Note: This piece spoils the results between Cloud 9 and Curse in the League of Legends Championship Series semi-final.
I was about 20 minutes into the showdown between Cloud 9 and Curse for the right to advance to the North American League of Legends Championship Series Finals when I suddenly realized that I was sitting in what amounted to a really big sports bar.
I had a frontrow seat for one of the biggest events in eSports, but I was mostly staring at a tiny television attached to the stage in front of me. On the stage above, Cloud 9 members were mostly obscured by their individual stations. Most of them consisted only of a head staring intently at their monitor as they played.
This is not to disparage eSports, but more to comment on what an odd experience it was for me as a sports fan. I've heard more than once that it's no longer worth spending the money to go to an NFL game because you'll get a much better view on your 50-inch plasma; but even in the biggest, deadest stadiums, you can still sort of feel like you're watching a live event. At the League of Legends semi-finals, I was about 10 feet from the contestants, and I was still staring at a screen that was smaller than my computer monitor back home (it might have actually been better to have been in the middle area of the hall where I could have watched the bigger screens).
The fun, of course, was in being there when something interesting happened and the crowd roared with excitement. The first of those moments came when Curse tried to surprise and flank Cloud 9 while they battled a dragon and a full-scale melee erupted. The encounter was over in seconds, and it was almost impossible to gain a sense of what was really going on amid all of the pyrotechnics, but I cheered with everyone else when Cloud 9 killed two Curse members and knocked out a third as they tried to escape. It was a moment in which the entire arena felt the momentum shift and reacted accordingly, which is not a feeling that you can get at home (though I've experienced it a few times in a packed sports bar).
In the end, Curse took a pretty epic curbstomping from Cloud 9, losing three games in a row to a team that clearly had every intention of going to the finals. It was as thorough a deconstruction of a pro team as I've ever seen, hearkening back to Seattle's victory over Denver during the Super Bowl (appopriate given all the Seahawks gear I've seen on the streets of Seattle). The crowd cheered throughout, but they also seemed almost bemused, as if they couldn't believe what they were watching. Outside of the initial battle, the biggest cheer might have been for Cloud 9's LemonNation, who was able to neatly scoot away from two attackers to maintain his team's then-perfect score, followed Cloud 9 turning the tables and building an even bigger lead over their foes. Cloud 9's victory was inevitable, and everyone knew it, but sometimes even a blowout can be entertaining when one team is just that good (see again: the 2013 Seahawks).
Outside of the excitement of the match itself, what struck me most about being in the audience was the feeling that I was in the midst of some giant community meetup. The girl next to me was clearly extremely invested in League of Legends, nodding sagely when a player rolled a certain character and commenting on even seemingly innocuous moments. A montage of announcer David "Phreak" Turley's various dance moves drew a huge and seemingly very fond laugh from the assembled crowd. There was a sense of collective ownership over the sport that you don't really see at other events. I'm sure there were a few casual observers like me here and there; but in a way, I felt almost more like I was at a League of Legends fan convention than I did an important semi-final.
As I walked out of the exhibition hall, I turned to look at the assemblage of fans staring upward at Phreak as he broke down Cloud 9's win, watching the same content as everyone else back home. Ultimately, they probably could have stayed home and watched the stream from there, but nothing quite beats watching a top team perform at the highest level in your favorite game with a thousand like-minded fans. Even if I spent most of my time staring at a tiny monitor mounted on the stage, I'm glad I went.