Melbourne Esports Open Is Like A Music Festival For Nerds, In The Best Possible Way

Melbourne Esports Open

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One of the big problems for esports is having the word ‘sport’ in the name. It gets the concept caught up in reductive arguments about exercise and physical activity, distracting from the unique values found in the wide world of competitive video games. As the scene grows up and throws multi-stadium festivals of fun like the Melbourne Esports Open, it’s clear the whole esports concept lives in its own territory. One that is as much an entertainment format as it is a competitive discipline.

We don’t have sports events that see basketball, tennis, wrestling, soccer and athletics all happening under one roof. The exception, of course, being the pinnacle of sporting pinnacles — the Olympics, or the Commonwealth Games. Every event sells its tickets. Make your choice. Pay again if you want another.

At Melbourne Esports Open, the price of one ticket gets you access to a day of Overwatch, League of Legends, Starcraft, Rainbow Six Siege, fighting games, Fortnite and more. Some stages are bigger than others. Fans come to see a specific something that floats their boat, but maybe checks out a few other games while they’re passing by another stage.

Melbourne Esports Open

Image: Sarah Cooper (MEO)

In that way, this is more like a music festival. Genre fans on the scene to catch their favourite acts, sampling a bit of what else is on show, enjoying the random extras, grabbing some merch. A shared love of music binding all who bought a ticket to be there.

There’s still something extra about Melbourne Esports Open than the vibe of a music festival.

Maybe it’s the sense that a lot of people are taking a rare opportunity to come together in the flesh. To catch up in person with people they spend most of the year only hanging with online. Virtual clans — deeply real, significant friendships formed online — meeting face to face is a special moment. A feeling like an airport arrivals gate; hugs, excitement, a warm togetherness, and a sense everyone should make the most of some happy times together.

Melbourne Esports Open

Image: Sarah Cooper (MEO)

It’s more participative too. People gathered to watch the marquee finals on the biggest stage: the latest seasons of Overwatch Contenders (Melbourne heroes Order bagged their second title of 2019), and League of Legends OPL (another Melbourne team, Mammoth, won their first title and a trip to the world championship). There were also the finals of the META High School Esports League, where high schoolers from across the country fought it out to win a trip to this event, and rep their schools for silverware in one of three different esports.

A lot of stages around the event featured open tournaments. If you were in the building, you could sign up and take part in the action. BYO A-Game. If this were a music festival, there would be a stage for open mic and karaoke.

Then there were the wholesome family vibes. Dads and daughters were playing FIFA. A Mum and son were making a sign to cheer on a family member playing in a match, a look of pride on their faces to be here — cheering them on.

Image: Sarah Cooper (MEO)

This event feels like an essential bridge between an event like Intel Extreme Masters in Sydney, where there’s a laser focus on CS:GO and those fans who lift the roof off with their united love for a specific esport event; and PAX Australia, where the broader cultural world of loving games of all stripes, whether on screen or tabletops, brings fans and friends together to celebrate our shared geek cultures.

This event was not a sell-out. There were plenty of empty seats around the venues. Spread across three Melbourne Olympic precinct stadiums, it’d be hard to fill the place. There were rumbles of Fathers Day impacting numbers, although there were still more faces in the crowd than the first year. Around 17,000 people were in attendance.

A Glimpse Of The Future

When we watch grown men and women run around sports fields hitting, throwing or kicking balls a lot and getting paid big dollars for it, there’s a shared cultural understanding that this is considered a Very Real And Normal Thing to watch people do. It’s been that way for so long.

At MEO, we see a generational shift in progress. The normalisation of watching people who tap, click and flick in all sorts of ways — in all sorts of games. Having their moment to shine in front of a mass of excited fans. And those same fans getting the chance to dive in, step up on stage themselves and show their skills too.

Maybe in 2067, the Melbourne Esports Open will turn 50 — and there will be a sense of history to the long line of champions who have stood on those stages to collect their trophies. The gravity of the event may one day gain a sense of history, with amazing stories of all-time greats discussed on breakfast radio as a normal part of the standard sports report.

If we’re lucky, the normalisation will stick a lot faster than what feels like the glacial speed of generation change. Australia struggles with a deeply conservative traditional media outlook, so getting them to do more than scoff and condescend toward esports is a lofty expectation.

Image: David Hesselschwerdt (MEO)

The great hope comes from seeing those families here. Entirely average looking parents were playing alongside their kids or supporting them as they took to the stage to compete. Overhearing match post mortems as parents reminded their juniors of how to take care of teammates in the heat of battle.

The best review I can throw at this is that I wish more cities had an esports open to call their own. There might not be enough Overwatch and OPL finals to go around, but the rest of it could be enough. An annual chance for every city’s game nerds to gather, to compete, and to triumph.

Seamus Byrne is a veteran nerd industry journalist covering tech, esports, and all things shiny and new. He’s @seamus on Twitter and runs the Byteside podcast network.