League of Legends is the most popular esport in the world, played monthly by more than a hundred million people across the globe. You wouldn’t have guessed that from the bleachers of Oakland’s Oracle Arena this weekend, though. The stadium, recently renovated and home to the Golden State Warriors, was partitioned in half; on one side, screaming fans watched twelve of the best CS:GO teams in the world compete for a 300k prize pool. On the other side—the one I had chosen to plant my flag in—a little more than a hundred people, many of them fifteen year olds dabbing furiously while on camera, watched six mid-to-low-tier teams battle both each other and a host of technical issues for a prize pool one third that size. I had front row seats, and all the Totino’s pizza rolls I could stomach, to the worst League of Legends tournament since the earliest days of the esport.
IEM Oakland will almost surely be remembered for the disastrous issues on the technical side. They started early: during the opening ceremony on Saturday, while Indiana “Froskurinn” Black was in the middle of speaking, her mic cut out for around twenty seconds. The stadium was still quiet enough that we could faintly hear her from her position at the caster’s desk, a testament to how few people were there.
Over the two days of League of Legends competition at IEM Oakland, matches were paused an unprecedented 24 times
The first match between INTZ and the Unicorns of Love began; almost moments into loading up the game, someone hit pause. Something was wrong with the game, or with the computer. Techs in black t-shirts hopped onto the stage to resolve the problem, while the casters discussed the draft in more detail then it probably deserved. Women in red Totino’s shirts passed out pizza rolls in little paper cups while we waited. The game was resumed, bottom lane sparred a bit, and three minutes later, the pause screen went up again. This was something the audience would grow painfully familiar with.
Over the two days of League of Legends competition at IEM Oakland, matches were paused an unprecedented 24 times, one of which lasted for a full seventeen minutes. The pauses were so omnipresent that the audience began sarcastically cheering every time the game stopped. The casters, who early on had studiously ignored the interruptions, began groaning with each new one.
But technical issues were not the only shitty ingredient in the microwavable marinara pod that was IEM Oakland’s League of Legends tournament. One of the biggest problems of the event was undoubtedly the lineup. Out of the six teams present at the event, only three of them had recently appeared in an international tournament.
TSM, whose logo was visible everywhere in the crowd on jerseys, signs and snapback hats, had a sub (former player WildTurtle) in the role of ADC after Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng’s recent departure. Flash Wolves, the LMS team who should have been the favorite to win everything, had two subs, along with a visible lack of practice time. Spoilers, I guess: they lost to Unicorns of Love, the fourth best team in the worst major region in competitive League of Legends. The other two teams, INTZ and the Chiefs, were both from Wild Card regions, and were considered to have done well purely by keeping their matches close. The competitive outlook didn’t look good, even before the a-pause-calypse.
From the outside, though, IEM Oakland was going through all the motions of a proper esports event, from the spotlights to the blazer-donned analyst desk to the high-seriousness of each team’s introductory video. What went so wrong, here?
You can blame some of it on timing. IEM Oakland came only weeks after the biggest international championship of the year, Worlds, and within spitting distance of the free agency period where players leave teams and begin accepting offers from other organizations. Simon “Swiffer” Papamarkos, mid laner for the Chiefs, said that “It was a little disappointing that a lot of teams pulled out, but I think that it was very fair. Every team that pulled out was burnt out, or they didn’t have a roster.” The impact of roster changes on TSM and Flash Wolves was obvious in their performance, but that same problem is probably why so many teams declined to even attend the event—Splyce for instance, who reversed their decision to attend the tournament in early November, recently had three out of their five players announce free agency.
There was everything you could want from an esports tournament, save for high level play
And then there’s the simple problem of money. IEM Oakland’s prize pool, 100k, is one of the lowest among international tournaments. For perspective, the prize pool of Worlds was forty times higher. All of this culminated, along with the bevy of tech problems, into a uniquely terrible tournament.
There were, at least, plenty of distractions. On the show floor, Totino’s marketing triumph, the Bucking Couch, tossed around former pro player Alan “KiWiKid” Nguyen and League streamer Nicki Taylor while they played ARAMs against one another. Several VR games, including one with a simulated racing cockpit, sported lines which curled around the bleachers. Doublelift made an appearance on camera, predicting a TSM win shortly before they lost. There was everything you could want from an esports tournament, save for high level play.
In between matches, or sometimes during a particularly lengthy pause, I would head up to the concourse of the Arena. Despite being perpetually crowded, this level of the stadium had an air of a ghost town; almost all of the concession booths advertising fries, hot dogs, burgers or beers were closed and dark. Only one or two of the stadium food stands were open, staffed by a skeleton crew.
In place of the typical stadium booths were an armada of tables, all run by companies hoping to grab the ear or the wallet of the millennial gamer. One of these had set out fluorescent tanks of something called GFUEL, an energy drink which lacked the high sugar content of competitors like Red Bull or Monster. I asked Mickey, who ran the booth, and whose last name I never got, if his product was doing well at IEM. “The kids treat it like crack, man,” he said, grinning wildly. There did seem to be a disproportionate number of teenage boys lining up to fill their goblets, I noticed, and asked him why he thought that was. “I honestly have no idea.” Behind him, women wearing energy-drink colored body suits and stiletto heels handed out free samples.
The competitive showing at IEM Oakland was hobbled from the beginning, but no one cared, because the tournament wasn’t really about League of Legends. It wasn’t about CS:GO, either, no matter how fun it sounded on the other side of the arena.
Down on the stadium floor, a man dressed like a giant, anthropomorphic pizza roll side-stepped through crowds, his face locked in a joyless, winking grimace. A baseball cap hung off one corner of his vast, square head. The Unicorns of Love deserved that win—they were, I think, the only team that really gave a shit about being there—but Pete Zaroll was what this event was really about. Totino’s, GFUEL, and Best Buy, which aired pixelated ads about discounted PCs in between matches. Like the hand-crafted bug on the end of a fly fishing line, the tournament didn’t have to be a perfect simulacrum; it just had to look good enough to get a bite.