Men and women have been going to bars to watch sports since the beginning of TV time. But e-sports? Aren't we supposed to be couped up in bedrooms, two feet from monitors watching crappy streams? No, says Barcraft! We watch Starcraft in bars, the way sport is supposed to be watched. We drink and be merry!
I have very little idea of what is going on.
The air is charged, electrified, filled with the sounds of conversation, shouting, cheers, jeers, excited chatter, and laughter; above it all, the unaccountably calm voices of sports commentators, amplified to an astounding degree, and yet only just audible above the din of the crowd. But this isn’t just any raucous sports bar on a Grand Finals night; this is the Paragon Hotel, in Circular Quay, and the game we have all gathered to watch is Starcraft 2 – the GSL Hot6ix Season 1 Finals, to be precise. This... is Barcraft.
It’s the third iteration of Barcraft in Sydney, and the atmosphere is unbelievable. This room is packed, wall to wall with people standing, sitting, leaning on things, anything to get a good view. Downstairs a few of the wall-mounted televisions are still showing more traditional fare – rugby, racing, track events - and the people down there seem somewhat bemused by the booming voices coming over the hotel’s PA system that are so damn excited about build orders and Korean rivalries. But up here the crowd is watching, rapt, even if half of them probably can’t hear what is actually going on.
Australian Pro League staffers running the event cut through the crowd with a sense of purpose, while black-suited bar staff pick their way carefully around – most of them balancing plates, and glasses, and extremely confused expressions. Fluro glowsticks gleam in the semi-gloom; the lighting is dark, dim, and perfect for this kind of affair. Everybody is watching the televisions. The bar line is ridiculously long.
I don’t know a thing about competitive Starcraft, but you can get a rough approximation through the reactions of the crowd. Something incomprehensible happens on-screen and the crowd roars and gasps like a wounded beast. Punters all around me are making predictions, pointing at the screen, watching, staring, clapping and cheering. They know the language, they can read the game. An outburst of applause – why? Swearing, groans – Stargates, says someone, satisfied that everybody around him understands the impact of that single word. Hydralisks have just come into play, someone else yells across the room.
“Genius has got this in the bag,” someone behind me mutters to his friend; he’s talking about Jung Min Soo, a Korean Protoss player for team MvP and one half of this night’s grand finals. His opponent for the night is DongRaeGu, or DRG, real name Park Soo Hoo, playing Zerg. Despite the overheard comment, DRG is the clear crowd favourite; the applause and cheers that went up when he first entered the arena was damn near overwhelming.
A newcomer nudges someone nearby. “Has it already started?” he asks, breathlessly. Throughout the night, people never stop streaming up the staircase, though whether they’re all recent entrants or just trying to find a better place to watch the game is up for debate. Five hundred people RSVP’d beforehand on the event’s Facebook page, but a quick eyeball of the room makes the number seem closer to… let’s say six hundred, seven hundred, maybe more.
“D-R-G! D-R-G!” someone yells, and soon the entire room has picked up the chant, if only for a few moments; his opponent has conceded this particular match, and the crowd breaks into applause. It’s a strange sight, to see people calmly eating their steak-and-chips as alien creatures writhe and die before them, but in the grand scheme of things it’s probably about as weird as sport.
Professional-looking photographers roam the floor, snapping pictures of excited patrons who pose and toast the cameras; a bright white light occasionally bursts out of the corner of a room, where a camera crew seems to be camped out next to a grand piano. Nearby is a staff table, where a prize pool of some kind has been set up, drawing a steady stream of line-goers.
A friend comes back from the bar clutching two drinks; one cider (mine) and one Queen of Blades, a delicious-tasting mix of spiced rum, liqueur, bitters, lime and apple juice. Moments later, a tray of shots are delivered to the table of organisers and staffers before me –a mix of Red Bull and Agwa, or Stimpacks. Intrigued, I scramble for a cocktail menu, a high-quality cardboard design that offers drinks with intriguing names like Creep, Vespene Gas and Spirit of Tassadar. It’s not difficult to see who in the crowd has ordered either the Immortal or the Mothership, two drinks that glow a bright neon blue.
“You can hear this from MacDonalds!” a smartly-dressed girl tells me, laughing. “Everybody’s wondering what’s going on.” The crowd here conforms somewhat to the stereotypes – largely young, geeky-looking males – but it’s not as hard as you’d expect to find some other members of the crowd. A table of older 30-something looking men whom you’d more expect to see watching football games are trading insights into Protoss strategies, while a party of girls getting drinks at the bar whoop and holler as a Zerg strikeforce is neatly decimated.
Lag strikes momentarily; internet scuttlebutt put the viewers on one restream at over 50,000 viewers worldwide, so it was no surprise that a few technical hiccups occurred here and there. The game cuts back into smooth play, and the crowd gasps, draws its collective breath, and explodes in cheers and applause once more. DRG has clawed his way back to 2-2 against his opponent Genius, somebody tells me excitedly. Phones are produced here and there, their electric glow cutting through the darkness, tweets and texts and status updates going out across the ether.
This feels completely surreal. I’m leaning against a railing, sipping cider, as all around me hundreds of fans cheer and gasp and yell, the televisions showing Starcraft 2 coverage that rivals ESPN or Fox Sports in production values. Sweeping camera shots, professionally animated logos, extensively detailed statistic screens, and more; even simply entering the arena involved explosive pyrotechnics and personalised theme music for each of the competitors, something more in line with WWE than competitive gaming.
Sponsorship is a huge part of the scene, professionally speaking, and it’s not surprising to see advertising plastered everywhere; from gamer-endorsed celebrity ads on the stream to the massive welcome banner, where the Barcraft Sydney logo was nearly buried beneath a sea of sponsor logos. Even the free glowsticks being passed around the room are branded with a Kingston RAM insignia. I snap one in half and wave it around half-heartedly for a bit as the room explodes once more.
It’s matchpoint for DRG as he leads 3-2, but – as I hear someone the next table over tell his friend – it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. “Down in front!” someone yells, even though from pretty much anywhere in the room you can always see at least three screens. Rock music blares, the competitors settle into their booths. The map is Crossfire SE, and everything’s about to get real.
Unable to follow what’s happening on-screen, I end up relying on the constant torrent of information being offered by the crowd. A pitched battle between forces dissolves into a series of minor skirmishes; an attempt to flank and destroy a Protoss army occupied by a forest of spinecrawlers is only just barely avoided. Finally, DRG annihilates a final Protoss push (“Blink out of the game, Genius!” someone yells) and the room goes completely mad. “D-R-G! D-R-G! D-R-G! D-R-G!”
Eventually, even as the crowd slowly empties out into the streets, and the televisions return to more normal bar fare, a hint of the night’s atmosphere remains in the air. Groups of people are still clustered around here and there – prizewinners carrying PC hardware, friends just looking to chat over drinks, and the exhausted but happy event organisers working out what to do for the next Sydney Barcraft. Can it get even bigger than this?
I don’t doubt it.
Barcraft Sydney for the GSL Hot6ix Finals was held on Saturday, March 3rd, at the Paragon Hotel in Circular Quay. Simultaneous Barcraft events were held world-wide. For more details on upcoming Sydney Barcraft events, check in with the AusProLeague.