Please SMITE Me, I’m at a Video Game Tournament and Don’t Know What I’m Doing

The Cobb Galleria Centre sits somewhere in Atlanta. I lost myself somewhere between the shuttle to the airport on Wednesday and the way we were pushed back and forth from the Hi-Rez development studio playing host this weekend. Finally, on Friday I arrived at the tournament’s theater and stage with a handful of fellow writers and SMITE’s surprisingly large and dedicated fanbase. Where the hell did this game come from?

Pre-match commentary from people I’ll never know personally enough to remember filled the auditorium before any actual competitive play, though a room off to the side featured Xbox One stations with the latest build of SMITE for consoles. While a few cosplayers appeared adorned in character outfits, probably professionally made for the event, it’d be the diverse crowd that kept me in my seat. At least for the earliest part of the event, people waited in docile fashion, checking devices and laptop computers, waving badges to move about the convention center and smiling wide.

It doesn’t stop me from questioning why we’re all here.

When I was growing up, I had a friend with a Super Nintendo and copies of loads of popular games, but I always stuck closely to the cooperative efforts of Spider-Man and Venom. That game’s soundtrack sticks with me to this day. I’ll always hold it up as a last-stand of Konami or Capcom-style side scrolling beat-em-ups before the genre would see a resurgence via download platforms like Xbox Live Arcade. It’d be Separation Anxiety that had me balking at the insane amount of money thrown at players at the SMITE World Championships.

How much did that game cost when it launched? I have to guess at the sticker because of the Super Nintendo’s pricing variation, but I can guarantee it wasn’t a free-to-play effort that ended up in millions delivered straight to consumers dedicated enough to organize around it. You couldn’t tell the crowd here to tone it down, especially as raucous applause hammered in each of the team leaders standing on stage. Groups from Europe, China, and America gathered behind two sets of five personal computers on either side of the SMITE stage. The game’s logo remained emblazoned on each of these while players themselves sat behind screens with headsets and microphones.

I’ll leave here without meeting any of them.

When the players themselves are introduced with clips of in-game characters, it feels like life is intentionally short in eSports. As if in response, the tournament organizers splashed webcam shots of each player on banner-style video screens to either side of the stage. Then, players took turns banning heroes they didn’t want the opposition to use before choosing their own.

Team DID started its lineup with Apollo, Hercules, and Ares, despite banning Thor and a spider-alien-looking creature with voluptuous measurements. Team Cognitive Red chose Egyptian-eagle Ra, Geb, Anhur, Nemesis, and banned Anubis. With the remaining roster slots full, Cognitive Red chose wolf-monster Fenrir to finish and color commentary started. Some of the players themselves looked as tired-ugly as a monster exiting battle, but the crowd continued in excitement, murmuring to itself in equal parts applause and barking about favorite characters.

A new map I hadn’t seen before took each team into the action with fighting towards the middle, in the middle lane. Teams tried to dance around creatures spread throughout the map while also stealing valuable resource bases from computer-controlled enemies. Initial contact between two heroes illicit screams of violent, eager, and spiteful jeers. “GET HIM” someone yells from behind me while the most dedicated audience members stand up and shout similar enthusiasm.

The webcams feature silent whispers of cooperation.

SMITE features a few lanes of creeping computer-controlled grunts to support heroes, though they die in droves like so many virtual failures not featured on an eSports stage. A few larger lunkheads helped a hero deal heavy damage before leaving room for the opponent to escape, though a two-on-one match-up gave one player on Cognitive Red an excuse to retreat, regroup, and rejoin the front. Another team member aided the creeps by pitching energy attacks at the opposition. A camera sweeps over the crowd as off-hand celebrations of stray violence erupt in pockets.

The audience itself remains engaged with the action they see, even if a few members of each team don’t get the spotlight on-stage or in-game. There’s a factor of participation in sending frenetic energy to a favored hero. What’s it like to watch a game after you’ve been playing them for so long? Do your thumbs twitch? Do your think about your own tactics and preferences for upgrading character skills and abilities? Let’s hope the towers in each map collapse as easily as the first player to fall in combat.

I half expect someone to run by, encouraging a wave.

Tournament organizers offered everyone inflatable beater-sticks, plastic and self-blown for rumbling excitement. I’ve failed to carry them with me from the hotel to the convention center today. Losing track of time, losing track of reason, and losing track of purpose don’t lend themselves to video game “journalism” and to that end I continue this record as if it’s more important to my own heroic life. Let’s hope I manage to leave here with a reason to recommend SMITE.

I fear that mission will prove too difficult for someone hopelessly lost in this totally hateful environment known as video gaming. With all the negativity, I’m not surprised to struggle with a demonstration unit set up in the media room. I’m also not surprised to enter the main stage auditorium and find one player swiping at another standing idly in base. Maybe there’s a layer of SMITE I’m missing in the current understanding of either multiplayer online battle arena games or eSports at large.

Maybe competition hurts design more than I previously thought. The viewers seated in the auditorium clap and applaud big plays pushing opponents around battlefields, but tensions ran high briefly in the media room on Saturday morning. My laptop told me it was still 6AM, but my phone reflected local time and put me somewhere at 9:30 or 10. An organizer mentioned that he didn’t have the authority to tell booth attendants to untie their shirts and wear them at full length. Apparently, they were instructed to be “sexy”. I adjusted my ball cap and asked if he could help me find someone in charge of contracts for the event, but David balked. He wasn’t sure of who to ask and the attendants continued with their shirts tied. Good for them, I thought, but my streak of insisting that video game “journalism” is a fool’s errand continues unimpeded.

eSports or not, there’s a definitive issue with gaming and the medium’s desire to both entertain and entice in equal parts, directing itself towards one of two egos, though identifying those feels stupid. The artistic label is a distinction I’m no longer interested in pursuing. Most people either see video games as art or not, but obtaining maturity in this industry should be a lifetime goal. Isn’t that true of film and music and, well, all the beloved paintings scattered around the world?

Video games crashed under their own weight in the past and I’d hate for an entire audience of intelligent, affluent, female gamers to be alienated. Further, I assure you that a half-dozen females with their shirts tied up won’t get SMITE sales through the roof. I’m only here in Atlanta for one game and booth attendants aren’t cheerleaders for an eSports initiative, they’re individuals completing a task for payment. How does Xbox One, Hi-Rez Studios, and the competitive gaming platform want me to look at this?

For what it’s worth, attractive booth attendants, dressed suggestively or not, haven’t added to the action or entertainment at SMITE’s world championships and there’s no situation where it helps a core gamer’s social skills. I feel about as intimidated by a beautiful woman as I do by the competitive eSports scene. Thankfully, the individuals seating people in the auditorium and standing anywhere away from the Xbox One section here at SWC don’t have their shirts tied up. Maybe it’s on Microsoft and not SMITE, but the association will stick with me through the first half of this year.