Anyone who tells you esports aren’t real sports hasn’t met an Australian. We can turn anything into a sport. We’re the country that turned waiting in line at PAX into a sport (you’re welcome, other PAXes). If there’s competition afoot, as a nation, we want in on it.
Held across two of Australian tennis’ most hallowed spaces, Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena (a move you are free to believe is a nod to the original competitive video game, Pong), the Melbourne Esports Open set out to prove that not only is there an Australian appetite for esports, but that it can be every inch the family activity as an afternoon at the footy.
World-beating battle royale title Fortnite dominated the show, drawing thousands of young fans and their parents to the free play area in the JB Hifi Game Zone and the Open Tournament stage in Margaret Court Arena. It seemed everywhere you turned was a tiny Fortnite fan ready to tell you about their sickest ever Victory Royale. The Fortnite Stage let young fans live out an esports dream, with a fully realised, broadcast-ready stage, Twitch livestream, theatre audience and shoutcasters commentating every moment. A great move on the part of event management and PR who made it happen. I saw a lot of kids coming down off that stage who were beside themselves.
Elsewhere, Sunday’s High School Eleague drew a sizeable crowd for the Victorian State Final. The best high school teams in the state vied for top spot, that final match coming down to a do-or-die brawl between Melbourne High School and Roxburgh College. MHS clung on to secure the victory and take the game, setting off a massive celebration in the crowd. Wonderful to see Australian schools getting behind an initiative like this, and how great for these students to get to settle the score on such a massive stage.
The JB Hi-Fi Game Zone gained a lot of traction, a miniature version of the show floor so common at other gaming conventions. A few pre release titles — Soul Calibur 6, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Ori and the Will of the Wisps and NBA 2K19 — were on hand for fans to try out early, but it was next week’s PlayStation 4 exclusive Spider-Man that was drawing the biggest crowds. Most of the players I saw were enjoying simply web-slinging around New York, the hallmark of any good Spider-man game. Importantly, no-one I asked seemed unhappy about the state of the game’s puddles. Regular tournies were held for prizes and JB Hi-Fi did a roaring trade in Pop Vinyls and gaming accessories, with sales people walking the floor, talking to punters.
The biggest draw of the show, of course, were its two main event competitions held in Rod Laver Arena. Saturday saw the Overwatch Contenders Australian Semi and Grand Final match ups, while Sunday hosted the League of Legends Oceanic Pro League Split 2 Grand Final. Both games have large Australian followings, a huge contingent of which turned out to support their favourite teams.
Overwatch Contenders got off to a fairly predictable start with the dominant Sydney Drop Bears punishing Kanga Esports in short order and moving through the Grand Final. Kanga put up a fight, but couldn’t hold the line against the Drop Bears phenomenal co-ordination. The second semi final proved, for many, to be the highlight of the day, a knock-down drag-out battle between Order and Darksided that proved just how evenly matched the two teams were. Both teams gave their all, but in the end Darksided managed to come away with the win they needed to progress.
The Grand Finals were another slugfest, but moving from the Semi’s directly into the Grand Final cost Darksided some momentum. Before long, they were showing signs of fatigue against the Drop Bears relentless assault and cool composure. Blizzard are still trying to find the balance between the needs of their players and servicing their broadcast audience, and I think here that worked against Darksided. Had they gotten a break of similar length to the Drop Bears, rather than coming straight back out to face them, the Grand Final may have played out very differently. In the end, the Drop Bears claimed the Grand Final win that many had assumed was theirs by right.
The League of Legends Oceanic Pro League Split 2 Grand Final was a showdown between two bitter Sydney rivals — the Chiefs Esports Club and the LG Dire Wolves. In a best-of-five series, the Dire Wolves let the Chiefs get a single win on the board, presumably to give them hope, before shutting the gate on a clinical 3-1 victory. League of Legends is a game of patience and timing, and the Dire Wolves made all the right moves. Despite a few brawls where the Chiefs momentarily got the upper hand, the Dire Wolves simply refused to commit to any fight they couldn’t win. Their ability to keep their heads, back out, reset and find another angle was what ultimately won them the day. It must have been frustrating for the Chiefs, and I’m sure that’s what the Dire Wolves were counting on.
In a funny way, it made sense for the Melbourne Esports Open’s inaugural event to be locked in a broader competition of its own. The weekend that organisers had carved out put them up against some serious competition of their own — Father’s Day fell on the Sunday, and they were jockeying against the massive VidCon Australia, a convention featuring some of YouTube’s biggest names, happening at the MCEC just down the road. VidCon alone would have cut substantially into the MEO’s core audience of 18-35 year olds, but the true believers didn’t disappoint. The event was well organised, safe, optimistic and a lot of fun for everyone in attendance.
I sincerely hope that the Melbourne Esports Open gets the chance to do it all again next year. The profile of Australian esports is on the rise, and events like this prove conclusively what most already knew: we want more of it.