It’s eerily quiet in the halls of Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA, when I arrive Nov. 20 for Intel Extreme Masters, or IEM—the longest running esports tournament in the world. Two groups of middle school-aged boys pass each other in the hall and offer an update: “Nine to two already? Holy shit.”
I veer into the arena and hear announcers booming over the loudspeakers. My eyes adjust in the darkened space and I descend the concrete stairs, surrounded by 10,000 gaming fans in stadium seating. They’re quiet, watching two jumbo screens displaying a live feed of a game in motion on the floor over an elaborate stage setup with gaming teams sitting in front of monitors. The announcers are in a broadcast booth. I slink into an empty seat and suddenly—a game-changing move is made.
In unison they roar. It’s thunderous. Props and objects are waved. Then, silence and order again. It’s totally foreign to me, but totally intriguing at the same time.
When I mentioned to people that I was attending an esports tournament, they looked at me in bewilderment. Most people see gaming as a solitary activity played at home—not a mainstream global phenomenon whose fans fill arenas (an industry estimated by analysts will be worth $1 billion by 2019). The crowds at Oracle Arena pale in comparison to the 20 million-plus viewers at home live-streaming IEM on Twitch. But with tens of thousands of fans sharing their experience at live gaming events, that ratio may be poised to change.
“Gaming is like any real sport, and IEM is a platform where we bring the community together to socialize and interact,” says George Woo, global esport marketing manager at Intel, and the mastermind behind IEM. “That’s what makes it so organic. These fans are very smart people where it’s hard to get access to them these days. Traditional ads just don’t reach these guys because they have ad blocks and other things.”
Intel Extreme Masters began in 2006 when Intel approached ESL, the world’s largest esports company, to become title sponsor of a global gaming tournament. IEM works much like the sport of, say, tennis with tournaments throughout the year. This year, IEM hit Shanghai and Oakland, and will travel to Gyeonggi, South Korea (December) and Katowice, Poland (March 2017). In Oakland, the world’s best teams faced off on two of the top esports titles played on PC: Counter Strike: Global Offensive (for a $300,000 prize) and League of Legends (for a $100,000 prize). Katowice is IEM’s biggest event, drawing 113,000 fans to Spodek Arena.
There are a few aspects of IEM that set it apart from other tournaments. In addition to its reputation among gamers, it’s the only global esports tournament that is publisher agnostic—meaning it has the right to use different titles in its tournaments. It’s the only other independent league that game developer Riot licenses its game League of Legends to for an official sanctioned tournament. It’s also the biggest cheerleader of the esports space.
“We’re trying to show that leadership, and we’re working with game publishers to push that envelope,” Woo says. “We don’t frown upon any leagues or tournaments—the landscape’s changing, it’s growing, and it’s all good for this industry: the more people involved, the more dollars supporting the industry. It’s about supporting this and getting to the mainstream, like linear TV.”
Over the 11 seasons of IEM, Intel has transformed IEM into a gaming festival. In Oakland, the arena split into two sides: one side for League of Legends and one side for CS:GO. Fans meandered to and from both tournaments, and checked out two activations on the floor and the partner ecosystem in the concourse.
Intel activated a suite of products for attendees to demo, as well as a VR experience on the floor that showcased the latest VR games on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Intel Core i7 Extreme Processors. The IEM Oakland matches were broadcast online to 360-degree viewers and VR headsets with Sliver.TV, including a 360-degree birds-eye view of the game action, first-person player views, player stats and live commentary. And those on-site didn’t miss out on that access—they could view the tournament in VR on HTV Vive and Oculus Rift headsets at viewing stations around the venue.
“Instead of Intel going to a gaming website and kind of shoving ads and campaigns in gamers’ faces, we use the platform to really educate people on our newest products and tell our narrative, and in Oakland, the narrative was around virtual reality and where we want to be as the leader in that space,” Woo says.
Next to Intel’s activation was sponsor Totinos. The pizza roll-maker’s footprint had two red couches that bucked and twirled like bull riding games. Fans sat in the couch and tried to play a video game on a TV nearby while holding on for dear life. On top of that, brand ambassadors fed the masses. I’ve never seen that many samples doled out at any event. Intel wants to see more non-endemic brands leveraging IEM, and embracing the esport personality.
On top of evolving the sport, Intel wants to grow the esport audience, especially among girls. In Oakland it sponsored a charity match with AnyKey, an advocacy organization dedicated to supporting diversity in gaming. The best women’s CS:GO teams (Team Secret and CLG Red) in the world faced off in a rematch with the winning team earning $10,000 for the charity of its choice. Therein lies what I found to be the coolest aspect of gaming: there aren’t any gender barriers.
“These two teams were in the championship last year in Poland, and we brought them on in Oakland to continue that push for diversity, and to have role models that women fans can look up to is a good start,” Woo says.