I’m in a darkened room, on a Friday afternoon, watching a stage on which six young men sit staring hard into a combination of phones and tablets. They’re all wearing uniform shirts with the logos of big-name sponsors on them. They’re sweating under the lights as a crowd watches what they’re doing – or rather what some tiny characters they’re controlling are doing, on big screens.
Welcome to the world of Vainglory. Welcome, in fact, to the future of esports, and quite possibly entertainment as a whole. Vainglory is a multiplayer online battle arena game, commonly abbreviated to MOBA, and it’s redefining what a game played on mobile phones can be. The graphics are exceptional; it’s social, letting you compete as a team with friends; it’s accessible enough for anyone to play (even me); and it’s fiercely competitive, as much as any of the leading PC esports. It’s also enormous fun to watch.
Vainglory is the leading mobile-only esport right now, with a global league structure that encompasses promotion and relegation, regional and world championships. As a game, it’s now five years old, and was first demonstrated by its creators on stage at the introduction of the iPad Air, to show off the tablet’s graphics performance.
As an esport, it’s even younger. Although players have been self-organising their own teams and competitive games for a long while, it was only in 2015 that SEMC took the lead in organising a professional league. This year, ESL, the world’s largest esports company, has started acting as production partner for the key Vainglory leagues and events, and the Vainglory Spring Season Unified Championship, which I’m at, is the first major event ESL has produced.
It’s also the first time I’ve attended an esports event. It’s the most exciting sports-related thing I’ve done since seeing England lose badly to the All Blacks years ago.
Some of the players look like you’d imagine. Some of the players look like rock stars. Lechaun Jiao – known to everyone by his in-game name of VONC (that’s “von-see”, not “vonk”) is one of the latter. Thanks to global warming, VONC is measurably cooler than the Arctic. He plays on a phone rather than tablet, and at last year’s World Championships occasionally played with his feet up on the desk in front of him. His often-repeated mantra, representing the way he plays, is: “no fear, just fight”.
But not in the world finals, where VONC’s team, Team Solomid, was pounded into submission by Phoenix Armada, the South Koreans who are widely regarded as the best team in the world. Phoenix Armada was, everyone agreed, on another level from both North American and European teams. Watching them play was like seeing a new three-hander ballet choreographed by Twyla Tharp, all fluid motion and decisive action. All the teams at this level of Vainglory are capable of outstanding teamwork, but Phoenix Armada moved around each other in way that suggested they had brain implants to turn them into a hive mind, rather than three individuals.
The Unified Western Live Championships are seen by some as a dress rehearsal for the World Championships, which will take place later this year. It’s an opportunity for North America (called NA by everyone) and Europe (EU, to the undoubted annoyance of any Brexiteers) to get their act together. But for EU in particular, it represents something else: an opportunity for redemption.
Europe has fallen
Europe did not have a good World Championships. Almost without exception, the best European teams were outclassed by both North American and East Asian teams. And when I say “outclassed”, I mean “pounded into the dirt by kids three times their size”.
Watching the two regions approach to their failure at the World Championships over the past few months, it’s been evident that two very different conclusions have been drawn. For North America, the lesson was “we need to be more like Asia”. For Europe, it looks like it’s more “back to square one, and evolve our own style”.
The Unifieds will be the first opportunity to find out which one of them has backed the right horse. If NA absolutely destroys Europe – a result that many people are expecting – EU will have a hard time developing yet another new style over the handful of months before the Worlds. If EU performs well and maybe even wins the Unifieds, it will be a big blow to NA’s hopes of defeating the Asian teams.
Mobile gladiators – fight!
The first match features SK Gaming, one of the top European teams, against sixth European seed Mousesports. Mousesports are a well-known esports organisation, competitive in a variety of games, but in Vainglory, this season has been truly tough. Twice, Mousesports has ended up at the bottom of the league, but it has found itself here because the two teams above it couldn’t make it to these championships.
SK, on the other hand, are at their peak: success feels like it should be their birthright. There’s a feeling in the crowd that SK shouldn’t even be here today: they missed out on a top-two place, which would have got them a bye into the second day, after a freak defeat on the last day of the season. From a winning position where they were hammering onto the Vain Crystal and within a single hit of winning, they wiped and their opponents, waltzed through their turrets and crystal before they could recover. It hurt.
Mousesports’ shirts are plain, where SK’s bear the trademarks of big-name sponsors like Visa. Mousesports’ body language is more nervous, despite their attempts at looking calm, where SK swagger like champions. In esports, just as in physical sports, belief is half the game. If you walk onto a stage believing the odds are stacked against you, they really are stacked against you.
The game starts, and Mousesports get first kill, which gets a big cheer from the crowd. But after that it’s a mismatch: the game doesn’t make it to the 15th minute. The fact that this match is a best of five games, rather than the best of three used in the regular season, seems almost cruel. Mousesports lose 0-3 and are going home after barely making a mark on the Championships. Everyone may love an underdog, but all sport tends to be cruel to them.
Alessandro “Palmatoro” Palmarini is quiet. He has every reason to be: within a couple of hours he’ll be on stage, hopefully powering his team, Fnatic, into day two. And as Fnatic has London as its home city and is the host of the Unified Championships, failure to make it as far as day two would be a very unhappy thing indeed.
He’s also calm, much calmer than a 17-year-old under this kind of pressure has any right to be. He started playing Vainglory when his parents up in Scotland took away his PlayStation in a vain attempt to get him to concentrate on his studies, leaving him looking out for entertainment options on his iPad. And despite never having played a MOBA before, he took to it like a duck to water.
Now he finds himself the centre of attention at a press briefing. He’s the all-important jungler for Fnatic, playing the early part of the game on his own, ambushing and being ambushed in the “jungle” part of the map. He has his final exams soon, but he wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to play here, and is already set on taking a year out to play professionally before (hopefully) going to university.
“It’ll let me practice more, and let me get closer to my team mates,” he says. They’re based in Germany and don’t have exams to worry about, so they sometimes have to practice and work out plays without him. He thinks the year out will make a lot of difference to how he can work with the team.
“It’s all about practice, but also about thinking plays through,” he says. “You can be a mechanically skilled player but you need to out-think your opponents as well.” He looks, and sounds like the kind of thoughtful young man who will be able to do that and a lot more.
Winners and losers
Fnatic’s first-round game goes well, and it beats Cyclone, one of the smaller North American teams, three games to one. But on day two Fnatic comes up against Team Solomid, and the difference between EU and NA becomes really clear: it ends with a 3-0 victory for TSM. The jungler battle between Palmatoro and VONC goes one way, and one way only.
Only one EU team – G2 Esports – makes it into day three, and the semi-finals, where they face Gankstars, one of the best teams in the world. Hamza “IraqiZorro” Najim is Gankstars’ laner, playing in the lane at the top of the map, and at 21 he’s a Vainglory veteran. He’s also coach and co-owner of the team, which is probably why he’s incredibly focused, but also incredibly confident. Predictably, Gankstars crush G2 3-0. The NA fourth seed has beaten the top European team with ease.
Meanwhile in the other semi-final, a surprise: TSM loses to Cloud9, the second seeds. Cloud9 has been slowly building up, training hard, and most important of all practicing how they pick and counter-pick characters to play. And the team has been getting better and better.
So it’s not a huge surprise when later that day, Cloud9 beat Gankstars in the final 3-0. It’s not even close: Cloud9, like Phoenix Armada, were in the World Championships, and are a level above everyone else. They take home $US30,000, which isn’t a bad haul for playing games.
One day everyone will watch this
In preparation, I’d watched a lot of Vainglory streamed on Twitch, but experiencing it live was a totally different thing. Feeling the crowd’s excitement was important, but so too was the accessibility of everyone: after games, players would wander among the crowd, and casters – the stars of the show when it comes to streamed games – happily chatted for as long as they could to anyone. Everyone loves the game: everyone can be part of the community.
As mobile esport gets bigger, this can’t quite last of course. Once the crowds grow into the thousands, it will be hard for players to have as much contact with fans. But the key thing about mobile esport is that anyone with a phone can play. Unlike PC-based esport, which requires an investment of thousands into a dedicated gaming PC, you can get into Vainglory on a low-end phone, and even one with fantastic performance won’t mean getting out a bank loan.
That’s why the success of the Vainglory Unified Championships persuaded me that mobile esports are the future of competitive gaming. Everyone can play. Everyone can stream. Everyone can watch. The only barriers are those you choose to put up yourself.