"U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" chanted the crowd at the IEM San Jose Counter-Strike tournament. It was an echoing roar that persisted during games, while players were speaking on stage, and sometimes even in the halls.
Valve's competitive first-person shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is an international sport. Teams from multiple different countries gather to compete in the tactical shooter for increasingly sizable cash prizes. The game is one of deceptive complexity. Two teams of five compete as terrorists and counter-terrorists, the former trying to plant a bomb while the other attempts to disarm it. Within that relatively simple formula is room for brainy nuance and wild unpredictability. Players have to take into account what weapons to buy at the start of each round, tactically advantageous positions on each map, and the fact that it can all be over in seconds. As the sport has grown, certain trends have emerged: weapon strategies, grenade-throwing patterns, little bits of wisdom.
Then there's the more overt stuff, truths that simply can't be ignored. One of such truth becomes evident if you just take a cursory look at any given list of team rankings: European players dominate, especially in the top ten. And North American teams? Well, they're getting there, slowly but surely. But slowly.
They are, however, gaining. After spending years near the bottom of the totem pole -- hovering precariously above joke status -- the North American CSGO scene is shaping up. Two NA teams, Team Liquid and Cloud 9, are widely considered top-ten calibre.
IEM San Jose, which took place the weekend before last November 21-22, was a rare major Counter-Strike event on US soil (most take place in EU territories or Dubai occasionally for, uh, reasons), featuring the top two North American teams nestled among a stacked EU field. Every team was vying for the top spot, and -- after a couple key wins -- it actually seemed like North American teams had a thin, glimmering sliver of a chance.
It was Saturday. I was en route to San Jose's SAP Center, but I was running late. While in line for the bathroom at a coffee shop nearby, I checked my phone. I was surprised to find that Reddit and Twitter were going nuts. Cloud 9 had taken a full game -- a best-of-30 rounds set -- from Team Solomid, a Denmark-based team that many thought had a good shot at winning the whole tournament. It was this electric moment, even as far removed from the event as I was. The win wasn't unthinkable, but it was highly unlikely. All bets were off. Maybe the North American teams weren't gonna be guppy fodder for the bigger fish after all.
Ultimately, TSM took two games and knocked Cloud 9 out of the tournament, but that moment set the stage. It also transformed the idea of America into something people desperately seem to want to believe it is, even though it's the biggest superpower on Earth: a scrappy underdog. IEM San Jose's predominantly American crowd had home teams to root for really, really loudly.
There are crowds, and then there are Crowds. Saturday evening, I witnessed a Crowd. North American org Team Liquid faced off against Polish squad Virtus.Pro. People were expecting business as usual: they'd swap rounds early, and then VP would pull ahead and claim a relatively easy victory.
Instead, Liquid pulled way ahead in the first game. Round after round, they won. You could practically feel VP's morale drain away as Liquid piled up a total score of 16-2. The second game was closer, but Liquid still snatched it. They won and advanced to the next portion of the tournament. To be fair, VP looked a little worse than usual, but a win's a win.
As this happened, the crowd grew increasingly rambunctious. Chants of "U-S-A" filled the arena. People began whooping almost every time someone from Liquid got a kill. I thought they'd eventually get tired since someone dies in Counter-Strike approximately as often as a hummingbird flaps its wings, but they kept on hollering.
The spirit of it all was infectious. I imagine a number of people joined the thunderous chorus simply because other people were doing it. A friend suggested that some of them might have been trolling, too -- chanting "U-S-A" because "lol NA CSGO." The cumulative effect, though, was intense. It's one thing to hear people losing their shit over a video game while watching a stream. It's another thing to be there -- to watch them shout and raise their fists and, briefly, to feel like part of something bigger than themselves.
It's widely accepted sports wisdom that -- barring catastrophe or some act of maximum jerkitude -- hometown crowds will cheer for the home team. At IEM San Jose, it was more of a home country crowd and two home country teams, which might've amplified the effect. It's one thing, after all, to root for a team that represents a single city; it's another to blow out your lungs for the platonic ideal of AMERICA (fuck yeah) taking on the world.
But there had to be more to it. I wanted to know exactly why people were so delirious with red, white, and blue fever. So, after an early Sunday match let out, I walked around and asked people. I got all sorts of answers as people contemplated a behaviour some of them were doing almost out of habit. Many couldn't muster much more than, "We're from the same place" or "Cheering like that is really fun," but a few had more nuanced responses.
One guy explained to me that he felt a sort of responsibility in supporting home teams. After all, if they don't have a good foundation -- folks consistently tuning into their games, buying their merch, etc -- they probably won't go anywhere. They will fizzle before they have even taken off. But he said he also felt like there was some fair-weather fandom going on at IEM San Jose. Obviously, he explained, these NA CSGO teams were doing well, performing beyond expectations. Would these loud and proud fans stick around if that weren't the case? He recounted to me a tale of a time when a North American League of Legends team made it to one of the game's biggest tournaments, only to fall short. After that, he said, general interest in the NA LoL scene deflated for a while. These things have a way of ebbing and flowing. People can be fickle.
Another person told me his fandom came from a combination of smaller factors -- things like common culture, timezones, and the lack of a language barrier. "When NA teams stream," he chuckled, "I can actually understand them. So that helps."
One of the other people I approached -- this one waiting in line for a Cloud 9 autograph signing -- told me that he felt strongly about the United States, that he had a lot of pride in his country. I asked him how he felt about all the recent strife in the US -- the vicious partisanship that colours election season, racial tension made ever more palpable by public tragedies and atrocities, frequent shootings, the debate over Syrian refugees -- and he replied that rooting for North American teams is a way to put all of that aside for a bit, to feel united as people. Of course, the downside of that is that we have to fashion others into enemies to make that happen -- or re-open old wounds. Nationalism isn't implicitly oppositional or mean-spirited, but it can be if people let themselves get too caught up in it.
Another person in that line pointed out that the North American teams were really stepping it up for the audience, and he appreciated that. As he told me this, I watched a member of Cloud 9 walk to the back of the line, sign autographs, and take pictures with a bunch of fans. As he walked back to the autograph table, the chant picked up again: "U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A."
Why is it that NA CSGO teams seem so far behind their EU counterparts? I asked Cloud 9's Jordan "n0thing" Gilbert for his feelings on the matter.
"I think it comes down to the structure," he said, "the way teams prepare and play. Euros play more tactful, with more layers, and better overall synchronisation. A few of the top NA teams can out-skill most of the Europeans, but they lose because they don't adhere to any bigger picture like a lot of the Europeans do. I think this is generally referred to as game IQ by the average viewer. Many people notice that pros from NA make erratic decisions, and I think this is due to a lack of proper conditioning, or in some cases inexperience. Time heals most of these issues as long as the players persist."
Fans, however, sometimes chalk it up to constant drama that seems to follow the NA scene. Then there was that whole cheating/match-fixing scandal that hit the NA scene especially hard late last year.
Still, n0thing told me, he's proud to be part of the scene whether he's competing on home soil or in other countries.
"We feel a great sense of North American pride," he said. "Even in 1.6, when I competed for Evil Geniuses with Finnish player lurppis, I still personally had a great sense of pride."
"Even in a foreign country I have a blast competing in large crowds," he added. "The energy everyone brings is motivating and makes being a pro gamer more surreal than it already is."
Sunday afternoon, Team Liquid squared off against Ukrainian powerhouse Natus Vincere (aka Na'Vi). Perhaps cheekily, perhaps sincerely, Liquid had a US flag draped over their podium. The first game was a massacre, and unfortunately Liquid was on the receiving end. Na'Vi simply out-played them. Strategically, they were always a slight step ahead -- playing methodically yet forcefully, going aggressive at just the right moments and baiting Liquid into mistakes in others. It wasn't Na'Vi's best game ever, but they got the job done.
The crowd was disappointed, but undeterred. They still cheered every little Liquid victory, every scrap of progress. When you're rooting for underdogs, a little imperfection just adds to the drama. However, they also started booing Na'Vi a little, even as they made some excellent plays. It's the flipside of the coin when nationalism's in the mix: if someone's facing off against you (and especially if they're winning), they often get declared The Enemy -- sometimes in ways that lead to hurt feelings and poor sportsmanship.
One of the best things about pro level CSGO, though, is the way a relationship forms and evolves between teams as a match progresses. A team might take one game, but you get to watch the other team slowly but surely figure them out. Game two can be (and often is) a totally different story.
So it was with Team Liquid and Na'Vi. Liquid came out aggressive and amassed a huge lead despite the map choice, Dust2, favouring Na'Vi. As I watched Liquid play circles around them, I remembered something Na'Vi's star AWP-er, GuardiaN, had said after winning their opening round tournament match against Brazilian team Luminosity Gaming: LG, GuardiaN said, was the more skilled team. Na'Vi -- with their methodical style that often trips up more straightforward teams -- just found a way to win. Liquid decided to suffocate Na'Vi, pour on pressure so they could never get into their methodical rhythm in the first place. It worked.
But then, suddenly, Liquid started sliding. They began making elementary mistakes with their timings, placements, and shots. You could see their morale wither as they gave up round after round. Despite a lead that had most thinking a Liquid win was a foregone conclusion, Na'Vi ended up taking the game and the match, 16-14. Ultimately, they ended up beating Team Solomid and winning the entire tournament, as well.
Afterward the match against Na'Vi, Team Liquid's Spencer "Hiko" Martin took to the stage for a brief interview. He explained that after losing a round they really shouldn't have, they just fell apart. "We fell back into our old playstyle where everyone's really afraid and really passive. We were just running into their bullets. It's really just... sad," he said, smiling slightly but shaking his head dejectedly.
When asked about playing for a North American crowd, he added, "It's been amazing. The crowd was awesome. Sorry we couldn't win." He followed-up with a couple more words of thanks, but by that point he'd been drowned out by the cheering crowd.
All images courtesy of ESL Gaming.