The midday sun burns harshly, reflected and amplified by Taipei’s concrete jungle. The Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest skyscraper, is right across the street, magnificent and terrible in bamboo-green glass and steel. Its reflected light is torturous amid the summer ambiance – even the shade of trees simmer with 30+ degree Celsius heat, added to by the crushing body warmth of tens of thousands of League of Legends fans, evaporating what little patience there is left among the crowd.
Hokkien, one of the two indigenous tongues and commonly called “Tai Yu” by Mandarin-speaking locals, is an excellent language for cussing. As Garena staff moves through the crowd with a bullhorn, announcing that they’ve already reached max capacity a good thirty minutes before the event was to start, those desperately cutting in line are met by gunshot-quick rebuke. The crowd is a low roar, regardless of Mandarin, Tai Yu or the rare bit of English – a sea of black hair and sweat lapping at the shores of the Taipei World Trade Center, threatening to crush down the black gates from sheer volume and pressure.
About five percent of the entire island of Taiwan plays League of Legends. Having heard of the lines starting as early as 10 PM the previous night, and stood among the sunburnt crowds, that number is entirely believable. They are angry, friendly, laughing and yelling – all with one purpose. They are all here today to witness their island country’s official step into the international circuit for League of Legends in Season 2.
Today, Taiwan and Hong Kong crowns their champions for the world stage.
FLASH AND FANFARE
I’m led by the hand through the crowd, and the escape is most definitely welcomed. Taipei Assassins’ manager Erika Tseng rescues me from the oppressive humidity of ten thousand bodies and into the arctic blast of the TWTC’s climate control suite. Though the convention building is humble on the outside, a sprawl of blocky outcropping in ugly browns and tans dwarfed by the attached Hilton, the cavernous interior is a darkly lit spectacle of focused spotlight beams and mammoth speakers blaring Asian pop. Neon lights line a two-story tall stage flanked on two sides by five-unit rows of computers – the arena in which the fights will be played out, rebroadcasted upon screens tens of feet high.
The crowd inside is even denser than it was outside. Even as Garena’s security tries to keep the in-pour at a tolerable rate, the venue is crammed three floors high. People have snuck through the walkway attached to the Taipei 101 and wormed their way up from the underground garage while security was still lax. Spectators are squatting on the disabled escalators, faces pressed to the glass as they look downward at the showgirls dancing in Garena red and whites, advertising the rest of the games under the publishing company’s aegis.
Most of those ads get ignored. The crowd isn’t here for that. There’s really only one game on display today, and it has nothing to do with rhythm dancing and dragon-themed MMOs. World-famous CLG.EU have come, over an early-morning flight straight out of Seoul, their uniforms donned and fingers loose despite having stayed up all night watching brother team CLG.Prime take on North America.
They are, however, visibly exhausted. Wickd is seen napping in the VIP room prior to his team’s two-set brawl against Taiwan’s best and brightest e-warriors – a thin chamber of four walls and no ceiling, to Erika’s vocalized dismay, exposed to all of the raucous noise and spectacles, especially from those on the floors directly above. Fortunately for everybody involved, they’re well-loved celebrities here. Despite the exposure, they’re left to rest in relative peace.
Unfortunately for me, the ambient noise drowns out the video interview, and I fumble repeatedly with the tablet in an effort to sneak in a few questions — shoestring eSports journalism at its finest.
By the time the games start, Garena estimates a crowd size of over 20,000 individuals, seemingly a tenth of which are bedecked in Teemo hats purchased from Garena’s store in the hall space adjacent to the main stage. The store is quickly closed when the slow lines and over-boiling frustrations cause at least one small-scale riot throughout the day – the verb, not the game company.
A prize pool of only US$670 for third place isn’t particularly impressive, but that didn’t keep the plays made from being so. The match between Taiwan’s ALC and Hong Kong’s MksZ was defined primarily by reflexes — a perfectly timed Flash here, a narrow escape with a single bar of health left on either opposing champion there… and it’s still a 2-0 set in favor of the Hong Kong team in the end as ALC stumbles and allows themselves to get aced repeatedly in the second game.
Outside of technical expertise, however, there is little in the way of excitement for the match. Hecarim making a showing for All-Lane Carry in the first game is nice, but the poor centaur barely had any presence, thanks to MksZ’s slippery ways. The Hong Kong team would evaporate at the first sign of a crowd control set-up against them, frustrating ALC’s attempt to control the game tempo.
The crowd appreciates it well enough. These are the local stars of the South-East Asian circuits – the equivalents of Team Dynamic and oRb. They clearly have what it takes to steal a few games from even top-level teams.
But the gap between top-tier national caliber and world class is deceptively wide.
There is little left to be desired from Garena’s stream presentation of the Taiwan/Hong Kong regionals. But for the actual content, the replay system could have easily been mistaken for something straight out of conventional sports casts – sharp, crisp, and utterly professional. Garena’s Taiwanese casters share that professionalism, but are highly enthusiastic – though, unfortunately, I am only able to understand the bare gists of their analysis thanks to my rudimentary grasp of the language. If there is one major flaw in the presentation, it would be the lack of soundproof booths – noise-canceling headphones are infamously ill-suited for the task, as they can only do so much against the boom and roar of industrial-level speakers and an enthusiastic 20,000-strong crowd.
The real problem is the venue itself. Or, rather, the parts partitioned off for Garena. It is very nearly impossible to traverse the show floor between games – I am able to sneak through a lot of short cuts thanks to my VIP badge, but even getting to those side-ways and guarded gates can be a perilous task. I run into at least two or three people screaming at the top of their lungs at staffers about how long they had to wait in line, oblivious to the fact that everybody else had to as well, and that, hours since the 12:00 opening, there are still hundreds if not thousands outside.
There are also very few options available to the thirsty or hungry spectator. The vending machines all run dry within a matter of an hour, leaving only the second-floor cafeteria and convenience store left. But access to that floor was restricted early on, thanks to the relentless deluge of visitors presenting a safety hazard upon the steps. Though the line at Subway’s and the Family Mart convenience store are both long, the cafeteria is eerily quiet when I drop by for a quick meal, devoid of but a scant few diners.
I should have taken that as a warning. The food is bad. The curry is a lifeless, flavorless yellow goop, unalleviated by the side dishes of brined cucumber, steamed soy beans and tofu. Far better if I’d managed to reach Family Mart earlier, when the line was shorter, as Taiwanese convenience stores are amazing. Unlike TWTC’s cafeteria, they don’t have a standing mandate to cater to the international traveler’s tastes – the usual local fare is readily available as buckets of boiled soy sauce eggs, Taiwanese tempura (not at all like the crispy, fried Japanese original), steamed stuffed buns and microwaveable chicken-pepper rice plates. The latter is a personal favorite, as the pepper sauce is fiery, full-bodied and generously provided.
What I’m actually left with, when I check it out later, are shelves stripped bare of everything edible but the faux-meat vegetarian rice plates that nobody in their right mind bothers with.
So I grab some caffeine and head back to the carnival.
World Elite was originally supposed to attend as guests, duking it out in a show match against the fan-voted all-star Taiwanese team. As has been a pattern since all the way back in IEM Kiev, however, Chinese teams have the absolute worst time securing visas for trips abroad — even if their government holds the political stance that Taiwan isn’t properly “abroad.”
Not that it matters, as CLG.EU quite confidently steals the show. The show matches are best-of-one events, draft, but no bans. To my embarrassment, Erika later had to correct my assumptions that something had gone wrong with the tournament realm servers – those occasionally missed bans and Evelynn selections were really because of teams maximizing the time they had to concoct optimal strategies against CLG.EU.
For the most part, it worked. The Taiwan All-Stars team, consisting of Zonda in top, a scarily effective Lantyr as jungler, Ximen as AP Carry, and GodJJ plus Iceman as AD Carry and Support respectively, maintained kill parity against CLG.EU throughout most of the match. The local fan favorites had a solid, even challenging, grasp on aggressive tactics.
But CLG.EU’s been playing against Korean tactics. Aggression isn’t enough. It becomes self-evident why Snoopeh has long-preferred tanky, support-type junglers: when you have hard carries like Froggen and Yellowpete, you want them to run wild.
You can all add Lux to the slowly growing list of champions you don’t want Froggen playing.
Then, as orchestral music reaches a crescendo, and the locally dominant Taipei Assassins take to the stage, the whisperings start. “Bing niao” is the word of the day, and the literal translation from Mandarin is ice bird. Froggen is on the lips of tens of thousands of viewers, and the crowd holds its breath in anticipation.
Anivia is chosen! Though the game runs much longer against the Taipei Assassins than it did against the All-Stars, CLG.EU seemed much more sure of itself in the crowning showcase match. Froggen, on the champion that made his name, inexorably freezes their chance down kill by kill. Three. Four. Five.
Eight kills and no deaths.
Despite the tropical heat outside, winter has come upon the stage of the Garena G1. All is frozen beneath the shadow of monstrous wings.
THE CROWNED CHAMPIONS – Corsair (Taiwan) vs TPA (Taiwan)
It is dark now, and the crowd has thinned. CLG.EU leaving the stage lightens up foot traffic significantly, even as the deciding match of the event has yet to occur. But that doesn’t mean the crowd is actually sparse, in any sense, as the front bloc of seats are still crammed full. It’s merely the showcase booths for other games, Razor, Acer, and Garena that are now abandoned. Many have gone home; many more have opted to stay to witness.
What they witness is an alien and terrible light smashing down Corsair over and over again.
If the shadow of Froggen’s frozen wings inspire dread, then so too should the ghastly skeletal grasp of Toyz’s Karthus. The Taipei Assassins might have come off a losing match against CLG.EU, but Corsair is simply not at their level. Requiem is a harvest scythe, reaping the opposing team by twos and threes. Then a quadrakill. Then another triple kill. They forgo banning out Karthus in the second match, perhaps believing that TPA’s Yorick ban signaled a changed mid-lane tactic.
They chose badly.
To quote the announcers: “Ohh myyy gooodddddd.”
TPA just won a flight to Los Angeles.
MEET AND GREET
It’s late night two days later at the Zhongxiao Dunhua shopping district in Taipei, and, to my gratitude, Snoopeh recognizes me amid the crowd of fans at the meet’n’greet. A good hundred people are here for autographs, pictures and handshakes, showing up thirty minutes prior to their appearance.
At least a third of them are fangirls.
They’re all impressed by Snoopeh’s boy band looks, but they’re all talking about “bing niao.” Froggen is swamped by fans of both genders, even greeted with knee and elbow bracers as gifts to help him better carry his team. More gifts are exchanged, clumsy English utilized to ask for game tips, and many short Taiwanese girls cause their photographers much frustration as they try to fit both the girls and Wickd, looming tall, into the same picture frame.
The crowd is large, causing problems for traffic and not a few confused looks from restaurant staff and shop owners. It is nowhere near the level of the Garena G1, but impressive for a small-scale, quickly announced fan event. This is the only time a lot of them will get to see and talk to CLG.EU up this close; while the team will remain in Taiwan for the rest of the week, practicing with the Taipei Assassins for their upcoming match against Azubu Frost, said practice schedule will be too involved for prolonged group interactions like this.
It is as good a conclusion as any to an amazingly successful weekend of eSports. The final tally from Garena estimates an approximately 50,000 attendees throughout the entire tournament, and CLG.EU’s presence and fan response solidifies the global nature of the game.
We might speak different languages, and even call our champions different names, but we’re all on the same page and same thoughts: damn it’s cool to be here.