eSports
Rachel Young Gu, ESPN associate editor 11d

From 2008 to 2017: Reflections from the stands in the Bird's Nest

esports

BEIJING -- I will never forget the 2008 Summer Olympics. The collective feeling of hopelessness and despair as Chinese fans reeled over hurdler Liu Xiang's untimely injury. The Fuwa dolls (the five rainbow mascots of the event) roaming the Olympic Park like sprites on a mission to photobomb every family portrait. The unforgettable opening ceremony that left every Olympic performance in the dust in the years following.

So when I first heard the League of Legends World Championship was going to be hosted at the Bird's Nest in Beijing, I was admittedly skeptical. After all, I'd spent so much time crusading against esports vs. sports analogies, and the Bird's Nest was probably the biggest symbol of international athletics and extravagance. I was tired of having to contextualize. The idea that there would be potential headlines like "Nesting grounds for e-Sports in the mainstream" roaming about post-Worlds was something that loomed like a dark cloud over my head.

Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok? Michael Jordan of esports.

SK Telecom T1? The Patriots.

Faker and kkOma? Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

Nope. Faker is Faker. MJ is MJ. And SKT is SKT. It's not hard to contextualize 40,000 fans at the Bird's Nest waiting to catch a glimpse of a skinny, young South Korean man in black-framed glasses build a legacy that has never been built before. It's not hard to contextualize scalpers at the entrance asking for 10,000 yuan ($1,508 USD) for a seat in the Bird's Nest. It's not hard to contextualize fans actually paying that price for a seat. It's not hard to contextualize fans walking out during Game 1 after paying that much because SKT couldn't even touch Samsung Galaxy.

So began the opening ceremony for the League of Legends World Championships. The 2008 Olympics featured a fantastical cornucopia of lights, extravagance, Chinese history; the 2017 World Championships opening ceremony didn't hold a candle to it. (How could it? The game itself was only 8 years old.) But I suppose it was endearing in its own way.

Dancers in red and blue manifested from nowhere, half-fighting, half-dancing, all jousting. Jay Chou appeared. (I screamed.) "Legends Never Die," the World Championship anthem by Against the Current queued up as Chou played the piano. Then, Chou disappeared. A trophy dropped from the sky, an Elder Dragon roared overhead in digitized glory and then the player montages appeared on screen.

Oh, the montages.

At one point, a fan next to me that wished to remain anonymous said, "It's evident Riot is run by a bunch of 22-year-old men" as an image of Faker and SKT a la "Last Supper" imagery showed up on the video board in front of us. It was all so compelling, and also not compelling at all.

Then, almost as soon as it began, it was over, and all I could think about was the unforgivable lack of Jay Chou.

Yes, I know. But my legends never die! Listen, Jay Chou released his first album 10 years before Against the Current was even conceived. (No offense to Against the Current. Much offense to Riot.) But it didn't seem to be a big deal. Fans around the arena certainly told me so when I asked them about the discrepancy between the two opening ceremonies. "They're two completely different genres," was the answer I received the most. It was an answer that incited relief because it was a conscious separation of two entities -- sports and esports -- that didn't really belong together in the first place.

Alright, so in that case, maybe it's not fair to compare the two opening acts -- but wasn't that the draw of hosting the World Championship at the Bird's Nest in the first place? To continue that legacy? Brandon Beck said during Riot's media conference the day before that the draw of the stadium was its history.

Or perhaps I'm looking at it in the wrong way. Maybe it was my disillusionment. After all, the press room sat right outside the backstage and resting area for dancers. All I saw in 2008 was the final product on TV. The glitz and lights. Maybe I should've looked away when dancers took their final group selfies in their t-shirts with their costumes crumpled beneath their feet. Or when the stationed guards at each entrance snuck into the bathroom to smoke cigarettes. Things are so much prettier when you know less.

When I came to the Bird's Nest in 2008 as a freshman in high school, I remember taking two trains and a shuttle to get inside the park. We were herded inside like cattle until we ended up in a single file. Personnel in the stadium greeted us and led us to our seats. My mom was holding onto my hand -- and the stadium was eerily quiet, and people were fanning themselves from the heat of exhaustion. In my diary entry at the time, I wrote, "I think I'm going to die from mosquito bites."

As Tyson Gay, the lone American that day, took the field, I suddenly became the 15-year-old embodiment of Ra-Ra-America. Up until that point in my life, I wasn't exactly the poster child of patriotism. I resented the fact that I was forced to stand up for the pledge of allegiance every morning before class. But it was a strange phenomenon. In America, I rooted for China. In China, I rooted for America. In America, I felt Chinese. In China, I felt American. There was a feeling of disconnect that I couldn't quite put my finger on.

When I watch League of Legends, I don't feel that same disconnect. Weirdly enough, it becomes easier to find a team to root for when you have no regional loyalty. You're rooting for greatness, not obligation. Sometimes you find yourself rooting for both teams.

It was cold in the Bird's Nest in 2017, especially compared to the August heat in 2008. The sky was gloomy, the wind piercing cold, and half the Bird's Nest had emptied out. By the time the confetti settled, the sky was black. I realized something as I watched Kang "Ambition" Chan-yong and Samsung Galaxy lift the Summoner's Cup trophy, a giant bedazzled silver goblet sitting in the middle of the stadium.

The crowd was chanting Faker.

The camera panned to the young man in the black-rimmed glasses as he put his head down and cried. The chanting became deafening. I almost felt sorry for him, but I didn't because I know this would push him to be better.

SK Telecom T1 is the paragon of invincibility, but Samsung's win meant rivalry and competition are alive in League of Legends.

To the fans who cheered for Faker when was the most vulnerable and human, thank you. To the section of fans who chanted "R-N-G!" when Samsung was having its moment on stage, well, better luck next year.

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