As a four-man team of pro gamers was crowned world champion of Call of Duty in Los Angeles Sunday night, confetti swarmed and fans cheered and it was easy for me to forget, as I stood to the side, that this championship bout was not a public event.
Sure, thousands or millions of people may have been watching the tournament unfold on online broadcasts, but the event itself was held behind closed doors.
Nonetheless, this was a championship atmosphere. Though it took place in a rather nondescript large white tent atop a parking deck in LA Live, the ambience inside was quite dramatic. Moody, even. Most of the lighting within came from studio-style hot lights overhead, leaving much of the space in the dark. Some lights would pan across where spectators - press, sponsors, managers and select community members - stood, leaving us blind for a second or two.
And it was cold.
Thirty-two Xbox One consoles running games at the same time - not to mention the dozens of cameras and computers and everything else required to make the tournament go - necessitated a cool environment, but this was slightly less than comfortable. For the players, the environment and ambience and camera men moving around behind their monitors didn't really matter to them.
“There are times when I've seen people being video'd on camera and thought, 'Is that not putting them off?'" Mark Bryceland of UK squad TCM told me on Saturday. “And then when you're actually in it, you just completely forget [all that peripheral stuff] - you're just so zoned in on it. Someone could be in front of your face clapping and you probably wouldn't see it."
Bryceland did say that, despite the uncanny ability these pro players have at cutting out distractions, he did feel the cold. “That's the only thing that puts me off, but I've got a hoodie so it's all good," he said, bemoaning briefly that wearing the hoodie means viewers can't see his team uniform shirt. Alas.
THE ON-FIELD DRAMA
I attended all three days of the championship and watched as spectators' moods changed throughout the weekend.
Early Friday afternoon during the round robin group phase, even while the bleachers facing the main event stage held a couple hundred people, it seemed none were paying close attention to the proceedings.
By late evening that day, the crowd perked up a bit and would gasp at the most dramatic moments of the matches but it still felt clinical and business-like.
But as the field narrowed and time moved on, the crowd became far more involved - peaking, I felt - during the semifinal match between the eventual champions, compLexity, and their rivals at Team OpTic. OpTic is a hugely popular brand and had the crowd in its pocket reacting loudly and excitedly to everything they did well - and the team played lights-out for most of four games.
When the teams were tied at one win each in the utterly enthralling third of those five games, a round of blitz, OpTic got out in front early and held on for dear life, staying a point or two up the whole round. They took out compLexity's runners right before they reached the goal to tie it up a few times, keeping the crowd in a furor throughout and making them scream at every kill. The last real threat from compLexity hit the dirt with about 10 seconds remaining with OpTic up 8-7, and OpTic could taste it. One more win and they'd be in the final match.
Watch that exciting game below.
As OpTic jumped from their seats, pumped up from the victory, compLexity stayed in their seats, staring at their screens and chatting with each other. They showed no sign of distress or urgency, and after edging OpTic out in the game 4 round of domination to tie the series at 2, they gave no quarter in taking six straight rounds of search and destroy to leave OpTic in the dust. The total silence from the crowd during that last game, when OpTic never had any chance, felt as loud as the noise they had been making moments earlier.
That particular silence, as opposed to the quiet of the early matches, was just as much a part of that championship as the cheers were. In my head, I could see Crimsix, known for being so exactingly lethal, shushing the crowd in the way a basketball player would after hitting a three-point shot at a crucial moment in a hostile environment.
The tournament may have ended with compLexity's dominating, statement victory over EnVyUs in the final, but compLexity kept the drama going. As the confetti fell, the newly coronated kings of Call of Duty made sure to paint a LeBron James-sized target on on their backs.
compLexity rolled through the three-day tournament with emphasis. That they won it all so efficiently would normally be enough for sports fans to take aim at compLexity - we love the underdog, not budding dynasties - but these guys didn't let their play do all the talking. Throughout the weekend, members of the team would throw out barbs at their defeated opposition in post-match interviews on the event's main stage.
“It's just a start. We're going undefeated this entire year," compLexity's Patrick “ACHES" Price declared as he and the team stood in a storm of confetti just minutes after closing out EnVy in a match that was completely devoid of drama.
“We're the best team in the game. No one's going to touch us at all."
That tone was compLexity's theme all weekend. They knew they would win, and they let us know it at every opportunity. It's hard to complain about all the bragging when they managed to back up that chatter. But at the same time that swagger and arrogance creates an air not unlike that of the New York Yankees, LA Lakers or New England Patriots we've been living with for so long.
So while it may have been ACHES, Crimsix. TeePee and Karma up on that stage, what I was really hearing Sunday evening at LA Live was LeBron going, “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven."
“Props to everyone else that played against us, but we want it more," Tyler “TeePee" Polchow declared to the world, and to everyone compLexity is going to have to face in the coming year.
In the post-game press conference this kind of talk from compLexity continued, and the team acknowledged no weakness. They did assert that losing to Strictly Business in the final at the US Championship three weeks ago gave them a mental edge and extra drive this time out, but that now as long as they keep up their training they won't have any problems going forward.
THE CLEAR-HEADED LOSERS
Team EnVyUs, on the other hand, was perhaps more candid after being hammered by compLexity in the Final, particularly in regards to the mental struggle involved in competing with such an intense, compressed schedule. The Call of Duty Championship is a double-elimination tournament after the group phase, and EnVy lost at the very beginning and had to run all the way through the loser's bracket in order to have a shot at compLexity at the end.
The tournament's schedule is basically everything at a World Cup but played in a single weekend instead of spread out over a month. There's little time to breathe between matchups. With no margin for error from the get-go, EnVy member Anthony “NAMELESS" Wheeler admitted that moving on from there was definitely a mental battle.
“It's really tiring," Anthony “NAMELESS" Wheeler explained after the final match. “Really, you just have to stay confident, in every match you play, even if you get down 0-2 [in the best-of-five match]. We got down 0-2 versus Epsilon, and we brought it back and won the game."
“I've had a loser's bracket run, but nothing [like that]," said Joe “MERK" Deluca. “It's never easy losing, and then playing a match an hour later and making that run. So you just keep your team calm… and play how you know how to play.
“It's stressful, but as Anthony said you have to stay relaxed and persevere through these sorts of things. This is what happens all year for us. You have to get through these tough brackets, tough matches."
EnVy's most seasoned veteran player, Ray “RAMBO" Lussier, had some pretty down-to-earth comments about the mental toughness needed to do well in the tournaments that contrasted starkly with the hyped-up, gung-ho nature of what the compLexity guys had said to the media minutes before. And his “real talk" about EnVy's performance was quite level-headed next to the deserved arrogance that compLexity had put on display. He wasn't humble, just frank and practical.
“There's always gonna be downs in any tournament for your team," Lussier said. “You're always going to lose a map or two, and you have to pick yourself up. Obviously, losing the first match was a tough spot for us, especially knowing the bracket we had ahead. But it's as simple as 'it's never over until it's over.' You can't look ahead at anything, you have to take it step by step, until you have no [mathematical] chance of winning."
Lussier later: “Our search [and destroy] game is what really got us this far in the tournament. There's always a saying in the Call of Duty community that says search and destroy wins tournaments, simple as that. We obviously weren't the best [domination] team in this tournament, by far… and Freight was probably our strongest dom map for this event, and I think we went like 0 for 7, so it's never a good thing when one of your strongest maps is being lost all the time."
Regardless of the differences in the tone of their comments, what the members of both EnVy and compLexity had to say at the end of the weekend was exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from professional athletes after a title game.
It was after both teams spoke with the media, an hour beyond the end of the final match, that the small scale of the Call of Duty championship became most obvious. A small gaggle of media remained to try to get some last words from the men of compLexity before they were shuffled off by managers, but our weekend tent home was otherwise empty of folks who weren't event organisers or security. Outside I was greeted by the typically bright Southern California sun and a mass of Lakers fans heading to a game at the Staples Center nearby, unaware that a grand final had just happened.