It’s 9:45pm and there’s a line of police in jump suits and helmets forming a wall. EDG’s bus roars to life from the garage and ghosts its way past the barricades holding back a sea of fans. They scream in unison, chants lead by a single person, as their heroes disappear into the night. The barriers flex and creak, but hold firm. Sated, the crowd slowly disperses, wandering off in all directions. A fan stops to ask for a photo; his friends run over to join. I oblige, not entirely sure whether they’ve mistaken me for a caster. I suppose us white folk do all kind of look the same.
This is not that photo. It just happened enough I stopped taking them.
My Worlds story started in 2016, at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, less than a mile from my apartment. Performing my duties as an esports journalist in that setting required very little of me beyond “call an uber, then do your job”. Here in Hubei province, 6500 miles from home, the stakes were most definitely raised.
This story starts in a dog-grooming business.
Perhaps it’s not a normal person’s response to missing their dog to walk into a store where there are dogs and pet them, but it’s what I did. CYNDI PET owner Viola spoke more English than I did Mandarin, although not by much.
Wifi (brown) and Tien-Tien (white)
She managed to ask what I do for work, and upon realizing language had us utterly boned, I pulled up http://lol.qq.com on my phone.
“Oh, ‘L O L’ ??”, she exclaimed, running over to their PC and pointing at an icon on the screen excitedly.
Riot had been kind enough to give me a solo queue account to play on, on the elite Ionia server, where the best of the best play. Even in the lower tiers of default MMR, these kids were good; NA plat/diamond mechanics. Aggressive to the point of stupidity, but good, and I loved every hyper-aggro second of it.
The owners of CYNDI PET did not play on Ionia, China’s #1 server. They played on Server 13, “Black Rose”. Sure, I could continue searching for the best opponents, but how could I turn down the opportunity to interact with regular folks who’d decided to adopt this brain-dead westerner alone in their country? I clicked what I assume was OK on the Black Rose server and loaded into game.
A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Black Rose is not an elite server. It’s difficult to get a scope for exactly how big the Chinese LOL player base is, but with 25+ individual servers, and every other region having only one server, this must be at least half the global player-base. This scale and local server separation means ELO doesn’t really translate well. We were in high gold, but it felt like NA Bronze. Maybe low Silver if we’re being generous.
Every night after they’d closed the store, we’d eat, then play.
Home cooked chinese food. Or, Actual Chinese Food.
It’s 10:35pm, and the Chinese LoL client dumps me into a voice chat that I don’t understand. Playing without a common language forces a special kind of communication, using only the absolute simplest of terms. As a long-standing proponent of Froskurinn’s CPOP method, simplifying comms is burnt into my brain, but this takes it to a whole other level. We share little language, but work out a system of four verbs.
Some things transcend the language barrier. Tilt. Frustration at a fed enemy Teemo.
“I want win.”
“Penta penta penta penta! Naisuuuuuuu”
The games are snowbally but infinitely throwable. If there’s even a 1% chance of getting a kill, with 100% certainty of dying, they’ll go in on it. Unlike Ionia, the mechanics on Black Rose don’t allow them to reliably execute on these dreams, but they go for it anyway. No fear, no direction other than forwards. Go big or go home. Legends Never Die. I can respect that. Especially since I have a method to tell them to suppress that urge and let the enemy throw themselves at our waiting turret. Classic China.
ALONE IN THE DARK
Spotify complains loudly at the lack of an Internet connection, despite one being present. The Great Firewall has foiled me again. Fortunately, my music of choice was already on my phone, and Pentakill’s “II: Grasp of the Undying” fills my ears with a familiar, comforting scream.
It’s difficult not to feel isolated when immersed in a foreign culture, in a country you don’t speak the language, but moments like this – sharing the game you love with friends – make it easier.
Seeing EDG, RNG and Team WE compete on their home turf has long been a dream of mine. The chants are intoxicating — the team names screamed to the ceiling are matched with replies of “Jia You” (加油, Fighting).
Viola and her boyfriend Jack watch the VODs of the Chinese broadcast at night with me, echoing the crowd in unison on the integrated Point of Sale computer that also doubles as their entertainment and gaming. Both of them attend college nearby when they’re not working, although I have no idea how. Their journey takes nearly two hours in each direction, and between working full time at the store and gaming at night, I’m not actually sure when they attend classes. But this is their way, they say. They must work hard so they can get good jobs; she in International Business, he in Engineering. They both regularly attend the International Language Cafe across the street to practise English and interact with foreigners.
Being a white guy with a beard and a suit in China is a super power. However difficult the environment became, the more that China stepped up.
One of the western teams had asked me to bring an external hard drive for them to transfer interview footage, but mine broke in transit. I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to buy one, and after ten minutes trying to explain to Viola and Jack what I needed, Jack motioned to his electric scooter, and started loading my equipment onto it. And off we went through the streets of Wuhan, with 50lbs of camera gear wherever it would fit.
A favor from a new friend is nice, but after getting to the store, the owner explained to Jack that he didn’t have any, but he knew somewhere who did.
So he closed the store, locked it up, got on his electric scooter, and motioned for us to follow. Down some more back streets, across a main road, down an alley, and another, and another. I’d never have found this on my own. But this stranger put a hold on his livelihood to make sure I got what I needed.
This was not an isolated incident. Trying to get a SIM card that would work with my phone was similarly saved by the kindness of locals. When none of their SIMs worked, a cashier at China Mobile tried her personal SIM in my phone, and walked me to three different competing stores to explain to them what I needed, at a total round trip of just under a mile. In 100 degree heat. And 90% humidity.
What do you think the reaction would be if a Chinese tourist with near-zero English walked into T-Mobile?
I did nothing to deserve the kindness that the people of Wuhan visited upon me, and I will forever be grateful to each and every one of them who gave up something to help me.
THE GREAT UNIFIER
When people think about vacationing overseas, they don’t generally think about gaming while they’re doing it. The thought of playing games while traveling is something to kill time in transit. But this esports tourism, this multiplayer pilgrimage was not only worthwhile, but a key part of both my ability to do my job in China and my enjoyment of the trip. Usually when I’m abroad I try to absorb as much of the local culture as I can; eating what the locals eat, shop where they shop. Get elbow-deep in the day to day life experience. It had never occurred to me to taste the gaming landscape. But I did, and I’ll never travel without a gaming laptop again.
I talk to Viola and Jack every night on WeChat during the overlap in our waking hours. They send pictures of Wifi and Tientien, and I send pictures of my dogs. Wuhan saw me talking with people like kkOma and Olleh, but nothing is as seared into my brain as the look on Viola’s face when she realized we shared the same passion.
League of Legends is a global game. The World Championships represent the peak of performance from every region coming together around this thing that we love. And while most of us will never stand on that stage, we will sit in our rooms and log onto our clients. The Champions may have brought me here, but the friendships I made through the game will bring me back.
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