For three days in March, Montreal hosted one of the largest competitive computer game (e-sports) tournaments in Canada. Seven hundred and fifty of North America’s best gamers packed themselves and their computers into the cafeteria of L’École de technologie supérieure (ETS) and fragged (“killed” in the vulgate) their way toward $15,000 in prizes. I decided to attend the tournament on a whim after my roommate Max (alias Sepatown) told me that Projeckt (real name Chris) – a gamer Max had known for the past five years through the online gaming community – would be in attendance and the two would meet in person for the first time. Max and Projeckt play Counter Strike (CS), one of North America’s most competitive computer games, and one of the more popular games featured at the competition.
Although absent from the top echelons of CS for the past few years, Max had stayed in touch with the culture at large and acted as my guide to the world of CS and e-sports. He enlightened me to some of the fundamental assumptions surrounding regulated gaming, known as LAN (short for local-area network) by its participants. In a LAN tournament, participants are gathered in a single room, removing the ambiguity and anonymity of the Internet and its myriad possibilities for cheating and subversion of the sport. This, he explained, is the “purest form of the sport,” where competitors are “un-masked” from their Internet persona.
Max and Projeckt met on the second evening of the tournament. It was strangely emotional, seeing the two of them meet. These two guys had known each other for a long time, and they hugged upon seeing each other. I spent the second evening of the tournament shadowing Projeckt and his team, WinOut. The members of Team WinOut, (Projeckt, Jasper, Fidele, Elmo, and Kevin) hail primarily from the outer boroughs of New York City and all have thick regional accents. Team WinOut, I was informed, are capable of competing at the highest level of North American CS, and were favourites for the top spot in Montreal. They were reluctant to sit down and do formal interviews or to be recorded, and were dismissive of my interest in writing a story about them. I could understand WinOut’s reluctance to talk to me; the gaming community is so often cruelly mocked or gawked at as nerds and n00bz.
This competition, as most LANs, was held in a dark room mood-lit only by the electronic glow of computer screens. All the tired stereotypes of gaming were present, including stacks of empty energy drinks, pizza boxes, and gamers sleeping in front of their computers, but the atmosphere of the place was spectacular. In the massive ETS cafeteria cheers of victory and cries of despair would erupt from various corners of the room where crowds of gamers had gathered to watch important matches.
In regulated competition, CS is played in 16-round matches which pit five-man (LAN is almost exclusively male) teams of “terrorists” (attacking) against one team of “counter-terrorists” (defending). Counter-terrorists defend a base from the onslaught of terrorists, whose goal it is to penetrate the base, then set and finally detonate a bomb. Each match starts out with a “knife-fight,” in which players have no guns and must kill each other using only knives. The knife-fight functions like a coin-toss in a football game and allows the winning team to elect whether they will compete as as terrorists or counter-terrorists. The team with the most wins after 16 rounds is the victor of the match at large. At this level of play, the gaming is extremely fast-paced. The endless cans of energy drinks serve their purpose well, as rounds are won or lost in as little as 25 seconds.
The 20 teams in the CS version 1.6 tournament were split up into four groups, with the last-place team from each group being eliminated from the competition, leaving a 16-team bracket for the championship. I stayed with Team WinOut for two of their group matches against team BH and, later, Quebec-based Tempest.
WinOut vs. BH
After winning the knife-fight, Team WinOut opted for the role of the counter-terrorists. I stood behind WinOut, watching the action on their five computer screens like a hockey coach watches from behind their warriors on the bench. At first, the action was far too frantic and fast-paced for my n00b brain to follow, but I could tell based on the aggressive trash talk coming from our bench that WinOut was dominating. 5-0, 8-0. At 11-0, a disheartened Team BH became suicidal, and killed themselves to end the punishment as fast as possible. This enraged the members of Team WinOut, who questioned the tournament’s structure and the needlessness of the knockout round. Max informed me that hundreds of people may have just watched WinOut’s thrashing of BH through a program that allows gamers from around the world to tune in to high-profile games. The program, called HLTV, has allowed for the creation of the spectator element of this e-sport.
In the hours until WinOut’s next match, I wandered around the game floor watching other matches, trying to identify the better teams. I had heard Projeckt tell Max that an (in)famous CS gamer from western Canada (alias partyandbullshit) was in attendance. Partyandbullshit is famous in the CS world for being so good that many originally accused him of cheating. Max explained to me that, by appearing at the tournament, partyandbullshit has validated himself, competing in a tightly monitored setting where there would be no chance of cheating.
WinOut vs. Tempest
Just before the match was set to begin, WinOut suffered a potentially devastating technical malfunction, as Jasper’s built-for-gaming monitor broke. Technical support staff were called over to assess the problem and after much gnashing of teeth, Jasper was forced to play on his laptop monitor. The laptop screen’s deficient frame-rate severely hampered Jasper’s, and thus, his teams’s ability to compete. Despite this injurious disadvantage, WinOut won again with devastating force, although this time with some exciting competition. WinOut defeated Tempest in the knife-fight and chose the role of counter-terrorists. Our boys quickly identified the course’s choke-points and secured them. The remaining team members staked out positions high in the rafters for better vantage points. My eyes and brain were moving fast enough now to keep track of the action, and it was fucking exciting. At one point Fidele enlisted Max and I to block WinOut’s computer screens from the possibly prying eyes of Tempest, located a few rows behind us. “You’re part of the team now!” Fidele hollered.
Tempest employed a strategy heavily reliant on tactical smoke grenades, but WinOut’s position in the rafters of the base kept their visibility high. After the match, which WinOut again won 16-0, a member of Tempest came over to inquire about their team strategy in the last round. WinOut were not in the mood for sharing, and this Tempest member returned to his team, thoroughly rebuked. Team WinOut would go on to win the competition the next day and $2,000 in prize money. As most of the team went out for a smoke break after the Tempest match, I asked Fidele who they were playing next. “I never know, man. This is LAN,” he replied.