According to Steven Hassan there are many different types of cults. There are destructive cults. The kind that separate you from family and friends, brainwash you -- all that strangeness you hear about on 60 minutes. Moonie-style shit. Scientology.
That’s one side of the cult spectrum.
Then there are the benign cults. The opposite end of the spectrum. Those are a little different: a community of like-minded people coming together to celebrate shared values; positive values. Values that leave people feeling vitalised, energised. Feeling good about life. From the outside looking in those values might be strange, other worldly. Confusing. But who are you to judge?
Who am I to judge?
TL;DR: the word cult is not a pejorative. It just isn’t.
Maybe there are circumstances in which being in a cult can actually be a good thing.
Okay. Let’s begin.
Picture the scene. Imagine a club. Imagine a club with its obnoxious lighting and overwhelming noise. Imagine bass that shakes the ground and makes your toes tremble. Imagine a female DJ, dressed like a robot, wearing a helmet with sound waves darting across an LED screen it as it jerks awkwardly to a synth rhythm. Imagine all those things in one single goddamn space.
Now imagine a Mega Church. The kind of Mega Church where that shared, unfiltered energy is so thick it could raise Christopher Hitchens from the grave and have him speaking in tongues. Imagine Hillsong. Imagine chewing down on that McDonalds-esque variety of shared spirituality. Imagine giving yourself wholly to that experience. Hands in the air like you just do not care.
Now combine those two completely separate things into one. Imagine that.
That’s what it felt like attending the Oceanic Pacific League finals for League of Legends.
I am sitting in the back of the Big Top at Sydney’s Luna Park. I am looking down at a sea of faces. And I am confused. So confused.
A man called 'Riot Hype' is standing on a raised stage. He bellows into a microphone: “Are. You. READY?”
The crowd, it seems, is ready. Born ready. Almost instantly -- in unison -- they batter red and blue glow sticks. Together. Rapidly. Everyone does this except me. The sound goes ‘thub-thub-thub-thub-thub-thub’. I look on awestruck. Utterly alone. Like I’ve woken up from a coma in a dystopian future where everyone batters glowsticks and I’ve missed a really, really important memo. Maybe it’s a utopian future. I haven’t quite decided yet.
What. The. Fuck. Is. Going. On. Here.
On stage is a powerfully glossy set-up that looks like a combination of the Running Man and that new Spelling Bee show on Channel 10. Like a 1980s version of the future. A friend almost whispers it out loud.
Shush. Shush. They might hear you.
For the first time in a long time I feel like an outsider in a culture I belong to. But also, another feeling: the feeling that I’m actually missing out. That something truly incredible is happening here. Something beautiful. Something important. But I’m not evolved enough to understand quite what that ‘thing’ is.
I’ve been to esports events before; let me make that clear. I watched Starcraft II at Blizzcon. I went to a drizzled out ESL event in Parramatta. I’ve watched many an MLG stream. I tune into Evo once a year like we all do. Filthy casuals.
But I’ve never seen something like this. What the hell even is this?
It’s League of Legends of course; the global phenomenon that seemingly grew beneath our noses. You either love it or look on with a confused grimace. Those are the two extremes.
When I first arrived in Australia almost eight years ago I went to an AFL match. Growing up in the UK I knew nothing about this sport. I remember it appearing in one episode of Neighbours. In Scotland my friends and I called it ‘mulletball’. That was the depth of our knowledge.
I remember my initial confusion. Why does everyone suddenly back off when someone catches the ball? Why does that little referee man keep pointing his fingers after someone scores?
But that confusion? It lasted roughly 30 minutes. By the end of the match I felt as though I knew what was going on. I could follow the match. I had a basic understanding of the rules.
I could watch 10 hours of elite level League of Legends being played and I’d still have absolutely no fucking idea what is going on.
That is not an insult. But it’s not a compliment either. I have no idea what it is. I have no idea what anything is. This game makes me feel old.
But strangely, I find myself getting involved. I find myself following the crowd as they rise and fall at strange, completely unpredictable moments. The teams select their heroes, the crowd goes bananas. “Oh shit,” they seem to cry in unison. “OH NO HE DIDN’T.” This drama -- at a character select screen of all places -- seems to allude to a tightly inter-connected set of systems this 6000-strong crowd understands implicitly. Systems I could only dream of understanding.
Everyone cheers when one player kills an enemy opponent. That I can understand. But it’s hard to understand exactly how that plays into the flow of the match. The commentators frequently make reference to Gold – a resource that I initially assumed plays into the end game, but then it doesn’t. Does it? I’m still not sure. Each game seems to end with one team brazenly blasting into the enemies base and completely destroying it.
Again: I am so confused. But there is a primal part of my lizard brain that seems to enjoy this on some level. Maybe I sub-consciously understand this video game. Maybe League of Legends taps into some unknown sub-section of the human experience.
I am having a hard time explaining this experience.
Because, honestly. Without someone clearly telling you how this all works, League of Legends is completely impenetrable. Particularly for someone like me, who only plays real-time-strategy in passing, if at all.
But something is happening here. That is undeniable.
The League of Legends OPL finals took place at Luna Park. 6000 people watched live, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t even begin to imagine how many people came to Luna Park -- in cosplay, in League of Legends t-shirts – just to be part of the event. I saw them leaving the park before the finals. Heading home early to watch the livestream because they obviously didn’t have a ticket for the final itself.
“Why did they come here if they didn’t have a ticket,” I asked myself, but I already knew the answer. League of Legends is a lifestyle. There was a trumpet blast and they paid heed to the call. They arrived in hordes, like moths to the flame.
Again, that is not an insult. I am in complete awe of this. It’s incredible.
Young and old. Male and female. All types. This is perhaps the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen at a video gaming event and I’ve been to hundreds. And they are so friendly.
I do not understand this video game. I am having a difficult time parsing this event. But I want to understand. I want to be part of this.
Human beings are natural born conformers. Numerous sociology studies have proven this. One particular experiment: a person is placed in a room among a group of people who have been instructed to lie about a single innocent question. How long is this line? In this situation a few outliers will cling to the truth, but most will succumb to group mentality. Against all reason they will lie to maintain parity with the group. Some will even believe the lie with every fibre of their being. This is one of the many ways in which cults operate.
Towards the end of the League of Legends OPL finals I find myself clapping at the right times. I become excited by the correct plays, despite having only the barest understanding of what is actually happening. On some level, I find myself enjoying the experience.
One of us. One of us.
In the end the Chiefs won. They beat Legacy 3-1 in a hard fought victory after Simon ‘Swiffer’ Papamarkos combo’d the entire Legacy roster, allowing his team mates to close out the game in style.
A good time was had by all.