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First impressions: Xenoblade Chronicles X

Posted by Matt Demers on

Note: the gfys in this post are bugged due to something on the end of Gfycat. They should display at the proper crop after a loop or two.

I’m likely going to be doing a video on this later, but I thought I’d write down a couple thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles X, since I picked it up yesterday.

So far, I’ve played four hours of the game and gotten past the first few story missions. I’ve just unlocked the main “go off and have fun on your own” portion of the game, where it lets you pick the main story back up at your leisure. It’s also just opened up the ability to do co-op missions with friends, so I’m about to dive into the meat of it.

After going through the character select screen, I basically tried to make my guy look un-anime as possible. I was a little disappointed to find out that our protagonist is silent, but I’m starting to enjoy his ugly mug.

If you’ve played the first Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, you’ll know that a large part of the game is the expansive environments that feel alive. This is the Gaur Plains/Bionis’ Leg intro from that title:

The same thing exists in Xenoblade Chronicles X, but things have been enhanced due to a greater draw distance and detail that the WiiU can provide. To be honest, I’m not going to hide that the WiiU is very underpowered compared to the other consoles in its generation, but at the same time I haven’t experienced any major slowdown when viewing scenes like this:

Xenoblade also boasts a “if you can see it, you can go there” system, which I haven’t quite had a chance to explore yet. This kind of exploration is a huge contributor to my enjoyment of JRPGs, as Dragon Quest VIII has a similar system and I really enjoyed that game.

While I haven’t got any of the Gundams/Skells that the cover of the games boasts, travel has been great in the sense that you can sprint without any repercussions and jump around like Spider-man due to the (presumably) lower gravity of the planet Mira. This makes traversing around the map really fun, and the speed at which you can do it, combined with the awesome vistas, gives me a number of moments where the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

This article seems a little overly-praising so far, but while streaming there were a number of moments I noticed where I was genuinely grinning ear-to-ear. I know that sounds a bit corny, but I need to highlight how absolutely rare that is with AAA titles for me these days.

I feel like I’ve fallen out of a lot of mainstream games because they just do nothing for me. There’s no sense of wonder or catching me unaware: either I know pretty much what the game has to offer, or the premise doesn’t interest me to the point I’m cool about missing out.

However, Xenoblade Chronicles X surprised me because I expected some kind of trashy anime of a JRPG. The writing is surprisingly funny and sharp at times, and the voiced characters have a decent enough cast behind them that they aren’t reduced to blob stereotypes that you’d find in a hastily-translated English offering.

The character of Lin looks like someone I would dislike a lot in a video game. As a 26-year-old dude who isn’t a complete weeb, you’d have to forgive my first negative impression:

However, despite her being a huge ball of sometimes-annoying pep, her lines have been delivered in such a way that she seems to have way more personality than a typical demure little-sister stereotype. When I figured this out I was so happy to be wrong about my impression, because it means I wouldn’t be spending the game wishing she wasn’t there.

When you can immerse yourself in all of the game, it makes it so much better than clawing through parts you hate just to get to a part you actually want to play.

Perhaps what I’m looking forward to most is the massive amount of distractions that the game seems to have set up. Expanding the map requires finding sites to bury probes in, which in turn look to make hunting monsters and mining that much easier. As someone who loves the exploration/climbing sections the Assassin’s Creed franchise has you do to expand the map, I can see this inflating my play time considerably.

It looks like Monolith Software has set up for players to experience a “single player MMO” with a lot of side elements that involve other players in small ways, like contributing to daily rewards or co-op quests. As someone who doesn’t have enough time to dive into an MMO proper, I’m definitely excited to give Xenoblade a ton of my attention.

I’ll likely be doing a video about my thoughts on this game as I get deeper into it, but for now, I’ll be happy to experience more moments like finding this huge-ass monster. I just wonder how long it’ll be before I can take it down.

Matt Demers is a Toronto writer who enjoys eSports, hip-hop and tea. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Twitch.

Broadcasting/Video Games

Tutorial: Free telestrator for Open Broadcaster Software

Posted by Matt Demers on

One system I’ve definitely wanted to use in analysis is the telestrator, or video marker. For those not familiar with the term, it’s what sportscasters will use to take a free-frame of an instant replay and draw own it. We’ve seen it used by Riot Games and other eSports companies as part of a smart TV, but that can be expensive: I wanted to try to find something free and usable in a home/casual environment.

The big problem is usually making sure what you draw is visible to streaming/recording; usually, these type of programs will project a drawable layer on top of whatever you’re annotating, and sometimes, depending on the capture, this can be hidden.

I’ve found ZoomIt, a freeware program, that works with Open Broadcaster Software as long as certain conditions are met. Here’s how I got it working for my Dota analysis on Windows 7:

Step 1: Download ZoomIt

ZoomIt is a freeware program created by Mark Russinovich. You can download it here on its home site, or on the mirror I made on

After installing it, you should see a window like this.

What you’re looking for is under the Draw tab. I have the hotkey set to Ctrl + 3.

From here, any time you hit Ctrl + 3, the game or window will freeze, and your cursor will turn into a drawing cursor. You can change the colour of the marker by pressing the “O”, “Y”, “R”, “B”, “G” or “P” keys on your keyboard to change to orange, yellow, red, blue, green or pink, respectively.

You can then draw on whatever you want to show off. You can hold down shift while drawing to draw a straight line, and hit ESC to erase what you’ve drawn. Hold down CTRL and scroll up or down on your mousewheel to increase or decrease the width of the brush. Press T and type in order to get text.

ZoomIt essentially lives in your taskbar minimized, like similar screenshotting programs like Puush. I usually close it when it’s not needed, as the hotkeys tend to conflict with others.

Step 2: Set up Open Broadcaster Software

OBS is a software that lets you capture multiple elements and arrange them for streaming or recording. I’m assuming that you know how to use it already, as there are multiple other tutorials for setting it up.

However, the important thing here is that whatever game you are running will need to run and be captured in windowed mode. This includes in OBS, where you will add a source for “Window Capture”, not “Game Capture.” The good thing about this is that if it’s scaled properly, most people won’t know the difference, as it usually captures the Inner Window by default.

This is because when the game is in Fullscreen or Windowed Borderless mode, the game gives priority to the cursor as it behaves inside the game. However, when in Windowed mode, it allows for a greater degree of control by outside forces like ZoomIt; when you trigger your Draw command, the game will freeze and continue in the background. When you hit ESC after drawing, the game will go back to “live.”

This process is likely not to work for console games streamed via capture cards, as those are piped in as separate sources to your PC, not as a window that’s influenced by the Windows OS. This system would likely work on emulators, but for console play you would likely need to have recorded videos.

2017 Update: This method doesn’t seem to work on certain games when it comes to Window Capture; it WILL work on Display Capture, which means you can use it for YouTube/VLC.  Might just be a Windows 10 thing, so it’s kind of up to you to see if it works for you.

Step 3: Workflow for Replay Analysis

In games with replay systems like Dota 2 or Starcraft, or with videos like YouTube or VLC, the standard workflow is to pause the game where you want to annotate. Then you would draw, explain your analysis, clear the drawings with ESC, then unpause the replay/video and continue on.

Note: I generally recommend using VLC as a video player for VOD analysis without a replay system, as you can hit the “E” key on your keyboard to advance the video by one frame to the future. This is an improvement over loading videos up on YouTube, as they tend to lack the fine frame-by-frame control that is often necessary.

By streaming this sequence with OBS, you will be able to provide analysis of moments to your audience in either a live setting or recording for local editing.

Hopefully, this will allow for a more easy jumping-on point for those of us who want to analyze both pro and personal play. By using free tools like OBS and ZoomIt, the barrier to creating broadcasts with value to the viewer should be smaller.


If you liked this guide, consider following me on Twitch, YouTube and Twitter. Cheers!

Video Games

On the (possibly grim) future of Overwatch

Posted by Matt Demers on

Blizzard’s FPS title Overwatch is probably one of the most hyped titles this year due to a couple different factors:

  • Vibrant characters give personalities for players to gravitate towards
  • MOBA-like mechanics mean that there are cool things for players to do besides aim and shoot well
  • People saw the success that first movers on Hearthstone were able to get with streaming and eSports

Naturally, this led to a bit of a gold rush and disappointment when Blizzard first handed out closed beta keys. Targeting streamers and YouTubers, the focus on marketing left a bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths, but this past weekend Blizzard opened up a stress test to a larger amount of applicants.

While not everyone got in who wanted a key, I did.

Basically I spent five hours with a group of five other players in a Skype channel playing in a fully-stacked group. Here’s what I found:

Learning is easy

Blizzard has learned from the design of Team Fortress 2 in the sense that there are a lot of prompts to do things in order to limit the amount of learning that needs to be done beforehand and the information that needs to be remembered.

Routes to attack and defend are highlighted on the ground before the map starts, giving people a chance to see where enemies might come from. This is great when learning new maps, as you need to be able to move between points of interest at a moment’s notice. I found that playing as a Defender meant that I needed to go through all areas of the map from the initial spawn, giving me a chance to familiarize myself with where I’d eventually be falling back to.

Things like hovering icons on the UI let you know where important objectives are, and a flashing marker on respawn re-contextualizes where your current objective is as a gentle reminder. I liked this because the last thing I wanted to think was “what am I supposed to be doing right now?” when winning or losing the map could be on the line.

A quick hit of the F1 key also gave me a screen that showed me my key bindings and the skills assigned to them. This was great for learning new heroes easily; I also loved how when you died to a hero the game gave you tips on your death screen for beating them next time. Getting mowed down by a hero who could turn into a stationary turret prompted a reminder that that hero can’t turn 360 degrees, meaning he could be flanked.

The game also reminds you when your composition of heroes lacks a certain role, meaning that you (in theory) won’t be completely steamrolled because you won’t have a tank.

All in all this is really important from a design perspective, because Blizzard wants to be able to introduce new and casual players to a traditionally unforgiving gametype in an FPS. The last thing they want to happen is for someone to balk at the amount of learning to do when starting up, or dismissing a good opponent as “cheap” and not booting the game up again.

Teamwork is important

I probably had the best time with Overwatch due to the fact I was playing with five other competent FPS gamers. I cannot imagine the chaos of solo queue, and preferably, I never want to.

Being able to co-ordinate class balance is amazing, because I never ran into the Team Fortress 2 problem of five people wanting to play Sniper and no one claiming Medic. Sure, the opening few games were just people trying out a bunch of classes, but once people found their comfort zones we actually went on a fairly huge streak due to being organized.

Having at least one healer is so essential due to the length of spawn times and the travel time getting back to the main warzone. Tanks soak damage and often have valuable disruption abilities that let damage dealers or assassins to work. Even snipers have a role due to Widowmaker’s completely broken Infra-vision ultimate that lets you see a red outline of all alive opponents for a short time.

I can see this game being similar to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive where communication is essential, but for a different way. You need to be able to adapt to information on the fly and feed it to teammates who may not be in the know. Things like being the only one to notice that someone snuck behind us to capture the point directs the whole ship to success.

Like I said, I did not spend any time in solo queue, and sadly I ran into a friend as an opponent in a match who was doing so. We steamrolled them particularly badly, mostly because we could co-ordinate mass revives, pushes and defenses where they couldn’t.

Depth is needed

The one thing that worries me about Overwatch is that need to balance the new player’s experience with the ability to actually have long-term fun. Despite 21 heroes, I feel like there will be a tier list that develops soon enough, and optimization is a quick way to kill the experimentation that lengthens a game’s life.

I can hear it now: “Why did you pick Reaper when McCree is so much better? We would have won if you had picked Mercy, she’s so OP right now.”

I want to see more game types, more map designs that favor multiple approaches, and strategies that benefit from having a distinct hero composition. That’s the kind of depth you usually see from a MOBA like League of Legends or Dota 2: creative risk is rewarded.

Right now, I can see Overwatch running into a pitfall where as new heroes get released, they will either succumb to the same MOBA power creep problem (where old heroes are not adapted to new playstyles, and fall out of favor) or maps will become painfully exploited as new mechanics are introduced for which they were not originally designed.

In trying to combine a FPS base with MOBA elements, Blizzard may have introduced themselves to a combination of problems inherent to both genres, as well. I hope they have the talent on hand to recognize and fix those problems.

I had fun with Overwatch, but with a $40+ price tag without the promise of free map packs or modding tools, I don’t see myself investing into it as heavily as if it were free-to-play. I do not have faith in Blizzard to not charge high prices for new heroes like Heroes of the Storm, and I honestly don’t feel like grinding for access in order to have the fluid lineup you need for success.

Edit: I’ve been informed that Overwatch devs have said they won’t be pursuing a HotS-esque pricing model, and that they don’t want to restrict people’s access to the 21 heroes. However, the wording is very specific to the “original 21”, so the strategy when it comes to new heroes may change.

Seeing that stationary hero turret from before and realizing that I haven’t unlocked or paid for the hero that is his counter is going to suck. Seeing pubs or casual players being limited to a free hero rotation (invariably leading to very bland lineups) is also going to be a problem.

These are all assumptions, but I wish that there were more information to keep me from making them. As it stands right now, all I have to go on is previous business practices and the tendency for games to try to nickle-and-dime as much as possible for add-ons, even when you invest for the base product.

I hate even calling it a “base” product because I feel like I’m resigning to the fact that multiplayer games can’t just be games anymore; they have to be franchises and money-mills for their parent company. While some monetization methods are okay, they’re accepted because they make a relevant, “fair” trade-off: the game will be free with only cosmetics buyable, or essential stat-boosting elements won’t be accelerated by payment.

However, I’m really nervous Overwatch is going to just say “screw it, people are hyped enough for our game already, we’ll just do all the monetization and the majority won’t complain because we’re Blizzard.” Then people will buy it anyway in order to play with friends, fueling the perception that that kind of model is fine as long as you can weather initial outcry.

Gamers are impatient and their passions are fleeting. They’ll find something else to complain about by another company tomorrow.

Maybe this whole wrap-up has been a bit unfair to all parties involved. I’ll try to keep some optimism for Overwatch, because in the end, I’d like to enjoy it.

Matt Demers writes about eSports, gaming and culture. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch, Facebook and YouTube. He writes a weekly newsletter about the above topics every Monday.

Video Games

Thoughts on Kero Blaster

Posted by Matt Demers on

One of the most beloved video games of all time is Cave Story, a labor of love by one Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya. Developed over the course of years, it was initially released for free, and eventually ported to consoles like the Nintendo 3DS and WiiU later.

Basically, if someone wants an example of a passion project that turned out amazing, you go to Cave Story. It’s pretty much the best freeware game of all time.

It took a while, but Pixel eventually released Kero Blaster, his next title, to a Western audience through a digital download, and on November 11, it hit Steam. I bought it, and beat it last night.

Fans of Cave Story will be happy to note that Kero Blaster is really similar to it. You jump, shoot and platform to kill enemies, complete stages and defeat bosses. Along the way you get money that can be used for permanent weapon and health upgrades; unlike Cave Story, you unlock four weapons as the game progresses, and each can be upgraded three times.

The game also differs in that it uses a traditional lives/Game Over system, which can be really unforgiving. Each hit you take docks you one heart from your meter, and you start out with two. After all your lives get expended, you start at the beginning of a level with all the money you collected still intact. To an extent, this means the game is grindable.

Unless Game Over-ing, you save your progress each time you enter a new room, and will spawn at the beginning if you die. The game mixes modern mechanics with challenge that I think gamers are looking for these days; Kero Blaster is unforgiving in Boss patterns, but it’s really rewarding when you clear it.

It’s not really the Dark Souls of platformers, nor is it just unfair like I Want To Be The Guy or Kaizo Mario levels.

Like Cave Story, the art style and the music are top notch. There’s a decent amount of exposition by characters that feel like they have personality despite minimal graphical complexity and chances to speak. It’s a fun, silly game that doesn’t have too much of a plot to it, but it doesn’t feel neglected.

Where Kero lacks is its length: you can beat this game in about 3 hours, including the grinding it may take to beat bosses. After finishing the game, you can open up a New Game+ mode with three collectibles to find in already-existing levels and a Boss Rush, but besides that the replay value will likely be taken up by Speedrunners or people looking to break the game.

For $10, this might be something that’s best left on your wishlist to wait for a sale, but supporting it means supporting one of the best philosophies in gaming: make something good, put your heart into what you make, don’t take your audience for granted and don’t be afraid to be weird. I’m cool supporting that in Pixel, because despite Kero Blaster not being revolutionary, the work he put into this and Cave Story (the latter over five years) seems worth rewarding.

Maybe that’s me mythologizing him a bit, but I think in this current age of gaming it’s healthy to examine that builds loyalty and how we respond to it. For me, Pixel’s story is one a lot of people can learn from, and his work ethic puts mine to shame.

Kero Blaster can be found on Steam or Playism. You can play a free demo called Pink Hour on Steam or Playism for a sampling of the mechanics.

Matt Demers writes about video games and eSports from Toronto, Ontario. You can follow him on Twitter and Twitch.

Esports/Video Games

Dota Reborn is out! Here’s things I like so far

Posted by Matt Demers on

I recently had the chance to play around with the Dota 2 Reborn beta after it launched earlier this week. Obviously, being a beta, there’s a bunch of stuff that needs to be improved — things like connectivity issues during custom games, spectating and Hero MMR are all kind of struggling.

However, I thought I’d write a bit about what I did like, which was quite a lot; as I said before, in my previous blog post, the main enjoyment I’m getting out of this is knowing that Valve are implementing and improving Reborn so quickly that it doesn’t feel like I have to just deal with the crap for the foreseeable future.

The Interface

The interface for Reborn is smooth as hell, and that’s something that really makes me grin. With some games you just feel good going through the menus, and this is one of those times.

There’s less of a loading time going from tab to tab. Things load quickly, and assets rarely “snap in” unless there’s some kind of model to load. For screens like the hero select or the armory, you have an easy-to-navigate set of buttons that click, snap and shift with awesome effects.

Things like the “ready to play” button moving from “accept” to a list of icons to show who’s ready just look awesome.

The Friend Feed

These kind of features tend to be a little cyclical: if no one uses them, they fall by the wayside. However, I’ve made a habit of checking and commenting on friends’ stuff from time to time, just to give a bit of light-hearted ribbing or just see if it works.

Knowing that my friends are playing and progressing gives me an idea of where I stack up against them, and that’s always a motivator to get better. I’ve been playing more Dota over the last two weeks than I have in months, and having incentives like streaming, the Compendium and friends to play/compete with are really helping me get more out of the game.

It also helps to see who’s queuing up for custom games, and I’ve already found myself grabbing lobbies with people I haven’t talked to in years because “hey, what’s one game?”

The Game Itself

Reborn made a bunch of changes to the map, both aesthetically and functionally, and from the few games I’ve played on it I really enjoy it. It’s not something so huge that I’m sitting there saying “Damn, never again am I going back to Source 1,” but at the same time things feel snappier: I played a Viper game where killing creeps seemed simpler. I played a Keeper of the Light game where I was a bit let scatterbrained than normal. I had more awareness. I was more clutch.

Completely subjective, obviously, but that’s the whole point of this article – for all I know, playing on Reborn with the mentality of trying something new out could’ve given me a huge placebo effect.

I mean, that’s at least better than hating it, right?

I really can’t wait for Reborn to get to the point where the things I love about Dota 2 1.0 (heh) are implemented: I play a lot of Compendium Challenge games, and not having those count for heroes and challenges kind of sucks.

Like I said, though, I’m amazed that there’s been a wealth of changes already from Valve to fix things that players are noticing: this isn’t something that’s released as a novelty in order to sit on the shelf and rot. This is the next life of Dota 2, and hopefully one that will last as long as possible.

In short, it’s pretty awesome from the get-go, but what’s really great is that this is only the foundation from where things get better.

Matt Demers writes about eSports. He lives in Toronto, and works as a Supervising Editor for theScore eSports. Follow him on Twitter or, where he streams Dota.

Esports/Video Games

Dota Reborn: Three things I’m excited about

Posted by Matt Demers on

A couple days ago Dota 2 fans were treated to the launch of Reborn, a web page devoted to the updating of… a lot of things.

The first part focused on the out-of-game experience, which includes the client and the way we can watch matches from within it. This is really important, as it serves as a foundation for how we experience Dota: it’s like a city that needs good logistics, because otherwise it becomes a convoluted mess.

As someone who’s played League of Legends since beta, one of my main gripes is that its client is pretty much held together with duct tape. It also lacks certain features that other games — well, let’s be real here, Dota — do really really well. This update reminded me how much I value a good infrastructure and how much I love little bells and whistles.

Here’s three things I like about what the first part of Reborn brings to the table:

1. Improved Viewing Experience

Let’s look at this image. Real time graphs. Minimap. Chat. Ad space for tournaments. Side UI elements that (hopefully) can be hidden. Third-party streams. Hopefully real-time item build/timing information. I’m pretty biased because all this stuff really makes my job easier, but it also makes it easier to step inside the mind of the pro as they’re playing.

Knowing when/how pros get their timings make emulating them easier; obviously I’m not going to be able to be like them completely, but suddenly you have a concrete idea of what’s slow, fast or in-line with how the good people are playing.

2. Hero Tinkering

I’m going to confess that sometimes I play Dota 2 like a dress-up game. I like to see cool combinations of cosmetics, and if I want to test a hero I rarely play, it can be a pain to load up a custom game, make sure cheats are enabled, only to disconnect and recreate because I want to try something else.

It looks like Dota’s going to make it easier to tinker with heroes, and I’m definitely all for that. I’m a huge fan of guides built in to the client (sometimes to a fault) and reading them before I’m in game and under a time pressure will be awesome. I’m also really curious about there being “more information to help you determine if a hero is right for you,” because a question I commonly ask my stacks is “what should I play?”

Sometimes you just need to be nudged in the right direction, and hopefully with the new information the game is going to be tracking on you (see below), it’ll be able to be accurate.

3. Playstyle Analytics

This is the big one for me. I’m not exactly a hardcore data geek, but I love looking at numbers and seeing my performance quantified — even if I suck, tell me where I’m sucking and where I can get better. Even if I don’t end up trying to fix things, at least I know where my strengths lie.

I think that’s why I’m kind of enjoying the 10 Hero Challenge in this year’s Compendium and the associated Coin Challenges; they give me a reason to step outside my comfort zone, and when I accomplish them, I almost always have a moment where I mentally remind myself that it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

Sometimes it’s really easy to take those challenges and be self-defeating. With the integration of deeper stats and visualizations, players might at least be able to gain confidence to where they excel so that their shortcomings don’t hit as hard.

It’s this kind of information that helps me invest in playing the game for a longer span of time because I won’t hit roadblocks as hard; if I want to stay and play Dota 2 (which I do), I will have more tools to get more out of the game and learn from mistakes.

In the end, I’m happy to see Dota 2 getting a massive upgrade because it makes me feel that Valve cares about their player base; sometimes it’s easy to just feel like you’re funneling money into the game, but at least large, sweeping improvements like this show that complaints aren’t being ignored.

In the Reddit reaction thread to this update, someone said that this literally took concerns from the past two years and fixed them all at once. Then someone else reminded people that this was the first of three parts to Reborn. I legitimately felt like a game I enjoy was both secure for the future and in good hands.

That’s something I’m really not used to.

Matt Demers is a Toronto writer who is a Supervising Editor for theScore eSports. He’s also still waiting for replays in League of Legends. Follow him on Twitter and Twitch, where he streams Dota 2.

Esports/Video Games

Chasing Champions – An eSports Travelogue

Posted by Matt Demers on

Hell is being trapped in a window seat on a fifteen hour flight to Korea with a full bladder and the Canadian need to be polite. My legs crumple into the seat in front of me, two sleeping Korean men prevents me from the freedom of the aisle.

The last five days had been hectic: I received a press pass to cover the OnGameNet OLYMPUS Champions Winter grand final in Seoul, South Korea, then spent the time in between frantically preparing to leave my time zone for the first time. Despite writing about competitive League of Legends for six months at this point, Champions Winter was my first live tournament; after watching numerous American and European events from my Toronto bedroom via stream, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nauseous from my nerves. Or maybe that was the in-flight beverages.

For many eSports fans, Korea is the holy grail of professional gaming. Although it has piqued considerable interest both stateside and in Europe, Asian fans have been able to enjoy their favorite players compete for salaries, prizes and superstardom for almost a decade. OnGameNet – often abbreviated OGN – has hosted several seasons of StarCraft and branched into League of Legends after its swell in popularity, going so far to furnish a studio that enabled fans to watch competitors free of charge. While OGN’s live show operated on a first-come, first-serve basis, this event offered a notable departure with the introduction of paid tickets: OGN felt it wasn’t fair that fans who had paying jobs would be unable to line up for the hours needed to secure space.

The venue, Hanyang University’s gymnasium, was built to house volleyball during Seoul’s hosting of the summer Olympics in 1988. Two days after my arrival, the gym was converted to allow 8,000 eSports fans watch two powerhouse teams – NaJin Sword and Azubu Frost – compete for an ₩ 80,000,000 (~$73,556 USD) grand prize. This was a culmination of a season beginning in November, with Champions Spring and Summer to follow in 2013; like many other conventional sports, teams experience a regular season of group play before seeding into a playoff for the grand prize.

Up until recently, League of Legends eSports has followed a different format in America, largely due to the lack of infrastructure in place to support the same level of play. Points earned at tournaments held at conventions like Major League Gaming or Penny Arcade eXpo, determined a leaderboard, with the line between a professional, financially stable athlete and an amateur clearly drawn. While this has changed recently with the introduction of Riot Games’ League Championship series – offering salaries to players and weekly, organized league play to spectate – Korea has been doing it much longer, and constructed enough of a business in the process to sustain eSports as both a viable hobby and a career path to hopefuls who want to compete.

Until the LCS, players unable to win tournaments to sustain their career needed to split time between playing and earning a living. Sadly, this led to the creation of teams with the ability to practice dominating those without, stagnating competition in the process. In Seoul and other parts of Asia, players live together in team houses, have enough money to sustain themselves and have a social status nearing that of sex symbols. The existence of these highly competitive teams account for the dominance of Asian countries at these tournaments.

Travelling to Korea was a unique experience: not only did I not speak a word of Korean, but aside from the occasional family vacation to Florida and solo jaunt to New York City, I’d never really left home. Like an amateur, I failed to get my International roaming package working after emerging from the Seoul subway from the airport. I was at the right stop, but I was stuck in the misting rain with no idea where to go, and no tools to help get me there.

Despite my technological disconnect, I noticed that Seoul is an extremely modern city. The subways have signage in both English and Hangul, making travelling extremely easy for foreigners other services also seem geared towards travelers, including a mapping service that helps you find your station and calculate your fares, printing out a rechargeable card. There is full cellphone reception and wireless internet on the subway, but I was unable to use it: a Korean mobile number is usually needed to access free options or the possibility of purchasing.

This emphasis on mobility reflects a general acceptance of technology as a facet of everyday life. While my grandmother can barely use a prepaid flip-phone back home, there were numerous elderly playing games on touchscreens – and as I was informed later, often with each other. This worked to my advantage, as after I found some friendly Wi-Fi (ironically at one of the only Canadian restaurants in Seoul), I contacted my host for the weekend.

Christopher “Montecristo” Mykles (that’s him, on the left) has been working in eSports for nearly a decade, managing a Warcraft III team and commentating on League of Legends. Currently, he works for OGN as an English-speaking commentator for their broadcasts, and along with William “Chobra” Cho, was my connections to the inner workings of the broadcast. I worked with both men in the past on a volunteer basis for a community news site; their involvement in the scene landed them jobs in Korea as OGN expanded their audience worldwide. Cho is an extremely valuable asset in eSports due to his ability to speak both English and Korean fluently; due to his status as Press Coordinator for the event and my inability to speak the language, I largely relied on him for translations.

However, with a day still to go between my arrival and the tournament, Mykles and I spent time preparing for the upcoming event. While maintaining a physical presence in Seoul, he continued to commentate for an online stream in the United States, powering through the time difference; while lacking the spectacle of an offline event, playing and commentating online is often how players and personalities gain experience. While performance well could lead to invitations to live play, English-speaking audiences are only starting to see a regular League format with the production values of “real” sports.

Mykles and Cho’s apartment was located in Itaewon, one of the more international-friendly areas in Seoul. Between mandatory Korean barbeque, we picked up Caribbean chicken and odd takes on hamburgers, and fried, sugared pastries identical to the ones my Ukranian grandmother used to make for me. The mash up of cultures let me ease my way into my new surroundings while still having recognizable elements to latch on to, though hearing a cover band butcher a Nickelback song triggered a large amount of Canadian shame.

On the day of the tournament, those training wheels slowly came off. Despite a fairly Western-style brunch after meeting up with Mykles’ broadcast partner, stepping outside the Hanyang subway station all three of us were aware of how conspicuously foreign we looked. It was clear that fans had been congregating across the university grounds long before we got there.; we attracted our share of looks while walking to the gymnasium, and while we were able to enter, there was a little bit of waiting to be done while getting verification that we could enter.

Business infrastructure is not the only type that’s important to the Korean model of eSports; a large advantage that companies like OGN enjoy is the ease of transit for residents of Seoul. This venue, for instance had a station within a five minutes’ walk, and the OGN studio held similar advantages. For younger fans that may not have their own cars, public transit is key to minimizing investment for a night eSports. Like many sports fans in the United States can attest, it’s infinitely easier to attend a stadium/arena game without having to navigate through gridlock traffic or pay for costly parking.

The American system also works very differently in terms of frequency and spectacle; though Riot Games have their own studio in Los Angeles for League broadcasts, it currently does not host an audience. Instead, “convention” events like MLG or PAX are larger, flashier, and attendance can come with a greater degree of planning. Especially when considering travel, food and accommodations, those not living in within common cities (Los Angeles, Dallas, Raleigh, Boston) have a considerable investment to make; a tournament will often play out in its entirety over the course of a weekend, pairing League of Legends with other games to maximize the usage of a large venue. If there was any start to the spectacle of Champions Winter, it was that I was not used to seeing so much production value solely for one game.

In Korea, the passion for this one game was enthralling, as the pockets of excited fans waiting reminded me of tailgating parties I had seen back in the West. While an afternoon of going downtown to grab a baseball or hockey game seemed commonplace for those of us living near large cities, the fact that this was for video games – a hobby still struggling to find acceptance in adult audiences – was a bit surreal. After all, there was no reason why it shouldn’t be treated similarly, but I simply could not imagine telling my parents, friends, or co-workers that I was going to be sitting at home and watching a gaming tournament for most of the weekend.

Attempts in the past drew skepticism and even a little teasing: letting my parents know that I would be leaving the country for what I thought was a logical extension of sports journalism perplexed them. For all the progress that video games have made to invade mainstream audiences, the hobby still has trouble divorcing itself from the stigma it suffered for a long time prior – however, some of the most apt comparisons between the “nerd” and “jock” stereotypes point out that the latter just happen to be as passionate about baseball stats as eSports fans are about kill:death ratios.

In Korea, eSports have the benefit of seeing a more widespread audience, and therefore a better chance to normalize as part of everyday life. OnGameNet and other companies form partnerships with TV stations, allowing them to broadcast their matches as if they were any other sport. When Riot Games’ Season Two World Championship occurred this past October, the 1,154,000 unique viewer figures were considered amazing – that is, until it we found out that an additional 2,402,225 people watched the event through Korean and Chinese televisions. By normalizing the act of watching eSports, OGN’s first ticketed event was a resounding success: all 8,000 tickets for today’s tournament, priced at less than twenty dollars US, sold out in less than an hour.

While waiting for our staff and press passes, I was introduced to some familiar faces from that same World Championship; Azubu Frost, the team that eventually took second place and half a million dollars in prize money, wandered in behind us and sat down on some couches. I was caught off-guard, as my only experience with professional League of Legends players up to this point had been voice interviews through Skype and broadcast cameras at tournaments. It was hard not to be star-struck, as this was the team that steamrolled the top American squad on their way to victory. However, the feeling subsided extremely quickly as I was introduced and shook their hands. Some seemed put off by me, perhaps by my choice to wear a suit. Meeting them in person faded the view of them as unstoppable juggernauts and replaced it with the realization that these guys were, at their core, gamers. They just happened to be waiting to play the biggest game of their lives.

Eventually Frost was ushered out of the room and I was left tethered to Cho, who had taken on a jack of all trades role for Champions Winter. Translating, coordinating press and speaking on the English broadcast, we stayed with him as he ran a few errands. This paid off, though, when we stepped inside the Hanyang gym and got to see the stage.

In order to give the spectators an adequate view of the game, OGN rigged multiple projector towers along the back wall of the ground floor, shining images up onto the main screen. As the production staff went through a dry run of the lights, sound and pre-show pageantry, it was evident at how much work had been put into the establishing of a storyline for this season’s conclusion. There were recaps of the previous Spring and Summer tournaments, video packages of the teams facing off on superimposed backgrounds, and head-to-head introductions for players along with their counterpart on the opposing side. It felt like the Super Bowl, only with less pyrotechnics, combining a flash of showmanship with the competitive spirit of the championship.

Eventually, I received a press badge that gave me access to the backstage of the facility and the multiple levels of seating above the ground floor. Different utility rooms were set up in the building’s classrooms, such as locker rooms for each team and a wardrobe and makeup room. This is where I caught up with Mykles, immersed in conversation with NaJin Sword’s Yoon “MakNooN” Ha-woon; MakNooN is a favourite among foreigners due to his aggressive play, trash talk and workable grasp of the English language.

Surrounded by both teams and support staff, it was in this room where introductions were made and the naturalization between “players on a pedestal” and “normal people” were completed. Though the mood was light and sociable, I could see the determination etched into the player’s faces. For Azubu Frost, Champions Winter was a chance to become multiple-time OGN champions, and NaJin Sword was poised to usurp the throne.

Within the hour, the venue’s doors opened and people began flooding in. This process was exactly the same any other sporting event, with some of the crowd writing signs on their cellphones in hopes of being caught by the numerous boom cameras sweeping the gym. Some fans reveled in the attention of seeing themselves on-screen, while others (usually ladies) hid their faces; I found out this was partly a holdover from earlier days of eSports, where students skipping school to watch matches didn’t want to be identified.

Eventually, the crowd settled, the lights dimmed, and the production began. The light show that I witnessed earlier sprang to life, this time with a cheering crowd to give the presentation a fuller effect. Naturally, the point of all this was to hype the crowd, and it worked marvelously; you could hear random shouts of players’ names, gasps of amazement when they appeared on the screen, and the din of pure, unadulterated passion. I got to experience this from all angles while running around to get photos, and by the time I was able to slow down and watch the match itself, Azubu Frost was already down two games in a best-of-five series, facing elimination.

Leaning against a production box near one of the projection towers, I put down my camera. It was ironic that it had taken me this long to actually witness a game I enjoyed watching, because I was preoccupied with capturing others, instead. Finally settled in, the experience felt truly different from anything prior in my gaming career.

In that moment, it felt like instead of being just one person in a random spot in the crowd, I was absorbed into the game as part of a miraculous wave. Every fan in that gym was invested into the game, and when something happened during the match, the entire air changed. It would often start slow, as the most experienced eyes would catch a player out of position, or two other moving to flank him. The noise grew louder as more people caught on, swelling like the ocean before a wave’s crest; either the gambit would dissipate harmlessly, or a team would gain the advantage to thunderous applause and cheering.

It’s a pity that both teams sat in sound-proof booths on-stage: I can imagine no greater reward for a successful play.

NaJin Sword toppled Azubu Frost in that game, sweeping the match and seizing the prize money in a shower of confetti and champagne. MakNooN netted himself a check for match MVP, breaking down in tears as his team clutched the Champions Winter Cup. The closing ceremonies were emotional not only for the victors, but for the rest of the league teams in attendance; it was a nod to a successful season, not only for the players, but for OGN as well.

It was around this time that I figured out where I had felt like this before.

As a proud Canadian, I know that one of the few occasions we rally around sports is the Winter Olympic Games, where our hockey team are perennial favorites. People pause normal NHL team allegiances in favor of supporting the greater cause, where the pride of the entire country seems on the line; there was a similar feeling here despite the lack of national pride. It was every bit as intense as the Super Bowl, game seven of the World Series or the final of the World Cup; after all, it should.

This tournament was markedly different from what I had experienced because it was less of a “gaming occasion” and more of fully-developed sports event. Every person in attendance was there to watch League of Legends because he or she was deeply passionate about the teams playing and the game itself. Instead of splitting their attention between a convention around them or other games being played at the same time, they were able to invest their excitement fully towards the task at hand. Both the players and OGN were rewarded for their commitment to quality with fans that left happy, carrying the growth of eSports with them.

After requisite celebration and tying up loose ends, I was back on a plane to Toronto the next day; it was sadly a quick trip, and I would’ve loved to spend a bit more time around Seoul.  Since my trip, I’ve been enjoying Riot Games’ League Championship Series on a weekly basis, but have been chasing the same level of hype that I experienced in Korea. My sleep schedule has sadly led me to miss most of Champions Spring, which will be culminating this coming weekend; neither NaJin Sword nor Azubu Frost (now named CJ Entus Frost) will be returning. It’s been nearly five months since the conclusion of Champions Winter, and that can be an eternity in an eSports fan’s memory. More teams will rise, others will fall, and the best can build legacies.

While waiting on the plane in my empty row – no fidgeting this time – the passion surrounding the championship left me hopeful that someday I could experience a tournament like that on my native soil. Something sparked inside me, as I wanted nothing more to play, watch, feel the game. Sports can inspire positive emotions, like joy, pride and camaraderie; I want gamers to be able to feel them in such an intense way, just as I had.

And with eSports’ momentum building at an immense rate, this may happen sooner, rather than later.

Matt Demers is a 23 year old writer who hopes to make a living out of his passions. He writes about gaming, League of Legends, comic books and other nerdy things. You can follow him on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. If you’d like to read or watch more in-depth eSports coverage, consider donating to help with associated costs.