena, my next stop took me to a place that has only been open for the past two months. The crowd at the Overwatch League at the Blizzard in Burbank was the polar opposite of the one I saw at All-Stars. At the League of Legends event, the fans knew every inch of history of the players; the die-hards who traveled from China to Los Angeles knew what it meant to watch Uzi play live, and they seemed to know all the twists and turns in his career. Overwatch, meanwhile, is still in a fledgling stage, and the Overwatch League is the start of a new era for the popular Blizzard title; that deep and storied history doesn't exist.
Fans at the Blizzard Arena are still trying to find their favorite team and players to root for. Unlike the LCS, I saw a lot more families in attendance for Overwatch, fathers and their sons walking around the venue, analyzing the different hats and jerseys to find which one spoke to them. When a Blizzard emcee came out to direct the crowd before the matches began, he tried to gauge which teams had the most support. The two Los Angeles teams, Gladiators and Valiant, both got roars from the crowd. The Dallas Fuel, a team made up of some of the biggest names in Overwatch with a history of success in the pre-OWL era, got a similar reaction. But when it came to a team like the Florida Mayhem, still trying to find its audience, only one fan screamed the club's name. Later, after the Mayhem had an entertaining series against the Fuel, I saw a few fans mulling over the idea of getting the team's jersey.
That's how it is at the Overwatch League. Everything is new, especially in the preseason. The news conferences and way of going about things is still a work in progress, and the fandoms and storylines are still being built. But as I watched the father and son in front of me hit each other playfully on the arm each time a headshot occurred, or marvel when the wraparound LED screen displayed which map the teams were getting into, I could see a glimpse of the future Blizzard had promised when the Overwatch League was first announced at BlizzCon over a year ago.
A Street Fighter surprise
The man wouldn't stop yelling.
I got to the Capcom Pro Tour final as the event reached its climax. On the stage, teenager Saul "MenaRD" Segundo of the Dominican Republic was putting together the biggest esport upset of 2017, and a man sitting in front of me screamed his support in Spanish. I don't think that man sat the entire night.
MenaRD was no favorite. He advanced through the tournament with his instinct-based play on his all-or-nothing character, Birdie. In past years, cerebral players such as South Korea's Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo, the type of players who could download an opponent's movements and make adjustments on the fly to lead them to victory, were heralded for their brilliant approach to the game. MenaRD is not that player; in fact, he is the complete opposite. When pushed against a wall, the Dominican representative didn't attempt to find a way around or over the obstacle. He plowed right through, trusting his intuition and feeling for the game to carry him.
MenaRD fell behind Evolution Championship Series champion Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi 0-2 in the grand finals. Tokido, who beat MenaRD in the winners final, was the only person to stop MenaRD in his tracks all tournament long. It felt like the Cup was about at its close. MenaRD's friends still screamed his name and begged him not to give up, but he even looked defeated. A kid without much experience, on the big stage with one of the most tenured players in not only Street Fighter but in all of esports? Things couldn't have been direr.
Over the next 40 minutes, I can't really explain what happened. Some will say it was a choke by Tokido, while others will call it a miracle. Whichever you prefer, what occurred was nothing short of one of the greatest comebacks (and upsets) I've ever seen.
Down to his last out, MenaRD kept fending off elimination, turning one round into one game win until ultimately forcing a reset in the bracket. It wasn't until MenaRD ultimately got his first lead in the series, 2-1, when I realized that my face was on the big screen and that was my mouth was agape; the crowd was nowhere near a sellout, it sounded like one in the closing minutes of the series. MenaRD's friends jumped up and down, dancing in the aisle as he took Tokido down to a match point of his own.
When MenaRD put the final hit on Tokido's Akuma to become the most unexpected esports world champion of 2017, his face, blank for the first time all night, told the whole story. Before he could react to the moment, his friends rushed on-stage, almost tackling him to the ground in their embrace. MenaRD wanted to win in hopes of bringing more attention to the Latin American Street Fighter scene, and in the most implausible way imaginable, he did just that.
As I walked out into the night, I heard boisterous singing up ahead. I went to investigate who was having a party and was met by the same people I had watched rush the stage to hug MenaRD less than an hour earlier. They were taking photos with the oversized novelty check given to MenaRD from Capcom, dancing and signing as they displayed the $250,000 first-place prize with a sense of pride and, at that moment, no other cares in the world.
The sounds of their joyful chants still ringing in my head, I made my way to my hotel. My night was coming to an end, putting a close on my four days of traveling across Southern California, but theirs was just beginning.