Here’s two things that weren’t supposed to show up at competitive Counter-Strike LANs: mothers and grandfathers.
I say competitive Counter-Strike, primarily because the concept of esports — or electronic sports, as mainstream media would say once or twice a year, in full — was so supremely nascent in Australia. There were professional Counter-Strike teams internationally; Australia’s best efforts involved some free mice and mousepads, zero-dollar entry into certain netcafes, and maybe even a couple of hundred bucks allowance for those vying for international recognition.
Australia was never really that good at first-person shooters back then. All of the country’s first few professional gamers — the ones talented enough to be picked up by international teams, or earn spots in a foreign team house — were all in the realms of Starcraft: Brood War or Warcraft 3. The scenes for those games had stopped being able to field enough players for a tournament by 2003; people got sick of being pummelled into oblivion by the one or two Australians with legitimate, world-class talent.
(Above is one of the rare pieces of footage from the early days of professional Brood War leagues featuring an Australian, Peter “Legionnaire” Neate. Neate would go on to set the record for the most amount of kills for a Reaver in a televised match at 57, a record that stood for seven years.)
But even though Australia enjoyed more consistent success in other games, there was just something about Counter-Strike. Kids turned up in literal droves for it, enough that in the mid 2000s, tournament admins were turning players away.
I know this, because for a large chunk of 2005 to 2008 I played a large part in organising most of those tournaments. Video games were something my family naturally fell into, and when ADSL connections became relatively cheap and commonplace, it opened the door to a huge world of competition that immediately appealed.
But when the previous admin finally lost patience with the lengthy train ride from Wollongong — and the almost permanent disrespect and lack of gratitude from teams of 14, 15 and 16-year-olds — we weren’t left with much of a choice.
My friend and I were just starting to get good, or at least something that felt like it. We’d go deeper in tournaments, our performances improved, and we felt like we stood a chance against anyone on the day.
We didn’t know how to run competitions, though. But if someone didn’t step up, there wouldn’t be anything to play in.
So fuck it, my mate said. It can’t be that hard, right?
The biggest difficulty with actually running tournaments is that it’s hard to get people to stop wasting time. People would show up late. They’d want warm-up time. Then someone would go to the toilet. Another would go get a drink because they’ve been waiting for ages. Then someone whines about their mouse or their monitor. Server restarts because another kid can’t control their temper and managed to put a boot into the adjacent desk hard enough that it actually knocks out the network cable.
But that was par for the course. The trick was getting through the first round. Once you’d done that, teams could generally play multiple matches without having to pack up. And we needed those later rounds to finish quickly for two reasons: if things ran overtime, we’d owe the venue more money.
And secondly: if things ran really overtime, I couldn’t get home.
The downside of living hours away from the city, and being the person who hands over money to the winners and sets up the servers, means you have to stay until the end. So there were a few instances where the trains would shut down, with no more service to our country line until the following morning.
My parents were fine with me being in the city, even late, but not that late.
So my mother’s solution was simple: get in the car and go for a drive. This happened a few times, although things ended up working out better than expected. For one: as toxic as Counter-Strike players can be, none of it ever gets directed to someone’s actual mother. In person. Everyone seemed to muster enough decency to adhere to that.
Secondly, it also became a bit of a curse. If Mum showed up, and it was the semi-finals, my team won without fail. We never won a finals while she was there. But hey! Second’s still better than third, and I at least got to laud it over the loser.
But hour-plus long drives late at night — we’re talking getting back at midnight — are draining and potentially dangerous. So in one instance, already a little bit tired from earlier in the day, my Mum recruited my grandfather into service. She wanted some company on the ride to stay awake, which meant out of nowhere, the Sydney Counter-Strike scene was about to meet an exceedingly tall gentleman wandering into a netcafe because their grandson was there.
It’s still a weird image when I think about it today, someone who once built chicken sheds for a living walking into an internet cafe. This is a man who had no access to any form of technology or wealth. He was a member of the Stolen Generation; he cleaned floors at the age of 5 for his “family’. And if that sounds like servitude, it’s because it was. That’s how the White Australia policy was designed; a life of manual labour in a white family, the logic went, was better than life with your actual family.
Up to a third of First Nations children were removed from their families between 1910 and 1970. Many were deliberately kept uneducated, my grandfather no exception. I remember one story from my Mum, how my grandfather only learned to read thanks to my grandmother — an astronomically foreign concept today, but not for those who grew up in the eras of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and institutional, intergenerational trauma.
Technology for my grandfather was a calculator. What would he think about kids screaming about pixels on a screen?
I was playing in the last two matches of the night, so I didn’t really catch his reaction throughout; I don’t even remember the reaction of others when he walked in.
As it turns out, I shouldn’t have worried. He apparently loved all of it, according to Mum: all the kids gathered together, the screams as one player shit talked another, the frustration on people’s faces as they missed a shot, the energy everyone brought to the table.
The logic made sense later. My grandfather was a champion boxer in his time, and later in life he ran the local gym teaching kids how to box and, more importantly, be better people. He loved being around kids and the energy with which they attacked everything. Whether it was virtual or physical didn’t matter.
I do remember one glimpse of him grinning that night, although I never asked him about it, nor what he thought of the whole event. I was too nervous to broach the topic for whatever reason, not out of fear but pure awkwardness. Where does that conversation even go? I didn’t know how to describe it or why I was so animated about it, although I suspect that might have been what he enjoyed the most: seeing me in my element.
But now that my mother, grandfather and grandmother are all passed away, I wish I’d had the courage to ask them about it. They were always super supportive, although I could never entirely pinpoint why that was the case. There was so much media noise at the time to convince almost anyone otherwise, especially around the early to mid-2000s as a string of high profile games were banned or sparked their own controversies.
Maybe they always knew it was healthy: I had a competitive streak and Counter-Strike was a willing outlet, and a better outlet for frustration or anger than binge drinking or milling around town. And maybe those odd nights where the trains shut down also opened the doors for them too: they saw a collection of kids that, probably under most other normal circumstances, would have never met otherwise. Everyone was too geographically separated; IRC was the only real thing that bound most people together. Maybe that’s part of what my grandfather saw too: kids enjoying each other’s company, not caring where anyone came from or how they got there, only what they brought to the battlefield and their ability to laugh it off afterwards.
I don’t know if he had thoughts or opinions on video games — or the rise of computers — before then. Regardless, that random showing gave me something that would never happen again. Our family had plenty of time with each other, but not always time where everyone was completely themselves. That night, my grandfather had a night where he saw a side of me that never emerged elsewhere — and he walked away thinking that was totally fine.
As far as lasting memories, it’s not such a terrible one to hold onto.